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Dora de Pédery-Hunt designed the Persons Case medallion. Her image of Queen Elizabeth has appeared on all Canadian coins.

Dora de Pédery-Hunt designed the Persons Case medallion. Her image of Queen Elizabeth has appeared on all Canadian coins.

People

artist Dora de Pédery-Hunt November 16, 1913–September 29, 2008

by Frances Rooney | January 6, 2009

In 1979, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) decided to revive the memory of the Persons Case. October 18 became Persons Day. NAC commissioned a medallion to commemorate the day. And each year since then, 6 women “who have made outstanding contributions to the quality of life of women in Canada” have received a Governor General’s Award in commemoration of the victory of the Persons Case.

The internationally revered medal artist Dora de Pédery-Hunt designed the Persons Case medallion. She said of her design, “The subject of this medal is celebration! Celebration of Canadian women becoming ‘persons’, of joy and delight that at least one great step was taken.”

Dora de Pédery-Hunt died in Toronto on September 29. Born in Budapest, in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, she weighed less than a kilo (2.2 pounds) and was not expected to live. She was wrapped in a warm cloth and put into a shoebox. Her father baptized her that night, and then everyone waited. That was on November 16, 1913.

Now, her ashes are in another shoebox. But instead of a few hours, she lived almost 95 years.

This is one small story of what she did with that life.

the history of persons

On October 18, 1929, Canada recognized that women are persons.

Until then, Canadian women had been, in the words of an 1876 ruling, “persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”

In 1918, some Canadian women got the right to vote in federal elections (it was only in 1960 that women could vote regardless of race or place of origin). Women could hold some public offices.

The focus of the fight for personhood was the right to be appointed to the Senate. For more than a decade, the Famous Five (Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards, who was 78 years old in 1927) requested, appealed and fought. In April of 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that under the BNA Act, Canada’s de facto constitution until 1982, women were not persons. The Five appealed to the Privy Council in Britain, at the time the final court of appeal for Canadians. On October 18, Canadian women became persons in law.

As so often happens to women's achievements, for the next 50 years, the Persons Case was all but forgotten.

Women who had been excluded from the right to vote – those of Asian descent, Inuit, status Indians, finally gained that right by 1960. Women in Quebec were the last to achieve the right to vote in provincial elections in 1940. Women had won the right to be appointed to the Senate in 1929, but rarely until recently were there more than a handful of women in the Senate. Today, 34 of the nation’s 105 senators are women.

By the 1970s Canada the second wave women’s movement was rocking Canadian society. Feminists gained rights that may now seem obvious but that took huge effort and even now are under attack: day care, maternity leave, reproductive rights, same sex rights, equal pay for work of equal value.

story of a medal

While the art of making medallions and small metal sculptures is not in the forefront of the Canadian art world, it is an ancient art with a long history in other parts of the world, including Dora de Pédery-Hunt’s native Hungary. She called herself a metalsmith. Her work required drawing and design skills, and also the ability to both sculpt solid pieces and mould, pour and finish molten metals. This kind of work is heavy and sometimes dangerous. It is an art, a science and a highly technical process.

Sandra Martin quotes de Pédery-Hunt as having said, “Medals are my favourite form of expression ... They are like short poems.” And, “Clasp it in your fist, let your warmth enter the cold metal and then take it to the window. Watch it: The light hits some edges, hidden crevices appear, there are some mounds you had not even seen before. Feel the tension of the surface. There is life underneath. It is not a cold piece of metal any more: Trees grow here, bodies leap high, faces emerge. All of this is brought about by you and only you can arrest this magic moment or change it any time with a light flick of your fingers.”

the creation of a medal sculptor

World War One started when Dora de Pédery was almost 10 months old. By war’s end, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone, and Budapest was the capital of the separate Hungary.

At 29, she graduated from the Royal Hungarian School of Applied Art with a master of fine arts degree in sculpture and design. By that time –1943 – World War Two was entering its fourth year, and life in Hungary was growing more and more unsettled.

The next March, Germany invaded Hungary. The Germans imposed martial law and began the mass deportation of Jews. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until Russia would soon invade Hungary.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, Dora, her parents, two sisters, niece and nephew fled. It took them 23 days on foot and by train to reach Dresden. They left that city the day before the massive Allied bombings reduced it to a fireball, then spent the next four years in British-occupied Germany. From there, a friend arranged for Dora to work as an indentured servant in Toronto. The time of her indenture, two years, paid for her passage. She arrived in Canada in 1948.

Coming into the country, she said that her profession was sculptor. She figured she was in trouble when the officials asked her to spell it.

Her parents and husband joined her soon after. They moved into an apartment, and for several years she supported them all by teaching art and designing church interiors (she divorced in the early 1960s). Much of her teaching was at the Ontario College of Art, which later became OCAD, and which now gives an award in her name.

When she saw a remarkable collection of art medals at the Hungarian Pavilion at the1958 Brussels World Fair, her artistic questions were answered: this was what she would do. Sandra Martin writes that, while de Pédery-Hunt’s decision may have been an artistic one, medals “are small and so they don’t require a huge financial outlay for materials.” Martin goes on to write that Dora’s niece, Ildiko Hencz, noted that medals “can be moulded in bed, a key consideration if you are so poor that pulling the covers up in one of [the] best ways to stay warm.”

The medals quickly got attention. In 1961, Dora was commissioned to make one for the new Canada Council of the Arts. It was her first big break.

Her solo exhibition in Toronto in 1965, wrote Clara Hargittay, “established her reputation as a sensitive representational artist endowed with superb technical skills. She was instrumental in introducing the ancient art of medal sculpture to Canada.”

More commissions followed – for medals to commemorate events, organizations and people. De Pédery-Hunt grew famous in Canada. In Europe, she was even more well known, respected, even celebrated. She lectured, represented Canada in European exhibitions and as delegate to European medal festivals and organizations, and won numerous competitions. She and her medals and sculptures travelled the globe.

Think you have never seen her work? You have, you just don’t know it. Between 1990 and 2003, her image of Queen Elizabeth appeared on all Canadian coins, including the new loonie. She was the first Canadian to accomplish this.

Just as people paid little attention to the Persons Case for many years, so Dora de Pédery-Hunt has had little attention for the last several years. Now we celebrate both Persons Day and the woman who so lovingly created the original medal to commemorate it.

“When I make my sculpture or medal, I first hold the clay in my palm: It nests in it comfortably. I always hope that one day it will nest in another palm and give the same joy that it gives me to create it.”

selected medals/medallions
  • Canada Council | 1961
  • Canada Centennial Medal | 1967
  • Olympic gold coin | 1976
  • Persons Case medal | 1979
  • National Arts Centre Medal
  • Pearson Medal for United Nations Day | 1979
  • International Year of Peace for presentation to the United Nations Secretary General | 1986
  • Reach for the Top trophy
  • Premier’s Award (Ontario)
  • Bata Shoe Museum
  • Bethune Medal for presentation to Mao Zedong
  • John Drainie Award | 1968
  • George Faludy medal
  • Rudolf Nureyev medal
exhibitions

Toronto | Ottawa | Hamilton | Budapest | Krakow | Helsinki | Cologne | Bratislava | Prague | Madrid | Paris | Athens | Rome | The Hague

collections
  • National Gallery of Canada
  • Art Gallery of Ontario
  • Art Gallery of Hamilton
  • Department of External Affairs
  • Royal Cabinet of Medals, The Hague
  • Royal Cabinet of Medals, Brussels
  • Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

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