Small firm’s art collection reflects founder’s life and work

In 1975, with a background in applied chemistry and a law degree from the University of Toronto, art didn’t feature highly in the life of newly called lawyer E.M. (Yeti) Agnew.

That would all change as she took her first steps into practice.  
“I’d spent a year in Europe wandering around looking at art and architecture, and there was something that attracted me,” Agnew says.

Then she began working with Aaron Milrad, a lawyer with a keen interest in art and a bank of artist clients. Finally, while dealing with the estate of renowned abstract painter Jack Bush, she married an artist.

More than three decades later, Agnew’s Carlton Street office in downtown Toronto bears testament to the passion she has developed for art over the years.

The first thing to greet visitors is a ceramic sculpture, “Frog Advocate” by David Gilhooly. It depicts a frog in full barrister’s dress holding its lapels as if bracing for an epic courtroom speech. Agnew, in fact, posed as the model for the sculpture.  

“There are some lawyers who walk in and can’t look at the piece,” she says. “They don’t know what to do with it. And others have a really good reaction and laugh. I like to think there’s a little fun in the practice of law.”

The walls of the Victorian heritage building where Agnew’s small practice, Yeti Law, operates from are festooned with pieces that tell the story of her personal and professional life since those early days.

An early Bush piece shares space with one by her husband. His work, “Yeti’s Blues,” weaves the blue pages from the Court of Appeal decisions in Agnew’s old Ontario Reports publications into a textured lattice design.

A Tom Wesselmann print takes a prime spot in Agnew’s personal office. She picked it up after helping the American pop artist’s lawyer with a problem in Canada. Wesselmann was so impressed with Agnew’s efforts that he sent her the print by mail to express his appreciation.

One artist who features heavily is Toronto’s Paul Fournier. As Agnew lived above his Queen Street West studio during her early years in practice, the personal connection is evident with several of his pieces adorning the walls around the office.  

Despite the overlap between the personal and professional links to her collection, Agnew draws one clear line in the sand. “I don’t trade art for legal services because then you might have to tell someone that you don’t care for their art,” she says.

“Some artists are very good; they’re just not your personal choice, and I don’t want to offend anybody.”

Instead, she buys new pieces when she feels like it. Unlike some larger firms, she has no theme or mandate to consider. “It’s a personal collection, not a corporate collection,” she says. “It’s when you fall in love. You have no control over that.”

Most of the works on display have at one time graced the walls of Agnew’s home, where she has an even more extensive collection. “I’m lucky I don’t have to humour anyone,” she says.

But she will accommodate requests from staff who have strong feelings about particular works.
Receptionist Genessa Radke, for example, sought out several favourites during a redecoration shortly after she joined the firm in February.

One of them, by Noel Harding for a series on a European transit system, shows a mime artist lying horizontally in front of a subway car while a woman stares out the window.

“I love this one,” says Radke. “It’s really nice working in a place where there’s an appreciation for art.”

For her part, Agnew says she was happy to return the Harding piece to a prominent position after putting it away for a period of time.

“The person who worked here before Genessa couldn’t stand it,” she says. “I’ve had that piece for probably close to 20 years and I still see new things, things that I hadn’t noticed before.”

In fact, Agnew redoes her collection regularly to keep it fresh and continually reassess her relationship with each piece. “If you change the art, you change the office,” she says. “It’s really cheap redecorating because you can change the environment completely by changing the artwork.”

Downstairs in the boardroom, two paintings propped up against the wall failed to make the grade this time. “When the art isn’t feeding me anymore, that’s usually when it’s time to move on,” Agnew says.

She notes her favourite works are those for which the artist has been particularly creative or broken with conventional thinking to help the audience change its way of thinking, an approach she attempts to bring to her own law practice.

“The cutting edge of art is always about breaking the rules,” she says. “As a lawyer, you look for creative ways to break the rules. You’re looking for ways to bend the rules a little bit to get the best solution for your client.”

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