Dora de Pédery-Hunt with world leaders

Sculptor who loved making medals put the Queen on Canada's coinage

Trained in Hungary, she escaped postwar Europe and flourished in Toronto under the patronage of sculptors Florence Wylie and Frances Loring. She later became the 'mother of Canadian medals'

By Sandra Martin, Globe and Mail
October 4, 2008

The name may elude you, but her work is as familiar as the change that jingles in your pocket. Dora de Pédery-Hunt was the Hungarian-born artist who sculpted the image of a "mature" Queen Elizabeth that appeared on all our coins minted between 1990 and 2003. It was the first time a Canadian artist had ever been given such a commission.

Ms. de Pédery-Hunt also designed and moulded hundreds of art medals, beginning with the Canada Council Medal in 1961. Our foremost medallic artist, she created commemorative pieces for Canada's Centennial in 1967, Expo 70 in Osaka, the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the CBC's Reach for the Top program, organizations such as the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Zoo, and symbolic events such as the 300th anniversary of the Hudson's Bay Co. and the portrait medallion of Dr. Norman Bethune that prime minister Pierre Trudeau presented to Mao Zedong in China in 1973. A founding member of the Medallic Art Society of Canada (MASC), she was also the first (1963) - and for many years the only - Canadian delegate to the Fédération Internationale de la Médaille d'Art (FIDEM), the International Art Medal Federation.

Dora de Pédery was born in Budapest, Hungary, two months after the start of the First World War. The middle of three daughters born to physicist Attila and Emilia (Festl) de Pédery, she was so tiny at birth - less than a kilogram - that she wasn't expected to survive. She was wrapped in cotton wool, baptized by her father and placed in a shoebox. That makeshift incubator saw her through the night and launched the beginning of a long, adventurous life that transformed her, as she herself liked to say, into "the mother of Canadian medals."

After graduating from the State Lyceum in 1932, she vacillated between her artistic ambitions and pleasing her father by becoming a scientist. By her mid-20s, she had found her vocation, however, and entered the Royal Hungarian School of Applied Art in 1937. She earned an honours diploma, followed by a master's degree in sculpture and design in 1943. For her graduation project, she sculpted a 30-centimetre solid bronze elephant.

Life in Hungary carried on in a twitchy fashion during the early years of the Second World War. The country had formed an uneasy alliance with Germany so it wasn't occupied like many of its neighbours, but many young men went away to fight. Ms. de Pédery found work designing clothes and accessories, and did some private teaching. Eventually, she sold some drawings to international fashion magazines and had a bust and a life-sized plastic sculpture exhibited by the National Gallery of Hungary.

All of that changed in March, 1944, when Germany occupied Hungary, imposed martial order and soon began mass deportations of Jews to the death camps. The de Péderys, who were Catholic, were spared that horror but they knew that the Germans were losing the war and they were afraid of the Soviets marching toward them from the east. On Christmas Eve, 1944, Ms. de Pédery, her parents, two sisters and a young niece and nephew fled Budapest by foot and then train. Mr. de Pédery lugged his daughter's bronze elephant, considering it an example of her artistic bona fides. The journey to Dresden took them 23 days on a barely functioning rail system. Fortuitously, the de Péderys left Dresden the day before the Allies launched their intensive bombing sorties in February, 1945, heading northwest until they reached Hannover, in what became the British occupied zone.

Ms. de Pédery and her father both found work at the British admiralty - he designed anti-sonar devices from 1945 to 1948. During this time, the family was befriended by Major S. C. Chutter of the Canadian Army, who was serving with the occupation forces. In 1948, Ms. de Pédery, then 35, married a Hungarian journalist named Béla Hunt (the anglicized form of his name). Coincidentally, Maj. Chutter, whose family was in Ottawa, offered to sponsor Ms. de Pédery as a Canadian immigrant. To increase her chances, she posed as an unmarried woman and agreed to work as an indentured servant for two years in return for her passage.

After disembarking in Montreal, Ms. de Pédery told immigration officials that she was a sculptor and quickly realized she was in trouble artistically when they asked her to spell the word, according to an oft-told family tale. She was sent to Toronto, where she worked as a housekeeper for a family named Olson. They turned out to be warm and hospitable, opening their home for Ms. de Pédery's parents and her husband-fiancé when they arrived (with her prized bronze elephant) several months later. Shortly thereafter, Ms. de Pédery "remarried" her husband and added his last name to hers. Then she and her reconstituted family moved into a small apartment above a store.

Although she was the financial mainstay for four adults, she also found time to make art, whether it was painting lampshades, repairing and restoring an antique metal rooster, or sketching designs for fountains for landscape architects. "My husband was impossible," she told biographer Elspeth Cameron in an interview for the book, And Beauty Answers: The Life of France Loring and Florence Wyle, complaining that he refused to take on the menial painting jobs that she accepted with relish. By 1958, her parents had emigrated to Argentina to join one of her two sisters, and Ms. de Pédery-Hunt and her husband had separated, although they didn't divorce until the early 1960s.

Finally, she was free to concentrate on her abiding passion - art - and she had some stalwart and influential supporters in sculptors Florence Wylie and Frances Loring and their friend Alan Jarvis, who, in 1955, became the third director of the National Gallery of Canada. The Chutters were probably the Ottawa catalyst that brought her together with Mr. Jarvis and The Girls, as they were known. "We like her very much - and think she will be a great acquisition to Canada," Ms. Loring wrote to Harry McCurry, then director of the National Gallery, in August, 1948. They fed her Sunday dinners at their studio in a former church in the Moore Park area of Toronto, encouraged her artistic aspirations and arranged for her to take over A. Y. Jackson's room in the Studio Building (an artist's facility in the Rosedale Valley, designed by Eden Smith and financed by Lawren Harris) while he was away on a sketching trip. They also helped her get a job teaching sculpture beginning in 1950, supported her for election to the Sculpture Society of Canada in 1953, and encouraged Alan Jarvis to support her work.

"He liked a little plasticine head I had made," Ms. de Pédery-Hunt told Ms. Cameron. "He took it and made six copies. He bought one for the National Galley, gave me one and sold the rest for me." Later, he helped her get a $700 grant to go to Europe for six months. "It got me started."

That trip coincided with Expo 58 in Brussels. "She was hungry, so she went to the Hungarian pavilion," said her niece Ildiko Hencz. "And apart from the food, she saw a fabulous collection of art medals and she said, 'Aha, that is what I am going to do in Canada.' "

Working in an artistic tradition derived from her cultural heritage must have been an enormous incentive, but there were other, more practical, reasons to create medals rather than work in other sculptural forms. By definition, they are small and so they don't require a huge financial outlay for materials. And, as her niece pointed out, they can be moulded in bed, a key consideration if you are so poor that pulling the covers up is one of best ways to stay warm.

For the rest of her life, she kept making medals - many as commissions, but many as well to commemorate friends, including poet George Faludi, and family occasions such as births and weddings.

"Medals are my favourite form of expression," Ms. de Pédery once said. "They are like short poems." She expanded on the idea by describing the lure of making a medal in a passage that appeared in Medals, a trilingual book about her work, with photographs by Elizabeth Frey.

"I have to accept the challenges of working inside the limits of a small disc and obeying the strict rules of the striking, casting and finishing processes. But the clay is soft and it yields pleasantly, almost too easily to the touch of my fingers. Maybe, after all, these limitations are necessary. I welcome these odds - my medals are the result of a good fight against them - and at the end at least I can look back on a bravely fought battle."

Journalist Bronwyn Drainie observed part of that process. It was 1968, two years after her father, actor and broadcaster John Drainie, had died of cancer at age 50. Ms. de Pédery-Hunt had been commissioned by ACTRA to create a medal as part of the John Drainie Award established in his memory.

"It happened that she lived right next door to us when she was fashioning it, and she brought a working model over one afternoon. That was brave of her, because my mother and all my siblings and I put in our two cents' worth on the length of the nose and the set of the mouth until we had completely deconstructed her work! Dora remained calm and smiling, listening to our rather chaotic feedback, and then she went home and created a perfect image of my dad."

Besides being an artist, Ms. de Pédery-Hunt was also a passionate advocate for her art form. In this role, she described the "magic" of owning a medal.

"Clasp it in your fist, let your warmth enter the cold metal and then take it to the window. Watch it: The light hits some edges, hidden crevices appear, there are some mounds you had not even seen before. Feel the tension of the surface, There is life underneath. It is not a cold piece of metal any more: Trees grow here, bodies leap high, faces emerge. All of this is brought about by you, and only you can arrest this magic moment or change it at any time with a light flick of your fingers."

DORA DE PÉDERY-HUNT

Dora de Pédery-Hunt was born in Budapest on Nov. 16, 1913. She died of colorectal cancer in the palliative care unit of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto on Sept. 29, 2008. Ms. de Pédery-Hunt, who was 94, is survived by a niece, two nephews and extended family. A celebration of her life is planned for the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto on what would have been her 95th birthday, Nov. 16, 2008.

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