Happy 80th birthday to founder of Faculty of Fine Arts

Barbara Black

Three old pals from the Art Education Department are seen in a strip of film dating from the 1980s. They are (left to right) Frieda Miller, Leah Sherman, and Andrea Fairchild, who is still teaching.

Leah Sherman is having a birthday, and because of her pivotal role in Concordia’s history, the Art Education Department and the Faculty of Fine Arts are throwing her a party. In fact, they made a half-hour video to get it all down on tape.

Sherman and Alfred Pinsky founded what has become Canada’s largest and probably best university-based art school. To hear her tell it, it was all a bit of a lark.

Part of the generation of Jewish youngsters who thrived at Baron Byng High School, Sherman was “always drawing,” and art teacher Anne Savage was a role model. “She gave you the feeling artists were significant, and art was not a hobby,” Sherman recalled.

In her teens, she attended art classes at the YMCA, then took a degree at Sir George Williams College, where there were 50 women students to 450 men. When she realized she couldn’t get a master’s degree in art in Canada, she went to New York University, and enjoyed that city’s lively art scene.

Returning to Montreal, she taught evening art classes at Sir George, which was still closely linked to the Y, and small enough to have what amounted to a close family of enthusiastic educators. In 1961, her friend Alfred Pinsky joined her.

“Alfie was a wonderful BSer,” Sherman recalled in the video, so he became the spokesman for the tiny department’s new ideas. Sherman did the practical work, and Stan Horner, a “red-haired farm boy” when she met him, was their inspiration because of his devotion to pedagogy.

Thus Leah, Alfie and Stan formed a dynamic working team. Douglass Clarke, the visionary president of Sir George at the time, lent invaluable support.

“Everything burst open in the ’60s,” Sherman recalled. The rapidly expanding university hired working artists, filmmakers, musicians and theatrical directors to teach the flood of baby boomers. The department that had started teaching only painting and drawing became a multi-disciplinary faculty, and Sherman continued as a leading voice in the development of the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Sherman provides plenty more detail and names names — fondly — in the half-hour video.

It was made by Art Education professor Paul Langdon and Adriana De Oliveira and videographer, Alain Pelletier. They hope Leah’s many friends, colleagues and former students will join them at a video screening and birthday celebration on Nov. 23 in the York Amphitheatre of the new EV building, from 5 to 7 p.m.