A stone-age scandal

In Features /

By Josh Bailie

When the seven-foot stone hockey goalie was put up over an archway on Kerr Hall South, students revolted with 60s-era zeal. They hung a life-sized effigy of a pregnant woman outside a nearby window. They picketed with placards reading, “Ryerson, the Hockey Hall of Fame.” They attacked it with blue and red paint.

The Hockey Player, Ryerson’s most controversial piece of stonework, was one of a series of decorative reliefs unveiled in 1962 to liven-up the brand new Kerr Hall. Now historically significant, they’ll be restored and displayed elsewhere at Ryerson if the Master Plan goes as envisioned and Kerr Hall is replaced with modern, glass infrastructure. But back when the figures of the goalie, a male graduate, a steam iron and other symbols said to represent the programs offered within the building’s walls were still fresh, students and staff deemed the art sexist, retrograded, and Stalinist.

A petition to take the reliefs down got 1,000 student and faculty signatures from a campus with about 2,500 full-time and 4,200 continuing ed students. A new off-campus group, the Society for the Advancement of Art Appreciation (SAAA), was formed to drive the fight.

During this, what was dubbed the “The Ryerson Mural Scandal.” the goalie received the brunt of the criticism. The grievances were endless and the debate unfolded in the only campus paper at the time, The Ryersonian.

“Goal tender, you are the final straw,” said a Nov. 13, 1962, editorial. “We are now thoroughly convinced that if the Canadian art world ever needed an enema, Ryerson would be the logical place to administer the purgative.”

“They didn’t consider them to be real art,” said Ron Stagg, Ryerson faculty member in the history department since 1976 and author of Serving Society’s Needs: A History of Ryerson Polytechnic University.

They were accusing them of being the kind of things Joseph Stalin did when he wanted to create a monumental Moscow,” he said, noting the facade’s heavy, squared-off style was similar to the statues Stalin had commissioned depicting heroic Russian peasants.

With the facade being unveiled mid-Cold War and only a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the likeness to the communist dictator’s style created extra uneasiness about the art.

“For the period, it was the wrong thing,” said Stagg.

The effigy of the dangling pregnant woman had red hair, a green speckled dress and a sign with the values $5, $10 and $25 crossed out in favour of $60,000 – the price the Progressive Conservative provincial government paid to fund the decorative project. Today, the project would have cost nearly $420,000. The small group of female students who orchestrated the prank were protesting the gender stereotypes propagated by the facade. If the goalie represented the image of a desirable male, then a pregnant woman would stand for the desirable female.

But the female prank frustrated some of the male population. There was a letter to the editor in The Ryersonian on Nov. 28, 1962, that called female students “addle-brained, nincompoops” who had neither wit nor comprehension of why students are picketing the player.”

The male students still wanted the figure removed, but they were more offended by the academic interpretation of the art. Many saw the reliefs as reinforcements of an outdated trade-school reputation when the school was supposed to be progressing towards becoming a polytechnic institute (which officially happened in 1963).

Dave Wilkinson, SAAA club president, said in a Ryersonian article, “We do not pretend to know anything about art, but we do know that these simple-minded facsimiles are too infantile for an institute of higher learning like Ryerson.”

Stagg said there is a good chance people reacted harshly to the artwork because the school was insecure about its identity.

“I think that’s a period where the term ‘Rye-High’ came about,” he said. “Since it wasn’t a university, people didn’t know what to do with it so they grouped it with the high schools. The school had principals until 1966. I can understand why people were insecure about that. They got upset because the art showed the kind of [simplicity] you would see at a high school.”

Jacobine Jones, the late sculptress who designed the controversial athlete, defended her goalie.

Her intention, she said, was to have creations that embodied the school motto, Mente et Artificio, – With Mind and Hand. The goalie represented the healthy, active student. Jones’ other sculpture on the adjacent Kerr Hall South archway, the gowned male scholar, represented a strong mind.

The gender issue surprised Jones. “I just didn’t think of a girl student,” she told The Ryersonian. “After all a hockey player is very Canadian.”

Charlotte Broome, a retired Ryerson library technician who spent 37 years on the job, said the unconsciously male-biased art was understandable.

“I’m not really surprised that the sculptures are males, given the male-focused direction of the original programs at Ryerson. Only a few really were meant for women,” she said.

Those programs included secretarial science and home economics. But by 1962 the number of women in every program was going up at an increasing rate and Broome said there was a gender transition that Ryerson should have recognized.

“Things have certainly changed and I can understand why in the ’60s, women were asking why they weren’t represented too.”

The late Dora de Pedery-Hunt, who was responsible for the smaller reliefs featuring trade-school emblems like the steam iron and scissors, said references to the past are beneficial.

“If they date the building it would be a very good thing – it would be an asset,” she told The Ryersonian. “In 30 or 40 years it will be quite interesting to see things the way they were.”

For Stagg, Kerr Hall’s facade is still an asset. “I think they have value as art of a period, they were done by prominent people,” he said. “They are still important. It’s not like they’re entirely unnoticed either, people still inquire and every few years stories on them come out.”

Ryerson faculty members mirrored the student’s SAAA, creating a committee to support the investigation into whether or not the art should be removed. But all the protests ultimately fell on deaf ears. It may seem like the sculptures don’t exist anyway, considering the way most people ignore them, but perhaps it just means they have been accepted.

Emma Nosella, a second-year arts and contemporary studies student, thoughtfully looks up at The Hockey Player and laughs, “He’s kind of gnarly. You know, livens up our boring campus.”

 

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