Posted by Open Studio

Remembering Barbara Alexandra Hall

  • Alix Hall in front of the Open Studio storefront on Queen Street. Photo by Vincent Sharp.
  • Alix Hall in the studio.

Barbara Alexandra Hall
(1942 – 2021)

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Barbara Alexandra (Alix) Hall. Our condolences go out to her community of friends and family.

In 1970, Alix Hall and Richard Sewell established Open Studio at 310 Queen Street West.

We connected with Richard to share his remembrances of Alix and their founding of the studio.

In August 1970, recently unemployed, Richard Sewell and Alix Hall rented a 1200-foot former storefront laundry at 310 Queen Street West, now a parking lot.
 
With neither a plan, equipment nor supplies, and as yet, no clear sense of direction Alix and Richard thought this storefront, East of Spadina, across from the Peter Pan Restaurant, and around the corner from their Beverly Street coop, seemed perfect for a studio.
 
Fresh from their former jobs with a Mirvish Village framing shop and gallery, each contributed part of their unemployment benefits to pay the first month’s rent. Sharing of facilities for homes, stores and assorted service facilities was common in the Queen St. West Community of the 1970s and starting a co-op artist studio came up naturally.
 
During the initial days of cleaning, scrounging and planning, Alix mentioned that she had a small Graphic Chemical etching press, in storage, and maybe it could be of use in this space, and then Richard mentioned he did a little silkscreen and lithography while in university. Across August, the idea of organizing this space possibly as both a school and a studio for printmaking seemed realistic.
 
At the same time the word or concept “open” occurred frequently, suggesting the phrase “open studio.” In planning talks and conversations with other artists, the question came up of whether the studio space and equipment would be open and accessible to them. We thought it should.
 
Alix worked hard in many ways to establish Open Studio. Her social abilities were extremely important. She influenced the culture of the initial studio a great deal. Her natural humour and sympathetic view with others shaped our way of relating with artists and students in an evolving, quite fluid way. It was definitely cooperative and friendly, and the studio might not have been so without her. She was especially wonderful at attracting strong talented women to the studio, which definitely helped it survive as both open and cooperative.


Richard Sewell, Grand Bend, Ontario, May 2021

Alix and Max with painting, 1981
Alix and Max with painting, 1981

The Following Obituary Was Composed by Her Family and Friends

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of Barbara Alexandra (Berrien) Hall on May 9, 2021, in New Liskeard, Ontario after a courageous battle with cancer.

Alix was born in Bronxville, New York, USA, on December 22, 1942, to Hazel (Hills) Berrien and Frank W. Berrien. She was raised by her mother in New York, and doted on by her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, David B. Hills, a commercial artist, particularly encouraged her artistic development. As a child, she meticulously coloured in the pen and ink illustrations in her favourite books, particularly “Stuart Little.” She attended Dalton School and enjoyed a cosmopolitan New York life until her mother’s second marriage to a US Army officer took them to the wilds of New Mexico, Texas, and Kentucky.

She first attended San Francisco Art Institute, then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, earning her BFA there in Drawing, Painting, and Printmaking.

Along with Richard Sewell, Alix co-founded the ground-breaking Open Studio artists’ co-operative on Queen Street West in Toronto in 1970, and was Director of Etching there through 1974, then becoming the print curator there through 1975. As Richard recounts, “She influenced the culture of the initial studio a great deal. Her natural humour and sympathetic view with others shaped our way of relating with artists and students in an evolving, quite fluid way. It was definitely cooperative and friendly, and the studio might not have been so without her. She was especially wonderful at attracting strong talented women to the studio, which definitely helped it survive as both open and cooperative.” Open Studio continues to this day on Richmond Street West, offering accessible, inclusive and affordable printmaking facilities, programs and services for artists and the public from across Canada and abroad.

During this time, Alix focused on printmaking, creating many silkscreens, etchings, and lithographs. A first impression, looking at her painting and printmaking from her student days onward, might be one of simplicity. But a closer look would show that clarity would be a better word. Her screenprints from the 1970s at Open Studio, such as “Egg Rise Suite” and “Country Road”, play with the history of art in the West as illusion, both in the images themselves and in the flatness of their treatment. They are visual puns, and this wry sense of humour is also characteristic of her work. Her work was often surrealistic in nature, combining everyday objects in unusual combinations, such as her work “Clouds on Toast.” In “Boat and Bathtub” we see two objects seemingly unrelated, but then the viewer realizes one contains water and the other floats in it.

Boat and Bathtub, 1976
Boat and Bathtub, 1976

In 1978, she created her Halcyon series, inspired by the Greek mythological bird which makes its nest amid ocean waves. Using pastel and coloured pencils, Alix instead portrayed in several pieces a fence, a campfire, and asparagus spears, among other things, floating in the ocean.

Halcyon Series – Campfire, 1978
Halcyon Series – Campfire, 1978

She returned to painting in 1980, creating a series of ten large canvases in response to her mother’s sudden death in 1979. In these, she used objects associated with her mother, such as a telephone, sequin espadrilles, suitcases, and a childhood bed, and set them against shoreline vistas

Wish, 1981
Wish, 1981

Alix said of her work: “People look at my work and they think it’s really funny. For example, the print of the trees and the rocking chair; at first you think it’s a normal-sized rocking chair with little toy trees. Then it occurs to you that maybe it’s a giant rocking chair and regular-sized trees, which is a more threatening image because then you think, okay, if that’s a giant rocking chair, who sits in it? What are they going to do to those trees? Man has obtained power way out of proportion to his actual place in the overall scheme of things. So the images are a bit more serious when you think about them.”

She taught printmaking, two-dimensional design, drawing and painting at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto; Scarborough College at the University of Toronto; Ontario College of Art; Queens University in Kingston; and at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario.

As a fine artist, Alix exhibited her work at numerous galleries throughout North America and Europe, including solo exhibitions at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, The Station Gallery in Whitby, and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in the early 1980s.

Her artwork is held in the collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, among many other public and private collections. Over the course of her art career, she received grants and awards from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council Art Bank. She also received two travel grants from the Canada Council to study printmaking in St. Johns’, Newfoundland and Florence, Italy in the 1970s.

Alix stopped making images in 1983, when her attention shifted to achieving social change through work with organizations serving people in need, beginning at Interval House in Toronto, a centre for abused women and children. Over the next 25 years, she went on to work in a group home for intellectually disabled adults in Indiana; join the steering committee and buddy program for the AIDS Committee of Toronto; become an administrator, counselor and collective member at Toronto’s Margaret Frazer House for women with mental health issues; counselor at Manzanita House, a short-term crisis residential treatment facility in Salinas, California; as well as stints as a librarian in Indiana and California.

During these years, when asked, she would describe herself as a “recovering artist”, and resisted all efforts to persuade her to begin again. Nonetheless, she was very pleased when, in 2020, the Canada Council Art Bank asked her for permission to include her work “Shadow Bands”, in their collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, to produce the web page The impressive legacy of the Art Bank’s print programme. Early in 2021, she received another request, from the Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison University, to include her work “Cloud Screen,” from the Gallery’s collection, in its project, “Cloud Party.” Alix viewed these as validations, in her mind, of the work she put into CARFAC Ontario (then CARO) in the ‘70s, and of her work in general as the artist known as Barbara Hall.

In midlife, she became a Tibetan Buddhist, and made several trips to events featuring the Dalai Lama. She also delved deeply into genealogy, researching her Whittlesey and Huguenot Berrien family roots, whose members’ lives intersected with those of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, early U.S. history, and the settlement of New York and Connecticut. Other leisure activities included kayaking, crocheting, making clothes, running, and spending time with her friends. Her half-sister Margo was thrilled when Alix agreed to walk her down the aisle and give her away at her wedding.

Alix, a dual citizen, moved to Monterey, California to be near her younger half-sister and her family, from 1999 to 2004. While spending time with her five nieces and nephews, she enjoyed going to the beach, their athletic games and school activities, spending holidays and their birthdays with them, and playing with them at home. She crocheted baby blankets for the boys and made dresses for the girls. When she was away, she always sent cards and books for their birthdays. Her nieces and nephews describe her as being a free-spirited, supportive, easily-amused, encouraging, and cheeky aunt.

She retired to a peaceful life in Temagami, Ontario in 2010, although she continued to enjoy annual trips to Yelapa, Mexico, with her friends of 50 years, as well as occasional trips to California and Maine to visit her sisters, nieces and nephews.

She was predeceased by her parents and beloved maternal grandparents, Jennie Hazel Davies and David B. Hills, her dear friends Tony Wilson and Candice Head, as well as her very beloved feline companions. She is survived by her chosen family of friends, half-sisters Margo Dittmer of Portland, Maine, USA, and Vicki Grillo of Monterey, California, USA, as well as seven nieces and nephews, two great-nieces and one great-nephew on the way, and her recently discovered half-sister Stephanie Ragan of Virginia, USA.

We will all remember Alix for her love of cats, her laugh, sass and style, her sincerity, sense of adventure, intelligence, and compassion.

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