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Wednesday February 6, 2013

Patricia Dorothy Gunn O'Brien

Curator, editor, athlete, mentor. Born Oct. 13, 1929, in Carshalton, England, died Oct. 4, 2012, in London, Ont., of respiratory complications, aged 82.

Paddy's first Canadian adventure began in 1940 when, as an 11-year-old British evacuee, she came to Toronto with her mother and younger brother Michael. Family friends provided a safe haven from bombs in London.

Paddy thrived in Canada, spending idyllic summers with her "adopted Canadian family" and leading all the kids in feats of athleticism.

After the war, Paddy returned to England. She attended Hammersmith School of Art, and spent a year painting in the south of France. There, she discovered the paintings of Paul Cézanne and the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Now a young sophisticate, she completed her fine arts degree at Reading University and was captain of its women's athletic team. Despite the offer of a place on the 1952 British Olympic track team, she followed Dick O'Brien to Canada, where he was starting a PhD at Western University.

They began married life in London, Ont., and while the marriage was short lived, Paddy's engagement with the city's visual art community was everlasting.

She was hired as a curator at London Regional Art Gallery in 1952. After beginning as an intuitive amateur, she left 38 years later as a mentor who inspired a younger generation of professionals. She curated 1,280 exhibitions during her career, and remained a source of stability through a parade of changing gallery directors. Even when transitional processes became muddled, Paddy trod the treacherous road between willful artists and conservative administrators with dignity and effectiveness.

Her empathy as a curator derived in part from her own serious practice as an artist. In retirement, she devoted more time to painting, and was inspired by the vistas of Lake Huron, which she enjoyed each summer with her friend Daphne Isard.

Paddy also began a 22-year career as an editor of contemporary art publications. Once, when a curator asked her to "massage" her essay, Paddy replied that she "would have to do violence first."

Split infinitives, misplaced modifiers and dangling participles hit the floor under her infallible scrutiny. Edited texts were returned with humour-spiked comments decorating the margins.

Paddy's creative impulses disappeared at the kitchen door. She could produce only one dish - smashed eggs - and ate it every day. Her wardrobe was equally predictable: blue jeans and a crisp shirt. Routines pleased her, books nourished her, and she looked forward to Grand Slam tennis on the "telly."

In the arts, where flamboyance and controversy abound, Paddy was hard-working, dependable and productive without fanfare. In her personal relationships she was entirely loyal and generous. Her intelligence, good humour and decency were the marks of her life.

Marnie Fleming and Thelma Rosner are friends of Paddy.

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