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Helen Lucas’s rise as a feminist artist grew from the early 1970s as interest grew in her art and her fearlessness in talking about women’s oppression in a patriarchal society.Supplied

Early admirers of Helen Lucas’s art could scarcely have imagined that her sombre charcoal drawings would one day give way to joyful, giant flower paintings awash in colour.

Her son-in-law Frank Simonetti didn’t even know she’d had a charcoal period until two York University PhD students staged a retrospective of Ms. Lucas’s works five years ago. That long-ago dramatic change in her art style marked the end of sorrow and the beginning of joy for her, according to her sister Mary Geatros.

“Helen’s early works give you her sadness. She struggled to find her true self, and there were a lot of heartaches along the way,” Ms. Geatros says. “But her floral paintings of later years give the viewer the experience of being alive. She never, ever painted for the sake of painting. It was always personal for her.”

Helen Billie Geatros was born Aug. 25, 1931, in Weyburn, Sask., the first of three girls born to Greek immigrants Eftihia and William Geatros. The family moved to Saskatoon weeks later, where, according to a 1981 article in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Mr. Geatros won the city’s Ritz Hotel in a poker game. The family owned and operated the hotel for more than five decades.

(Mr. Geatros would go on to further local fame as a skeets sharpshooter hired by the city to take care of a major pigeon problem, while Ms. Geatros would be remembered after her husband’s death in 1949 as one of the first hoteliers in Saskatchewan to welcome the gay community at the Ritz’s Apollo Room bar.)

Ms. Lucas’s rise as a feminist artist is well-documented in Canadian newspaper articles from the early 1970s as interest grew in her art and her fearlessness in talking about women’s oppression in a patriarchal society. In those years, she was known for charcoal drawings of a bold, naked angel named Angelica, who started out as a doodle on cards sent to friends and went on to be the title star of a book of drawings that found a receptive audience among feminists across the country.

“Angelica does all the things I’d like to do,” Ms. Lucas told reporters in 1973, the year after she left a deeply unhappy marriage.

“I have thought, if only I felt I had more value, if only I could not give a damn about being nice. That’s the whole thing of the book. Who can be nicer than an angel? And she fights it. She’s in heaven, and she’s depressed, and depression is reverse anger.”

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Lucas sits with her paintings of Sunflowers in 1995. Her early work of sombre charcoal drawings gave way to joyful, giant flower paintings later in her career.Supplied

Angelica was followed in 1981 by This is My Beloved…Sometimes, a book of nude caricatures depicting the different stages of a romantic relationship. By that point, Ms. Lucas had quit her job as an art teacher at Sheridan College to draw and paint full-time.

In interviews, Ms. Lucas recalled growing up as a shy, unhappy child whose artistic bent was discouraged. Her sister says that while it was obvious to her that Helen “needed to be an artist,” their mother wanted her eldest daughter to have a more traditional life of marriage, children and keeping a nice home.

Ms. Lucas did try that path. After finishing her studies in the 1950s at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), she married a Greek man named Michael Lucas and they had two daughters. She painted, but only Greek icons in the traditional style. “That was safe. Anything that I did other than looking after the house threatened my marriage,” she told interviewers.

Her frank views on the sexism and oppression that so many women experienced in those decades drew feminists to her. She collaborated on a children’s book with Margaret Laurence. She worked alongside the late Shelagh Wilkinson to help found the feminist quarterly Canadian Woman Studies at Toronto’s York University, which would award Ms. Lucas an honorary doctor of letters many years later.

In a review of a 1996 TV documentary about Ms. Lucas, Canadian Woman Studies noted that the artist’s move into colour and big canvases in the 1970s and 80s paralleled her own feminist awakening.

“Petals start to appear out of tears, blossoms from crucifixes. Finally, she is painting nothing but flowers in dazzling acrylics,” the reviewer writes. “She lays claim to all the colours of the spectrum. She lays claim to female sensuality, and she sees it as good. Her painting has become a political act.”

Ms. Lucas had more than 50 solo exhibitions over her lifetime. In 2003, she was selected to exhibit at the Biennale in Florence, Italy. She travelled there with long-time friend and fellow Biennale artist Ernestine Tahedl, who first met Ms. Lucas in 1983 when both were living in King City, Ont.

“We worked so differently. She did flowers and I did landscapes,” Ms. Tahedl says. “It’s funny, I was just thinking about her, remembering the last show we did together in 2018. She got so much pleasure from seeing people coming to look at her paintings.”

While flowers were the focus of Ms. Lucas’s art for many years, doves emerged as a theme later on, Ms. Tahedl says. Ms. Lucas donated 13 paintings of doves to churches in Rwanda after she was moved by stories of the atrocities in that country in the 1990s.

“She was very religious at times in her life,” Ms. Tahedl recalls. “Her leanings weren’t all Greek Orthodox, though. In some ways, she chose different paths to explore. She had a mixed, complicated way of connecting to religion.”

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Ms. Lucas with artist and friend Ernestine Tahedl.Supplied

Grandson Simon McKendry says he was always told stories of how important an artist his grandmother was, but the characteristic that impressed him just as much was her ability to connect with people. He grew up calling her Helen; she rejected the term grandmother as sounding too old.

“She would really look at people. She made people feel as cared for as anyone had made them feel in their life,” Mr. McKendry says.

“Even when she’d just met someone, she’d be rubbing their faces, kissing them, holding their hand. I think it came at a cost to her – it isn’t easy be that vulnerable all the time, or feel emotions that deeply. But it also brought a lot of people to her in her own time of need.”

The 1996 death of Ms. Lucas’s second husband, Derek Fuller, was such a time. Devoted to her, he grew lavish gardens outside her studio window at their home in King City, to ensure she always had fresh flowers as inspiration.

But harder still was the 2014 death of Ms. Lucas’s daughter Andrea, who died from a brain tumour after a lengthy illness. Andrea had worked closely with her mother managing the business side of her art, and she and her family lived with Ms. Lucas.

Ms. Lucas’s sister Diane Stratas, a former Progressive Conservative MP, died in May of this year.

“She felt those losses deeply,” her sister Ms. Geatros says. “The pain of loss always stayed with her forever. She was an innocent, and she kept that innocence for her whole life. Now, she’s dancing with her angels.”

Ms. Lucas died Nov. 27 from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease after being diagnosed with the condition four years earlier. She was 92. She leaves her sister Ms. Geatros; her daughter Michelle; and five grandchildren.

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