Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

I know absolutely nothing about art, technically. History, brush strokes, artists, styles, I’m learning, but what I do know is far outweighed than by what I do not – and usually acquired incidentally, here and there. And I have to admit, I’m not super interested in actively learning much more. Like that old saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. Being an outdoors person, I’m obviously drawn to a certain subject matter. Being human, I read more into the paint brushed on the canvas. Being a unique human outdoors person, I might read into things differently than someone else might. Just like everyone else.

The Jack Pine (1916-17) and The West Wind (1917)

The Jack Pine (1916-17) and The West Wind (1917) – in the same room!

You gotta go

What I do know is that there is an exhibit going on right now at the McMichael Gallery that is a must see for any art or outdoor person. Sadly, it’s only on until January 6th, 2013. “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” is a sort of a “best of” The Group’s work, including many pieces that are normally stored in different galleries and private collections throughout the country. That’s the most important reason to go: In order to see the same paintings, it would cost a lot of gas and travel time, not to mention that some in the private collections will never be shown again (to you and me, at least). It was originally put together for exhibition in London, England, then traveled to Norway and the Netherlands. Because of the success abroad, they decided to extend the exhibit back here at home.

If you’ve never seen these iconic paintings in real life, then you should definitely go. I cannot explain just how much better seeing them in person is compared to in print. Stand in front of one and you take in everything the artist intended. For example, you’d be surprised how much the texture of the paint adds to the depth of the painting – which is in perfect keeping with the unique and genius style of The Group of Seven. If that doesn’t convince you, think standing in front of “The Jack Pine” (1916-1917) – which is cool enough on it’s own, mind you – then turn around and see “The West Wind” (1917) on the opposite wall. In fact, when the exhibit first opened in London, it was the first time ever that the two paintings hung on the same wall. With one normally housed in Ottawa, the other in Toronto, you’re saving yourself at least 4 hours and 43 minutes. Extra bonus reason to go: You can even see the original sketch for The Jack Pine.

The original sketch for the Jack Pine - not normally on display.

The original sketch for the Jack Pine – not normally on display.

So what’s so important about seeing some paintings?

As many of you know, I have a friend who is an artist that comes with me on some of my portaging trips. His name is Kam Nabi and his work is awesome. Some of his work is extra special for me because I took him out there to paint it, but I had worried it might not have the same impact on others. I’ve been told by many not to worry. What I love about his work is similar to why I feel such a connection to the Group of Seven works: because of how much I love their subjects. I’ve been there and they’re expressing the beauty that not only do you see but what you feel. (Maybe I’ve said that before.) The Group of Seven’s founding goal was to prove that our lands were beautiful and needed painting, that their unique style required a distinct landscape, and that that rugged land inspired their wild style (or maybe it’s the reverse). I really feel Kam accomplishes this as well, but of course I can’t be completely unsure I’m not influenced by my connection with his work. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Entirely.

If you’re a fan of the Canadian landscape, you have a connection the Group of Seven paintings – and vice-versa – even if you don’t know it yet.

Which do you prefer, Landscapes or Art? … What?

Last year, I visited the McMichael gallery when Roy MacGregor gave a chat about his book, and they were showing the Tom Thomson documentary The West Wind. So they had all their big-wigs out and about. I got a chance to speak with the new curator, and we talked about the painting and all that. (It started out by talking about how she broken up the “Thomson Room” and the flack she received for it, on which I totally support her… but that’s another conversation.) It’s clear she’s an avid art historian and expert. But what shook me was when she admitted to me that she had not only never been to any of the painting locations, but had never even been camping (and of course in keeping with my character I immediately offered to take her). It became obvious to me that there’s a huge chasm that separates fans of their work. On the one hand you have fans of the arts and on the other fans of the subject. And we see things very differently. No right or wrong, just different – I mean that, because it’s about to seem like I’m being judge-y, which is not my intention.

For starters, they talk about technique, influences and all that, but mention the outdoors – the subject – almost as an aside. People like me want to see how an artist captures the spirit of our outdoors. This is why those tours they give seem less interesting to “outdoor” people (like me) because they’re oriented towards the “art” people. (My offer to take the curator camping is still on the table. What an experience that would be. I’d love to see how an art appreciator would view some of the sites of Group of Seven paintings for the first time and hear their thoughts. Would the paintings change for them? Would they feel a connection to the painting sites?)

Gratuitous plug for my artist friend Kam Nabi's work.

Gratuitous plug for my artist friend, Kam Nabi‘s work.

Like a fly on a wall

The best tour I ever took at the gallery was when the Waddington’s were presenting. (They’re the couple that have found hundreds of actual Group of Seven Painting sites.) I invited Kam and we watched the presentation (always great, by the way). Next they offered a tour of the gallery, which I was almost going to skip out on, choosing to take Kam through the gallery to get his perspective on things without the tour getting in the way (he had never been, strangely enough). I was hoping to let the tour go on ahead, but Jim and Sue Waddington joined in on the group. Kam, Jim and I hung out at the back and I introduced Jim to Kam, mentioning he was an artist, with a similar style and subject matter. (Kam corrected me by the way, suggesting no one can do what the Group of Seven did. Whatever.) Then the absolute best thing happened. I got the very special opportunity to be in on their conversation as we walked through the gallery. Each of them, based on their own expertise, offered up whispered snippets of information, stories and perspective on the paintings as the tour-guide took us through the gallery. What an experience!


The last time I was there, I took my sister, niece and nephew to the Painting Canada exhibit. Knowing they had never been, I offered up bits and pieces of information, history, etc. My sister started laughing at me after a while, which I at first mistook as her making fun of my enthusiasm. Turns out, she was actually “fact checking” me. As we would make our way through, I’d say something, then she’d stop to read one of the informational signs posted, which included most of what I had just said. When we got to the car she had the kids thank me for such a unique experience to be able to tour the place with me. She swore two older ladies were purposely following us for the same reason. I took that as a great compliment of course, but it gave me an idea. What I’d love to do is to give people tours of that place from an outdoor person’s perspective, as opposed to the “art person”. Perhaps I should approach McMichael about that.

Or maybe just hang out there giving impromptu tours, telling my stories and showing my favourite paintings. Hopefully more people find it more interesting than creepy, especially when they find out I’m not working for the gallery.

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park

So which is your favourite Group of Seven Painting? (… or, the other conversion I mentioned earlier.)

It’s too hard to pick a favourite Group of Seven painting – or even an artist for that matter.  But I can tell you the painting that I was most drawn to, that seemed to have the most affect on me: “Thomson’s campsite” by Arthur Lismer. Actually, I’m not sure that’s the title, as I’m always forgetting it for some reason. This is probably the one painting of which I would make room for a print in the very limited space on my walls, but sadly because it’s such an obscure little painting (actually a sketch), they don’t have it available. I’ve looked, and I don’t know if they would or how much it would cost to do so.

Though I obviously like the painting on its own, it also speaks to me for a lot of reasons, especially the subject matter. What’s neat is that Lismer (the artist) is painting Thomson, or at least his campsite, so in a way it’s a 2-for-1 Group of Seven connection, painted on one of their treks into Algonquin Park together. One more the technical artist, the other more avid an outdoorsmen, each learning from the other, each coming into their own in both pursuits, in their own style. (Dear Mrs. Cruikshanks: I promise never to tell anyone you taught me sentence structure in the fifth grade.)

On another note, normally – generally – I’m drawn first to works by Thomson, then to Jackson and Carmichael. Their work speaks to me most. In style, sure, but also because of their legendary willingness to venture into the furthest areas to capture their subject (and I’m sure the style is influenced by the venturing, but definitely the way in which I see a piece). Next comes Varley (though not sure why, exactly, considering he’d move away from landscapes) and Harris. Often forgotten (to me) is Lismer and MacDonald. I’m not trying to rank or show preference, simply mentioning to which artist’s work I’m generally drawn. There are many exceptions, including a few by Johnson. (You thought I lost count, didn’t you?) I bring it up because, with this in mind, to say that my “favourite” Group of Seven painting was done by Lismer seems inconsistent. But there you go.

That’s my personal, unique, human outdoors person’s perspective, fully biased, reading into things the only way I know how.

What’s your favourite Group of Seven painting?

Tom Thomson Documentary

With the lakes about to freeze, once again there comes a time when us paddlers need to find ourselves something else to do. Like I mentioned in a previous post, there’s plenty of stuff to do, but what’s really great is to find something that’s canoeing or camping related. I can think of nothing better than a documentary about a famous paddler and outdoors-man, Tom Thomson.

Last night I had a unique good fortune to go to the Toronto premiere of the new documentary “West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson”, made by the appropriately named film company White Pine Pictures.  How did I get such a prestigious opportunity? Was it my because of my minor celebrity status of running the best and most famous website dedicated to portaging in Ontario (with a little white spotted dog named Nancy, starting with the letter “P”), and the fact that I had done so much Tom Thomson related research and trips this year? Well, no. I happened to hear about it and bought tickets. Nevertheless, I was very glad to get to go.

West Wind Invitation

The Big Smoke

It did mean that I had to drive to Toronto, in bad weather and traffic as it turned out, and navigating the city streets. I barely made it there on time. The other problem I had was that it looked to be quite a fancy, with directors, producers, actors, benefactors, contributors and art lovers all in attendance. It meant yours truly might have to dust off the fancy clothes (way back in the closet) so as not to stand out. I’m an outdoors guy who’s comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts. As I wandered around in my showy outfit, I wondered what Tom Thomson would have thought of all this. He was certainly an outdoors guy as well, but he did know how to put on a collar and check out the city night life back in the day. If he could do it, maybe I could as well. While I felt like a monkey wearing makeup, I should also mention that I did look quite smashing.

While I did feel a little awkward in my duds, by myself, among a crowd of people I’m normally not around, I found a nice comfortable seat and when the lights went down I was immersed into the documentary. From the beginning, the voice performances, lead by Canadian icon Gordon Pincet, created the perfect mood for the film. It began with shots of the outdoors, trees, skies, fog, and of course a lone man paddling a canoe. Beautifully filmed on locations from Tom’s life – Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Leith, Toronto, Seattle, and in particular Canoe Lake – these places would star throughout the film as a secondary character. The film-makers obviously know that to understand what Tom did, what he painted, what he saw and hoped to convey, you’d have to understand where it was that he came from, where he traveled and from what he drew his inspiration, and they did a great job showing it to us.

Some Big Names

Obviously Tom had a unique connection between what he saw and felt with how to express that on canvass. I think we all know that, even though we might not be able to express exactly how and why. What was great was that the film included many interviews with people that have spent a lot of time trying to figure that part out, and shared that with us. For example, they demonstrated how Tom’s paint strokes emphasized texture and mood, and explained the brilliance of his use of colours (pun totally intended). A prestigious list of art historians and curators contributed throughout the film, along with thoughts from noted art collector David Thomson, who we found out during the Q&A session after the film allowed the producers use of any of his privately owned Thomson paintings. This explains why some of the paintings included in the film are some that are rarely seen. (One interesting note was the inclusion of Ian Desjardin, the director of the Dulwich Gallery in London, England, where as I write this, many Group of Seven and Tom Thomson paintings are on loan.)

The contributors to the film also included some renowned biographers of Tom and the Group of Seven, including Ross King, Roy MacGregor, and David Silcox – who was in attendance and participated in the Q&A session after the film. From interviews with these authors, archive footage and a subtle amount of dramatic recreation, we were presented with a detailed picture of Tom’s life, included much of Roy MacGregor’s most recent discoveries regarding the painter’s mysterious death. What was truly impressive was the inclusion of so many pictures, film and even audio from Tom’s life. What absolutely blew me away was hearing the voices of some of the well known names of people involved in Tom’s life, specifically that of  Ranger Mark Robinson. I’ve read much on Tom Thomson, and with Robinson being such a central character in Tom’s life in Algonquin Park, much of that reading involved Robinson’s writings and interviews, usually written down, paraphrased by someone else. I’ve heard about the audio tapes that he made for a historical project for the park, I’ve seen transcriptions of his letters, and it’s been said that he used to regale campers about the life of Tom Thomson, often and enthusiastically. But for me to hear his voice, to hear him say specifically, out loud, in his own voice, what other people had told me he had said was very, very powerful. To hear him telling the story of meeting Tom Thomson for the first time, and the story about the “artist” (“what kind of thing is that?”) would have been by itself worth the price of admission.

A Big Reception

I should mention that this film is about Tom Thomson’s life, his work, and the affect of both. First, it doesn’t really get into is specifics about particular paintings, focusing instead on his style. Secondly, the film focuses on his life rather than being solely about the mystery behind the painter’s death. I thought that this choice was appropriate, and a little unconventional. An entire film could be dedicated to each of those other elements, and the most important information was covered, but there is plenty out there about the paintings and his death – especially his death – but I found it refreshing to celebrate the author, his work and his lifestyle. Perhaps with all the material they’ve collected doing this film, it might justify sequels and follow-up documentaries. That might be good too.

Eventually the film did have to end, and when it did, the credits ran in front of more pictures of Thomson paintings. There was a reluctant attempt as applause just as that happened, but was instantly muffled. We all sat and watched the paintings, obscured by the contributor’s names. I thought for a moment that we were all trying to soak in just a little bit more, and I really liked that idea. It was only later that I had the thought that because of who was in attendance, perhaps they were paying respect for their colleagues, or even looking for their own names. All kidding aside, we sat and watched the last of the paintings, watching for those strokes and use of colours about which we were told, and when the credits ended, there was a great round of appreciative applause.

When the lights came up, we were invited to ask questions to the film’s directors and producers, Michelle Hozer and Peter Raymont, along with Sound Recordist Bruce Cameron and the aforementioned David Silcox. Questions were asked about the paintings involved in the film, what the Thomson family felt about the film (not answered, by the way), and of course how the film-makers believed Tom Thomson had died. Then something strange happened.

A Little Problem

A question was asked about whether or not the film included places where some of Tom’s paintings had actually been painted. After mentioning there were some obvious locations that had been used and shown when it was possible or relevant, the question was handed over to David Silcox. “It’s not really about the location, at all. It’s about the paintings,” he declared. Now, I know where he was going with that, and what he meant, but I’m still surprised at how taken aback I was at hearing that, offended possibly. Not about the location? No, it was in fact all about the location. Admittedly, it wasn’t about exact spots – what was surely his point – but the location, the setting was what all this was about. The thought stayed with me while I made my way out of the theater and on to the reception. That’s when I happened to spot Jim and Sue Waddington (as if on cue), and went over to say “Hi”. You’ll recall they have dedicated a lot of effort in finding the exact painting locations of Group of Seven works. (So great to see you guys again, by the way. Thanks so much for not making fun of my mustache.) Almost the first thing he said to me was about David’s comment. “I’d be very interested in what you have to write about that,” he said to me. “Me too,” I replied. So here goes….

Tom Thomson painted the outdoors, the Canadian outdoors. Something that had previously been seen as an ugly, useless subject. The “Algonquin School”, comprised of Thomson and the original members of the Group of Seven, was dedicated to change that perception, to prove it was completely wrong. The love of our, local, Canadian, natural environment was the binding force behind their movement. What is said most often about why Thomson’s paintings are great works is the fact that it captures the environment  – both the visual but also the mood – even when on the surface it shouldn’t. Personally, it’s what draws me to his work, as I’m sure is the same for many. If he painted anything else – buildings, portraits, abstracts – I might have an appreciation for it, but not a strong connection to it.

Aside from his own paintings, obviously, what made Thomson truly influential, his greatest affect on future works, was him inviting and encouraging others to pursue and appreciate it. They called Tom their guide, even after his death, and would go on to continue where he and they had left off, and did some pretty good stuff I might add. They would continue to search for more inspiration that would take them further north, west or just further in. Or to put it another way: to more locations. At the risk of over-emphasis and analysis of a point that I’ve taken the wrong way, I would say that I disagree, respectively, with it not being about the location. I mean, what would this film have been had it not been for their gorgeous cinematography of all those locations helping to show the Vision of Tom Thomson?

That being said, it was a great film, a great chance to experience the legend of Tom Thomson and possibly catch a few things you may not yet have seen or heard. The film will be touring film festivals, including a showing at the McMichael Gallery this weekend that I’m also going to attend – this time because Roy MacGregor will be there giving a talk. (My niece is studying the Group of Seven in school now, so I thought this might be a great opportunity to get some extra research in.) Next year the film will be shown on Bravo, then later available on DVD. For more information check out White Pines website (they’re also on facebook).

Interesting Thoughts Postscript

What a time to be looking researching Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven! I started to focus on Tom because I became captivated in his story, relating to his life (sans the artistic talent), and have of course always admired anyone who shares an strong admiration of the outdoors – especially the Canadian outdoors – and expressed it in unique ways. With this film coming out, Roy MacGregor’s new discoveries, the Tom Thomson exhibit in Kitchener, Jim and Sue Waddington’s exhibit, the Dulwich Gallery and european tour of our great Canadian paintings, all happening within the last year or so, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to have been exposed so much on the subject. This year I have focused many trips and experiences on the Group of Seven, but particularly Tom Thomson, and will be writing about all of them over the winter. You’ll hear about visiting a bunch of landmarks, painting sites, and the interesting people and places I happened upon on my journey, so be sure to check back here often.

Searching for Tom Quick Notes

I just got back from another of the Speaker Series for the Searching For Tom exhibit at THEMUSEUM (which I’ve written about here). This time it was Virginia Eichorn, curator of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery speaking on why Tom means so much to us. It was a great presentation, and obviously word has got out because the place was relatively packed.

I’ll elaborate on this and other speakers at a later date, but I just wanted to quickly share some of the references made in Virginia’s presentation, specifically regarding the ways that people choose to remember Tom:

This video is an acoustic version of “Tom Thomson” by a band called Winhara:

This one is a very funny commentary on the potential cuts to arts funding:

I’m not really sure how she found this one, but it’s a school art project by a then 15 year old named Corey Foster:

And of course it wouldn’t be complete without a plug for the Tom Thomson Museam and Art Gallery (which I gladly include so as not to upset Virginia by stealing her material):

Searching for Tom

Tom Thomson: Man, Myth and Masterworks

Are you looking for something canoe-related to do while the rivers are still frozen? If you’re anything like me, your canoeing plans are under way, and you’re starting to get desperate for anything about paddling and the outdoors. A definite must is to check out the new Tom Thomson exhibit at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener. What does Tom Thomson have to do with a site dedicated to portaging and canoe camping? Read on to find out, or better yet, go see the exhibit.


“Someday they will know what I mean”

Tom Thomson

The Exhibit

Thanks to a fellow blogger and friend of Portager, Mike Ormsby, I was given tickets to the opening night of the exhibit. What a fantastic experience. Having recently read the new biography Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, the exhibit was perfect timing for me. What they’ve created is a well-rounded tribute, including very early works by the painter, then as you move along you’ll see Tom’s gradual evolution into what became his unique style. More to this, the gallery has chosen other works to compliment Tom’s, including a taste of his friends’ and colleagues’ work – the Group of Seven – and has even included works by the painter’s brothers and sisters. Dashed throughout the exhibit are very famous photos of Tom and his friends, as well as examples of some of his belongings. Finally, they have works by other artists who have been influenced by Tom Thomson.

Speaker Series

To further the experience, THEMUSEUM is putting on a Sunday Speaker Series where you can see presentations by Thomson experts and enthusiasts, every Sunday afternoon at 1:30pm. One that you should really think about attending (I know I will) is “The Artist and The Canoe” on April 3rd. Mike Ormsby is the author of Reflections on the Outdoors Naturally and is a Tom Thomson and Heritage Canoe expert. Check out his extensive writing on the Tom here. The rest of the schedule is shown below (starting March 13th):

March 13: “Tom Thomson: The Man, His Art & Why He Means So Much to Us” – Virginia Eichhorn, curator Tom Thomson Art Gallery

March 20: “Algonquin Elegy” – Neil J. Lehto, author

March 27: “Tom Thomson was a Weatherman” – Phil the Forecaster Chadwick

April 3: “Tom Thomson: The Artist and The Canoe” – Mike Ormsby, Heritage Canoe Expert

April 10: “Canoe Lake CSI: The Remarkable Investigation into the Whereabouts of Tom Thomson” – Roy McGregor, author

April 17: “The Canadian Landscape before Tom – Homer Watson, the Man of Doom” – Sandu Sindile, curator Homer Watson House & Gallery

May 1: “Tom Thomson in Cyberspace, or How to Build a Ghost Canoe” – Marcel O’Gorman, artist

    May 8: “Defiant Spirits: Modernism, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” – Ross King, author and curator

      Of note are 3 authors whose books I finished recently: Neil J. Lehto author of “Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring“, Ross King author of “Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven” and of course Roy McGregor author of Northern Light. If you haven’t read them already, I suggest taking them and a hammock on your next trip up to Algonquin.

      “Tom Thomson came paddling past. I’m pretty sure it was him”

      – Three Pistols by The Tragically Hip (Road Apples)

      More on Tom

      What is it about the legend of Tom Thomson that makes him so relevant to canoe enthusiasts? I’ve never studied art myself, other than what was force-fed to me in grade school, and I wouldn’t exactly call myself a great “lover of the arts”. But being a canoe guy, I’ve found myself absolutely fascinated by artists and their work – particularly Canadian – that share the love of the outdoors, and clearly express that love. This is why I’ve been looking into the Group of Seven so much lately. One of their intentions for their work was for people to see their paintings and create and/or renew their appreciation for the Canadian wilderness and all its beauty – and hopefully to seek it out for themselves. For me it was the exact opposite, in that my love for the outdoors led me to an appreciation for not only the paintings, but the artists, and particularly the means in which they used to find their subjects.

      The Group of Seven were our kind of people. A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael, for example, lived, canoed, portaged and vacationed in the very same places that we now play. They were explorers, out to see the Canadian wilderness for themselves, and share that view through paint.

      But what about Tom? He wasn’t even an official member of the Group – having died prior to its formation. In fact, I remember talking to my wife about him at the McMichael Gallery years ago. It would be the first time I would see a Group of Seven painting in person. Passing by the Tom Thomson paintings I muttered something about why was Tom getting so much of the attention. Was it just because he died (as we like to speak well of the dead), because he died young (and so much more could have been achieved), or because he died so mysteriously and tragically (and so amplifying his legend)? I thought it not fair to the other painters. Even after seeing the Group’s work, I found myself staring at Tom’s paintings. “Okay,” I said to my wife, “I get it”.

      Searching for Tom in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

      Since reading more about Tom, I realized what he contributed to Canadian culture, and it became clear why canoeing and Tom Thomson go together so logically. It could be said that a very simple way to associate yourself with being Canadian is to associate yourself with the canoe. Tom Thomson certainly did that. Even in the end, it was his empty distinctive cobalt blue canoe that signaled something bad happened to the artist – on the aptly named “Canoe Lake”.

      In the first of THEMUSEUM’s speaker series, Arts reporter for the Waterloo Region Record Robert Reid spoke about how influential Tom truly is – not to just Canadians, but to outdoors people and appreciators of the Canadian wilderness. When Robert Reid spoke of the Northern River, he said that it didn’t matter where it was painted, we all know exactly where it is – in fact it’s not a place at all, he argued, but a state of mind. Tom has been alluded to and has inspired music, novels, films and even ballets (check out this video, Tom shows up around 0:59). Apparently, he even made a mean campfire doughnut – I mean how much more Canadian can you get? Robert Reid suggested, if he had never lived, Canada would have had to invent him.

      Tom would go on to spend half the year in Algonquin and travel throughout a wide area, all by canoe, living in camps, painting, fishing and soaking it all in. For a time he even had a day job to pay the bills, but always had paddling on his mind, practicing strokes at his desk. The only difference between him and us is that he had a fantastic ability to communicate what he saw in a very unique and expressive way. He lived the lifestyle we all want, really. Oh, except for the whole dying-at-a-young-age-under-mysterious-circumstances thing. Personally, I’m hoping for more of a I-can’t-believe-he’s-still-going-out-there-at-his-age kind of ending to my story.

      So go see the exhibit and check out the speakers series, and if you see me there, feel free to say “Hi”.

      Social Networking Postcript

      THEMUSEUM (@THEMUSEUM) is using the hashtag #searchingfortom to group together tweets about the exhibit. Foursquare users should also check in there as well. I got a “Photobooth” badge for doing so, somehow.

      Trip Plans Postscript

      Later this year I will be going up to Canoe Lake, Tom’s most common stomping ground. After reading his biography, and now visiting the exhibit, I’m hoping to see all the landmarks from Tom’s life there from a new perspective. I’ll keep you posted.

      2010 Portageur Favourite People Award

      Portageur AwardsIn today’s installment of the 2010 Portageur Awards, I’d like to look back at all the people I met this year and choose one to recognize as the most intriguing. Normally, I would never single out a particular person for fear of alienating all the great people I met this year, but I think everyone would agree that this person is deserving of some award, especially one as prestigious as the coveted 2010 Portageur Award. In November of this year, I was standing in a line at the front of the auditorium of the Dundas Valley School of Art waiting to talk to the speaker of an absolutely fantastic presentation. I had read everything I could find on him and his work, and even wrote a post about my attempts at following his accomplishments. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to ask him, and almost left because the longer I had to wait the more I realized that I had no idea what I’d say to him.

      And The Winner Is…

      I was waiting to speak with Jim Waddington. You’ll remember I wrote about Jim and his wife Sue’s adventures capturing the real locations of the Group of Seven paintings over the years, as well as my first attempt at finding a spot myself. I’ve been to their exhibit at the McMicheal Gallery, and read pretty much everything I could on the Waddingtons. After all that, you can imagine how excited I was when I found out they were giving a talk close by, but I wasn’t really sure how much more I’d get out of this presentation. If nothing else, I was pretty jazzed about seeing them in person.

      Jim and Sue Waddington (center and right) searching Killarney Provincial ParkWhat we were treated to was a beautifully prepared presentation detailing not only his pictures, but the complete adventure this couple has been on for the last 30 plus years. Jim explained how it all started, showing pictures of their first trip. He told some very entertaining stories about how spots were located. My favourite was about searching the Northern Channel, looking everywhere only to come up short. As a last grasp while packing up they spotted some fishermen and Jim decided to see if some locals might be able to recognize the painting. They didn’t. Walking back to the car, accepting that they’d have to try again some other time, Sue looked out into the water and pointed, casually saying “Oh, there it is.”

      The audience would agree

      I was most impressed with how complete the presentation was. Jim took us through a discussion on the Group of Seven painters – stressing that while they appeared famously in photos wearing suits and ties, they were very rugged and adventurous. He then led us to the location of so many of the painting in Killarney Provincial Park, and the effort it takes to get out there. He would show us a painting, then the photo he took when they found its location. What hit it home was he would then use a transition effect to show the painting turning int the photo. That’s when we’d hear the whole audience “Ooh” and “Ah”. It was great.

      When it ended, we all clapped in appreciation. I wondered if we clapped long enough there might be an encore. It was a great little talk, and Sue and Jim obviously had put a lot of work in their adventures, but also in the presentation itself. It was as entertaining as it was effective. I’m really hoping this wasn’t an isolated event, and I think they should take this show on the road. If they do, you have to make sure to check it out. You’ll want to get into the canoe and revisit Killarney with a new perspective.

      I did finally get chance to speak with Jim, waiting because I had to take the opportunity to thank him for starting all this. I introduced myself and gave him a quick “Thank you”. He told me he had read the post about him, and that he was actually in Killarney at the same time I was, but further south.

      A few notes on Jim and Sue:

      Sue and Jim mentioned that they’re shopping around for a publisher, and are hoping to write a book documenting all that they’ve accomplished. I’ll let you know as soon as I know more.

      Another great aspect of the presentation was that it included a lot of local paintings and sketches, in fact one that was done just down the street from where we sat. I have since found out that Jim and Sue customize their presentations for the local audience as they had also done for the Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park.

      Check out their Group Of Seven site with pictures, videos and commentary on their work.

      What was also nice to hear that after all they’ve done, they’re still not slowing down. Sue and Jim have many more trips planned focusing on finding painting sites on Baffin Island and other arctic locations.

      Carmichael’s Rock Overnight

      Facebook Photos

      The Plan

      Franklin Carmichael painting over Grace Lake
      As most of the regular readers know, I recently traveled to the west side of Killarney in search for Carmichael’s Rock – the same rock Franklin Carmichael sat on in 1934 (find details here). The problem was that I had planned to do this on the last day of my Labour Day trip, which turned into a solo trip by the time I left. Tired from the last two days of portaging, I woke on the third day to rain and miserable weather. Considering the winds that I had on the first day, I felt that  – especially paddling alone – I should really do the safe thing and head out early so as to only have to deal with the rain and not the winds that I would surely be facing head-on the whole way back to the take out.

      Turns out, the rain stopped, and the winds didn’t materialize until well into the late afternoon/evening. Who knew? Although I was a little disappointed, I still had a fantastic trip, but I still couldn’t help thinking that I could have searched for the rock after all. I came home and told my wife all about the trip, showing her the pictures. I told her how unreal everything was, and the stories must have sparked something in her photographer’s eye, because the woman who wrote off sleeping on the ground years ago, decided she could do it again to get an opportunity to photograph the place herself. She also sensed how disappointed I was about not being able to go look for that rock, so she figured we could try again together.

      We were set to go away for a weekend in October, so I playfully suggested that we could do this instead. She considered it. I told her that instead of the whole trip, we could just reverse my last day into Grace Lake, stay the night then go back the way we came. The one portage was a nice and easy trail that wasn’t much worse than any that we take on weekend strolls with the dogs. The only difference would be that it’s 1745m and we’d have carrying backpacks, and we’d be doing it after about 8km of paddling. She liked the idea, and I have to admit I was a little psyched.

      My wife wasn’t thrilled about going in mid October, but I told her it would be fine – though I really had nothing to base that on. (October’s a weird month. It has both periods that are unseasonably warm and then cold.) I made all the arrangements before she could change her mind, but the deal was that if we got up and it was going to rain, we weren’t going through with it. It turned out to be cold, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and there was no rain.

      Paddling With My Wife

      We set out from Widgawa Lodge along the West River and into Charlton Lake, where we turned south then east into Frood Lake. We were travelling much faster than when I was here last, and it suddenly dawned on me how much I appreciated a paddling partner. I’ve mentioned often what a great a portaging partner Nancy is, but she doesn’t paddle or carry anything. On this trip, we also brought our other dog Norm. He’s not such a great portaging partner. He’s a great dog, a free spirit – a quality that sometimes gets him into a little trouble. And so as he does, he decided that he had had enough of being in the canoe. My wife would spend the rest of the way to the portage keeping him from jumping out of the canoe (he really likes swimming).

      Killarney in the FallCranberry Bay portage to Grace Lake

      When we arrived at the portage, I started to really appreciate the difference a month and a half had made to the scenery. What was beautiful greens under the white caps of the surrounding La Cloche mountains, were now highlighted by gorgeous colours of fall in Killarney. Vibrant yellows, dark reds and bright orange accented everywhere you looked. The portage was leaf riddled and looked like a fall wonderland. The leaves can hide slippery rocks and mud so can be a bit of a pain, but it’s also a lot of fun swishing your feet through (It’s also a great way of keeping you from sneaking up on the local wildlife). When we reached the end of the portage, I dropped my gear, raised my hand towards the water and in dramatic fashion said “Heather, I give you… Grace Lake”.

      The lake was just as I had left it: clear, gorgeous, and surrounded by some amazing scenery (oh, and also grey, but that wouldn’t last). We paddled our way to our campsite on the east side of the lake, and set up camp for the night. Heather spent the rest of the evening taking fancy pictures with her shmancy camera, while I stared off into the hills and Carmichael’s picture trying to figure out where it was taken.

      The Spot

      I was given a few hints as to the photo’s location, scouring over anything I could find on the subject, but some left me more confused. There sure were a bunch of photos taken there, but no one had mentioned an exact location. After wandering around to get a better view, I was confident I knew the best place to land and try and hike up. I could spot a location where there was a more gradual incline that wouldn’t require rock climbing. That must be the way up, because I was told that it took a bit of effort to get there, but it wasn’t unreasonable. I even thought that I may have spotted the rock itself with my binoculars (I was very wrong, more on that later). We went to bed with a plan for the next morning, and I was really getting excited to see the place for myself.

      Sleeping in the Cold

      The night turned out to be a cold one. If you don’t want to wander too far off from the fire pit, the campsite isn’t a great one for soft, flat ground (seemed like it was one or the other), so I’m not really sure how much we slept. To top it off, the dogs weren’t much help. Nancy has a reputation of not being too much of a cuddler, so you can’t expect her to help out with the body heat (I try not to take it too personally). Norm is even worse. He’s a Norwegian Buhund, bred for the colds of Norway winters. One particular camping trip where we expected cold I was comforted by the fact that with him and his fluffy fur sharing a tent with me I’d be perfectly comfortable. As it turns out it actually snowed at one point that night. I woke in the middle of the night absolutely freezing, trying my best to rework my sleeping bag to keep in more heat. Shivering, I looked for Norm. He was sitting in the corner – the furthest he could be from me – sprawled out, lying on his back. He does this when he’s too warm. And so it was again: two shivering humans, two comfortable dogs with no interest in helping out.

      The PhotoSun rising over Grace Lake

      We woke to a nice cool crisp autumn morning, ate breakfast in toques and sweaters, and waited for the morning frost to melt. The sun was out and as soon as it warmed it was actually a beautiful day. We packed up and paddled to the spot I had hoped would get us to Carmichael’s rock. The take out was a little rough, a steep landing without much room, so we took out what we could, pulled up the canoe as far as it could go and tied it down. We were able to zig zag up the hill without too much difficulty as we slowly made our way up the hill on a gradual incline. We would compare the picture with the view, and invariably the result was that we needed to be higher. This went on for a while, trying to find a suitable incline that would lead us back and forth, compare the view with the picture, and again we needed to get higher. Then suddenly, we ran out of gradual inclines.

      The Climb

      With a decision on whether or not to start actually climbing the white quartzite caps rocks, Heather had decided that she needed a rest. She handed me her fancy camera and told me good luck. There was one 3 foot section, then it flattened, then another. When I looked out to check the view I saw an owl flying below me (I always find that a freaky indication that you are, in fact, quite high up, seeing a bird fly below you). The view was close. I needed to be more to the left. When I got there, the view looked almost perfect. Was I there? Like in the picture, I was on an open section of flat white rocks, and I could see what appeared to be the exact perspective from the picture. This had to be it. Except… there was no rock.

      No RockThe view from the La Cloche Mountains over Grace Lake

      The rock Franklin Carmicheal sat was pretty distinct looking, and there was nothing like it around. I checked the view and decided that I absolutely must be in the right spot… probably. I remembered that Jim and Sue Waddington had also been up here to see the rock gone, and had planned a trip specifically to move it back up. Maybe that happened again? Heather yelled from about 50ft below asking about my progress, “Did you find it?”

      “No,” I replied.

      “Are you okay?”

      “Yes, I think I’m on the spot but the rock’s not here,” I yelled back, but she couldn’t really hear me. There was a lot of “What?”s back and forth, and after a bit of looking around I yelled back that I was coming down. First I would take a few pictures of where I was, then started on my way back down. I went down one ledge and was about to take another picture because I could see a bit more of the view to the south. I checked the picture one more time while I was there. The perspective was better. Was I too high? From where I was the view was almost perfect, except I had to be a little more to my left. The problem was that there was a bunch of trees in my way. Wait… was that a small clearing?

      “Are you okay?” my wife yelled.

      “Yeah, hang on a sec, I’m just going to check this one spot first.”


      A Different Perspective

      When I got to the spot the perspective was right, but I was looking for the clearing from the picture. This was almost perfect except for the trees in the way. It even has a rock like the one in the picture… wait.

      “I’m here!” I screamed.


      “I found it. I found it!” It was the rock. The clearing wasn’t big, but from the perspective of the photo I realized that it was enough.

      “Great,” Heather yelled back. “Do you know how to set up the camera’s timer?”


      Heather talked me through setting up the camera, and I found a rock to lay it down to take my picture (Nancy was really supposed to be the subject, but she decided to stay with Heather). I took a couple more shots just to make sure and started to climb back down. I met Heather and we made our way slowly and carefully back down. I felt such a huge sense of self accomplishment I probably could have floated down. What we just did was something only a handful of people had done before – admittedly a large handful, but a handful nonetheless. It was also a fantastic connection with Canadian History. I had sat in the same spot that Franklin Carmichael had painted. The same spot he was photographed, the picture itself becoming part of our history.

      With a new sense of enthusiasm, we set out across Grace Lake and over the portage on an absolutely fantastic day. The winds that met us on the other side dampened our enthusiasm a bit, as they were pretty heavy and in our faces the whole way back. Once at the outfitters and on the way home we couldn’t stop talking about what we had done – okay, maybe I did most of the talking.

      The Exact LocationRecreating Franklin Carmicheal's 1934 Photo over Grace Lake

      This is where I would normally add some details on the location of Carmicheal’s Rock – like the exact gps coordinates. You’ll notice that the route does not include it. I really had to think about whether or not to include them in this post. On the one hand, is supposed to be a place to get all the resources you’ll need for a trip like this, which by that logic means I should be including the location. On the other hand though, on doing the research to find the spot, I stumbled on a forum post by Jim Waddington, talking about his own trip to recover the rock. He too had apparently thought about including the location but decided he didn’t want the place to become too popular, to the point where someone might try and roll the rock down the cliff again. He also suggested that it takes away from the fun of it to not find it yourself. When I found the location myself, I really did feel a sense of accomplishment. I believe that this feeling should really be a part of the experience. On top of that, maybe we should leave the location to those that would appreciate the experience enough to seek it out themselves? So if you’re interested enough, grab a copy of the picture and earn your own way there. It will be worth it.

      Oh, and no spoilers, please.

      Nancy Postscript:

      Nancy was, like always, a great help. She not only guaranteed we’d not be bothered by any Killarney squirrels, but it was a nice opportunity for Heather to see her in action. She often worries about Nancy out there with me (for some reason) but she was really impressed how well she lead our little pack up the trails, keeping close by. As for Norm, he might need some more seasoning before he becomes a regular on future trips. He does have a reputation for barking, and I definitely believe he enjoyed hearing himself echo through the La Cloche mountains. I’m very glad he had that opportunity to do so during one of the least popular camping weekends in Killarney. I can’t imagine how cute someone else would have found the non stop echoes had they been at the other side of the lake with us.

      Technology Postscript:

      Both my wife and I checked into the campsite on Grace lake on foursquare. Still the mayor, thank you.

      Group of Seven Paintings Revisited in Pictures

      Nellie Lake 1933

      When I was a little kid, as most Canadian schoolchildren, I was taught about the great works of the Group of Seven. They showed us pictures in books of all their best work, and was told how great those painting were. I memorized all the artist’s names for a test – I may have even passed it, I don’t remember – and moved on to more important issues in my young life. Years later I traveled to Killarney Provincial Park, home of many of the Group’s works, and fell in love with the unique beauty of the place. I started to do some research for further trips in the area, and what seems to go hand in hand with the area is those paintings. You can’t read much about the park without hearing about the Group of Seven, and vice versa.

      It was because of this that I was intrigued to hear about a news article about Jim and Sue Waddington, a couple from Hamilton that has spent more than three decades researching the Group of Seven. Their goal was to find the locations where many of the Group’s works were painted, then recreating them in pictures. It was an amazing story. The McMicheal Gallery, where a large number of the Group of Seven paintings are on display, must have thought the same because they decided to create a special exhibition to display the paintings right along side Jim and Sue’s photographs.

      When I visited the McMicheal Gallery I was more than a little impressed. As you can imagine, I started to relate to the paintings the more I visited and researched Killarney. You can really feel the area to see the paintings, and you can feel the inspiration to be in the park. I started looking for more and more paintings on-line. It took a few decades, but I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Of course they’re very good, but to finally stand in front of them, up close with my own eyes, and see them past the veneer of a reprinted photo copy was, well, awesome.

      Of course, what makes this particular experience even more worthwhile was the personalization of Jim and Sue’s adventure. For example, my first reaction to the idea was that it would be impossible to know from where – exactly – these paintings could have been inspired. I doubted that any of the paintings final products would be using one specific spot, and even if that wasn’t the case, I didn’t believe that just because you matched up what appears to be the same landscape, did not mean it wasn’t just a coincidence.  Plus, the landscape had to have changed over a half century. I was sold watching the McMichael Gallery’s online interactive presentation where along with photos and information about the paintings and pictures, you can hear Jim and Sue talk about their project. They even mention how some of the recreations are obvious to some, while others there can be some doubt. Funny though, it’s not always the same for everyone. What was particularly interesting was the story of Franklin Carmichael’s “Crooked Pine” (my opinion before reading about this was that was just the way they grow).

      However, the photos are just part of the story. One of their recreations was that of an iconic photo from 1935 of Franklin Carmichael painting at Grace Lake. They found the spot right down to the distinct rock where the painter is seated. (The village of Willisville has a great set of photos dedicated to the area).  Jim says that everyone that they take up there sits on the rock and quite naturally gazes in the same direction as Carmichael. Then one trip, the rock was gone. Jim and Sue thought that it may have been rolled down the hill somehow – most likely by someone – and figured that it may be recoverable. So they got a group together to find that 200 lb rock and haul it back up to its original location. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been, but Jim, Sue and friends were up to the task, restoring the spot as Carmichael would have seen it.

      In a few days I’ll be travelling through the area, and I am going to do my best at locating the spot for myself, and maybe even try my hand at the Carmicheal Gaze. I read periodically on forum posts reporting that the rock is still there, so I’m hopeful that will still be the case. I’ll of course let you know how it goes. Shortly after I get back I’m going to revisit the McMichael Gallery because I’m sure I’ll have an even greater appreciation of the Group of Seven paintings. I strongly urge you to check out the exhibit, but also to visit the landscape that started it all by spending some time in Killarney Provincial Park. It will become very clear how the area inspired the Group of Seven, their great works of art, and of course Jim and Sue Waddington’s story.


      UPDATE: I went to visit the site of Carmichael’s Rock. You can read about that here.