By Candas Jane Dorsey
At the death of people important to us, we discover anew the idea of superposition made familiar by Schrödinger and his famous cat. But unlike the story, the box is already open, and no avoidance can reverse the outcome. So no matter how long I put off writing these words, our dear Heather Spears is still gone.
Heather was a multi-discipline, multi-talented artist and writer, a teacher, a scholar of light, and a beloved friend to many friends and family members. TWUC members will remember her drawing all of us as we went about our AGMs, as she did at other literary events and meetings, producing vivid likenesses with a few deft lines. A few deft lines of poetry won her the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1989 for The Word for Sand (Wolsak & Wynn). Her eccentric and wonderful far-future speculative fiction, the Moonfall trilogy, was published to critical acclaim by Tesseract Books, and she also wrote a mystery novel.
Her books of drawings include the crisis drawings she collected in Drawings from the Newborn: Poems and Drawings of Infants in Crisis (1986), Drawn from the Fire, Children of the Intifada (1989), and Massacre, Drawings from Jerusalem (1990). She once described to us how she drew the Palestinian children covertly, on paper bags and other found paper, and smuggled them back through checkpoints. She had great courage in the face of death, war, sadness, and grief. Parents in pediatric ICU units who had no other image of their dying or dead child welcomed her portraits, and she drew their babies with compassion and grace.
Despite a long history, my best memory of Heather is always of her eternally refreshed and open gaze: it seemed that for her the world was always new. Her gaze was “childlike” in one sense, open and clear, but it was also wise and knowing. Heather was relentless and honest with her art and her writing, and she modelled that attitude in her many drawing workshops, the most popular of which began, literally, with the skull beneath the skin, to teach artists how to look at and draw the head. She also taught us to look at the edges of things in order to see the essence at the centre. Even in her eighties, she would drop to the floor to sketch with charcoal on oversized paper, then spring up to teach again. She could as easily draw the essence of a baby in crisis, a writer reading their work or arguing on behalf of Public Lending Right, a tired model at a workshop, or the trial of the killers of Reena Virk (where she served as courtroom artist and made over 500 drawings, then wrote poems and selected fifty drawings to accompany them for a book, also from Wolsak & Wynn).
Though her work always appears unforced and simple, Heather’s art was not unmediated by scholarship and intellect — but she had that gift of clarity to integrate knowledge, intellect, heart and soul in her fluid art. She was educated at the University of British Columbia, The Vancouver School of Art, and the University of Copenhagen, and her interest in the mechanics of art, the eye, and the perceptive brain culminated in The Creative Eye: An artist’s guide to unlocking the mysteries of visual perception (Arcturus, 2007; illustrated edition 2012), a book about the hows and whys of seeing in art-making.
Heather was born in Vancouver in 1934, and from 1962 onward she split her year between Copenhagen, where she had a small studio and art gallery as an extension of her home, and Canada, where she travelled, taught, and visited friends and family. Between her first book in 1958 and her death, she published fifteen collections of poetry, five novels, illustrated numerous books and articles, and drew wherever she went. Most of her work was published in English, but not long before her death she had her first publication in Danish, when her 2007 book of poems I Can Still Draw (Wolsak & Wynn) was translated into Danish by Niels Hav as Jeg kan stadig tegne (2019). Her obituary in the Vancouver Sun tells us: “Specializing in drawing children, in particular premature and other threatened infants, she exhibited and travelled widely, drawing in hospitals in the Middle East, Europe, and America, and remained active, teaching, drawing and writing up until the end. Hundreds of her drawings are collected at the Welcome Trust, London, and the Merrill Collection, Toronto. The Heather Spears Archive is housed at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.” The tribute went on to quote Terry Pratchett: “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.”
Heather Spears belonged to PEN, The League of Canadian Poets, The Writers’ Union of Canada, SF Canada, The Society of Authors, and Tegnerforbundet af 1919 (Danish drawing association). She had four children: Lesley Morrison, Daniel Goldenberg (Tone), Benjamin Goldenberg (Charlotte), Simon Goldenberg (Christa); and is also survived by her brother Thomas Spears (Judy); grandchildren Christian, Tobias, and Johanna; cousin Gwen Pruden; and Lenny and Camilla Goldenberg.
And of course by us, her colleagues, her community, her friends, all who were the beneficiaries of her generous and stalwart gifts of friendship and inspiration, who will remember her with love and gratitude—for her for her art and heart and community spirit but even more so for her generous presence in our lives.
WUC Newsletter Summer 2021
eMail to Mona Fertig – October 2009
Fun you saw a painting of me by Joyce. Can you send attachment of photo? Had forgotten all about it. She was at Vancouver School of Art with me, I started when I was 15 out of Grade 11, returned to high school for Grade 12 so was then a year behind her at Art School but we were fast friends. She was a big bossy girl. We used to act Shakespeare in the basement and she took all the best parts. But I knew I was the better drawer. At Art School the staff had a comment about me: “Heather Spears draws like a man.” That’s how it was in those days. Joyce and I read Emily Carr and were filled with ideals and dreams of the future as artists. I lost touch with her when I went to UBC; later she became a well known portrait painter back east.
I have a couple of paintings in the Van. Art Gallery collection one of which was in a show there recently – Canadian Women Modernists 2008. As a kid I always showed in the un-juried annual show, which was a riot – I wish un-juried shows would come back. Saw one in Prince George, a school gym filled with local entries to the Expo competition. Most popular subject was the moose in the sunset (it had to have, besides dreamy moose looking out over lake, sunset, forest, distant mountains.). 2nd came the eagle on his crag, then the Aboriginal child with one tear on its cheek, outside a shack. Would love to see a show of Canadian moose pictures one day! wish someone would arrange it.
I worked summers while at UBC, at mental hospitals. They were huge mediaeval lockups in those days before drugs, with physical restraints etc. I drew on the sly and made many gloomy paintings from these drawings.
When in Toronto at a student work camp 1955? I took my paintings to show Fred Varley, then an old man, a hero of mine, he looked at my drawings and said he could not teach me anything, except to stop cross-hatching – “You learned that at the VSA didn’t you?” and said to just “do this” and wiped a shadow in with his thumb. I have done so ever since. He looked at my paintings and said, “One day you will discover colour.” But I did not, and finally gave up painting for drawing.
I painted and drew portraits for many years in Denmark, usually of German tourists, and was happy the day I quit, had not realized how I hated it, it was like prostitution because you have to please the client. Got into hospital drawing on Neonatal unit in Copenhagen which I did every night 11 PM to 3 AM for years and taught myself to draw babies. Have had many shows of drawings of babies both in Europe and America.
My drawings, including the asylum sketches, and a few paintings are in the UBC Archives. The best baby drawings are in Edmonton (University Hospitals).
Hope to see you next summer.
Black and White photo from The Creative Eye, 2007
September 2020 – drawing class in Upper Canada, Heather’s personal gallery space, Copenhagen, photos courtesy of Aline Talatinian
March 2020 – opening of exhibition in My Beautiful Gallery, Copenhagen (closed down due to pandemic; re-opened in July 2020 to finish its run), photos courtesy of Heather Gartside