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A Brief Biography

Sylvia Bercovitch Ary was born in Moscow on April 15, 1923, the eldest child of a young couple, Alexander Bercovitch, a painter, and Bryna Avrutick, a drama student and revolutionary (who later became a journalist). Her mother, who remained a fervent Left-wing idealist, made clear her political beliefs when she named her youngest daughter Ninel (an anagram of Lenin) and her son, born much later in Montreal, Sacvan, after Sacco and Vanzetti.
In 1922, Alexander was sent by the Soviet government to Turkestan to teach in a newly created fine arts school. Bryna joined him later with their first child. However, Alexander lost this job shortly after Ninel's birth in 1925, and although he continued to paint, his work did not seIl weIl enough to support his young family. In addition to these financial difficulties, the family's Jewish origins made them a target of the prevailing anti-Semitism and so they decided to emigrate.
Bryna's three brothers had immigrated to Montreal foIlowing the 1917 Revolution. They pooled their resources to bring over the young couple and their two children, thereby saving them from a life of misery ... The family arrived in Montreal in 1926, but the parents separated shortly afterwards. Bryna found employment in a Jewish school managed by one of her brothers, while Sylvia, only four years old at the time, took care of her younger sister. They lived in one of the schoolrooms, which led to a number of moves each time the school changed location. In addition to teaching, Bryna continued to militate actively in the Left-wing movement.
Sylvia's father, Alexander, worked for a company which created decorations for churches and synagogues, a job which entailed constant traveling across Canada. As a result, he rarely saw his two young daughters.

The Birth of a Vocation

One day, when Sylvia was still a child, Alexander brought her to the room he rented when he was in Montreal. There she discovered the universe of painting, and a certain exotic world – the many paintings her father had made while he was in Turkestan. Those paintings emerged from a haze of incense smoke with which Alexander liked to surround himself. It was a revelation.
Despite her young age, Sylvia was profoundly touched by the power of art to create a marvellous new world. This moment was to inspire her vocation in life.
Her parents got back together in 1932, when Sylvia was nine years old, and a year later her brother Sacvan was born. They lived in a small apartment on de Bullion Street. Alexander continued to paint, and to make ends meet he did various odd-jobs - muraIs and decorations for cabarets, movie theaters, churches, and synagogues but the family remained poor. Life was difficult; there was little money and the family lived day by day. They were often obliged to move - living at times in hovels – because they could not afford to pay the rent. Those difficulties produced new tensions between the parents and within the family. Through it aIl, Alexander remained constant to his art.
During her school years, Sylvia Ary lived on Saint-Dominique Street, in a sIum neighbourhood. Her neighbours were primarily immigrants from eastern Europe and her schooling was in EngIish through the Protestant School Board, which welcomed the children of non Catholic families.
The family remained abjectly poor. After the Great Crash of 1929, life became more difficult for everyone in generaI, but in particular for recent immigrants. Alexander began to teach painting and later Bryna worked for a Yiddish newspaper. In an effort to imitate her mother, Sylvia tried to write poetry but it was cIear her talent lay elsewhere. When she was 12, she enrolled in an art school, with classes on Saturdays, founded by Norman Bethune for children of poor families.

The Formative Years

Sylvia quickly demonstrated her talent. "To paint," she would say later, "was an almost physical joy." She began drawing classes with Fritz Brandtner in 84 and, at 14, came first in a Canada-wide children's competition (1937). The prize was a week-Iong trip to Paris to visit the World's Fair. The family, however, couid not afford the travel fare.
During her teenage years, Sylvia painted everything that came before her eyes: the small courtyard she could see from her window, characters in her neighbourhood, family scenes.
Her fascination with people was immediately apparent. Surprisingly, her father violently opposed Sylvia's interest in painting and sought to dissuade her From pursuing this activity. He did this again with her brother when Sacvan showed a similar interest. Sylvia, however, continued to paint. Her creative calIing proved stronger than aIl discouragement. ft was at Baron·Byng High School that she met Ann Savage, an art teacher who encouraged her to continue her artistic development at the Montreal Fine Arts Museum. There Sylvia studied with Edwin Holgate and Will O'Gilvie, whom she considered an exceptional teacher.
Over the years, she experimented with different types of graphic expression and techniques:
charcoaI, pastel, ink, watercolors, oils. She studied etching at the Montreal Institute of Graphic Arts under Albert Dumouchel, and also learned to do lithography. She would later combine many of these techniques and begin to use acrylics. She also tried her hand at sculpture and experimented with a variety of materials as surfaces for her paintings: paper, canvas, masonite, and plexiglas, as weil as less traditional materials such as fans. She used the shapes of Chinese fans, and in partieular their folds, to create original and intriguing designs.
In the 1990s, Sylvia began to use silk panels, mounting them onto folding screens with wooden frames and painting them in shimmering tones. These triptychs of translucent siIk represented many of her favorite themes; and indeed in whatever medium she employed the artist's touch is manifest and her distinctive style perfectly recognizable. A Life Consecrated to Art At 17, to escape a family life of constant financial difficulties and violent tensions, she married Solomon Ary, a polish Jewish immigrant. Her parents disapproved and the marriage was to cause the final rupture of her parents marriage in 1941 or 1942 . This in turn led to her younger brother being placed in a foster home.
Sylvia and Solomon Ary had four chiIdren, two girls and two boys (Rachel, Malka, Isaac and Alexander), and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her large family was a continuous source for her portrait painting, Which was her favorite genre, along with works of the imagination. Among these family portraits is Boy with Cap (2002), a portrait of her grandson, Elijah Ary, whom she also painted in his Tibetan robes as Tenzin (1995).
Sylvia Ary continued to paint despite the growing responsibilities of a family. Her interest in people and above all the interaction among them became the inspiration for many group scenes, including such series as The Actors (1970s). lt is her outstanding skill as a portrait painter, however, which is most striking. She has produced a large number of portraits of people from aIl walks of life, from unknown models to well-known stage and literary personalities.
Her pastel portrait of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, a family friend, when she was in her mid-twenties, is remarkable, as is her portrait of another family friend, Itzik Manger, the great Yiddish poet: Itzik Manger (1976) We should not omit here her many self-portraits, among them her remarkable Self Portrait in a Top Hat (1989).
Sylvia Ary's interest in literature, and particularly poetry, resulted in a number of illustrations inspired by literary works. These include the ten superb illustrations for Shakespeare's The
Tempest, the nine charcoal and pastel illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal by the French poet
Baudelaire (1971), the watercolors illustrating ltzik Manger's Ballads (1976), the oil paintings on plexiglas for Coleridge's Kubla Khan (1976), and the numerous illustrations of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer featured in a 1981 exhibition among them, A Tale of Two Liars (1979). The Nobel Museum in Stockholm exhibited three of these illustrations as weIl as the portrait of the author.
An amusing anecdote concerning one of the illustrations suggests an essential aspect of the artist's personality. The collection of Sylvia's illustrations of Manger's Ballads had been entrusted to a Montreal institution on the condition that the works would never be loaned out. When a Boston dance company gave a performance based on these ballads, they wanted to use the illustrations for the décor, and, despite the ban, the institution consented. It was then discovered that one of the illustrations had disappeared - stolen, most likely. Without hesitation, Sylvia Ary, embarrassed for the institution, repainted the illustration, commenting with a laugh: "after all, it's still an original, painted by the artist herself!"
Her frequent visits to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, the first in 1986 and then each winter thereafter from 1990 to 1995, inspired a series of paintings of bright landscapes and colourful stilllifes depicting masks, dolls, birds, and brilliantly-coloured flowers.
At this writing, Sylvia Ary has been concentrating on miniature oil paintings, approximately
7 x Il cm, on heavy paper. Many of these miniatures revisit themes the artist has explored in larger formats.

Sylvia Ary had her first solo exhibition occurred in 1950.She worked continuously up to the 1990s, exhibiting her works regularly in both solo and group exhibitions. Her recognition soon extended beyond Montreal, and she exhibited her work in Quebec, Toronto, Winnipeg, New York and in 87 in California. In 1960, she won first prize at the Art Exhibition of Saint-Laurent and in 1968 she was awarded first prize in the Pratt Institute of New York City's International Competition for Miniature Etching. At present she has given up exhibiting, so as to devote her time entirely to her life's central passion, painting.
Sylvia Ary's paintings can be viewed in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts de Québec,
Laval City Hall, as weIl as a number of Montreal libraries. Other public institutions and private collectors include: Laval, Moncton, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver (in Canada), Austin, Boston, Cambridge, New York and San Francisco (in the United States), Paris and London (in Europe), and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.

 

 

Source: Andrée Le Guillou, "The Art of Sylvia Ary Peintre " Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Goose Lane Publications, 2008, p. 83-87)