Elza Mayhew (1916 - 2004) Toxins released from her styrofoam molds - a method she pioneered - caused
Every school kid knows about Emily Carr, but few are aware of the many other significant women artists who made important contributions to our art history while living in Victoria. One of these was Elza Mayhew. Mayhew was born here in 1916 and she died in 2004.
Mayhew began her education at the University of British Columbia where she graduated with honours in French and Latin. From 1955 to 1958, she studied with the distinguished artist Jan Zach. With his encouragement, she entered the graduate program at the University of Oregon and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree with honours in sculpture in 1963. During these years she also traveled to Japan, India and Mexico. As well, Mayhew was awarded the Sir Otto Beit medal from the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1962 and by 1974 Mayhew was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts.
Black Priestess 1961, 40" x 30" x 15" cast bronze
Exhibited at Venice Biennale (1964)
Photo by Karl Spreitz
During her career, Mayhew was a member of a famous local art group, the Limners and by 1964, her reputation entrenched, Mayhew was selected to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale. She served on the Board of Directors of International Sculpture, Kansas from 1968 - 1979. In 1989 she received an Honourary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from the University of Victoria in recognition of her international renown and artistic achievements which included public commissions from Victoria to Charlottetown. Her monumental sculpture,Column of the Suncan be seen in Confederation Centre in the latter city and two fine works by the artist can be seen in Victoria. One is outside the Provincial Archives and the other is in front of the University of Victoria's MacPherson Library.
Mayhew's artistic career commenced in the mid 1950's and continued until styrene poisoning stopped her in the late 1980's. Toxins released from her styrofoam molds - a method she pioneered - caused neurological damage, leading to spatial disorientation and, finally, severe dementia. Before her deterioration her sculptural endeavours included monumental cast bronze, pieces that were forged in foundries in Ontario, the US and England. Her exhibition record is long and extensive dating back to a solo exhibition at the Point Gallery in Victoria in 1960. Elza's work is found in public art collections including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.
Mayhew worked hard for her accomplishments and she left a rich legacy of great significance both here in Victoria and nationally. Indeed, the importance and full measure of her contributions is a compelling story that has yet to be told. We can only hope that a public art museum curator will want to delve into the artist's story and bring all the fascinating chapters to the public's attention.