“We had ideas of the way the world should be.” 

Studio arts instructor Françoise Sullivan

By Russ Cooper

Françoise Sullivan has been elevated as a member of the Order of Canada. Magnifying glass

Françoise Sullivan has been elevated as a member of the Order of Canada.

It was 1:43 p.m. I was to meet artist and studio arts instructor Françoise Sullivan at 2 p.m. at her Point St. Charles studio to discuss her promotion within the Order of Canada. Eleven days prior, on Nov. 5, she’d been elevated to the rank of Officer within the Order in ongoing recognition of her contribution to Canadian society. It was fundamentally why I was there.

But I was early. My perpetual punctuality has always been a blessing and a curse. I chose to snap pictures of some old, golden Chevrolet on Ste. Madeleine St. that looked amazing against the baby blue fall sky.

At 84, Sullivan has built one of the most respected bodies of work of any Canadian artist. A dancer, a painter, a choreographer, a welder, she’s spent her life expressing the beauty of art.

As a teenager in 1941, the Montreal-native Sullivan would become a founding member of Les Automatistes — a handful of young painters searching for a real, non-academic way to produce art.

In 1948, Sullivan, then a dancer, was among the 16 signatories to the group’s manifesto, le Refus Global, a historical document still valued for its unique perspective. Along with decreeing “resplendent anarchy” and a challenge to traditional Quebec values, their modus operandi remained; think about creating art but create art without thinking. It is that approach, in some part, that’s earned her decades of praise and success, including the 63 Prix du Québec and 97 Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas (named after her Automatiste colleague).

It’s also the approach that brought Sullivan to her studio door at 2 p.m.

She led me into her brightly lit studio and quickly offered me coffee. Accepting, she disappeared into the backroom, allowing me to peruse her works-in-progess along one wall; floor-to-ceiling canvases covered evenly in simple saffron orange and crimson reds. Emerging from the backroom carrying a tray of cups, she tripped slightly on the leg of a chair. Before I could even gasp, with the grace of a dancer a third her age, she caught her balance. She didn’t spill a drop.

After a few sips and a couple of gettin’-to-know-you questions, she tells me of 1948: “a vintage year when everything happened,” she says. “I wrote the text le Dance et l’espoir, [dancer] Jeanne Renaud and I each created our own dances [including] Danse dans la neige. And then the Refus Global. It was a very good year.”

To help me understand, she hands me the book Egregore: A History of the Montréal Automatist Movement by Ray Ellenwood. In flipping through, I stop at a photo from 1942. It is of an art show in the Sherbrooke St. bedroom of one of her Automatiste cohorts; art causally hanging on the walls, young cigarette-smoking sanguinely smug and optimistic artists strewn about.

I remarked that one man, poet Claude Gauvreau, looked very much like a music school friend of mine, right down to the mustache and tweed two-button blazer. In fact, I noticed this gathering didn’t seem vastly different from many of the art shows I had been part of.

She laughed a healthy laugh. “We were thirsty, hungry for everything that was bringing something new to the world. People may have done the same before us,” she said quietly, “but this is my life.”

And this life goes on seemingly uninterrupted. Sullivan is still teaching at Concordia, as she’s done since 1977. The works of Les Automatistes continue to be shown in galleries. She continues to make art. I ask of her motivation. “Beauty,” she says.

I need to know. “How do you do it?” I say. She smiled with her baby blue fall sky blue eyes. “When you’re an artist, there’s a point when you feel you can do anything.”

My time in the taxi back to work was remarkably colourless. I wished I were in that golden Chevrolet.


Concordia University