Artist, nurse, war veteran, friend. Born on April 7, 1916, in Saint John, N.B.; died on Nov. 14, 2015, in Winnipeg, of a stroke, aged 99.
Betty Grimmer always knew she wanted to be a nurse. When she finished high school at 17, she was still too young for nursing school so she went to New York to stay with her aunt and discovered her other passion – art – in classes at the Pratt Art Institute.
Back in Saint John, she completed her nurse's training in 1940 and enlisted in the military. As a nursing sister on loan to the South African army, she cared for soldiers and witnessed horrible atrocities in the absence of proper medical care. In early 1944, she was posted to England to work in a military hospital, and from there to Holland, where she served in a Canadian army hospital until V-E Day.
After war's end, she studied art at the Sorbonne in Paris before heading home. She moved to Winnipeg and there married Herbert Dimock, who keenly supported her creative talents. She soon became a professional artist, winning awards for her watercolours in the 1960s. Over the next 40 years, her works were exhibited in galleries across the country, including at the National Gallery of Canada, and in New York, Chicago and Mexico.
There were struggles along the way. Due a wartime injury, she suffered a hearing loss, which led her to become an advocate for people with hearing problems. In the early 1970s, a flood destroyed her dream home in St. Norbert, Man. In 1994, her husband died, after a series of heart problems.
The theme of Betty's life was to use all of her many skills . The same passion that produced her large body of art – which continued well into her 90s – went toward cooking, baking and decorating. Her lively spirit and her hearing loss reinforced her questioning mind. She read lips with her flashing brown eyes, which could capture you in a moment. She was alert to the end, and never lost her perspective on life.
Perspective is a quality that artists study. It has to do with not only how the work appears on the canvas, but also the artist's outlook. From traditional watercolour studies to the abstract depth of her later lithographs, she never wavered in her passion to communicate. The most interesting part of a painting, she said, is what is not there. In the 1970s, a New York art critic, the late Clement Greenberg, declared that Betty "does not know how good she is!"
On a trip to Winnipeg last summer, my daughter visited Betty, still living in her own apartment at 99. Using her motorized wheelchair, Betty led the way to her go-to place to eat – a sports bar with scantily clad servers, big-screen TVs and slot machines. Oblivious to the backdrop, Betty was, as my daughter said, "her usual articulate and opinionated self." At the end of the evening Betty told her, with a serious look, "We live too long."
Given the many changes in the world in the past century, it is a significant statement. For me, a friend of more than 40 years, Betty was a living memory bank, with much to offer. Her final weeks were spent in two hospitals, neither of which had amplified telephones for those with impaired hearing, so we could not continue our weekly phone conversations. It would honour Betty's memory if enhanced aids for hearing loss were available in all public places.
Joan Lawrence is Betty's friend.