A Life's Story

May 06, 2023

Living the life of an artist to the fullest

Helen Granger Young, 100, produced Famous Five statue at legislature

By: Janine LeGal

We’re not always aware of the brilliance in our midst, perhaps especially when it comes to the artistic sort. We would do well to pay attention to how artists enhance our well-being, sense of wonder, and to how their effects are invaluable and far-reaching.

Helen Granger Young left an immense aesthetic impact in private collections around the world — and in the homes and the public spaces of Winnipeg.

A contributor to the local, national and international art communities for more than 70 years, Granger Young died April 7, at 100.

The artist of international acclaim lived much of her life as a Winnipegger. She was a prolific creator and a trail blazer in the art world.

The free spirit lived her life on her own terms, leaving a legacy that included a plethora of art pieces in every shape, size and medium. She was renowned for drawings and paintings, landscapes and portraits in oil and pastel, porcelain statues and bronze pieces.

Winnipeggers can see her monuments around the city.

Granger Young produced the Famous Five statue on the west side of the Manitoba legislature grounds. She created the Women’s Tri-Service Monument on Memorial Boulevard, representing the contributions of women in the three branches of the military, as well as the nearby First Flight, dedicated to all the Commonwealth and Allied airmen trainees and instructors who died during training in Canada.

At the St. Boniface Basilica, Granger Young created works of Father Aulneau and La Verendrye. In Assiniboine Park, she sculpted six of the busts in the Citizen’s Hall of Fame, including premier Duff Roblin, media mogul Izzy Asper, and Sister Geraldine MacNamara, a driving force behind the Rossbrook House youth centre.

Beyond the borders of Canada, one of her porcelain pieces was presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1970, while two others were presented to then-Prince Charles and then-wife Diana on the occasion of their marriage and the birth of their son, Prince William. Other works are housed at Rideau Hall, the White House, the Vatican and the Kremlin.

Janice Filmon, Manitoba lieutenant governor 2015-22, helped in the production of Famous Five as founding chairwoman of the Nellie McClung Foundation. She cherished the friendship the two had.

“It was comfortable, it was wonderful. I can’t paint a flower pot. She had creativity dripping out her fingertips,” Filmon says with a laugh.

“She was this very small little person with this great big talent. We had this lovely, lovely relationship… We would have tea out in the back garden. I remember her telling me (artist) Jackson Beardy would just show up. She would just sketch him. You don’t know what you’re part of; you’re just going with the flow, enjoying the time… She was a hidden gem.”

Filmon noted Granger Young’s Nellie McLung monument is the most visited artwork on the legislature grounds, and it was particularly important to the artist. “It was pure joy. It meant the world to her.”

Born in 1922, in Mimico, York County, Ont., Granger Young knew from an early age she was an artist. Her talents won her a scholarship to the Ontario Art College, where she studied under Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael and renowned Canadian artist Charles Comfort.

In the early years of her career, she worked in commercial art, produced technical drawings for the military and painted portraits of returning officers after the Second World War.

In 1947, she moved to Winnipeg, where she met and, two years later, married Bill Young. While raising four children together, she became known locally through her portrait painting, catalogue illustrations, art instruction and mentoring other artists.

“She was quite glamorous as a young woman, and a fashion illustrator, too,” says daughter-in-law Debra Jonasson-Young.

“She was a very unique mother,” says Jonasson-Young. “Where other kids would have in that day and age little pictures of Little Bo Peep in their rooms, these kids had actual drawings and all the characters made by their mother.

“When other mothers were doing other things, she was drawing murals on kitchen walls. She was a unique individual defined by her art.”

In an era where roles for women were limited and clearly defined, Granger Young’s father sometimes became exasperated. He didn’t want her to study but she did it anyway.

“He wasn’t very happy; women didn’t do that,” says Jonasson-Young.

“She lived a life that flew in the face of things that didn’t occur at that time. She lived and breathed as an artist. I remember sitting there, watching a soap opera with her. She had a piece of clay in her hand. By the time it was over, it was a (prime minister) John Diefenbaker piece.

“She was authentic, self-contained; she just knew who she was. She had to live that life no matter what happened in her world,” says Jonasson-Young. “She understood her purpose and would live it regardless of how life threw things at her. She was lucky to have such an extraordinary purpose in life.”

Granger Young’s last art piece was completed while she was well into her 80s. She produced the Prairie Sailor monument based on the likeness of her husband who had served in the navy.

“She couldn’t have married anybody better,” Jonasson-Young says.

“He supported her on her journey. He drove her around. He took on a lot of the child care; the children had a great model for a father.

“He recognized her unique take and adored her. Some men might not have supported that ambition… She was driven to do her art and he was her biggest support, enabling her to continue creating.”

Granger Young’s extensive body of artwork will continue to play an integral role in the cultural and historical fabric of Manitoba and Canada for years to come.

And serve as reminder to keep our eyes and senses open to the value and brilliance with which impassioned artists like her enrich our everyday lives.


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