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In memoriam: Tom Gibson (1930 – 2021), photographer and studio arts professor

Much-loved artist and teacher was instrumental in founding the MFA and photography programs at Concordia
June 14, 2021
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By Andy Murdoch

Photo of Tom Gibson by Geoffrey James Photo of Tom Gibson by Geoffrey James

The Concordia community mourns the loss of Tom Gibson, a well-respected Canadian photographer, beloved teacher, colleague, and founder of the photography program in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia. Tom passed away on June 1 in his Montreal home at the age of 90.

Tom was born in Edinburgh and spent his teenage years in the Scottish Merchant Navy, travelling extensively throughout the Middle East and Africa before moving to Canada, where he spent most of his adult life. He moved to Montreal in the mid-1970s.

Tom began his artistic practice as a painter in Toronto, but by the mid-1960s he had moved to photography. He is best known for his black and white photographic depictions of street scenes and exhibited his work extensively across Canada and in the United States.

His work is in numerous collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House (Rochester, New York). In 1993, he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition and catalogue, entitled Tom Gibson: False Evidence Appearing Real, organized by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP) and shown in Montreal at the Saydie Bronfman Centre.

“Tom Gibson was a great photographer, ahead of his time in relation to the dynamics of modern life, or the social landscape, with which he was often associated. The intensity of the work, an observational style of street photography that is no longer practiced on our streets, is unforgettable,” says Professor Martha Langford, curator of the CMCP exhibition.

“His last group exhibition in Montreal, organized for the McClure Gallery by Robert Graham, was a reminder of his importance as an artist and influence as an educator.”

'Working with Tom, I experienced his gentleness, his collegiality, his sure guidance'

A photo by Gabor Szilasi of Tom and Katherine Tweedy greeting each other at Tom’s exhibition at Galerie Yajima in 1980. In the background is Helena Lawrynowicz, Tom’s partner for more than 40 years. A photo by Gabor Szilasi of Tom and Katherine Tweedy greeting each other at Tom’s exhibition at Galerie Yajima in 1980. In the background is Helena Lawrynowicz, Tom’s partner for more than 40 years.

Gibson was an influential professor of photography at Concordia from 1976 until his retirement in 1996. In mid-seventies, Tom created the first MFA program in the Faculty of Fine Arts – the first program of its kind in Canada at the time.

Before Tom, Christian Knudsen and Suzanne Swibold taught first photo classes at Concordia in the early 1970’s and had set up a darkroom on the 5th floor of the Hall building.

In 1982-83, the Faculty of Fine Arts officially launched the undergraduate degree program in photography, thanks to the efforts by Tom and fellow faculty and staff Gabor Szilasi, Katherine Tweedie, and Tim Clark.

“Tom’s vision about what a photo program could become was gently held and he, Gabor Szilasi who joined our group and I worked tirelessly to create the undergraduate Major in Photography,” says former colleague, Katherine Tweedie who started working with him in 1978.

“An impressive array of artists joined the Photo faculty since then. I would like to note that our program has always been supported by part-time faculty and technicians who themselves are teachers. Recognition of their expertise was part of our and Tom’s guide book.”

“What I experienced working with Tom was his gentleness, his voice never raised, his collegiality, his low- key authority, his sure guidance. Who can ask for more,” says Tweedie.

'I always felt his goodwill and support'

Group photo by Chris Langtvet c 1994 taken during annual evaluation of student work. From left to right: Gabor Szilasi, Kathie Tweedie, Clara Gutsche, Don Corman, Tom, Mark Ruwedel, Penny Cousineau-Levine, Raymonde, Chris Knudsen, Tim Clark, Cyndra MacDowall, David Duchow. Group photo by Chris Langtvet c. 1994 taken during annual evaluation of student work. From left to right: Gabor Szilasi, Kathie Tweedie, Clara Gutsche, Don Corman, Tom, Mark Ruwedel, Penny Cousineau-Levine, Raymonde, Chris Knudsen, Tim Clark, Cyndra MacDowall, David Duchow.

Tom reputation as an educator at Concordia will be remembered by many former students who he supervised, taught, and mentored, says Langford.

“As founder of the photography program at Concordia, Tom built something from the ground up and it made him justifiably proud. I once sat with Tom as he turned the pages of a Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography catalogue – an exhibition from the collection. As he looked at the book, he kept saying: that person studied in the program, and this one, and that one. Tom was not one to brag or indeed, to effuse over the accomplishments of his students, and some may not know to this day how strongly he felt about their work.”

Raymonde April, emerita professor of photography, joined the Department of Studio Arts as a part-time teacher in 1986 and fondly remembers working with him.

“I wasn’t as close to him as some of the original gang, but he welcomed me with a big smile, gently joking about my terrible English, and I always felt his goodwill and support.”

“When Gabor and Tom left, and Penny Cousineau, Evergon, Geneviève Cadieux and I arrived, the face of the program changed, but without Tom’s generous intuition, his gracious spirit of togetherness, and the openness of his artistic vision, this formidable creative space for research-creation could have never existed in the way it does today.”

Tom Gibson is survived by Helena Lawrynowicz, his companion and wife of 40 years; his first wife Lily of 25 years and their children Gabhan (Gillian), Siubhan (Chris) and Niall; and grandchildren Sorcha (Lucas), Celeste (Julieta), Rafe (Reece) and Kiyoshi; and his loving family in Scotland. His first son Iain, died in 1980.

Please consider a donation in Tom’s name to Earthroots (www.Earthroots.org), a conservation organization close to Tom’s heart.

Learn more about how Concordia offers support in times of need.



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