Friends and artists remember Hilda Woolnough as P.E.I. gallery renamed for her

·4 min read
The newly renamed Hilda Woolnough Gallery at The Guild in Charlottetown. The opening reception for the new exhibit All Things Hilda: A Retrospective was held Thursday.  (Submitted by John Hopkins - image credit)
The newly renamed Hilda Woolnough Gallery at The Guild in Charlottetown. The opening reception for the new exhibit All Things Hilda: A Retrospective was held Thursday. (Submitted by John Hopkins - image credit)

P.E.I. artist Hilda Woolnough is being remembered and celebrated 14 years after her death with the renaming of a prominent art gallery.

The gallery at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown has been renamed the Hilda Woolnough Gallery. A retrospective exhibit of Woolnough's works at the gallery opened Nov. 18.

"I think it's about time," said Gail Rutherford, an artist on P.E.I. and a friend of Woolnough.

"We wouldn't have The Guild without Hilda, because she had the determination that she could make this work."

Submitted by John Hopkins
Submitted by John Hopkins

Woolnough was instrumental in starting The Arts Guild in Charlottetown, now called The Guild, as a space for artists at a time when not much like it existed in the capital.

Rutherford, the partner of the late artist Erica Rutherford, remembers going with Hilda to look at Charlottetown buildings that could be used as an arts space. The building that now houses The Guild used to be home to a Royal Bank branch.

"Hilda had the foresight to see that even though [the building] had problems, it was available," said Rutherford.

"She went and got this big deal where she got the place, you know, for absolutely nothing."

Submitted by John Hopkins
Submitted by John Hopkins

Woolnough's son, P.E.I. filmmaker John Hopkins, also remembers that pivotal moment of procuring the space.

"Somehow in her charming way … she just had a way about her. I mean, it's a three-and-a half, four million dollar building, and she talked the bank out of it for a dollar," Hopkins told host Matt Rainnie on Mainstreet P.E.I.

"I would love to have been a fly on the wall," he said.

That transaction led to a thriving artistic community at The Guild that continues to this day.

Submitted by John Hopkins
Submitted by John Hopkins

Woolnough was born in England and immigrated to Canada in the late 1950s, then settled on P.E.I. in 1969.

In her artistic practice, she focused mainly on drawing and printmaking. She set up a printmaking studio in the basement of The Guild, behind where the gallery is today.

She would dream about something and then she would make it work. — Gail Rutherford

With her partner, writer Reshard Gool, she founded an arts newspaper, several galleries, and a publishing house. She also taught art classes to several generations of Island children.

"She could see talent and she could see drive and she would support it," said Pan Wendt, curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, who first met Hilda when he was in his mid-20s.

"She encouraged me. She kept kind of pushing me to keep writing," said Wendt.

Submitted by Pan Wendt
Submitted by Pan Wendt

Wendt said he has never met anyone who could draw the way Woolnough could.

"Her drawing ability was on some other planet. She could just whip up an incredible drawing with a few marks," he said.

Woolnough's friend Christine Stanley, a weaver in Victoria, P.E.I., said she was "thrilled" when she heard the news of The Guild gallery being named after Woolnough.

"She'd be so happy about that … The Guild was an important part of her life," said Stanley.

Submitted by John Hopkins
Submitted by John Hopkins

Stanley lived down the road from Woolnough in Breadalbane for years, and the two would "hang out together and maybe play cards or go to the movies."

"I used to watch her work … she was always, you know, getting ready for some kind of fantastic show that she was going to be doing. So I'd go down and just sit there and maybe knit or something while she'd be working on her art," said Stanley.

"There's not too many people who ever took on the large things that she would take on."

Submitted by Gail Rutherford
Submitted by Gail Rutherford

Rutherford agrees.

"She would dream about something and then she would make it work. And in many ways she was a little bit overbearing," she said.

"She just sort of ran people down to the ground in government, and I think they used to duck when they saw her coming."

The opening exhibit at the Hilda Woolnough gallery, called All Things Hilda: A Retrospective, features Hopkins' selections from his private collection of more than 770 pieces of his mother's art, most of which have never been shown in public.

He hopes the exhibit lets people think of Woolnough's art in a new way.

"Her name will be there in recognition of her contribution to the arts. What a great gift from P.E.I. and the people of P.E.I. to our family, and particularly the memory of Hilda," said Hopkins.

Wendt was at the opening of the exhibit Thursday at The Guild and said it attracted a large crowd.

"There would be very few artists who've been gone 14 years that you could gather that kind of audience for, and it's because she had such a massive impact around here," said Wendt.

Rutherford said she thinks her friend would be "delighted" by the gallery being named after her.

"And I bet she'd also be saying, 'Well, it's about time,'" she said.

"She was fun. She was lively. She was a character. She was a force, and I'm sure she's thought about a lot and much-missed."

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