Evergreen has launched a major new commission in our public art program — a reproduction of Rita Letendre’s iconic mural Sunrise from 1971. The reproduction has been painted by artist Tannis Nielsen, and will be accompanied by a mural of Nielsen’s own, developed in response to Letendre’s work and her influence on Canadian art history, public art and Indigenous muralism.
Rita Letendre is recognized as one of Canada’s most important living artists. She was born of Abenaki and Québecois parents in Drummondville in 1928 and has lived in Toronto since 1969. Letendre received the Order of Canada in 2005, and her work has been exhibited widely nationally and internationally for more than fifty years. Her career began in the 1950s as the sole woman artist working with the Automatistes group in Montreal, and later associated with the geometric style of Les Plasticiens. By the 1960s and early 1970s, her work was known internationally. Letendre developed her own distinctive approach to abstract painting, using hard-edge techniques and experimenting with an airbrush to create unparalleled dynamism and movement in her paintings. Over the course of her long career, she has developed a remarkable body of work that reflects on the rhythms of the natural environment, on lightness and darkness, and on the energy and force of the self and the natural world.
Beyond Letendre’s many contributions to Canadian painting in the twentieth century, Letendre has a significant role in the history of public art in Toronto. Along with her rich exhibition history in galleries and museums, in the 1960s and 70s Letendre was commissioned to create numerous large-scale projects in public space, including major murals at Ryerson University and Royal Bank Plaza, and the colourful stained-glass skylights of Glencairn subway station. Letendre was often the only woman artist considered for — and awarded — such major commissions, and her involvement in public art at the time was unprecedented.
Letendre’s first large-scale public work was in California — a 24 by 21-foot mural titled Sunforce (1965), which she created for the University of California at Long Beach. This work has been restored and preserved to this date. Sunrise (1971), in Toronto, was her largest ever work, a mural of 60 by 60 feet installed on the outside wall of the Neill-Wycik Building at Ryerson University, near the intersection of Carlton and Jarvis Streets. Sunrise expanded Letendre’s signature geometric, hard-edge style on a huge scale, with colourful rays radiating from a central point and elevated high above the city.
As major infrastructure was being developed and built in the 1960s and 1970s Toronto, Letendre’s work was featured in subway stations, universities, offices buildings across the city. At one point, Letendre had as many as 12 public murals on view in Toronto, however in recent decades all of her major public art projects in Toronto have either been destroyed or covered over. Irowakan in the lobby of Royal Bank Plaza was decommissioned as the building underwent renovations and Joy — the Glencairn skylights — fell into disrepair. Sunrise was obscured in 1978 with the building of a neighbouring condo tower inches apart from the mural’s façade. This iconic work was beloved in the city that there were public protests and widespread news stories when it was covered over.
Reproducing Sunrise is a gesture in both honouring Letendre’s work and re-opening conversations around her role in public art in the context of the changing city and its changing values. This story is a particularly important one to reintroduce at this moment. Letendre’s work has recently seen renewed attention, and her work at Glencairn subway station, Joy, has been restored. The commissioning, subsequent covering over and recent re-commissioning of Letendre’s public artworks speaks volumes to shifting perspectives regarding her contributions to Canadian modernism, and more broadly to the place of women and Indigenous artists in public art in Toronto over the past 50 years. Bringing Sunrise back into circulation at Evergreen addresses a critical gap in the history of public art in Canada.
We are thrilled that acclaimed Métis artist (of Sohto/Anishnawbe and Danish descent) Tannis Nielsen will paint the reproduction of Letendre’s mural. Nielsen is a multi-disciplinary artist, muralist and educator based in Toronto. She recently completed two monumental murals commissioned by the City of Toronto: Gchi-twaawendan NIbi/Honour the Water (Water Wall) and N’gekaajig kidowog/My Elders Said (Elder Wall). In addition to painting the reproduction of Sunrise, Nielsen is painting a large-scale abstract mural of her own at Evergreen, titled Ishkode, responding to Letendre’s legacy and the dynamism, movement and light in her work.
This project is made possible thanks to the support of the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts, Partners in Art and the Ontario Arts Council, with generous support of the artists and Gallery Gevik.