Helen Frances Gregor received a liberal education in her childhood home of Prague, but from an early age she excelled in visual arts. Her sights were set on studying theatrical design when the threat of war called her family’s future into question. Gregor’s family were eventually forced to flee Czechoslovakia to England, where she continued her art studies, redirecting her focus toward interior design. With a goal to study at the Royal College of Art, Gregor first completed foundation art courses at Newark Technical College and Birmingham College of Art. She had her first two exhibitions at the Czechoslovak Club, followed by a show at Liberty’s of London.
Once at the RCA School of Design, she became drawn to art forms such as bookbinding, graphics and textiles. Eventually, her fascination with the intimacy and warmth of textiles won out, though her work would continue to be influenced by her architectural inclinations, as she became aware of the capacity of tapestry to humanize the vast spaces of modern architecture.
In 1942, Gregor met and married her husband Tibor, and in 1951 emigrated to Canada with their two young children. Shortly after their arrival in Toronto, Gregor obtained a teaching position at the Ontario College of Art. Her desire to challenge the division between fine art and textiles coincided with the college's introduction of design in ceramics, textiles and metals to its curriculum.
She discovered twelve handmade looms stored in the college's attic, modernized them and set about attracting gifted students to work in textiles and explore the art form to its full potential. Gregor and her students designed and executed rugs, printed and woven fabrics and tapestries, and began experimenting with the graphic aspects of textiles. She founded and became head of the Ontario College of Arts' Textile Department.
Gregor is remembered as an influential teacher and internationally renowned artist, recognized for mastering the relationship between tapestry and the built environment. Her work has been shown twice at the Triennial of Tapestry in Lodz, Poland, and she has received numerous commissions for both public and private buildings, including the John Deutsch Centre at Queen's University, the Toronto Star Building, the stage curtain for Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre and the stage set for the National Ballet of Canada's l'Ile inconnue. Examples of her works are held by the Fondation Toms Pauli in Lausanne, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
She was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and the Ontario Society of Artists. She won Ontario Crafts Council's Mather Award in 1982, and was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1987. Her book The Fabric of my Life: Reflections of Helen Frances Gregor was published in 1987.
Established by family, friends and colleagues, this award celebrates the life of Helen Frances Gregor, an internationally renowned textile artist and teacher. It recognizes excellence in contemporary textile, and is awarded annually to provide funds for a fibre artist to pursue further study or further development of their body of work.
Images: Portrait of Helen Frances Gregor with Op-Horizon before 4th International Biennial of Tapestry. Side middle: Helen Frances Gregor, Lifescape No.3, pure wool weft and linen warp, 5' x 5', 1981. Side bottom: Helen Frances Gregor, Totem No.5, pure wool weft, linen and partial wire warp, 9' x 4'5", first shown at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1976 for solo exhitition 'Counterparts'.