Byllee Lang was an established sculptor when she came to Bermuda for a six months’ vacation in 1945. She fell in love with the island and made it her home in 1946. For the next 20 years, until her sudden death of a heart attack, she was an integral part of the arts scene. Bermuda was a deeply segregated society at the time, but she did not allow racial barriers to impinge on her world.
Her studio was a gathering place for people from all parts of the island. She taught and inspired a generation of artists, black and white, wealthy, working class and in-between. Generous with her time and talents, she waived fees for promising students who couldn’t afford to pay.
Lang was born near Didsbury, Alberta, Canada, the daughter of a rancher. Her growing-up years were typical of life on a ranch. She could handle a rifle and ride a horse with ease.
She discovered her passion for sculpture at the Winnipeg School of Art, where she was a student from 1926 to 1930. But the sculpture curriculum was limited so she moved east to Toronto, where she studied under Canadian-born sculptor Emanuel Hahn (1881-1957) at the Ontario College of Art.
Moves to Europe
Money she earned making sculptures of pet dogs of Toronto society women got her to Europe. It would be her base for several years. She studied in Munich for two years and visited the great cities of Europe. She was living in Berlin after Hitler came to power and witnessed acts of anti-Semitism, which deeply disturbed her. A Jewish actress who sat for her was so fearful of being attacked by Nazis she left Germany.
She met Alphonso de Marin of Barcelona in Paris. They were married in Palma, Majorca, where they set up home. In 1935, as the Spanish Civil War threatened, Lang returned to Canada and de Marin joined the Spanish Red Cross. She never heard from him or his family again. It was something, she later said, that was typical of the war years when many families disappeared.
In Canada, she established the deMarin School of Sculpture in Winnipeg in 1936, teaching adults and children. In 1940, she joined the faculty of the Winnipeg School of Art, where she taught sculpture for three years. Her commissions included sculptures of prominent Canadians. She later worked for the National Film Board in Ottawa.
Her celebrated sculpture, a bas-relief entitled Coal Miners, led to a job with Canadian National Railways in Montreal. Her work was twice selected to represent the Commonwealth abroad.
She came to Bermuda from New York, where she lived for a period and where she made a bust of influential African-American playwright Owen Dodson (1914-1983).
In Bermuda, she befriended the Cooper brothers, arts patrons Sir Gilbert and Arthur. They rented her studio space on the second floor of their department store A.S. Cooper’s and later hired her to be a window dresser.
She created prize-winning window displays for the two Cooper stores in Hamilton and spectacular floats for the annual Floral Pageant. In 1954, A.S. Cooper’s float 'Surf Riding', which was decorated with 16,000 Easter lilies, won the top prize.
In 1948, she began teaching sculpture and clay modelling to children at the Bermuda Art Association’s new art school. Students Eddie Lima and Vivienne Gilmore Gardner became her assistants at A.S. Cooper’s.
When she left A.S. Cooper’s, she opened a studio in the Windsor Hotel, on Queen Street. She later moved to Trinity Hall on Cedar Avenue. Her last studio was on Washington Lane. She taught at all three locations, always in integrated settings, even though schools elsewhere in Bermuda were segregated. Potter Carlos Dowling, who worked as her assistant in the last years of her life in exchange for sculpture lessons, said: “She truly did not see colour.”
Her life was a whirlwind of artistic activity. She was a member of the Bermuda Society of Arts. She worked on Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society theatre productions. Dance costumes she designed (with John Kaufmann) and created for the 1959 production of My Heart Stays Here were among her more spectacular creations.
Her best-known sculptures from her Bermuda years include busts of Davy Douglas, a well-known carriage driver, which was exhibited in Toronto in 1952, Esso Steel Band leader Rudy Commissiong, and a dolphin for the pool at Horizons.
In 1958, she received her biggest commissionthe Anglican Cathedral reredos, comprising an altar screen and statutes of Christ and 14 saints. It would be her triumph and her tragedy. The first completed figurethe 1,000-pound statue of Christwas installed and dedicated amid great fanfare in July 1962.
The next seven, 200 to 250 pound statues of the Virgin Mary and saints Anne, Andrew, Brendan, John, Luke and Paul, were in place by Christmas the same year. By then, the project had become bogged down by delays, cost overruns and controversy over Lang’s use of locals as models for the statues.
Things became so stressful she took a sabbatical in Mexico. While there she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. When she returned to Bermuda, she resumed work on the project, which by then had run out of money. The initial £10,000 that had been raised for the reredos was used up.
The remaining statues were paid for by individual donors. In December 1966, with two more statues completed, and plans to start on another, she was admitted to hospital for gall bladder surgery and died two days later. Cause of death was a heart attack. Had Lang been living today, in the era of preventive medicine, doctors would have read her the riot act. She was short and walked with a dancer’s grace, but she was carrying too much weight for her height. She was a heavy smoker as well as a drinker.
Her sudden death, which occurred on the eve of her 58th birthday, was a shock to everyone. Her friends were preparing to celebrate her birthday in hospital and had to shift gears to organise her funeral. Friends packed the Anglican Cathedral to say their goodbyes. She is buried at St. John’s Church in Pembroke. Canadian Tom Bowie was commissioned to complete the five remaining statues, but critics agree the quality of his sculptures does not match Lang’s.
Friends established a Byllee Lang Memorial Scholarship after her death. It was awarded in 1968 and 1969 and then went out of existence. Michael Hutley, Emma Ingham-Dounouk and Alan McDonald received scholarships and Carlos Dowling received a grant to study pottery in the UK.
Lang’s death left a deep void in the arts community. She had brought so many creative people together and given so generously of her talents.
Her legacy are her sculptures of Christ and the saints at the Anglican Cathedral and the many Bermudian artists, among them Shirley Pearman, Elizabeth Ann Trott, Carlos Dowling, Vivienne Gardner, Joyce Joell-Hayden, Emma Ingham-Dounouk and her literary executor, Andrew Trimingham, who are still working today. Lang remains a source of inspiration to them more than 40 years after her death.