Shelagh Rogers has a funny little story about her good friend, the Canadian sculptor Adrienne Alison. It was 1980 and the two young women, who’d met several years earlier as undergraduates at Queen’s University in Kingston, were hiking Vancouver Island’s rugged West Coast Trail.
“It was my first time hiking and I was woefully unprepared,” recalled Ms. Rogers, the veteran CBC Radio host. “I didn’t even have treads on my borrowed Greb Kodiaks.” Undaunted by her pal’s lack of preparation, Ms. Alison found a solution. “The first night, Adrienne took my boots, got out her Swiss Army knife and carved treads in them.”
This was long before Ms. Alison turned her hand to creating public monuments, most notably the War of 1812 memorial on Parliament Hill. But her bit of impromptu boot-sculpting speaks not just to her skill, but to her character. “Adrienne was always pushing to do things better, to make things better for other people, to bypass obstacles,” Ms. Rogers said. “She was the most can-do person I’ve ever known.”
Ms. Alison died on Nov. 24 in Toronto after a two-year battle with breast cancer, at the too-young age of 64. But in her time, she racked up enough achievements and packed in enough living for at least two people.
At once darkly elegant and dynamic, Ms. Alison was a Renaissance woman who bridged the art-science divide. Before her flourishing career as a sculptor, she made her mark in the field of medicine. In the 1980s, she founded the first clinic for head and neck prosthetics at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. There, she sculpted lifelike replacement parts for patients who suffered from facial disfigurement.
She also designed the first standard head forms to test children’s athletic helmets and applied her training in anatomy to build the instructional Bionic Woman for the Ontario Science Centre. She even dabbled in the movies, creating false eyes for David Cronenberg’s 1988 horror-thriller Dead Ringers.
Her delicate prosthetic work would go on to inform her expressive figurative sculptures, which evinced an intimate understanding of the human form. They were also the product of someone who gloried in the physicality of life. When not in her studio, Ms. Alison could be found hiking, biking, skiing, running a half-marathon in Iceland or kayaking on her cherished Georgian Bay. Her body was as restless as her mind.
“She had this ferocious energy,” said her admiring younger sister, Karen Alison. “She always had 50 million things happening – she never sat still.”
Born on July 10, 1954, in Toronto, Adrienne Mary Isabel Alison was the first child of engineer Gordon Alison and architect Alice Ayer – both keen artists in their spare time. Alice favoured watercolours, Gordon worked in oils, and they spent their summers painting at the family cottage on an island in Georgian Bay. As kids, Adrienne and her sister tagged along. “We’d all troop out with our paintboxes and sit out on the rocks and paint,” Karen Alison recalled. “Even back then, Adrienne showed clear evidence of a high level of artistic ability.”
If her parents exemplified an equal interest in science and art, her female relatives were role models for her medical career. Her grandmother, Dr. Isabel Ayer, was a founding physician of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Her aunt, Dr. Ruth Alison, was an oncologist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital and the first female president of the Canadian Cancer Society.
Gordon Alison’s peripatetic work took the family to Montreal, back to Toronto and then to New York, where the girls spent their teenage years. After graduating from high school, Adrienne returned to Canada to take an art-history degree at Queen’s University and study fine art at Toronto’s Central Technical School. She followed that with a science degree, becoming one of a handful of students in what is now the biomedical communications program at the University of Toronto’s medical school. The anatomy classes, including the dissection of a human cadaver, would later become invaluable to her as a sculptor.
After doing a medical-prosthetics internship at the University of Michigan, she received a scholarship in 1982 to launch Sunnybrook’s restorative prosthetics department. She developed and ran the clinic for 10 years, creating a range of prostheses in order to rebuild faces and restore lost ears, noses and eyes.
“She did amazing work,” said Dr. Ralph Gilbert, a reconstructive surgeon and her colleague at Sunnybrook. He said her job didn’t just involve sculpting parts, but also interacting with patients who were suffering the emotional trauma of serious deformities. “You have to be incredibly compassionate in those circumstances and she was a master at that. Patients loved her.”
The clinic was the first of its kind in Canada. “She was state-of-the-art,” said her close friend, Ski Telemark founder Holly Blefgen, who was then working as a research assistant in Sunnybrook’s trauma unit. “I was fascinated by her work and she was fascinated by mine, and we hit it off.”
The two women also shared a sense of adventure. In the summer of 1983, they embarked on a four-week cycling trip through the back roads of Japan. They rode prototype mountain bikes supplied by the Kawamura Cycle Company, which had yet to be seen in the West. The women, in turn, were exotic to the rural Japanese. “We often had a motorcade of police and others following us, who had never seen foreigners travel in that part of the world,” Ms. Blefgen recalled, laughing.
By the time she left Sunnybrook in the early 1990s, Ms. Alison was married to venture capitalist Loudon Owen (from whom she was separated), and had two small children. The family relocated to London, where Ms. Alison – who had already begun doing small commissioned sculptures – jumped into the art form with both feet. She studied sculpting at Kensington and Chelsea College and the Heatherley School of Fine Art and sculpted on site at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She revelled in the city’s great museums and art galleries.
“She just thrived in London,” said her oldest friend, Margot Tushingham, who was living in Britain at the time. Ms. Tushingham found the family a flat in South Kensington and introduced Ms. Alison to the Chelsea Arts Club, where she ended up hobnobbing with the likes of rock guitarist Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits.
Upon returning to Toronto in the late 1990s, Ms. Alison set up a studio, taught on the side and began to establish herself as a local artist. Her private commissions, including many charming portrait busts of children, soon led to more high-profile work. In 2003, she created the classically inspired bronze statuette for the ACTRA film and television awards. The following year brought public sculptures of two historical figures: her bronze torso of educator Bishop John Strachan at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and her bronze bust of reformer Robert Gourlay in the city’s St. James Park.
In 2009, she was tasked with envisioning the almost-forgotten 19th-century Toronto publisher and politician James Beaty. She sculpted a larger-than-life statue of a youthful, energetic Beaty based on the only existing photograph of her subject, in his old age. It stands in a courtyard in downtown Toronto.
Her greatest challenge, however, came when she won the federal commission to create Ottawa’s $2-million War of 1812 memorial. Ms. Alison’s work, entitled Triumph Through Diversity, pays tribute to the many anonymous heroes of that struggle. Its seven bronze figures include a First Nations warrior, a Royal Newfoundland Regiment infantryman, a Métis militiaman and a Quebec Voltigeur soldier being bandaged by a female nurse. Ms. Alison said that she intended the piece to symbolize “the incredible contribution of diverse Canadians and our ability to work together to achieve remarkable outcomes.”
She was awarded the commission in the summer of 2013 with a delivery date of fall 2014. “The timeline was unbelievably tight,” Ms. Blefgen recalled. “We had to go down to the studio if we wanted to see her.” She sculpted from live models dressed in historically accurate costumes and called upon family to help. Friends of her son, Callum, modelled for two of the figures and her daughter, Alicia, posed for the nurse.
The three-by-four-metre monument, set on Parliament Hill across from the National War Memorial, was unveiled at an official ceremony on Nov. 6, 2014. Only a few months earlier, Ms. Alison had undraped another major work – her stirring seven-foot statue of First World War hero General Sir Arthur Currie at Museum Strathroy-Caradoc in Strathroy, Ont.
The monuments reflected Ms. Alison’s deep love of her homeland – but then so did her whimsical sculptures of beavers, moose and Canada geese. “She understood the icons of Canada,” Ms. Blefgen said. “She had great national pride.”
During her final struggle with an aggressive breast cancer, which she fought with her customary vigour, it was nature she turned to for respite. She spent her last two summers at the family cottage she’d known since childhood. “It was the only place she really found solace,” Ms. Tushingham said. “We’d just sit together and watch the dawn light up over the Bay.”
Ms. Alison died at Toronto General Hospital from liver failure as a result of her chemotherapy. She leaves her children, Alicia Owen and Callum Owen, and her sister, Karen Alison.
Her most obvious legacy is cast in bronze and stands in full public view, but Ms. Alison also left a more discreet one in the artful prosthetic sculpting she did to help her Sunnybrook patients. In the words of Ms. Tushingham: “She made a huge difference to so many people.”