From Yorkville to the inner suburbs, her public art marked Toronto's transformation into an urban centre in the late 1960s
By Georgiana Uhlyarik
Nov 28, 2021
Toronto-based muralist and artist Rita Letendre died on November 20. Originally from Drummondville, Quebec her public art has left a lasting impression on Toronto’s landscape. The following essay excerpted from Fire & Light: Rita Letendre was part of a retrospective of her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2017.
Rita Letendre’s art and life are remarkably intertwined with Toronto’s development into an ambitious urban centre. She has lived in the city for over half her life, during the most prolific decades of her career.
While her formative artistic period is inextricably linked to the powerful spirit and lineage of Quebecois abstract painting, it is in Toronto that she has produced some of her most iconic paintings and public art commissions.
Letendre first visited Toronto in 1960 when she was included in a group exhibition of Montreal painters at the Here & Now Gallery, a contemporary art gallery newly opened by Dorothy Cameron in Yorkville the year before.
Cameron was a leading and ardent proponent of contemporary art, and was among the few art dealers in Toronto committed to transforming the city into a cosmopolitan art centre. When Letendre was invited to participate in this exhibition, she hardly spoke any English. Letendre found the city strange, later recalling it as “a very puritanical place.”
Much was to change for the city and the artist in the next few years. In the spring of 1962, Letendre’s first solo exhibition in Toronto was a resounding success. All the paintings sold. Two of them—Victoire and L’Image d’Islam (both 1961), among the largest she had painted until then—have since entered the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection.
Always compelled to push herself further and “to see where things take me,” Letendre’s financial and critical success both in Toronto and Montreal enabled her to embark on a transformative European sojourn later that summer.
Letendre’s success in Toronto continued as she exhibited frequently with prominent dealers and won important prizes for her paintings.
By the time Letendre settled permanently in Toronto in November 1969, a burgeoning art scene was taking hold amidst the city’s construction boom. Toronto had become the economic capital of the country, triggering expansion that has steadily continued to this day. Toronto was gradually transforming into the livable city that urban writer, activist, and resident Jane Jacobs envisioned and championed.
Artists and creators in all disciplines actively and energetically participated in developing and establishing Toronto’s diverse cultural character, alongside and sometimes in conflict with the city’s established civic and art institutions.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Letendre’s dynamic outdoor murals and interior public commissions were iconic landmarks in the downtown core. She was often the only woman artist invited to submit proposals for, and to be awarded, these prestigious and highly visible commissions.
Her bold vectors of colour energized both streets and interior spaces with a glorious optimism and confidence that galvanized the city and its residents.
“I consider it a challenge to be confronted with the architectural space of a building; a street; the perspective in which one sees it; the change of light of the days; of the seasons, and at the same time remaining true to one’s own visual image.”
Letendre’s work is characterized by a ceaseless search for a true expression of the self. “I want to do the best for myself, the best of what I know, of what I feel. I’m making it for my own experience, as a way of learning my universe.”
This freedom to fully express her own sense of being and “to create a new world” is for Letendre the truest way an individual can contribute to society.⁵ She insists that “there have to be people who are completely individualistic [in order] to create a change.”
Letendre’s public works were informed by, and in turn transformed, her painting practice. It is a profound loss to the city that these singular and monumental public gestures have since been removed or covered up as a consequence of the thoughtless hurry of Toronto’s urban redevelopment.
The promise they held fuelled Toronto’s desire to become a truly livable city with a proud sense of its cultural lineage. The following pages showcase Letendre’s magnificent contribution to the public character of Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s.
Lodestar (1970) is one of the first paintings Letendre made after moving to Toronto in November 1969. She always liked to work big, to create a sense of being enveloped by a painting. “I want to fracture a moment of light before it goes away, up there.”
Letendre worked in her penthouse apartment at 45 Balliol Street. The newly built apartment high-rise near Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue was part of the urban development of the mid-town Yonge Street corridor. Residential, office, and commercial buildings began to be planned and built in the area in the mid-1960s.
Lodestar was featured on the invitation to Letendre’s first solo exhibition at Roberts Gallery in March 1970. A photograph with the artist standing barefoot in front of the painting, the invitation emphasized Lodestar’s large scale.
Thirty centimetres too high to fit into the gallery, appointments had to be made to view Lodestar in the artist’s apartment—a detail much covered by the newspapers, which also published her phone number.
In 1970, the Art Gallery of Ontario invited ten artists to submit sketches for an outdoor mural competition sponsored by Benson & Hedges as part of the tobacco corporation’s Artwalls initiative across Canada. William
Withrow, the AGO’s director at the time, was on the jury. Letendre was the only woman artist invited and one of three finalists to be commissioned.
The site Letendre was offered was the west wall of the newly built Neill-Wycik College at 96 Gerrard Street East, near Church and Wellesley Streets, a cooperative student residence on the campus of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University).
The mural is 18 by 18 metres, and covers the top 7 floors of the 22-floor building. The colour scheme of Letendre’s original sketch included wedges of bright pinks, yellows, green, orange, and dark blue converging upwards towards a purple corner. She referred to it as “Sunset.” During planning and execution, Letendre adjusted the colours of the final image. The final work is titled Sunrise (1971).
Work began on Sunrise on September 3, 1971, and the mural was unveiled on September 15, with a block party attended by hundreds and that included music, food, and drinks in addition to the official ceremonies. It was soon referred to as “a brilliant freeway in the sky” and became a beloved landmark visible from as far as the CN Tower.
“As one approaches, little by little the mural reveals itself, and the dominant yellow of the triangles subdivides into various rhythmic shades. Rita Letendre has purposely cut off the top left corner of the surface to emphasize the visual impact of the bright arrows.”
Sunrise was Letendre’s first mural in Canada. Today it remains in situ; however, it is completely obscured by Gerrard Place, a 25-storey high-rise built right next to Neill-Wycik College in 1979 by Omnitown Development. With only a few inches of space separating the two buildings, “it’s like putting my mural in a mausoleum,” Letendre said.
In 1978, the threat of the destruction of the iconic mural Sunrise resulted in immediate public and media outcry. “Repel the menace of bourgeois builders,” incited one columnist. Ryerson students and neighbourhood residents mobilized, lobbying City Hall and art administrators until Omnitown Development committed to commission a second mural from Letendre for the east side of the Neill-Wycik College building.
Despite her frustration with the developers, the artist welcomed the new project: “Now people on the other side of the city will have their chance.” Once the new mural, Upward Dream (1980), was completed, Letendre commented: “What other artist can you think of who has gone through the process of birth, death and resurrection?”
Upward Dream was designed to cover nearly the full height of the building, but was limited to an awkward tall and narrow space flanking the building’s columns of windows. The orange, brown, and yellow mural was executed in Letendre’s distinctive early-1970s wedge style, even though by 1980 her use of the airbrush had transformed her approach to abstraction.
Unfortunately, Upward Dream has since been destroyed because the masonry on which it was painted was defective. The east side of the building is today covered in aluminum siding.
Rita Letendre’s first indoor art commission in Toronto was for Berkshire House, a residential and office high-rise at 411 Duplex Avenue near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, built by Greenwin Horizon Corporation, one of the city’s leading and largest residential builders and developers since the 1950s.
For the lobby, Letendre created a six-metre-wide painting, Now (1971). The painting was on view for many years but has since been removed. Working at this scale to produce the desired optical vibrations of densely saturated colours was a time- and labour-intensive process.
Eventually, it led to Letendre’s use of the airbrush. “Every medium, or new way of using a medium, gives you something new, and so you grow.” The Ryerson mural Sunrise inspired lawyer Stanley Hurowitz in 1972 to commission Rita Letendre to create a mural for the exterior east wall of his office at 142 Davenport Road.
“I found her name in the telephone book and asked her to do one for my building,” Hurowitz recounted.¹⁷ The double two-storey Victorian brick house dates from 1887 and was a butcher shop run by the same family until 1970, when Hurowitz purchased and remodelled it.
Davenport is a rare road in Toronto, as it defies the imposed urban grid and instead follows the Indigenous trail that connected the Humber (east) and Don (west) Rivers along the ancient shoreline of Lake Ontario.
By the 1970s, Davenport Road had become a highly trafficked artery in the city. In Urtu, Letendre responded to the architecture of the building as well as to the way in which both motorists and residents experienced the mural. She created a dynamic composition of two dark wedges confronting one another diagonally, yet subdued her use of colour to black, grey, beige, and white. Urtu was a landmark of the Yorkville neighbourhood well into the 1990s, but it has since been painted over.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Letendre continued to receive corporate commissions for paintings in public spaces of new buildings. By 1972, she frequently used acrylics and airbrush to paint these large canvas commissions. She completed Sunrise II (1972), for the lobby of Greenwin Square, an office and residential complex at 365 Bloor Street East, near Sherbourne Street.
Sunrise II is unique because it is installed above the elevator doors, at a 45-degree angle, and was the largest painting on canvas Letendre had completed by that time. It has since been removed and is now in a private collection.
In 1974, Rita Letendre and her husband, sculptor Kosso Eloul, purchased a Victorian home in Cabbagetown, at 288 Sherbourne Street just south of Gerrard Street and a less than ten-minute walk east from the Ryerson murals. They moved in a year later, after renovating the large house to include two studios, art storage, a Japanese-style pond, and a solarium for her prize-winning orchids. They retained many of the heritage details of the building, and filled it with their own paintings and sculptures.
Inspired by her grandfather, Letendre designed and built much of the furniture in the house. A highly social and affable couple, they were able to entertain as many as one hundred guests in their singular home. The couple was referred to as “Toronto’s dynamic art duo”; sometimes public commissions for a new development included an Eloul sculpture in front of the building complex and Letendre’s paintings inside. The commission by JDS Corporation at 1000 Finch Avenue West in 1974 is one such occasion.
Painting commissions continued steadily for Letendre into the 1980s, notably Electric Dream (1983), for IBM Canada headquarters, and Daybreak (1983), for the main lobby of the John David Eaton building of the Toronto General Hospital, among others.
After her husband’s death in 1995, Letendre continued to live in their house until 2003, when she moved to Longueuil, Quebec, only to return to Toronto a year later. In 2005, she purchased a condominium apartment on Carleton Street near Jarvis Street, just steps north of Neill-Wycik College. After 35 years, Letendre once more had her studio in a Toronto high-rise.
Several of her paintings hang in the building’s lobby. One of Letendre’s major corporate commissions was for the newly built Royal Bank Plaza at 200 Bay Street, at Front Street in the Financial District— an award-winning complex completed in 1976 and today designated a heritage site.
Letendre created Irowakan, a sixteen-metre-long painting on canvas, for the north wall of the lower banking floor. She worked closely with the architects to respond to and enhance the bright, geometric open space. Its success was quickly noted, a “sleek ‘city’ look conveying a tremendous sense of dynamic energy, particularly suited to the downtown Toronto urban pace.”
Over the years, various architectural alterations changed the space and the decision was made to remove the painting. In 1985, it was moved to Royal Bank’s Place Ville-Marie offices in Montreal, only to be removed permanently in 1995 and returned to the artist.
In 2004, Irowakan entered the permanent collection of the Joliette Art Museum. Toronto’s urban expansion in the mid-1970s included the construction of the new Spadina subway line. From its inception, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) extension included an art competition. Each of the nine new stations were to include a major public art commission. Letendre was selected from the 35 artists who submitted sketches for assigned locations.
Her winning proposal for a brightly coloured skylight for Glencairn Station was integrated into the architectural design by Adamson Associates. She began work in 1976, having proposed to transform the full length of the station’s vaulted ceiling with over 300 panels of spray-painted tempered bands of glass, intended to evoke cathedral stained glass and “a mood of celebration, visual poetry and joy.”
Titled Joy, the skylights were installed in April 1977. The station was suffused in coloured light created by the ribbons of blues, orange browns, greens, and yellows. The panels faded after years of exposure to sunlight and Letendre requested that the skylights be removed, as they no longer represented the original intention of the work.
In 2014, the TTC commissioned Letendre to reinterpret her 1977 design for Joy utilizing new digital and glazing techniques engineered to last. The TTC recommended that the redesign be integrated into the planned replacement of the existing (and badly leaking) skylight system. The report describes it as “comprised of six colours in hardline geometrics: bright yellows, oranges and blues with a khaki green background cut through by an indigo black arrow-like shape.”
Letendre’s enthusiasm for the new redesign underscores her principal intention in all her work. By creating the world anew through her paintings and commissions, she wants all who encounter her work to feel that “you’re not only going some place, you’re going someplace that’s marvellous.”
Edited by Wanda Nanibush and republished with permission of the Art Gallery of Ontario.