Vivian “Vivie” Hunter of Elmira, born: Aug.18, 1926 in Toronto, died: May 20, 2018, of age-related illness.
Vivian Hunter at a Tibetan gallery opening of the carpets she imported to support Tibetan refugees. - Submitted photo
Vivian Hunter with the Dalai Lama. - Submitted photo
Vivian Hunter give a sweater to Sir Edmund Hillary when he was visiting Orangeville in December 1985. - Submitted photo
Vivian Hunter with a couple of the Tibetan rugs she imported and sold at her Tibetan art gallery in Terra Cotta, Ont. All proceeds were sent back to Tibet to support the artists. - Submitted photo
ELMIRA — Vivie Hunter's father called her "rogue" — an apt name, as history would discover.
Born in Toronto, one of three daughters, Vivie was always unconventional. After high school, she became one of the first females to receive a commerce degree from the University of Toronto, graduating in 1948.
Vivie also decided to get a driver's licence, but her father, Herbert Martin, was not keen on his daughter behind the wheel. Dad said no, so Vivie joined the Red Cross, where learning to drive was part of her ambulance driver training.
Say "no" to Vivie and she'd find a way to turn that into "just watch me."
Vivie wanted to fly, acting on childhood dreams to either become an airline pilot or marry one. She didn't do either but instead attained a private pilot's licence. In the end, navigation wasn't really her thing, so she gave it up — but as with everything, it would be on her terms.
This determination, this strength of character and independence, was the foundation of Vivie's life of adventure and self-sacrifice, where she spent years raising money to support Tibetan refugees in India, particularly the artists.
Vivie bought the art on consignment, sold the pieces in her Tibetan art gallery in Terra Cotta, east of Georgetown, then sent every cent back to the artists.
"She became a known name to many Tibetans," said her friend, Greig Dunn. "I always had an interest in Tibetan culture and was driving by when I saw the (gallery) sign, improbably enough in Terra Cotta."
He stopped, they chatted and a friendship was forged in their mutual fascination with Tibetan culture.
"What marvellous treasures she had," he said. "She was interested in the richness of the culture, in the artifacts, the paintings, the architecture, and she liked the people."
Greig travelled to a Tibetan refugee village in India with Vivie on two occasions and found her a fascinating travel companion. She was primarily interested in the people and their culture, and didn't think money donated to Tibetan refugees should be spent on building temples, though she respected their religion. And she wasn't shy about expressing annoyance when forced to sit in on long, boring cultural ceremonies.
"She was a wonderful skeptic," Greig said. "She was a spiritual person and was acutely aware of spiritual energy."
Long before therapeutic touch as an alternative healing practice became a cornerstone in the West, Vivie was already a practitioner. There was that side of her, the side that was seeking and accepting of ancient knowledge, yet she was also deeply practical.
"She was a member of the United Church and liked it to be good and liberal, no dogma," Greig said.
Her entrepreneurial father moved the family from Toronto to Peterborough, where he ran what was the country's first corrugated cardboard plant, Martin and Hewitt.
Vivie's first job was working in the actuarial department at Confederation Life, and while travelling by bus between Toronto and Peterborough, she met her future husband, Reginald Hunter, 13 years her senior. They married in 1951 and had their son Peter, but shortly afterward Reginald abandoned his wife, a situation that would have panicked many women in the 1950s, but not Vivie.
As a single mother and wise stock market investor, she was able to support them both, buying a big house in Etobicoke where she took in two Kenyan dental students, much to the annoyance of her WASPy neighbours who feared property devaluation. Vivie wasn't about to listen to a bunch of racists, no matter how much they complained.
Peter also remembers his mother buying a snowmobile in the 1960s, long before the machines were common, just so they could explore a ravine near their house. They were pulled over on Bloor Street. Peter had been driving.
"The police officer said, 'What is that thing?'" Peter recalled. "Then he realized I was 11 years old."
Vivie explained that Peter was a better driver, so it was logical he should be in charge.
Once Peter left for university, an interesting opportunity appeared. While helping her sister house-hunt around the Georgetown area, Vivie spotted a Terra Cotta bungalow with a huge yard ripe for gardening. The idea of an art gallery in her garage, particularly a Tibetan art gallery — well, that was in the future.
Vivie's connection to Tibet came about after she read an article by author and activist George Woodcock, a friend of the Dalai Lama and founder of the Himalayan Aid Society. He was seeking sponsorships for Tibetan refugee children and Vivie responded, supporting a boy named Wangdu Phutsok Gossar in 1963.
"Wangdu became her close friend," said friend Leah Carnahan, who noted that through Vivie's financial support, Wangdu excelled in school and, when he married, Vivie was at the wedding.
She had travelled to India for the first time in 1966 and met the Dalai Lama, who in turn sent her to visit a Tibetan refugee community, now known as Tashi Jong. There she met spiritual leader Choegyal Rinpoche, considered Tibet's most accomplished artist. Vivie immediately recognized the potential of all artists in Rinpoche's community.
With help from her friend in Waterloo, Maurice Nichol, they founded a school and the Tibetan Fine Arts Group. The two had convinced the Tibetan artists to explore their culture in their art, particularly life in old Tibet, and not stick to religious iconography. It was good advice because the Western world suddenly took notice of these artists. Works brought to Canada began to sell.
Before he met Vivie, Maurice had been exhibiting Tibetan works at the Waterloo Library in the 1970s, but he was in his 80s, going blind and was soon ready to pass the work to Vivie.
Vivie opened her gallery in 1979 in her Terra Cottage garage and later told a reporter, "When I began to sell Tibetan paintings and carpets for the Tibetans exiled in India, my audience widened and several lengthy visits to the settlements in India gave me plenty to talk about."
Leah explained that her friend also developed a relationship with Rinpoche and collected his works. "The collection created by Vivian, the '60 Tibetan Pearls' exhibit, is truly a unique collection of paintings by Rinpoche," she said.
In 2006, like Maurice before her, Vivie was in her 80s and passed the collection to Leah, a British Columbia artist who lived in India for 10 years and co-founded an art school. Leah hopes to bring the collection to Waterloo Region soon, celebrating the life of the extraordinary Vivie Hunter.
Donna Buchan, executive director of Lutherwood, knew Vivie and described her as "astute, intelligent, ahead of time in terms of concerns about environmental issues."
She also spoke of Vivie's concern for children's mental health. "She cared deeply about children with serious mental-health challenges," Donna said, adding that Vivie was also a generous donor to Lutherwood's programs.
Peter said his mother was indeed generous with her money, her time and her heart.
Brianna Samson, her granddaughter, considers the impact Vivie had on her family.
"She was a constant learner," Brianna said. "She gave her entire self to everyone except Vivie.
"She was determined, self-sufficient and we're all stronger because of it."