In Memoriam: John Bentley Mays

Photo courtesy of John Bentley Mays' personal website.
Photo courtesy of John Bentley Mays’ personal website.

We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of John Bentley Mays, Canadian journalist and writer, best known for his art and architecture column in The Globe and Mail. Mays died of a heart attack on Friday, September 16, 2016 in Toronto.

Born into an old family of cotton planters, small-town merchants and local politicians in the American South, Mays came to Toronto in 1969 to teach in the humanities division of York University. He became a writer on a new year’s resolution, 1 January 1973. While learning the craft, he worked for several years on York’s student services staff. His novel The Spiral Stair was published in 1978, and was followed by numerous short fictions that appeared in journals across Canada.

In 1980, he was hired to be art critic of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, a position he held until 1998, While he was at The Globe, Mays wrote his first non-fiction book, Emerald City: Toronto Visited, a harvest of columns about local architecture and urbanism. He was cultural correspondent at large for the National Post from 1998 until 2001.

After leaving the Post, Mays worked as a freelance journalist and, occasionally, as an exhibitions curator and teacher of university-level courses about architecture. He wrote catalogue essays about the art of Giuseppe Penone, Peter von Tiesenhausen, Ed Zelenak and Benjamin Klein. Until his passing, he wrote a weekly column about residential architecture for The Globe and Mail, and occasionally contributed articles on art and design to Canadian Architect, Canadian Interiors, Azure, Canadian Art, International Architecture and Design, KingWest and other periodicals.

Last year, Mays reflected on the controversies surrounding the Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization in Canadian Architect. Before that, his contributions to the magazine included explorations of Mississauga’s voluptuous new Absolute World towers, Canada’s contributions to the Venice Architecture Biennale, House in Grey Highlands by Ian MacDonald, and more.Many of Mays’ reviews for Canadian Architect combined his loves of architecture and music, including his pieces on Integral House by Shim-Sutcliffe and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts by Diamond Schmitt. He was a champion for the transformative power of architecture and believed strongly in its role as a civic art.

Of Mays’ books, two have been national best-sellers: In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression and Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family. Mays’ libretto for the opera Zürich 1916, with a score by composer Christopher Butterfield–an extended meditation on the Dada phenomenon–was the main-stage production of the Banff Summer Festival in 1998.

Mays lectured on art, design and religion in Vancouver, Banff, Winnipeg, London, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere. Among his recent teaching assignments: a course on suburbia at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, and, at the University of Toronto, lecture series and seminars on the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and a survey of modern architectural criticism and theory.

The prizes Mays won for writing included the National Newspaper Award for criticism, the Joseph Brant award of the Ontario Historical Society (for Arrivals: Stories from the History of Ontario), and the National Magazine Award Foundation’s President’s Medal, Canada’s top award for magazine journalism. He received writing grants from the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.

In addition to architecture and art, classical and modern music and Christian theology, spirituality and history were among Mays’ interests. He was a member of St. Thomas More Catholic Church and the husband, since 1971, of Margaret Cannon, who has been the mystery books columnist of The Globe and Mail for the last 30 years.

Mays was remembered at a mass for the dead at St. Vincent de Paul Church on September 24. In lieu of flowers, the Mays family requested donations to Doctors Without Borders, Syria Relief. 

Please note that this biography was obtained from John Bentley Mays’ personal website. The original text can be accessed here.