Making an historic connection with her subjects

Special to Western News

Toronto-based portrait artist Linda Kooluris Dobbs’ latest work will reside at Western for years to come as she is the commissioned artist for the Portrait of Record of Stephen Coxford, LLB’77, who served Board chair 2012-13. The work was unveiled in its new Great Hall home this week.

Her secret is in the eyes. For Linda Kooluris Dobbs, there is no other way in.

“I start with the face, with the eyes, so I can immediately connect with the spirit of the person. I have to do it that way,” said the Toronto-based portrait artist. “Once in my lifetime I didn’t follow that rule and I never felt connected to my subject. The eyes engage with me.”

Dobbs’ latest work will reside at Western for generations as she was named the commissioned artist for the Portrait of Record of Stephen Coxford, LLB’77, who served as Board of Governors chair 2012-13. The work was unveiled in its new Great Hall home this week.

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This is her debut portrait work for Western.

Dobbs’ landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and photographs are found in corporate and private collections worldwide, including those in Queen’s Park, Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Law Society of Upper Canada and the University of Texas at Austin.

Born in New Jersey, Dobbs graduated from Pine Manor College, attended The Sorbonne in 1968-69 and received a BFA degree with honors from The School of Visual Arts. Migrating to Montreal to illustrate, and then moving to Toronto, she began to make her way in fine art, winning portrait commissions including former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Henry R. Jackman and former Ontario Premier David Peterson.

When her husband, Canadian short story and travel writer Kildare Dobbs, became ill a decade or so ago, she did not paint for five years. He passed away in 2013. Soon afterward, the call came from Coxford requesting she paint his official portrait.

Walk in and you’ll quickly notice the work stands out against the overall dreary fare hanging on the walls of the Great Hall. Her work’s vibrant colours and fine details reflect the man she came to know, Dobbs said.

“I need to know a lot about the person, a lot about how they feel they should be remembered in history, what objects represent them,” Dobbs explained. “You have to be a little in love with your subject to make it really happen. I am not talking about romance – it is something else that takes over. You embrace this person.”

The portrait is a study in those personal details – the ergonomic chair upon which he is seated; a photo of the family, a photo of him skiing; a poster promoting his Faculty of Law lecture series; and stacks of meaningful books on the floor, including law books and a lone Alice Munro work. Dobbs placed Coxford intentionally forward in the photo, with perhaps one shiny detail noticeably present.

“We had this discussion on what makes the successful man. One is the wife, one is the work you do and one is his shoes,” Dobbs laughed. “He had these beautiful shoes on and so I played them up in the portrait.”

The Board of Governors officially commissions portraits of every chancellor, president and Board chair following their term. Once completed, these Portraits of Record – as they are known in official circles – automatically become part of the McIntosh Gallery Collection. Gallery officials handle all documentation, installation, conservation and care of the portraits.

Currently, the portraits hang high above in the Great Hall in Somerville House. But before that room was constructed, the portraits were displayed in various buildings around campus, including the original Board of Governors room and adjacent room in University College.

With the Great Hall running out of wall space, Western will eventually be confronted with a new way of honouring our past, said James Patten, McIntosh Gallery Director and Chief Curator.

“How I wish there was a safe with lots of money for a new gallery building in it,” he said. “But we are running out of space in the Great Hall, and I have suggested moving to photographs of record taken by internationally acclaimed Canadian photographers – we are fortunate to have some of the best photographers in the world – instead of traditional paintings. Think of (Yousef) Karsh’s iconic photograph of Churchill. Or Annie Leibowitz’s stunning portrait work. Such images could be used on various electronic platforms and in print applications.”

For Dobbs, this portrait represents something beyond ourselves and our time.

“Everything I do in a portrait is not simply done for effect – it is done with meaning,” she explained. “I hope, in 200 years’ time, 300 years’ time, when someone comes across that portrait and knows nothing about the history of the man I painted, that they will get a sense of that person, a sense of the times he lived in because of those things I placed around him.”