Françoise Sullivan has always been a trailblazer. The iconic Quebec artist has made cutting-edge works in dance, photography, sculpture and painting. Born in 1923, she’s still going strong. Her exhibition Pastels 1996-2004 is at Galerie Simon Blais through July 15; and an exhibition of new paintings is coming up at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) from Oct. 31 to Feb. 18. But for the moment, she has bigger things on her mind. On Saturday, Sullivan turns 100.
“Yes, it’s quite exciting, actually,” she said, sitting in her N.D.G. home on Thursday afternoon, her ocean-blue eyes sparkling in the light. “I woke up this morning thinking, ‘In two days, I’ll be 100.’”
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Sullivan punctuated the statement with laughter, taking delight in the thought of having lived a century on the planet. As an artist whose oeuvre has been marked by spontaneity, movement, irreverence and the joy of being alive, she may have even been laughing at time itself, as if it could ever catch up to her.
Later this year, she will join the cast of immortals whose likenesses dot the Montreal cityscape when a mural is made in her honour on the southern-facing wall of Place Dupuis, home to the Hyatt Place Hotel. Mayor Valérie Plante supports the plan, which is the brainchild of Elizabeth-Ann Doyle, of Montreal mural organization MU.
“It better be good,” Sullivan said of the mural, breaking into more laughter. “There’s another one for (famous Quebec painter Jean-Paul) Riopelle,” she noted, referring to the mural created in October at the corner of Milton St. and Lorne St. by Quebec artist Marc Séguin. “It’s a nice challenge (to try to match it).”
Riopelle, who died in 2002, would also be turning 100 this year.
He and Sullivan were among the 16 signatories of the Refus Global, the controversial 1948 anti-religious/anti-establishment manifesto penned by Paul-Émile Borduas of dissident artist collective Les Automatistes, that was a precursor to the Quiet Revolution.
Sullivan explained the vision of Les Automatistes and the impetus behind the Refus Global to McGill students on Wednesday as she received an honorary doctorate.
“I was thinking, they have to know that we were thinking (broadly) and we created a revolution, in a way,” she said. “We talked of revolution, and I think we changed things … though at the time, the government couldn’t take it.”
Also in 1948, Sullivan performed Danse dans la neige, an improvised dance in the snow in Otterburn Park with no audience, documented by Riopelle and Maurice Perron. Part of a series devoted to the seasons, the piece would become a groundbreaking work of performance art.
“It was a good idea,” she said of Danse dans la neige. “I know that I had enjoyed it a lot.”
She branched out to sculpture, photography and film in the decades that followed — Une ligne imaginaire, a virtual exhibition by the Galerie de l’UQAM devoted to her varied output in the 1970s, is online at sullivan-uneligneimaginaire.ca through 2028 — before returning to painting, which she practised early in her career.
Sullivan still walks down the street to her studio, most days, where she is pumping out paintings for her upcoming show at the MMFA.
“In a way, it’s a defiance,” she said of her continued prolific output. “I can do it, that’s what I say to myself.”
She will fête her birthday Saturday by attending a family reunion in her honour, and on Tuesday there is an invite-only party for her at UQAM — “I think there were too many people who wanted to come,” she said — where Montreal jazz pianist François Bourassa will perform. (Sullivan asked for jazz, her favourite music.)
That may sound like a lot of celebrations, but Sullivan wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If anybody wants to take me to a party,” she said, “I’ll go.”