A Kantaroff retrospective
Maryon herself: 41 years in a life
Maryon Kantaroff in her purple pant-suit stands out against the academic white walls and sterile green boards behind her. She squints her dark almond eyes; her knuckles are clenched white against the Arborite podium and her lips are taut. She spits out most of her words, swallowing the others with the phlegm of barely checked anger. It’s hard to tell how much is gut indignation and howmuch is dramatic presentation, but she has captured her Seneca College audience as she talks about art and feminism. Her credentials in both areas are extensive. Postgraduate work in painting, drawing and sculpture, international commissions, 13 solo exhibitions in Milan, Munich, Stuttgart, London, Toronto and Montreal. As Gerald Gladstone, a Canadian sculptor of international stature, acknowledges, “Her work is extremely innovative. She ranks with some of the best sculptors in Canada.” She also manages a hectic schedule of feminist activity — as a member of the National Action Committee on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, she speaks everywhere from the CBC to the Industrial Management Club to the Ontario Federation of Labor to this Seneca College class in Toronto.
“. . . The female artist is an outsider. All artists are outsiders by nature of their criticism of society. But females are even outside of the group that male artists have built to help themselves . . .
“Women have two main roles in art: the patron and the muse. The patron is the extension of the mother; the muse is the traditional mistress . . .”
The beautiful, 41-year-old sculptor seduces her audience on a fine, tight line of passion — the housewife extension students, the first-year kids, the few painfully aware, almost repentant middle-aged men. Her vibrance is emotional — it comes from the anger, the laughter she expresses and generates. “Asking why there are no well-known Canadian women artists is like asking why there aren’t any Eskimo tennis stars or Lithuanian jazz musicians.”
Maryon Kantaroff has been criticized by some aesthetes for using her sculpture to peddle her politics. She’s criticized by some women for using her feminism to further her career. And she’s praised by friends as a totally honest woman, easily assailable because she is so accessible. Unlike many artists, she unabashedly and successfully promotes her own work. She is proud to say that she hasn’t applied for a Canada Council grant for 15 years. She makes her own living from commissions and gallery sales, a rare feat among Canadian artists, most of whom struggle with grant applications and makeshift teaching jobs to stay afloat. And in the course of her working life, she has made some powerful and influential friends (such as Toronto developer AÍ Green) who have given her considerable help. “I believe in exploiting everything to the fullest. Sure, 1 use my friendships, but 1 don’t abuse them. I am attracted to powerful people — it’s good to know people who have a direction or meaning in their lives. I’ve always been taught to give and it’s relaxing to be with people who are strong and accomplished enough to give back.”
Maryon’s friends tell a number of stories about her giving nature. She is a legendary soft touch and some insist that her openness often makes her vulnerable. I was told about the time she was at a restaurant with a group of people who were scolding her for her generosity. “Oh. no,” she insisted, “you're exaggerating.” In walked a drunk from the street who spotted Maryon out of all the people in the room and stumbled over to her to ask for a cigarette. She pulled out a Peter Jackson and lit it for him.
But as much as she lets people use her, she is a manipulator for feminism and a promoter for her own reputation.
She lives with her parents in a pleasant, picture-window brick house in North Toronto. Today is the only time I have ever seen her relaxing. She lies in her small white bedroom recuperating from a twisted ankle, and even here she
shuffles through letters from the Royal Ontario Museum, talks on the princess phone to a stranger who read her name in one of the papers and wants some marital advice .. . You see, she explains, this is why she is laid up. She doesn’t know how to say “no” to people, so occasionally she twists an ankle or slices off a bit of her finger or steps in front of a truck. She thinks it has become a subconscious pattern. She does something just slightly masochistic to remind herself to slow down, to force herself to relax. She switches off the Wagnerian opera on the radio and tells me that, contrary to appearances, she is actually a Bulgarian peasant.
The marriage of Maryon’s parents was arranged by her father’s uncle, acting as a sort of marriage broker in Novo Celo, Troyansko. Her father, Kris Kantarotf, came to Canada in 1912. After working as a merchant, a racehorse manager, a laborer, a lumberjack, he opened a profitable pool hall at the corner of Queen and Bay Streets in Toronto. Her mother, Irena, arrived in 1930 in the height of fashion, a point of professional honor for the young tapestry worker. She passed on the tactile legacy to her daughter; as a child, Maryon wove, knitted and embroidered. In 1937, when most Canadians were still struggling with the dregs of the Depression, Kris had enough money to take Irena, Maryon and her older brother Karl back to Bulgaria.
Maryon was four and she remembers the trip as a time of fear, excitement and frustration. She recalls standing in a group of children, able to understand them, but unable to communicate back in Bulgarian. When the family returned to Canada two years later, it was the same experience in reverse; she could understand English but she could speak only Bulgarian. She thinks this experience distanced her from her peer group, later determining the individualism of her art and her feminist politics. Maryon has always lived on the periphery.
If she was segregated from the Anglo kids around Riverdale Park because of
After a struggle she was raped
her quick, thick accent and her Orthodox heritage, she was further distanced from them by her academic excellence and her piano accomplishments at the Royal Conservatory of Music. But she was a gregarious kid, too. She was always active in sports and considered herself “one of the guys.” She didn’t learn any of the feminine wiles; there wasn't the time and there were other more important priorities.
Maryon knew little about being sexy and even less about sex. Her family subscribed to the “Go look it up in the library” kind of training. She didn’t hear about menstruation until her first bleeding. She didn’t know what masturbation was until a friend explained in university. And necking, she understood, might be part of a lower Canadian mentality but was not the right kind of behavior for a cultured European girl. So when she finally started dating at 17, she was quite baffled by her physical responses. She didn’t know what it meant to be aroused and she returned home feeling nauseous. She wasn’t even sure what was happening to her when she was raped.
Maryon had refused her first boyfriend’s proposal of marriage. She wanted to finish grade 12 and attend university. He was angry and bitter at first, but she thought he had forgiven her when he came over for a chat several days later. They were sitting on her living room couch when suddenly he threw her on the floor, and after a brief, confusing struggle, raped her. “It was very strong and painful. He could have seduced me. I wouldn’t have known what he was doing. But it was meant to be a very specific act. Absolutely cold-
She was always proud when visitors to her art school class thought her sculptures had been done by a male artist
blooded.” She agonized alone, thinking she was pregnant, afraid to tell her parents because she thought they would make her marry him.
After a very angry year, she found another boyfriend who encouraged her to go to university. She wanted to become an architect, but instead studied art and archaeology because it seemed more appropriate, more feminine. She graduated with honors in 1957, and the next year she went to England for postgraduate study in archaeology and then in drawing, painting and sculpture.
Her studio is a labyrinth of ladders, cinder blocks, band saws, paint brushes, old Javex bottles. Six wide-eyed young refugees from the local highrise apartments stand around waiting for the sodas that Maryon always seems to have on hand or for some ball bearings that she might not need or for ... A friend’s hat hangs jauntily on top of a huge bronze sculpture.
It’s been a long way to this private studio from those first art school days in England where she complained to pro-
fessors that they never had aesthetic discussions with their women students. They told her women never became professional artists and that such discussions would be wasted. She agreed with them for a long time, and yet she was proud when class visitors thought her sculpture was done by a man. She hated such sculptors as Hans Arp, whose curves she considered soft and whose textures she thought flabby. She strove for angles and lines. But gradually she became aware of an androgynous direction in her work. She found that she could make strong statements with circles as well as with rectangles. “I have one sculpture — Lovers — where one figure is straight and tall and has a little head. The other figure circles around it like a snake. Now most people take the erect figure to be a male. But I look on it as the female isolated and surrounded by the all-encompassing seductive snake.”
Maryon’s lifestyle in England was as unconventional as her aesthetics. She didn’t marry until she was 28, when
most of her Riverdale Collegiate friends were fussing with their children’s kindergarten outfits. She had already become an established sculptor with diplomas and exhibitions and commissions, but she really did try to subordinate her career to the expected feminine role. She told people that her actor husband, Michael, came first even though she was dying for him to go off to work each morning so she could leave for the studio. The moment he came by to pick her up in the afternoon, she dropped all her work and went home to play wife. She felt as if she was having an illicit affair with her studio.
“Now I’m glad I went through the experience. It gave me a real understanding of sexual politics. It taught me what it meant to be somebody’s property. I also had the good fortune to marry someone who was celibate. I say ‘good fortune’ because it provided an exit from the marriage. He didn’t want a sexual relationship because he loved me: sex was dirty. You didn’t do it with someone you respected.” At first she thought the problem was hers — that
“It’s very difficult to accept yourself when you don’t even know who you are”
she wasn’t a real woman, that she was inadequate. She flaunted an affair to make herself seem more attractive but after three years of marriage she filed for divorce.
That’s why she started psychoanalysis. Although the hang-up was her husband’s she wondered what had drawn her to him. The first comment she made to her analyst was “I’m too passive, too easily put upon, too exploited. But also too aggressive, too domineering, too demanding.” She calls it the classic female dichotomy. As she explains it now, “It’s very difficult to accept yourself when you’re not even sure which self you are — your mother’s self or your husband’s self or your friends’ self or your own self. Analysis showed me how to accept painful experience.
“Over the years I have learned not to mind-screw. I was quite adept at the pedantic put-down, the intellectual retreat. I didn’t use my instincts. I intellectualized my experience. But I have learned to respond with my emotions, not to con myself. Before, I used to project all kinds of tensions and anxieties onto my work, in order not to deal with them myself. But after analysis, I began to create on an emotional level. All my work flowed directly.”
The powerful vitality of her massive bronzes and the sensual iconoclasm of her reliefs illustrate Maryon’s person-
ality. Her work is a unique conjunction of cold rationality and passionate intensity. As Gerald Gladstone commented, “She has a vital, ongoing rhythm. A perpetual pulse. Aggressive but not hostile. She has developed a large art vocabulary and speaks eloquently — on an international level.”
Maryon remained in England for five years after her divorce. Her studio became a meeting place for women: artists, writers, actresses. They would drink tea and talk about creativity and ambitions and roles. Although this “consciousness raising group” was accidental, she says it prepared her for her conversion to feminism when she came back to Canada in 1969.
She remembers the day and the hour that conversion took place. She was sitting in her bedroom, reading newspapers and she kept leafing back to articles about women’s liberation. Suddenly she burst into a sweat and began panting. Her whole physiology changed in what she calls a satori experience. She explodes even now when she talks about it. “It was such a profound breakthrough. I had finally found the missing link, what I had left out of my philosophy. Before, everything I had done, my sculpture, my analysis, was dealing with me, me, me. But what feminism told me was that 99% of what I am isn’t me, me,
Her aura captures men’s fantasies
me at all. I’m a woman. What constitutes Maryon Kantaroff is 99% socialization. Somewhere down deep I had believed that only men were artists, only men had the ability and stamina. I finally understood that I had been playing at masculine concepts with feminine behavior.” Maryon helped found the New Feminists in 1969. They started as a small group talking about social roles, makeup, clothes. They wrote theoretical articles in a small dittoed newsletter. They protested abortion laws, established a women’s library, initiated other consciousness raising groups. But the personal intensity of the early days of the feminist revival is gone now and Maryon focuses on public lectures such as the one at Seneca College.
Her passionate presentation is sincere, but calculated. Behind the tears and the anger is a rational propagandist who isn’t afraid to use her emotions to make a point. Sometimes — when her friends suggest that she cool it and when she sees herself ranting and raving on television — she considers moderation. “At first I’m startled, but then I think, Jeez, that explosiveness is good. I want to shake people up. I want them to know that feminism is about something as profound as survival; that it’s the only way to alleviate the kind of horror and pain that exists now in relationships between men and women.”
While she no longer believes in marriage, she still looks forward to longterm love relationships and the possibility of kids. She remains heterosexual, but reluctantly so. “I’m intellectually very pro-lesbian. Sexuality has something to do with two psyches meeting, nothing to do with the shape of the genitals. But since I didn’t become a feminist until I was 36,1 can’t connect sexually with a woman. I know that’s a failing. Maybe that will change. When I consider the changes in my life from 35 to 40, I’m not prepared to say what’ll happen from 40 to 45.”
Maryon’s outspokenness draws ambiguous responses. While many women idolize her, others are overtly jealous of her beauty, her contacts, her success. “She has a different kind of devastating effect on men,” explains a male friend. “Their bodies are strewn all around her. She has an aura which captures men’s fantasies. They see she is a sculptor —and all artists are promiscuous, right? They see she is a feminist and all feminists are domineering and aggressive, right? It plays on their rape fantasies. It lifts the burden of seduction from them. They’re swept off their, feet.”
“I never remember a time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’m never bored. . .”
Her work also evokes ambivalence, especially from those critics who call it rhetorical. Maryon gets angrier than I have ever seen her about this kind of response. “For years, before I was a feminist, people saw feminism in my sculpture. I didn’t. I was just expressing an unconscious attitude. How can you call that rhetorical? The way people evaluate my work comes out of them. If I turn people off as a feminist, there’s a jolly good reason: they’re really scared, and I’m glad they start confronting their fears. All art has to do with morality and any real artist has to be open and exposed to society. Look at Picasso’s Guernica, at Goya’s native paintings. All art expresses values.”
Maryon is standing in a long yellow crocheted gown at the door of the Galerie Dresdnere in Toronto’s fashionable Yorkville, greeting people at her thirteenth solo exhibition. London, Milan, Munich from 1962 to 1969. Toronto and Montreal in the past five years. This is the usual art crowd, upper-middleclass buyers, art students, newspaper critics. And Maryon’s feminist friends. A multicultural cacophony. Two women near the diminutive, intricate sculptures discuss the Status of Women Commis-
sion. Under the bright, swirling reliefs, a blue-jeaned artist tries to win publicity from a grey-suited critic. Over by the giant bronze figure, a matronly lady and a slick middle-aged man chat about their recent acquisitions. Gallery owner Simon Dresdnere walks about nervously making sure everyone is comfortable, everyone has some sherry. He’s not so confident about this mixed crowd. He warned Maryon five years ago to disengage from her political activities. He said politics might be all right in Britain, but the Toronto art-buying public is more provincial. People would think that she was a dilettante. She doesn’t need much publicity. And besides, he told her, it would sap energy from her work. But like most people, Dresdnere just had to accept Maryon’s determination. What else could he do? As she says, her art is part of her feminism and her feminism is part of her art.
“. . . I never remember a time when 1 didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’ve never been bored. I don’t wait for the muse. I'm totally concentrative. When I start work, I’m immediately immersed . . . When I wake up in the morning I know what I want to do with my day. I'm excited. When I go to bed at night, I go to sleep ...”