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?

Worst Campsite I’ve Stayed On, Ever … So Far

NOTE: I normally don’t like to dwell on the negative. We had a great time on this past long weekend, not really stressing about anything because after all, we were on vacation. But for fun, I’m going to focus on some annoyances for a bit. I hope you enjoy it, and that I don’t give off the wrong impression. Nothing in this post came even close to ruining our good time. I hope that if you’ve never run into anything mentioned, this post doesn’t deter you from getting out there portaging. Oh, and there’s also some stuff that might unintentionally offend Germans, and some implied nudity. Enjoy!

Like most of us, I like my wilderness experience with at least the illusion of being away from civilization. Going to one of the big, popular provincial parks, with all it amenities and infrastructure gives you just that, but also offer things that quickly break that illusion. For example, I’m not a big fan of going to the popular areas of the interior on long weekends, but after the long and weird planning and organizing of this last trip I was on, I found myself going to Joe Lake on Labour Day – along with a huge number of other people. Seeing people, hearing people, you expect a bit of that, and I’m far from a back-woods snob who expects to have the park all to myself. In fact, that’s why I advocate portaging so much – with each carry-over, there are less and less people willing to follow. Take the energy you’re wasting on complaining about all the people (and their “evidence, you know what I mean,) and go over another portage. This is where I’ll become a bit of a hypocrite, having a little fun complaining because I didn’t take my own advice.

Taking some time to visit Tom Thomson

The Labour of a Long Weekend

Next to the August long weekend (Simcoe Day or whatever we’re calling it now), the Labour Day long weekend is the most popular for getting outdoors. For a lot of people, it’s the last chance to get out there before they or their kids go back to school. Typically, the traffic’s bad going up, somehow worse on the way back, every stop is crowded and if you haven’t booked your reservations months in advance, the pickin’s are slim. In the portaging world, it’s “prime real estate. ” If you’re wanting to go anywhere good within a Provincial Park anywhere south of North Bay, mark your calendars for the first Monday in April (5 months). This is the first chance you’ll get to book your preferred reservation and not be stuck scrambling. There’s usually a spot somewhere of course, and after some procrastination with the planning of this trip, we took what we could get.

We were trying to create the perfect “Family Trip”, one that made it easy to take the kids on, taking into consideration safety, effort and short attention spans, all without giving up the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere. (Algonquin is perfect for this because of some of its easy portages, amenities and the fact that you can cover a huge distance without ever being a kilometer or less than the highway.) We had a few plans laid out, but with some procrastination, the time flew by. We had to change from those options to whatever was available, and not too far out. So that basically means one of the spots where there were plenty of campsites, which as you can imagine means plenty of people. This is why I found myself standing in a long line to pick up my permits at the Canoe Lake put-in – somewhere I avoid like an extremely painful plague that corners you and tells boring stories at parties.

Having spent the night before at a local campground, I expected to get up, grab a big breakfast at the Portage Store – one benefit of a popular put-in – and be on the water by about 9 or 10. Because the campsite wasn’t too far off, I figured conservatively to be there by noon, maybe 1:00 – you know, because the kids would slow us down a bit. The kids we brought with us were 5, 7, 13 and 16, along with 3 adults who had never been portaging before, and this would be the perfect easy introduction. We’d keep things slow paced, take a few side trips to see some of the Tom Thomson landmarks, including his cairn on Hayhurst Point, then casually cross over to Joe Lake and pick an appropriate campsite. Absolute worst case scenario, we’d be stopping to feed the kids some granola bars to keep them going until a late lunch around 2:00 after setting up camp and cooking. (I planned out some fun meals for the kids). How naive could I have been?

Our view from the campsite. How can you complain about that, really?

Long lines

Instead, we were just on the water at 1:00. There were tonnes of people waiting in line for permits, loads of them waiting to get their canoe rentals, then another crowd to pick up PFDs and paddles. That’s not even mentioning the hoards you needed to navigate through to get anywhere, including the fun trying to park your car. (I always find it amazing that people are willing to spend the weekend exerting themselves paddling, but will jam their car in ridiculous spots that inconvenience everyone else, just to save them from walking a few hundred meters… but I digress.) Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.

After a couple of stops to visit some landmark sites (which was quite fun, by the way, but for the purpose of humour, I’m going to focus on the negative), we made it to our first portage. This particular portage is pretty popular (say that three times fast). It’s also the easiest “portage” I’ve ever carried over. It’s 300m, completely flat and covered with gravel. Basically, it’s a road – with the traffic to prove it. While it’s perfect for first-timers, kids or anyone with mobility issues, giving them the experience (and bragging rights) of actually portaging, it also means that it doesn’t fit the rule I mentioned above about keeping people less likely to follow you. In fact, it’s the “exception” portage that allows you to bring along a whole bunch of things you normally wouldn’t on a normal trip because of the bulk or weight. To me, that meant bringing a small cooler for fresh food at the campsite, and for fun, even a camping chair. (I used this as a reward system. Whoever did the most camp chores got the comfy seat. Now that I think about it though, I don’t remember ever sitting on it. Huh….) If we had to make a few trips on this “portage” it’s not a big deal.

Did I mention the traffic? Yeah, this little spot has been dubbed “Young Street North” because of how many people you’ll come across, and the canoe and gear traffic jam that inevitably ensues. As each canoe glided on shore, another swooped in right beside it. You have to pick your spot and get in there – or heaven forbid, wait for one. Normally I preach about the “routine” of portaging: Take out, get out of the canoe, pull your gear out and place it out of the way, then do the same with your boat, then get yourself organized (eat something, rest, have a chat etc.), then carry over. You never know when someone’s going to be coming along, and the last thing you want – they want – is for all your stuff to be plugging up the portage, having to step over all your stuff, assuming they can even get on shore. Of course at a busy portage, this technique is essential, but the least likely place where it’s going to be followed. There’s also plenty of those people who just want to stand in your way. What’s that about?

It becomes very important that you place your gear in the same spot, as things tend to inter-mingle. Coupled with the crowding, accidentally picking up someone else’s stuff, or having to move other people’s stuff to get at yours, things can get tense. Nothing like this happened this weekend, but I’ve been witness to arguments, cursing, shouting, pushing and shoving, and in one case almost a full-blown physical encounter in this situation. (Why!? You’re supposed to be on vacation!) To make things a bit more interesting, with everyone using the same outfitter, using the same canoes, at one point when I went to get the canoe I looked back and couldn’t figure out which one was mine. (One of our canoes even had a blue yoke pad, sitting beside another canoe that had the identical blue yoke pad!)

Nancy certainly didn’t mind this campsite, with squirrels to chase and a nice place to relax.

A break from the negative

The portage was a riot (the funny kind – just wanted to make that clear considering what I just wrote)! With the ease and short length, people were portaging the funniest things: Full sized coolers, enormous tents, inflatable water toys, barbecues, grills (which I – ahem – assume they brought back with them of course), and even a bag of take-out food. They used all kinds of ways to trasport their stuff too, like hockey bags, duffel bags and even a rolling suitcase! Why not. This is about the only place you could get away with that kind of portage (comfortably), so I say have at it. I remember my first trip. This is really how you learn – the hard way, mind you, but that’s often the lessons that are learned best.

… and now back to complaining

Once we stepped over, around and under people and their gear on both sides of the portage, we were on our way paddling Joe Lake. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful lake. The wind on our back. So too were about a dozen canoes, and about the same number in front of us. We were suddenly in that situation everyone worries about: The race to get a (good) campsite. Normally, I’m the type of person who feels bad about this race, knowing that my gain is someone else’s loss. The worst part of this race is often you have one of those “left or right” dilemmas, which means if you go in one direction and don’t find a site available, you have to paddle all the way back to go in the other direction. The kids in our group were getting grumpy by this time, and I knew if we had to double back we’d have one of those little kid freak-out mutinies on our hands. I counted the number of canoes ahead of us, then counted the number of campsites in our direction and didn’t like my odds, especially considering there were probably other campers who were already at camp. I swear to you I didn’t mean to do this on purpose, but we started passing canoe after canoe, and I have to admit I felt a little bad that the slower canoes would be travelling the furthest. When the kids started full-on whining however, my thoughts suddenly turned darker, as my paddle strokes became more enthusiastic, and was determined that the math of canoes in front vs. sites remaining would be soon fixed in our favour. (I wonder if anyone else knew we were racing?)

When we got around a point, the first sites started coming into view. Occupied. Then another, also occupied. The math isn’t working out. Others started asking me about the likelihood of over-booking. “No, no,” I’d say cheerfully, “There’s always a site somewhere.” To be perfectly honest now, I started to have doubts. The seven year old in my canoe had to pee. No, this won’t do, can’t it wait? Nope. We pulled over. I pretended to smile and wait patiently. I think I pulled it off. “There’s one!” someone yelled, “Nope. Occupied, sorry.” There was one site left on this side of the lake, and one canoe ahead of us, with two speedy paddlers obviously intent on grabbing it. I was about to turn the canoe around and hope we’d find something on the other side of the lake (but more importantly that the kids would keep in decent moods), when suddenly the speedsters ahead of us just kept going past the empty site in view. Suckers! We grabbed it up like the last piece of chocolate on the dessert tray left with nothing else but recycled decade old fruitcake. As I unloaded the canoes I felt bad. First, because of the guilt I was trained with having over something like this, instilled in me by all good mothers like my own (really regretting the “Suckers!” comment now). Second, because I realized I got caught up in something that shouldn’t be. Only a place like Joe Lake on a long weekend could cause this, and I shouldn’t have ever agreed to take part. (To further the chocolate/fruitcake analogy, I should have let the little girl behind me have it, and just bought my own chocolate on the way home. I definitely shouldn’t have eating it in front of her, dancing around singing “In your face”/”Losers, Weepers”. Not that this has ever happened.)

We managed to visit the Canoe Lake Cemetery to pay our respects to Tom Thomson. Someone left there homework there. Hmm…

Karma makes you itch (Is that the expression?)

We had originally planned to get a couple of campsites we checked out last year when we stayed there (smartly, off-season). The one we had camped at was great, especially for June, as it had a great open flat space to let the wind take care of the bugs. Later in the season, while we certainly would have been happy with that campsite, further down there was a bigger shaded site that would have better suited our large group. Oh how naive was I, thinking I would have our pick? Yeah… perhaps it was because of the “Sucker!” comment because instead, we were left with a rather small, severely un-flat site. As an added bonus, our view included both coveted sites, each that would barely be used as their occupants were out site-seeing (or whatever) from sun-up to sun-down. (Not that I was keeping track, obsessed on what-could-have-been or anything.) Often when choosing a campsite, we have a group discussion on which we’d prefer seeing, the sunset or sunrise, to determine which we choose. This site had views of neither. None of these things would normally bother me or my other trips, often not being at camp for very long anyway, but all these things taken together (flatness, view, space, etc.) and expecting to be there for multiple days, I can’t say I was thrilled with this site. (We made the most of it though, and it certainly didn’t come close to ruining our trip. Most of the group didn’t even notice.)

Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick, Boom Chick…

I mentioned that the short portage made for some interesting things being carried over, and while I didn’t notice it at the time, this apparently also included a radio with some powerful speakers and some floating fire lanterns. Just after dusk, we spotted some strange lights coming from the other side of the lake, rising into the horizon. It took us a while to figure out what they were. Apparently there was some kind of festival going on over there. I worried about the lanterns burning down the forest, but later I was more focused on the dance music that started. It was loud, and would carry on until the wee hours of the night. There is truly nothing like repetitive, incessant bass to enhance your wilderness experience. Who wants loons, owls or those annoying wolf howls? I had thoughts of paddling over there, really, really early of course, and start singing those annoying camp songs. You know the ones, where they repeat over and over and get in your head. Yeah, if I believed in doing things like that, I would have been over there. Did I mention I’m a horrible singer? Needless to say, a campsite that is dance-club adjacent is not what I would call ideal.

Even the loons get used to how busy this lake can get

Bet it gets better…

The truly worst part about this campsite was that there were trails runing to and from our site. At first, I thought this was neat. When the first hikers came through, I ran up to ask where they were coming from, interested in possibly venturing out at some point to see where the trails went. Apparently the hikers came from the Arrowhon Pines Resort, one of the few roofed resorts located within the park. You can drive right up to the resort, and after a twenty minute hike, be right at my campsite. Neat. Apparently the resort maintains the trails for their guests, complete with ugly orange marking tape every few feet to show you the way. Nothing like periodic visits by hiking resort guests to shatter the illusion of being out in the middle of the wilderness. (On a positive note, this would be a great site for the safety concious, as help is just a run down the trail away. So in a way, this would be good for the “Family Trip”.)

Invaded by Germans

Realistically, the hikers weren’t a problem. Most were just walking by, making their way past us without issue, and the trails were a few hundred feet behind the main campsite area. Except for the illusion, this really wasn’t something to complain about. Except for two particular incidents. The first was a little weird. We were hanging out on Sunday, and with the group going off on a little paddle or swim, I figured I’d take the opportunity to make some videos, in particular one on making coffee in the wild. That’s when a group of loudly speaking German hikers showed up along the aforementioned trail, with one of them continuing on down into our campsite. He proceeded to walk past everyone, right to the shore, then started taking pictures from absolutely every vantage point. I thought at one point he was documenting each and every tree. He had trampled right over our campsite, completely ignoring the occupants and any sense of privacy we might have expected. Thank goodness we were all dressed and decent (this is going to be funny in a moment). It was like we were just part of the scenery, or actors meant to make the campsite look more authentic for the tourists, like those kids they hire and dress up at Disneyland. Perhaps they were a little disappointed to find us not singing or selling keychains. His friend appeared a little embarrassed, staying back on the trail, giving me one of those “Sorry about my friend” looks. I wonder whether he expected to be served the coffee I made. (Maybe I was misinterpreting his friends look.) Strangely, once he was done, our guest simply carried on, saying a rather indifferent “Hello” on his way out. Why mention that they were German? At the risk of offense, it justified the whole “Invading” joke. My apologies.

Watch my face in the video above. I’m a bit notorious for not being able keep my facial expressions from revealing what I’m thinking. These wouldn’t be the only guests we’d receive throughout the weekend, but none made it to the campfire again.

A Much Worse Invasion (of Privacy)

Oh yeah, did I mention that the trails ran right past our campsite privy? Yeah. The trails ran right past our campsite privy. As an added bonus, it was at the crossroads of the longer and shorter version of the trail, so sitting there, random hikers could come from one of three directions. Nice! I’ve been on some sites with a privy in exposed areas, and others that were uncomfortably close to the campsite. With some strategy, this can be resolved by choosing when to use it (like when everyone else is asleep).

We had some close calls, with someone coming down from … using the facilities… when a hiker would be spotted shortly afterwards. Because some of us were back-country camping for the first time, a typical concern was raised about two people visiting the privy at the same time. I offered my usual tip, which is to keep all the toilet paper together in a big zip lock bag. That way, if someone goes for it and it’s missing, they know “it’s occupied”. This led to jokes about announcing rather loudly that you’re using the privy, just in case. We laughed about this. It was funny. That is until it happened. You see, the hikers from Arrowhon don’t know where we keep the toilet paper, and can’t hear you no matter how loud you yell your intention to have some private time to yourself. Yep. You’ve probably guessed already what I’m about to say. I’m just glad it happened to me and not one of the new campers, as this would probably turn into their last camping trip.

I’m not going to get too graphic here, but let’s just say I was seated, alone, and well, still needed a bit of time. This isn’t exactly a position you can easily just get up and leave from, even if you do get enough notice. Needless to say when two hikers came around the corner, we were all speechless. At first, there was a moment of paralyzing shock. I’m pretty sure it was just a few seconds, but it seemed like an awfully long time. I tried my best “Sorry. What can you do” look, waving them on. Their gazes shot down to their feet. What do you do in this situation? They shuffled by, and as you can imagine giving me as wide a birth as they could, and just kept walking. None of us said a word.

When I made my way back to the campsite, I debated not mentioning this to anyone. That’s just not me however. It was too funny not to share, even if it was at my expense. Everyone agreed that this was the highlight of the weekend.

So what do you think? What makes a bad campsite in the interior? Poor view? No space? “Interesting” scenery? Cleanliness? Privacy?

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.