Obituary picture of Carolyn Wren
In Loving Memory of

Carolyn Wren

1961-2024

Obituary of Carolyn Wren

Carolyn was a visual artist, educator, historian, traveller, gourmand, friend and mentor. She claimed that her favourite present ever was a library card she received as a child. That library card led to a lifetime of learning and passing that learning on. She was a voracious reader, with multiple books on the go at one time. In 2017 along with a colleague she decided to read “100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian”, in one year.

As a high school art teacher for 35 years, Carolyn’s art room (with its “Kitchy Kottage”) was a safe harbour for kids whether taking her classes or not. In addition to smoothing out the normal struggles of the teen years, she was a trustworthy, warm, moral, loving, fun, intelligent, fair, dependable and generous adult to turn to for decades of kids who needed real help; a young man coming out of the closet to himself but not everyone else; a young woman devastated by sexual assault; a child of an abusive parent and foster parent; someone succumbing to addiction. The full list is long and known only to her. The “Kottage” was not only a refuge for students, other teachers and principals would come for coffee or lunch and crosswords (or simply to hide).

Often compared to Ms. Frizzle, her zany antics and not occasional dressing up was disarming and introduced the concept that you don’t need to fit in. She taught kids how to find out who they really were and express that to the world through her tripartite of open minded conceptual thinking, beauty, grammatical excellence and actual hard work. Her university level art history classes, gifted art appreciation to 2 generations of St. Catharines non-artists, enriching their careers in things like ophthalmology, architecture, electrical engineering etc. She inspired and mentored many of the next generation of Niagara art educators and practicing artists. Carolyn could have a room full of teenagers howling with laughter as she stood on a chair, cup of tea in hand, or at the edge of tears as she spoke to the mysteries of life and death. Her teaching went beyond the classroom, running an environmental club (before this was a thing), a social justice club that became a model for the school board and the Dead Artists Society. All of these taught young humans that they could change their world for the better with their bare hands, open hearts and sharp minds. Carolyn felt we have a responsibility to actively look for joy in our daily lives. She took this joy and transmogrified it into love and art which she distributed liberally, humourously and mindfully to those around her – students, colleagues, friends, family, bank tellers, chemo nurses and random strangers who were fortunate enough to pass through the magnetic field of her life.

The Niagara Artists Centre attracted Carolyn's energies in the 1990s. In the determined fashion that typified anything she devoted herself to, she helped navigate the organization through lean times as both the Artist-run Centre’s Secretary and President while governments withdrew support for the arts. To fill the gaps, NAC took on running charity bingos. As anyone who has served this penance in support of a charity back then can attest, the air was blue with cigarette smoke. Carolyn would lead a small team of volunteers through the smog with a stream of wit and engaging conversation about art and ideas. Who cared if it was Saturday night, who cared if you were stuck in an addict’s purgatory until midnight? Beyond keeping the place afloat, Carolyn also helped guide NAC artistically: she brought her strong feminist sensibilities to bear, curating shows by women artists and bringing leading women artists from beyond Niagara to show here. She was a frequent exhibitor in NAC’s gallery spaces contributing to many group exhibitions and bringing the stunning exhibition War Map Dress Trinity to the haunted second floor of 2 Bond Street during NAC’s tenure there.

Next she lent her energies to the CRAM Gallery, a loose organization supported by many NAC members. Proudly calling itself ‘The World's Smallest Art Gallery’ – it was, in truth, a second floor storage room – this experiment lasted a decade and surprised even those nearest to the cultural heart of Niagara at how strong its beat was.

First and foremost Carolyn was a visual artist creating sublime works in a multitude of media. Her art practice spanned four decades and was interwoven with her life. Through her early work, she explored the relationship between identity and place, using relief print methods and processes in non-traditional ways. She hand-carved and hand-printed her linoleum and woodblock prints. Her preferred burnishing tool was an antique doorknob, and from carving the text of maps, one of her frequent subjects, she was highly skilled at writing backwards.

Carolyn’s first work conflating landscapes and the human body was War Map Dress Trilogy (2003-04), a series of three dupion silk dresses imprinted with maps of Europe, inspired by the dresses women made post-WWII with silk maps used by the Royal British Air Force. This work was so widely exhibited and adored that Carolyn called it “my Starry Night, my ‘Hallelujah’”. Like her other works taking the form of garments or using pattern pieces, Carolyn made the dresses to fit her body. “Who I am is where I am”, she often said, and her work later focused on the Niagara landscape. In the linoleum print series Territories (2008), she overlaid images of the body adapted from Grey’s Anatomy with maps of Niagara: a spine is the Niagara Escarpment, a set of teeth are the locks of the Welland Canal. In Dwell, created for the 2009 Biennale internationale du lin de Portneuf, a linocut print of Niagara Falls cascades down Carolyn’s dining room table on an oversized linen tablecloth that pools onto the floor into a map of the region.

In 2012, Carolyn began her practice of transcribing iconic texts, exploring themes of lost knowledge and metanarratives. For The Bible Project (2012-14), she transcribed H.W. Janson’s History of Art between the lines of text in an oversized three-volume early nineteenth century Bible; she described these as the two great narratives that most significantly shaped her life. She transcribed Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey across 60 pieces of vellum, each approximately 10 feet long; followed by Virginia Woolf’s iconic feminist essay A Room of One’s Own; Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way; Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death”; and other literary works that became monumental installations through her hand. In a parallel series of smaller drawings titled Lost Knowledge (2016-2024), she transcribed books from personal libraries, repeatedly layering lines of cursive until the text became a dense, illegible, inky scramble—a meditation on the way embodied memories endure even as their details recede.

For Days Without Him (2014-2024), Carolyn stamped a number counting each day of her life following the death of her life partner, artist Tobey C. Anderson, creating a quiet record of her existence without him, in a set of ten small, leather-bound books. In preparation for her 2018 retrospective exhibit, Task at Hand, Carolyn embarked on a new project transcribing the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own. Handwritten in cursive on sixty-four 3’ x 5’ panels, the text of over 40,000 words was lovingly embroidered by a group of eighty-six women and three men.

Woolf’s essay, an exploration of a society based on male privilege and female exclusion, was an analysis of the creative freedom of women. She suggested that to be creative, a woman needed a room of her own. Carolyn invited us into her room, her beautiful studio. Many of us were strangers to each other, a demonstration of just how far Carolyn’s reach was. We shared stories, we talked about the personal and the political, and we laughed, boy did we laugh. In Carolyn’s words, “It has always taken a community to make this world happen, and this community of women has come together in my studio…to weave their threads through the tapestry of Woolf’s work. For those of us who were fortunate enough to embroider a word, a line, a panel, it was an unforgettable experience. Carolyn brought us together to celebrate the rebellious act of being creative, to acknowledge the past and to keep pushing forward.

Over 250 people attended the opening reception for Task at Hand, Carolyn’s 2019 exhibition at Rodman Hall Art Centre. The exhibition title captured the discipline, attention, and labour of her approach to artmaking, and referenced her presence, through the marks of her hand, throughout her work. In conversation about her practice on that occasion, Carolyn told us: “It’s about the work. I love the work. That’s what my work is about—the work.”

The last artwork to be exhibited in Carolyn's lifetime was the Pin Drop, finding a home in a storefront in downtown St. Catharines. NAC was honoured to have had the opportunity to help realize Carolyn's “dying wish”, an act of gratitude for all that she'd done for the artists of Niagara. Exhibited for the month of January, this installation of a custom-engineered machine, fabricated to drop straight pins singly hour-after-hour, drew hundreds of visitors. Carolyn took comfort in the sound of it running and the beauty of the growing mound of stainless pins as she watched it online and came to the space as often as she was able. For those who knew her, it was clear she was determined to see the conclusion of this time-based exhibit. She accomplished this, outlasting it by a couple of days and visiting it less than a week before dying. On that last trip to Pin Drop Carolyn expressed her pride that Niagara artists had supported one another, and once again, done something extraordinary together.

Carolyn had the ability to bring people together, whether that is a book club or the embroidery project. She was a great, trusted friend who was always positive and buoyant, and her generosity was unmatched. A captivating storyteller, a true raconteuse, she amused with her experiences and anecdotes. Carolyn appreciated beauty, actively sought out joy and perhaps most importantly tried to be a kinder, gentler person.

During her three-day stay at Hospice Niagara, she became alert after a long period of restless semi consciousness with a clear pronouncement of “I hate Peppermint Patty!” While at first this seemed to be fairly random, we were reminded that Peppermint Patty had a somewhat abusive relationship towards Marcie. Truthfully, Peppermint Patty is a bit of a bully, something that Carolyn could not tolerate and used her courage and skill to actively quash.

Carolyn Wren had a powerful presence that drew people to her. She exuded a zest for life, a deep love of humanity, a devotion to the earth, and a passion for the wonder of art making. Carolyn’s central credo calls out to us all, in her own words: “It doesn’t matter if you get an A++ in school, if you are good and kind then you will do something important. You will go somewhere”. As we collectively grieve the loss of Carolyn Wren in this physical realm, we know her legacy lives on all around us. In her final battle Carolyn left us a lesson for us all.

Never give up, maintain a zest for life and love and care for one another.

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Tami Starostic Whittington
1 month ago

My heart is heavy with Carolyn’s passing. I met her in kindergarten at Burleigh Hill and we became best friends. As life happens we were not in touch as much after she went to Western and I out to Alberta. But when we did connect over the years we had visits with cups of tea and lots of laughs over our crazy shenanigan’s. I don’t know how our mothers put up with us. We were a crazy couple of kids. I still laugh when I go through the intersection by Canadian Tire. There used to be a dip in the road, we would drive down Burleigh Hill from my house to yours and we would go over the bump and shout HEEBA in that red Firenza car your dad bought. Shouting HEEBA never got tired. I am so blessed to have had Carolyn in my life. I only wish it was for longer! She left us too early. Thank you Carolyn for being my friend. I love you and I will miss you. Until we meet again! Tami.

Mary (& Paul) Martin
1 month ago

Paul & I are so sad to hear of Carolyn’s passing. The world has lost a very special person but she will live on through her amazing art work and through the place she holds in so many people’s hearts. I feel lucky to have met Carolyn while working at SWC… our chats & her jokes helped me get through many stressful days. I was honoured and enjoyed being Izabella’s second mom when Carolyn needed a dog sitter. We enjoyed the times we spent with Carolyn & Toby. and seeing her art displays. Goodbye and rest in peace. Mary Ellen

Brian Cretney
1 month ago

Wow. I was surprised to see this. It was in Ms Wren’s class that I discovered a love for art history. I remember those tests! She made my high school years memorable.

Kay Holly
2 months ago

It is so heartening to come back here and read these wonderful tributes to “Wren.” Carolyn and I became fast friends at Teacher’s College, and I know I would not have gotten through it without her. We were always able to pick up our relationship where it left off, regardless of the span of time that had elapsed between seeing each other. I am so happy to have been able to reconnect with her more regularly over the past 10 years or so. Carolyn was truly an exceptional friend, woman, and talent. I know I will miss her forever, and I send my heartfelt condolences to her family.

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Last edited 2 months ago by Kay Holly
Trish Crawford
2 months ago

I was fortunate to meet Carolyn through my sister-in-law, Debbie. I also would run into her from time to time in our shared neighbourhood – we shared a love of dogs and gardens and would always chat awhile about both. Carolyn was always upbeat, friendly, kind and interested in what I was up to and how my family was doing. I admired her artwork, her creativity and her imaginative and powerful ideas. I know she was a wonderful friend to my sister-in-law and a fantastic teacher to all the students at SWC. I will miss seeing her smiling face. I wish her partner and family peace and solace in the memories of happy times.

Sincerely,
Trish Crawford

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Sarah Lewis
2 months ago

Wren is a big part of the person I am today. I feel her spirit keeps me forever curious and seeking creativity in art, in life. I still remember her voice as she would encourage me to “wiggle my bum” when I would come to her asking how to do better, or how to improve my grade in art. I sensed then, and know very well now what she really meant by that goofy statement, typical of her humour. She was a very serious feminist, and I remember, still to this day, learning about feminist performance art in her Grade 10 art class. She challenged us to expand our young minds to see beyond existing norms and dream bigger as a community and for society at large. She truly believed that art could change the world. I would argue that it does as it connects us and allows us to share ourselves with each other and the world.

Wren is also very much the reason I became a teacher. I remember sitting in the resource centre at U of T pondering my future as a lost art student; a fresh mind, wanting to make my mark. I knew helping people was important to me, but didn’t know how. I was still unsure of myself and shy. I read a career searching book that suggested you think of a person you admire and follow that path. It was Wren 100%. My purpose as a teacher is fueled by this connection I seek to offer to my students, as she offered to me and so many others. I too show them artworks beyond their scope or their mental capacity and challenge them to critically think of the world as she did for us. Art has the capacity to change minds, hearts, the world. Those early exposures may not register until much later, but they can plant the seed for future growth and offer light and hope in periods of darkness. We need more of this in the world.

As many have said, Wren brought light and was always seeking joy in the everyday. I will honor her by continuing to carry the torch by bringing light to others, and will continue to find joy in the everyday, as she taught me to do some decades ago.

Emma
2 months ago

Ms.Wren was the only reason I was able to graduate on time at SWC. Her constant support while I was going through a rough time made things a lot better because at least I knew at school I was safe and had her to talk to, and that her class would be a fun little escape. I’ll miss you.

Sean Condon, Toronto
2 months ago

Carolyn always showed me a generosity of grace, humour, patience and support, both in my nervous reporting days in St. Catharines, and again when I was tentatively re-engaging with the world after a long time in the wilderness. She gifted me one of her Butterick Lino prints, which has been hanging framed over my bed for many years now.

I cannot thank her enough. Sending love and warmth to all her family and friends. I know a lot of us were touched and encouraged by her, and her kindness will stay with me.

Michael Simpson
2 months ago

Her cottage @ SWC was a refuge, a springboard and an amusement park.Whatever drew anyone of us to her, no one ever left without feeling better for the time well spent.

Patrick and Kathy Beyer
2 months ago

We want to send our sincere condolences to the family of Carolyn Wren. We have so enjoyed, appreciated and loved getting to know her over the years. She was a special jewel and inspiration to all those whose paths she crossed. We will miss her greatly.

Gloria Belton
2 months ago

Carolyn will always be with us . . . her love can never be anywhere but near. No matter where I lived she came to share in the new chapter of my life. . . and we would find something good to see and celebrate! Carolyn is receiving all the blessings that come from Love and I am so grateful to say that we are one in that spirit of Love . . . always rejoicing! She is shining with the glory of a sunrise now and smiling about the goodness that awaits her. “I have loved thee. . . with an everlasting love . . . therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” ( Jeremiah 31 : 3 )

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Liz
2 months ago

What a gift (thank you Donna) to get to know Carolyn Wren and to tend to her beloved garden. I only wish I had met her many many years ago.

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Jordan C
2 months ago

“A LITTLE HELP!” … lol Mrs Wren you were such a kind caring person who was so helpful and non judgmental to me in high school. Even though I was a pain I always wanted to make you laugh when I saw you I guess it was my way of letting you know I cared and appreciated all of your help… I am really sorry to hear of this news, I know you were of great inspiration to many people. Thank you for showing me how to treat others no matter of what their background or peoples preconceived judgments of them is. Much love and respect.

Meagan Wright
2 months ago

Ms Wren (even as an adult, I don’t know that I could bring myself to call her Carolyn) was one of the brightest spots and safest spaces in high school. Her Kottage was a cozy refuge, and her support and enthusiasm for my often only passable artistic attempts kept me coming back to her class year after year. I still vividly remember learning art history from her, and recognize pieces to this day, hearing her voice in my head as I appreciate them all over again. There are very few teachers who have that kind of impact on a student 20+ years later, which speaks to just how special and passionate she was.

The world is a poorer place for her not being in it any longer, but she has left an indelible mark through the hundreds of students who were lucky enough to learn from her, and through everyone else who was lucky enough to cross paths with her over the years.

Last edited 2 months ago by Meagan Wright
Hilary Keyes
2 months ago

What a fitting obituary for such an incredible person. Wren was there for me when I had no one else, and made a lot of the hardest moments in my life bearable, and, in retrospect, less painful than they otherwise might have been. To me, her legacy is one of compassion and creativity. I’ll always be grateful for what she gave me just by knowing her, and I’ll always strive to keep a piece of her art alive in my own.

Jane Burbage
2 months ago

Carolyn was unique, gifted beyond measure, and always giving, right to the end. I learned so much from her, most importantly, unconditional love. She and her later-in-life partner Bruce were neighbours, and dear friends. To her family, especially her sisters, I can only imagine the grief you must feel, and in equal measure, gratitude to have had such a remarkable human being as your sister. May we all take the gifts Carolyn joyfully gave, and be better people because of them.

Stefanie
2 months ago

Ms. Wren was more than my visual arts teacher, she was someone who inspired me to live life in my own way and to be my own person. She helped me find my way and for that I am forever grateful.

Ms. Wren truly was one of a kind and I think about her often, even after over 20 years. She may be gone, but she will never be forgotten.

Lisa Smith
2 months ago

Carolyn was a wonderful and generous person, and demonstrated tremendous intellectual, emotional and physical strength. I always felt welcomed and inspired by her creativity, attitude and zest for life. I also want to thank her partner Bruce, with whom she shared a wonderful second love story. They enjoyed many years together sharing their love of music, travel, good food and nature, and he was a source of great strength and tender caregiving for her.

Cassie Catena
2 months ago

My time spent learning under and being inspired by Carolyn will forever be a moment of growth and character building that will continue throughout my life and never be forgotten.
Her kindness and comforting nature (not to mention her Kottage) made her one of the easiest people I’ve ever been able to open up to and her genuine caring for others made her unmatched in this world.
She encouraged every pathway and inspired my decision to attend OCAD after Sir Winston.
Carolyn has a way of staying with you for the entirety of your life. I will continue to love her and take inspiration from her daily.
She gave light to everyone and everything around her. The world is now and will continue to be a different place without Carolyn in it. All my love…she will be greatly missed.

Millie Chen
2 months ago

Carolyn shone with awe and curiosity about the universe and our smallest gestures as human beings. She glowed. Her glow remains with us through her wonderful creations.

Cody
2 months ago

Hi there!

I have never met any of Ms Wren’s family so I am not sure who this is going to, but I just want to say how sorry I am for your loss. She was an INCREDIBLE person. This Obituary was so touching and brought back many fond memories.

I am on the other side of the country and was unable to come pay my respects in person, so I just want to say here that I am one of the many people who was greatly impacted by the teaching of Ms.Wren. She completely altered the trajectory of my life. I took her art class by chance in grade 10, and for a project made a painting. She told me that it was good, gave me a key to the art room, and encouraged me to come in after school and paint. She would critique my work the next day and tell me where and how I could improve. Eventually she gave me a dozen wood panels to paint, and curated a show of my work around the school. I used that work as a portfolio to get into University, where I went on to receive a BFA, and I recently finished my MFA. I would have NEVER pursued art (let alone considered it) if Ms.Wren had not sparked something inside of that young very raw version of me. She had incredible selfless generosity.

I loved her and am forever in debt to her for the purpose she gave my life. I hope the void in your life from her loss can one day heal and you can experience the joy that she put out there in the world again; which I am positive will still be floating around.

Take care,
Cody Smith

Kay Holly
2 months ago

Such a beautiful tribute to an amazing person. I will miss her to the end of my days. Her students were so incredibly lucky to have known her.

Darlene Mooney
2 months ago

A lovely obituary that sums up who Carolyn was. She was a great friend and I join with you in mourning the loss of someone so special..

Bob Herman
2 months ago

So well written what a beautiful way to commemorate the life of someone so special

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