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Iceland, icons and equality

Massey fellows share their stories, both serious and amusing

Artist Charles Pachter, a U of T alumnus and a Massey senior fellow, displays one of his paintings featuring the royal family, an iconic symbol that is an obsession of his. (Photo by Elaine Smith)

There they sat in the Upper Library at Massey College: a journalist, an artist and an academic, preparing to discuss women’s rights, iconic images and the stark beauty of Iceland.

The commonality among journalist Rosemary Speirs, artist Charles Pachter and academic Andy Orchard wasn’t obvious to the casual observer, but it was their ties to the college that brought the trio together Jan. 12 for an evening of storytelling.

In 2010, University of Toronto PhD students Tina Park, Robert Fraser and Julie Wilson, junior fellows at the college, realized that Massey members comprised some of Canada’s finest minds and greatest talents. They were determined to create more opportunities for the junior fellows to interact with these outstanding senior fellows and Quadranglers (benefactors) and a monthly discussion series was born.  

During the past two years, a number of well-known names from both inside and outside the university have taken time to participate, President David Naylor, journalists Sally Armstrong, Michael Valpy and Mark Starowicz, Senator Lois Wilson and Nobel Laureate John Polanyi among them.

The series, said Park, “is intended to provide a personal glimpse into their lives and experiences, and the Jan. 12 edition certainly live up to its billing. Speirs, Pachter and Orchard spoke eloquently – and often humorously -- about their lives and passions.

“I’m a feminist activist,” Speirs, an alumna, told the audience crowding the library. “What does a senior citizen have to offer a generation that thinks the gender wars are over?  … I’m still here because the problem is still here.”

Today, as a founder of Equal Voice, she works towards encouraging women to become active in politics so that one day, women will comprise 50 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons.

“It does matter,” she said. “The brilliance and talents of half the population are not being used as effectively as they could be. Aspiring women find they aren’t wanted in politics, and it hurts other women to hear the called ‘whore’ or ‘baby’ in Parliament.”

Despite the slow pace of change, she is optimistic.

“I still hope to see an equal number of men and women govern the country in my lifetime.”

Toronto artist Charles Pachter, an alumnus, humorously recounted tales of growing up and in a Toronto immigrant family and of the challenges he’d faced in pursuing an art career.

“My immigrant grandmother called me Charl, because she thought Charles was plural,” he said.

A clever marketer whose art pokes gentle fun at Canadian icons such as the moose and the royal family, Pachter came up with a scheme to garner attention for his work.

“I made up a critic who loved my work and called him Don Rouge Humber (the three rivers that flow through Toronto),” he said.

He ran ads in the papers quoting the critic and people took notice. His paintings now hang in such diverse places as the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and in the Parliament Building in Ottawa.

“My pictures are done with mischief and affection,” he said.

Professor Andy Orchard, the provost of Trinity College, is the former director of U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies. A graduate of Cambridge, he has a passion for all things Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, a passion that led him to Iceland during his university days. Today, the country and its landscape continue to hold a special place in his heart.

“I taught myself Icelandic and at 18, I walked around the whole of Iceland,” he said.

Showing photos of the magnificent and varied landscape, he shared the excitement of “walking the old packhorse trails, the same places I was reading about,” and his listeners soaked in the legends he recounted.

By the end of the evening, the audience was pleasantly drunk on stories and ready for tea. Undoubtedly, the attendees would agree that the evening had fulfilled the organizers’ mission: to create a forum for intellectual and personal conversation in a casual and collegial atmosphere.

Park hopes that the future of the series will include opening it up to the wider U of T community so they, too, can be moved by these talks given from the heart.