By Sue Tiffin
In the halls of Haliburton Highlands Secondary School the sound of 15 people hammering on metal stopped when Lois Betteridge blew her whistle.
“When she wanted attention for everyone to stop and listen to her because she was going to demonstrate or had something to say she blew her whistle” said Barb Bolin of the Haliburton School of Fine Arts which once operated in the high school building. “So in the halls of the high school you could hear this whistle and all of a sudden the noise the tap tap tap would stop.”
Betteridge died Feb. 21 in Hospice Wellington Guelph at the age of 91 marking the end of a celebrated life as one of Canada’s most renowned master silversmiths.
Born in Drummondville Quebec in 1928 she grew up in Hamilton and Burlington studying at the Ontario College of Art and then earning a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Kansas before establishing studios in Oakville and Toronto. She received a masters of fine arts in 1956 from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and taught craft and design at MacDonald Institute in Guelph.
“Her output of beautiful works secular and liturgical always meticulously made and often whimsical was prodigious” reads Betteridge’s obituary.
Over almost 70 years she received and was recognized with election to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1978 the Order of Canada in 1997 and a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society of North American Goldsmiths in 2010.
“She was a powerhouse with an amazing sense of responsibility for her craft” said Bolin noting Betteridge’s excellence in her craft her work showcased in collections and galleries across Canada and the world her long list of awards including the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts. “But she also wanted to ensure that the craft went on. It’s not something that there are very many places where you can learn. She took every opportunity possible to go and teach.”
And when she decided to teach she taught in Haliburton said Bolin.
“We had students just because of her name they came from all over Canada to learn from her. She would tell me every year what two weeks she could come the word spread and it was immediate. The classes were full. We were so lucky to have her. Every so often she’d go down to do a lecture in Nova Scotia but this was the place where Lois Betteridge taught which was an amazing flower in our cap here.”
Betteridge loved Haliburton teaching summer courses at the Haliburton School of Fine Arts from 1984 to 2002 where she would go from the class for a swim at lunch time every day. Bolin occasionally travelled with her when Betteridge would talk at art galleries or be part of exhibitions and said people – recognized artists themselves – would wait in line to have the chance to meet her.
“It was astounding to see the level of awe she’s a rock star in that world” said Bolin.
Sharing a room with her once while on a trip Bolin said she learned that Lois didn’t always sleep well.
“I woke up and she was gone from the room and I thought what’s happened to her?” remembered Bolin. “I saw the light on in the bathroom and I went in and she was drawing. She said ‘I didn’t want to disturb you. At night I get up and I draw.’ And she was drawing images of what she might make in her book you know. It wasn’t a job it was a life for her.”
As a mentor to so many Betteridge inspired and encouraged students who met her and stayed close with her for decades.
Mary Anne Barkhouse said her friendship with Betteridge goes back at least 30 years and credits the artist with inspiring her own work as an artist and also bringing her to Haliburton – even as the reaso why she has a Jack Russell terrier a much-beloved breed of Betteridge too.
“Lois had just celebrated her 91st birthday last November going into her 92nd year but we thought she would go on forever because she was [an] amazing woman” said Barkhouse. “It was everything. Lois was the whole package. From being inspiring inspiring as an artist but also it’s that fine balance not all great artists are great teachers but she was also a great teacher. And very accommodating encouraging because silversmithing is one hell of an arduous practice to take a flat sheet of silver and then to bend it to your will whatever you want.”
“It was so astounding so astounding that you could do that with that piece of silver” said Bolin of Betteridge’s work. “She had a goblet and making a goblet is so incredibly difficult she might spend eight months or so on making one piece so that when you tipped it up there was a gem in the bottom of it. Because she said if you can only have one of these in your life everyone should get to enjoy it when it’s tipped up. She had that kind of sensibility of her about the preciousness of the work.”
Barkhouse said Betteridge was an amazing sculptor as well but said “somewhere along the line I guess silversmithing metalsmithing caught her fancy instead.”
It wasn’t a common craft in general and not common for women when Betteridge took it for her own.
“She really pursued that at a time when it was a very male very guild-oriented milieu” said Barkhouse. “She truly had this fierce pioneering woman spirit and it wasn’t so much feminism and all of that kind of stuff … it was just like she’s going to do it no one’s going to get in her way. The men at the time weren’t necessarily appreciative of that but she just did it anyway and became known and showed her work and developed her practice into what it became. She truly was a pioneer not just for metalsmithing but for women in the arts on so many levels. I don’t think she would ever have viewed herself as that. She would have viewed herself mainly as a very dedicated artist.”
“It didn’t matter that at that time in the early 50s you’re a housewife or that sort of thing” said Todd Jeffrey Ellis who was a student of Betteridge’s in the early ‘90s studied with her in Guelph and what is now Haliburton School of Art + Design and then began co-teaching with her in Haliburton. “She was a mother and a wife and that sort of thing but she had the love and no one was going to tell her she couldn’t do it … She just had a love of the metal and she wanted to make her mark and do that kind of work billy-be-damned sort of thing. Nobody get in my way because she was going to do it and so she did.”
Barkhouse said Betteridge was a community builder who encouraged her students and also advocated for galleries to take note of the craft in exhibitions and collections.
“Once she saw that you were serious about doing your work then it just kind of opened up to this kind of friendship and camaraderie and that in turn has led to a group of people who have been taught by Lois it’s not that we just exhibit together but we’re friends we share it’s a real community builder” said Barkhouse. “She really would push people and galleries and things like that too to show art and showcase fine metal as art it doesn’t really get the same attention as other types of fine crafts do she really was a strong proponent of getting metal collections started with different galleries across I don’t know just everywhere … Lois encouraged us to exhibit even when no one was interested.”
It was because of Betteridge and a 2000 exhibition of her work and other silversmiths she had influenced that the Art Gallery of Guelph found a unique collection of contemporary Canadian silver.
Ellis said Betteridge’s influence is felt from coast to coast in Canada and that she also made an impact in and on Haliburton where she would host a potluck every Thursday night at her house during two-week courses to foster the community to foster goodwill.
“She touched a lot of people up here” said Ellis who moved to the area with his wife and fellow artist Susan Watson Ellis. “I mean it was one of the only places in Canada where you could actually learn silversmithing …silversmithing is not something that tons of people try it but you have to have a love for the metal and a love for the craft to carry on with it. Lots of people were touched by her and it showed. You really had to have a love for the metal to continue on and if you showed that she would bend over backwards to give you what you needed.”
Ellis now teaches at HSAD as part of the faculty but said he isn’t following in her footsteps.
“I’d say joining alongside nobody can fill Lois’s shoes they’re just far too big” he said. “She was her own person. To say you’re following her no you made your own path but she guided you on your path.”
A celebration of Lois’ life will be held in the Arboretum University of Guelph on Saturday May 2 at 2 p.m.