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?

Mo Paddles 2012

The Frozen Offseason

November usually marks the end of my portaging season, when I begin to dedicate my time more to indoor pursuits and, sadly, less about being out in the wilderness. Yep, this is the start of “The Frozen Offseason”. For one thing, I have a lot of writing to do. This year was a great one, and I’ll be telling you guys all about it. I’ve also got a few projects and changes coming up of the winter. Oh, and there’s still some fun activities to preoccupy the restless Portageur while the rivers are solid. Speaking of which, November also marks the most fun time of the year: Mo Paddles!

Sacrificing this baby face for charity

Once again, a group of Paddling and Outdoor companies have got together to raise funds and awareness for Men’s Health by growing some sweet, sweet mustaches. This is the second year in a row, so officially we can add the title “Annual” to Mo Paddles. That’s exciting! We had a lot of fun last year, so of course we were going to try to do it again.

Last year we put things together quite quickly. It was a relatively impromptu thing, an idea put together in only a few weeks. With extra time to plan, we got a few more participants, some even better prizes and we even have a website dedicated to the event. This year, 3 mustache sprouters have decided to compete their growing abilities against each other, and we’re letting people in on the fun by making them choose a winner. The best part is that every time you vote, your name gets entered into one of 4 prize draws. For more information on the contest, checkout the website: portaguer/mopaddles. Along with the prizes, we’ve added a bunch of fun jokes and features to the site. Vote, you’ll see what I mean.

Wait, what’s Movember?

If you’ve never heard of Movember, it’s a month long campaign to raise funds and awareness for Men’s Health. It’s a world-wide initiative where men grow mustaches for the entire month to raise funds and awareness for men’s health – in particular prostate and testicular cancer. The idea is to remind men to get themselves checked out. It’s not a fun experience to check for Men’s Health Issues – downright embarrassing and uncomfortable, really – but going through this will find these potentially fatal conditions early, when they can be perfectly preventable and treatable. Movember is fun, a celebration of being a man, and what better way to be silly and manly than to grow a mustache. And of course because of all the fun, it makes it much easier to talk about pretty serious issues that often we men shy away from.

2008 – My very first Mo

Challenge #1

This is my fifth mustache I’ve grown. In 2008 it was pretty tough. Not many people knew about Movember, and let’s just say the idea of sporting a mustache wasn’t a popular fashion choice. As I went about my day, I would run into people, some that I knew, some that I didn’t. I felt this strong need to explain that the weird decision to grow hair on my upper lip was for a good cause. I saw the look on the faces of friends you bump into, grocery store clerks, business contacts, family members… I wanted to tattoo my forehead with “I’m doing this for charity!” It was a challenge, to say the least. Every now and then, I’d hear “Nice mustache.” Never knowing whether they were being sarcastic – no safely assuming they were being sarcastic. Either way, I’d get a chance to explain what I was doing. Most of the feedback was the same. They thought it was an interesting idea to raise awareness. It certainly got people’s attention, to say the least. And it got us talking about Men’s Health issues. At the end of the month I happily shaved knowing I did my part.

2009 – Cropped Mo

The second time

After a successful first run, and based on the amount of support and expectations of those around me, I was up for another challenge. The “rules” for Movember state that you must shave on November 1st, starting with a “clean shaven face”, and grow and groom your mustache. This makes growing a mustache an overt, intentional act. If I’m being perfectly honest, the first year I did what a lot of people do, hiding behind an outrageously big, over the top, bushy mustache. It started out as a “handle-bar”, but it turned out to be just a short strip of skin away from a goatee (or more precisely a “Van Dyke”, which is the technical term for a goatee with a mustache – an example of specific knowledge you gain participating in Movember, but anyway…) This time I was going to make sure to grow something that would never be mistaken for anything other than a true mustache. In that sense, Year 2 was more of a challenge.

2010 – I dubbed this one “The Cop”

Even Challengier

For Year 3, I decided that I’d have to take the next step. Here’s the thing: Growing a bushy or outrageous mustache is easy (or at least easier). It’s over-the-top, camp and quite clear that you’re joking around with your facial hair, like putting on a costume. What would be more brave, at least I thought, would be to grow an authentic mustache. With Movember becoming popular, I wanted something that people might think twice about whether or not I was growing it for charity, or it was my normal look. I’d shave it down to just my upper lip, and even trim the hair towards the end of the month if it got too bushy. Turns out I didn’t need to trim too often, just a few times on the last couple of days. But I was happy with the results. Not happy with the look of the mustche – oh no, it looked horribly creepy – but with the fact that I had been able to test my social resolve, walking around in public with this thing on my face: an intentional, groomed, I’ll even say “real”, mustache.

I should probably mention that I’m not big on rules necessarily, but they’re made to make Movember a bit more focused and challenging. Often people have consulted me on the rules, as I follow them relatively strictly, but I don’t hold other people to them. There’s no “Movember Police”, I tell them. I think it’s more important people participate than follow the rules. If you need to get a head start, or shave down mid-month, or grow something outrageous, you do what you have to do. You’re doing it, that’s what’s important. Way more important than some mustache rules. 

2011 – “The Zappa”

Grooming Challenge

After the success of the previous year, I was looking for a bigger challenge. Normally I receive a lot of input on the style I should grow. Some suggestions require an unrealistic amount of hair – most men can’t grow a Salvador Dali in only 30 days. Other suggestions are impractical. For example, I have, and never will, grow a “Hitler Mustache”. There’s always a few people would tell me to do that, giggling when they do. Yes, if I was looking for a challenge, sporting that would certainly be difficult, obviously. But because of the negative and even offensive nature of that look, I wouldn’t want it to detract from what I was doing. So I guess what I’m saying is please stop asking.

That said, I found the previous year a little challenging with all the grooming. I don’t like to shave every day, and have no styling or artistic talent. No, seriously. Year 4’s challenge would be to sport something that had to be maintained. I went with what I was calling a “Frank Zappa”. It would be bigger, and require much more precision with the razor, on a daily basis. According to the Movember rules, you’re allowed a “soul patch” – a slight bit of facial hair under the bottom lip, so long as it didn’t touch the chin – so I decided I’d indulge for this year, adding to the mustache complexity. It was a challenge. I know this because I loathed managing the mustache every morning. But it worked, and some even recognized what I was doing. I’d say it was a success.

2011 – “The Pencil”

This year

Naturally, I decided to take it up another notch for Year 5. What was the creepiest, hard-to-maintain mustache I could grow? The “Pencil” mustache. Unlike the others, I’d have to keep it trimmed down regularly, require much more precise shaving, and I’d look like a complete idiot. Now this is an overt mustache. I have no idea how I’ve been able to walk around like this. It’s funny, because while it’s much smaller than all the other mustaches I’ve grown, it seems to stand out the most.

Why I do it

I took to Movember the way I take to most things, like I took to portaging. First, I needed to try it, to see if I could do it. Then I would challenge myself a bit more each time, but instead of going further or faster or to more exotic locations, for Movember I would find different ways to accept new challenges. Despite my public exposure, I’m actually a bit shy and anxious when it comes to standing out. You should see my wardrobe: everything is grey and black, t-shirts, jeans and shorts. The idea of walking around with a mustache a few years ago caused a lot of anxiety just thinking about it. That’s why I did it. You should do something that scares you every now and then. That, and I thought it would be funny.

But what really kept me going the next years were all the people who have since approached me and the feedback they’ve given. I am lucky enough not to have been affected by Prostate or Testicular Cancer or any other Men’s Health issues. Like most people, I didn’t know how many people were because sadly it’s not something we like to talk about – especially us men. The conversations I’ve had with a mustache on my face have been, to say the least, moving. They tell me about their father’s struggle or their grandfather’s preventable death, their uncle’s or brother’s or husband’s ordeal. Every now and then it’s their own story I hear. I’ve got to tell you, when someone thanks you for doing this, it’s a bit over-whelming. To find out that so many people around you have a story about Men’s Health Issues is shocking. The fact that it took some kooky facial hair to get us talking is a bit sad. But then again, it got us talking, and that’s really the point of all this.

So help me raise awareness. Talk about it, mention it to your friends, checkout my silly photos on Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to hear more comments on my progress – encouraging or funny, either/or. Checkout Movember Canada. Consider growing your own Mo, or supporting someone who does, or voting for the best mustache, and if you can spare it, donate.

Most importantly, get yourself checked out. Early detection makes for successful prevention.

… Now what should I grow for next year?