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Portrait of the artist: Behind the scenes with Joanne Tod

Joanne Tod’s “aha” moment was melodic. She was singing The Beatles’ “She Loves You” as a young girl, when she realized that she wanted to work in a creative field. That moment led to a career as one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists.  

Known for her realist style and social critiques, Tod built her career in Toronto, starting out as part of a group of artists who worked in the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of her projects entailed painting every Canadian soldier who fought and died in the war in Oh, Canada – A Lament.  

Her work eventually brought her to U of T, where she teaches future artists and draws inspiration for paintings from the rooms and buildings of the university and its memorable people. Bruce Kidd, Jane Gaskell, Hal Jackman, Michael Wilson, Margaret MacMillan and Robert Prichard can all count themselves as her subjects.

Tod opens up about her work as an artist, nourishing young artists and painting the people and places of U of T.

What’s the hardest part about being an artist? What’s the best part?

It’s a daunting prospect, to begin a new body of work and to evolve one’s oeuvre in a meaningful way. But this is also the best part; to be constantly striving for excellence and to feel that one is making a relevant and significant contribution to cultural discourse.

How does your art career inform your teaching at U of T?

I have the pleasure of working with many students who are keen to understand the vicissitudes of the art world, and how to embrace a lifestyle that does not necessarily guarantee a regular paycheque.

The courses I teach are focused on critical, independent thinking, and strive to familiarize students with how the art world operates, and how to function within it. I address a spectrum of issues, with emphasis on the importance of articulating and writing cogently about their artwork, and gaining critical self-awareness.

You have spent most of your life in Toronto, having been part of a group of artists working in the city’s Queen Street West neighbourhood in the ‘70s and 80s. Does Toronto play a role in your creativity or your work?

Yes, I love living in Toronto, a creative hotbed of activity. It’s a diverse city that is arts proactive with a cultural infrastructure of artists, galleries, collectors, and a vibrant social scene. Unfortunately, it’s this very vitality that has been responsible for artists being expropriated from their studios to make way for hip condos and retail.

Above: Tod at her home with the painting of Meghan McKnight, a former student

Your work was recognized when you were 12 years old, and one of your teachers bought your artwork. How did this experience shape you, and how you engage your students?  

In grade 7, my art teacher was the late David Cowan. He was wonderfully theatrical and really made the class dynamic and exciting. Even though I was only 12 years old, he recognized that I was serious about becoming an artist, and he encouraged me.

He bought several early drawings and paintings from me as well. This was undoubtedly the first affirmation, to myself and maybe even to my parents, that it might actually be feasible to pursue a career in art.  

Years later, when David was a professor at Queen’s University, he would invite me annually to do a presentation of my work, after which I would critique his students’ final exhibition.  Thanks to David, I became confident about public speaking and teaching.  He was an important mentor and role model.

I enjoy my students and try to make myself available for individual consultation. I like to learn about them as well and make constructive suggestions, to steer them in a suitable direction. Some individuals are obviously gifted in certain areas, and I try to identify these strengths and discuss their future plans with them. It is very exciting to see students poised at the beginning of their careers. I feel invigorated by their energy.

A third of the artwork in your home is created by your former and present students. Why is it important to nurture emerging Canadian artists and their unique voices?

Get their work when it’s cheap, and steal their ideas when they’re still unknown, I like to joke. But I do try to support upcoming talent. It’s a bit like playing the stock market, although I am not as concerned with resale value as I am in observing how certain students evolve in their careers.  And I do get to witness this development because I remain friends with many of them.


Joanne Tod in her bathtub surrounded by an art instalation

Todd at her home, surrounded by an installation created by her former student Chantal Hassard.

You’ve painted various U of T figures: Bruce Kidd, Jane Gaskell, Hal Jackman, Michael Wilson, Margaret MacMillan and Robert Prichard. What can you tell us about these people and the process of painting them?

It has been a great privilege to be chosen to paint portraits of these distinguished individuals. I try to make the best of my photo shoots by doing research about the subject in advance.

Usually I will meet with the person informally first, to get to know them a little. In this way I am prepared to converse with them during the modeling session, and to glean interesting information about them as academics and as people. Hopefully, some of what I learn imbues the portrait with a greater depth of understanding. It’s important to ascertain the preferred setting for the portrait – formal or informal? Institutional or domestic? Often people will want to insert something personal, such as a memento, book, or a pet, etc. which is included in the final work. I would like to think that viewers of the portraits do actually get a sense of the personality of the subject. My goal always is to get a good likeness, and to depict the subject at his or her best.

Your most recent U of T portrait was of Robert Prichard, who served as the thirteenth president of the University of Toronto, and prior to that, was the dean of the Faculty of Law. When we asked him about the portrait he said that he asked you to paint him because he loves your paintings‎ and because you love the university as he does. He called your work a “splendid addition to the university's portrait collection”. What was it like to work with him?

Robert Prichard invited me to his home to meet him and his wife Ann, in advance of our sitting. At that meeting, Mr. Prichard was most gracious and had obviously done some research about measking pertinent questions and making intelligent observations about my work and career.

I had already taken some photographs of the interior of Flavelle House, and we agreed that this setting would be appropriate for a former Dean of the Faculty of Law.  Mr. Prichard is very photogenic. He is relaxed and personable, making the photo shoot enjoyable and effortless. And because he is a tall person with great presence, we decided that the portrait needed to be fairly large, in order to convey this aspect of his physicality. When the portrait was complete, I was very pleased when Ann remarked that I’d caught his look of boyish enthusiasm.

What’s next for you?

As a poster that probably still exists at Gwartzman’s Art Supplies proclaimed, “Old artists never die, they just paint away”. I will continue to make art, what else can I do? I’m preparing to build another studio in a different location. I’m excited about a change of environment, and how that might influence my work.

Prichard on Tod:
“She is a wonderful painter and a wonderful person with whom to work. So positive and optimistic that she could make even me look pretty good. I liked the portrait immediately on a first viewing and think it is a terrific painting despite the subject matter. She placed me in Flavelle House where I first studied as a law student, met my wife Ann and subsequently taught for many years. Flavelle offered rich architectural elements similar to those in some of her recent works which adds texture and perspective to the painting.  She chose a happy compromise  on my age, making me look younger than I do now but older than when appointed dean of law 33 years ago.  Joanne's work is a splendid addition to the University's portrait collection.  I am honoured that she agreed to paint it and grateful that graduates Jeanie Fraser and Tom Rahilly donated the funds to make it possible.”


This interview was condensed for clarity.