Recently, I decided to explore a part of our country that has been popular with some members of the Group of Seven: the La Cloche Mountains and the Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario. Specifically, I wanted to see Grace Lake, Nellie Lake and some other parts of Georgian Bay. With the time I had, I could have seen more, but I preferred to stay put for two or three days at a time and paint around the area before moving again. Travelling in these parts really made me feel like I was following in their footsteps and that I was paddling right into one of A.Y.Jackson’s or Carmichael’s painting. During the evening at camp, I was surrounded by seemingly familiar scenery. It made me reflect on those painters, their ideas about art and nationality, their particular relationship with the landscape, and their lasting influence.
The first time someone compared my work to the painters of the Group of Seven, I was flattered. The second time, well, I had to reflect about it. As much notoriety as the painters of the Group of Seven holds in Canadian art history, being packaged with them made me feel somewhat uneasy. Is it because I wouldn’t dare measure myself to their canonized status, or is it because their style and approach to art is passé?
Of course, every artist strives to have a distinct and original voice within the generation and time they live in. But that being said, is it possible to be considered original and relevant for our times if compared to painters that roamed our landscape almost 100 years ago? The motive behind the artwork is where, I think, lies the answer.
In my early twenties, with limited formal art studies behind me (I studied, and then worked part time in biology), I drove from New Brunswick to explore by canoe the Algonquin Park. I was already an avid canoeist and camper by that time. The forest, rivers and lakes had a particular way of capturing my imagination. And I was attracted by this park’s intricate maze of lakes, rivers and portage routes. I had brought with me a few pencils, and some watercolors so I could sketch while exploring the area. And I naïvely felt quite original by doing so. I spent about a week camping out and thus, completed a loop in the park’s interior. As I got out of the park and was putting my gear back into my pickup, I struck up a conversation with someone at the launching dock. When this person learned that I had been painting, he told me about an art gallery situated right in the park. So I decided to have a look before heading back on the long drive home.
As I entered the gallery, a lady greeted me and politely inquired about what I had been doing in the park. I explained that I had paddled a loop in the park interior, and did a few sketches along the way. She then exclaimed: « Oh! Just like Tom Thomson », and my response was: « Who’s Tom Thomson? ». Now, I’m a bit ashamed of that answer, but my biology studies, although very interesting, did not make me very knowledgable in art history. Coincidentally, the gallery had an exhibition of a couple of dozen of Tom Thomson’s early sketches. It is then that I had my first real glimpse of his work. I must admit that, at first, I had a hard time appreciating them, in part because I remember being astonished by the thick application of the paint and the use of striking colors.
Even with a limited knowledge of the art world, I knew that landscape painting was popular. But I thought that by bringing pencil and paper deeper into the wilderness and working in situ, expressing what it means to be connected to a living landscape in the midst of an ever changing weather and light, was pretty original. Though, seeing what Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven did, I quickly realized that that idea had long been explored. I really felt like my idea had been robbed. Although, at the same time, the ideas and the subject matter of the group felt so personal that I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship.
So what is a young artist to do? Well, learn from the masters of course! They had blazed a way for someone like me to freely paint the way I see and feel it. So I’ve spent a lot of time reading about their life and work, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, I visit galleries to see their original paintings. Have I been influenced by them? There is no doubt about it. My work does fall into the Canadian landscape painting tradition, but only because I live in it and respond to it, and have spent most of my younger years in the woods, following rivers and streams, looking up at stars, listening to the peeping pipers, fishing and building campfires. That is where I feel most at home. That is where I feel most alive and healthy. Why would I want to paint something else? And more importantly, could I paint something else as truthfully?
I invite you to read more about of Landscape Painting, an essay by Daniel Gallay: http://swallowdaily.com/2014/04/landscape/
To see more sketches from this trip: http://www.robertsgallery.net/dynamic/artist.asp?artistid=204