“I always think of art as food for the soul.”
“The arts are a great civilizing influence.”
Ian and Jill Hodkinson reside in Gananoque, Ontario, not far from Kingston. They’ve lived in the area since moving to Canada from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1969. Jill came into my life first when she was cast in the role of an elderly widow in a student film I directed at Queen’s University. She then played the grandmother in my first non-student film, Sight Lines. It was through my second collaboration with Jill that I met Ian and got a glimpse of the couple’s incredible generosity. Not only did Jill volunteer to act in my film, but she and Ian opened their home to the cast and crew, and arranged for neighbours in their Thousand Islands community to provide additional accommodations.
I was, and continue to be, blown away by their kindness. It’s no wonder that their earthy home by the water is frequently filled with any combination of the couple’s three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Ian and Jill are the kind of people you want to be around as much as possible.
An artful attraction
Both were drawn to the arts from an early age. Born in Glasgow, Ian and his family moved to Edinburgh at the beginning of World War II. He studied Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and drawing and painting at the Edinburgh College of Art. Jill was born and raised in Edinburgh, where she excelled at piano and classical ballet—earning a dance scholarship to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, England—before choosing to pursue acting.
Their paths collided in 1956 when the two found summer work at the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival—Jill as an Assistant Stage Manager and Ian as a lighting designer. The major onstage attraction that year was the Stratford Ontario Company (now the Stratford Shakespeare Festival). They were on tour, performing Henry V and Oedipus Rex with the likes of Christopher Plummer, Douglas Campbell, William Shatner, Bruno Gerussi, Amelia Hall and Ted Follows (father of actor Megan Follows). “The Canadians were wonderful,” says Jill. “They were really wonderful.”
Offstage, however, the major attraction was between Ian and Jill. After overcoming his reputation as the “black beetle,” which he’d earned because of his dark hair and all-black wardrobe, Ian persuaded Jill to go on a date. Five days later, he proposed. “My mother was horrified,” laughs Jill. She didn’t give Ian an answer right away, but within a year they were engaged. “We’ve got to thank the Stratford Ontario Company for getting us together,” says Ian.
From Europe to Canada
During their first years as a married couple, Ian continued working as an art conservator, and Jill pursued a professional acting career, performing with Edinburgh’s Gateway Theatre and other repertory companies throughout Scotland. They enjoyed their lifestyle, but when Ian got an offer to study art restoration and conservation at the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The couple and their newborn daughter, Leonie, moved to Italy for nearly a year. After that, they returned to Edinburgh, where they spent the next decade raising their three children. During that time, Ian established his reputation as an expert in restoration and conservation of paintings, while Jill moved away from acting and focused more on choreography and directing.
Just as the Hodkinsons were starting to feel restless, a job offer came to Ian all the way from Canada. “Queen’s University was starting a program in art education and they wanted someone to teach historical techniques, and that sounded intriguing,” says Ian. The family packed up, made the move and hasn’t looked back since. “We were very lucky coming here because we came sight unseen,” says Ian. “(Living here has) been such a wonderful experience. Canada has been very, very good to us. We haven’t really ever had any thought of going back (to Scotland).” “This is home,” adds Jill.
Supporting the arts
In the 40+ years they’ve spent in Canada, Ian and Jill have left an indelible mark on the arts community. When the Trudeau Government introduced the National Museum Policy in 1972, Ian saw the opportunity to establish a program that provided the necessary training for Canadian conservators. “Queen’s was the place to do it because it has a really good art gallery, it has a great science program and a developing art history and studio art program—all the components for a good art conservation training program,” says Ian. He successfully applied to the government for funding, and by 1974 the Queen’s Master of Art Conservation program was in place.
Jill, meanwhile, was juggling motherhood with a slew of amateur theatre work. She did some acting, but spent most of her time as a choreographer and enlisted Ian’s help with the sets whenever she could. “We did the most beautiful production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers,” says Jill. “That was the most wonderful one… Ian was my best set designer ever.”
She also made room for one of her earliest passions, taking acting roles in many student films through Queen’s University. “I absolutely adore acting,” she says. “I think it challenges you. It really makes you aware of all sorts of different personalities… You have to think of everything around the traits and history of both the (characters you play and those you interact with).”
Even now, after Ian’s official retirement in 1995 and Jill’s reduced volunteer work in the theatre community, the Hodkinsons remain active in the arts. Ian was recently enlisted to help conserve a set of murals painted by William Perehudoff, the famed Saskatchewan painter who was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999 for his contributions as an artist in Western Canada. The murals belonged to Fred Mendel, a German Jew who ran several meat-processing plants in Europe before fleeing to Canada in the 1930s and setting up the Intercontinental Meat Packing Company in Saskatoon. Mendel was also an art connoisseur with a private gallery in his processing plant. In 1953, he commissioned Perehudoff to paint murals in the reception area.
By 2009, Mendel’s plant (now owned by Maple Leaf Foods) had been scheduled for demolition to make way for a new highway. But a number of organizations, including the City of Saskatoon, Maple Leaf Foods and the University of Saskatchewan, weren’t willing to lose such historic works of art. A campaign was launched to save the murals, and Ian was flown in to help remove the paintings and transfer them to new panels.
“We glued cotton muslin onto the face of the murals with a fish glue, which is extremely strong,” says Ian. “The bond between the fish glue and the paint is stronger than the bond between the paint and the wall, so we were able to roll the murals off the wall.” For the final phase, Ian and his team affixed the murals to new panels using vacuum pressure and hot-melt adhesive, and then washed off the fish glue with water to reveal the preserved paintings. The murals are now in storage and will be exhibited at the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, which is scheduled to open in 2014. (For more on Mendel’s Murals, click here.)
Breaking onto the silver screen
Jill has also been called on recently to lend her considerable talents to the art world. In 2007, the New York-based independent film company New Wave Pictures needed a last-minute replacement to play a key part in the feature film Beneath the River, which was being shot in the Thousand Islands. Thanks to her decades-long contributions to the local film and theatre community, Jill’s reputation as an actor was well established. She was recommended for the part and when the director came calling, he was impressed and cast her right away.
“It was the coldest October ever!” says Jill. “Guess where we filming? On an island on the St. Lawrence! It was freezing cold. But it was absolutely fascinating.”
Jill played the role of Pearl, an elderly woman trying to protect a young woman who becomes the subject of interest for a homicidal sociopath. “Jill was awesome,” says Ian. “Absolutely awesome. We went to a preview of it down in Rochester (New York), and I thought that she was terrific.”
Matters of the art
After all this talk of the acting and murals, I ask the Hodkinsons why art is so important to them. Jill seems baffled by the question, as if she can’t imagine a world without the arts. “My whole life has been dance, music and theatre,” she says. “I think, for everybody, the arts are a great civilizing influence.”
“It does bring people together in a really good way,” says Ian. “For me, making art is an adventure… I don’t start out with a fixed idea about what it is I’m going to do, just a very general idea. As I’m working on it, it talks to me and tells me where to go next, what to do next… I always think of art as food for the soul.”