“Bring on the brand new renaissance…” Three Pistols. The Tragically Hip
The other night I saw a new documentary on the Canadian artist Tom Thomson called “The West Wind: A Vision of Tom Thomson”. It was your typical biographical sketch told by art historians, art collectors, and through letters and telegrams written by Thomson to his friends and family. There are a number of things that fascinate me about this artist. One thing is how very little is actually known about him besides the great body of work he left behind. What we do know is that he worked in Toronto as a commercial artist where he met many of the future members of the Group of Seven. This paid the bills, but as soon as the ice melted he would be on the first train north to Algonquin Park where he would camp, swim, canoe and of course paint. Later on during the war, he would work as a Fire Warden in the Park to supplement his income, but I think it was just an excuse to get out in nature and do his best to capture it on board and canvas. He was the “third pistol” referenced in the Tragically Hip song. From 1912 to 1917 he spent as much time as he could up there until he mysteriously disappeared one morning in July. More on that later.
I think I got my love of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven from my parents. Before I was born, they lived in Toronto for a couple of years in the early 1970’s. They discovered this little town just north of the city called Kleinburg. On weekends they would often go for a drive in the country and end up in Kleinburg, which had a disproportionate number of used bookstores, cafes and galleries along its quaint main street. But the real attraction to Kleinburg was the McMichael Canadian Collection, a privately run art gallery that was the defacto and spiritual home of The Group of Seven.
I was in elementary school the first time my parents took me up to Kleinburg. The idea of going to a boring old art gallery did not thrill me at all, but as I went from picture to picture I had an emotional reaction to these paintings. What were these things? They seemed to be painted with such urgency and immediacy. You could actually see the clumps of paint, stuck on there where they dried decades ago. I later found out that Tom Thomson and the others would often paint on small wooden boards so that they could take their supplies with them into the wild. The paintings looked almost rushed, like he was trying to get the colours right before he lost the light, or maybe he wanted to get that perspective rendered before that big storm blew in and ruined an afternoon’s worth of work. One of the commentators said that Thomson painted with “reckless abandon”, and I think that’s a great way to describe his style. I swear you could almost feel the cold wind on your face when you looked at them. His buddies were no slouches either. A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris in particular are stand outs for me. Hundreds of these “board paintings” survive to this day. Thomson and the others would sometimes take the boards and create full canvas paintings from the boards. Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes everything the artist needed to say was on those rough wooden boards. After that first visit, I became hooked. You could say I became a Group of Seven/Tom Thomson geek. I soon was able to identify each artist’s styles and idiosyncricies, (e.g. Varley was the only one to put people in his paintings. If you see a Group of Seven painting with a person in it, dollars to donuts you’re looking at a Varley, my friend). I say Tom Thomson/Group of Seven because Tom Thomson died before the Group ever officially showed together. In fact, it was probably because of Thomson’s untimely death that the Group showed together at all. It was a wake-up call for them that Canada’s renaissance needed to happen. If Thomson lived, it would surely have been the Group of Eight. As my co-worker Remi said, “The Group of Seven” has a much nicer ring to it. He’s right. The Group of Eight sounds like it could be a terrorist cell or something.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been back to Kleinburg, but I try to get there every time I’m in Southern Ontario. The bookshops and cafes have given way to sushi bars and Starbucks, and the town itself is nothing more than a curious extension of Islington St. now, but the Gallery hasn’t changed a bit. One day we’ll take our daughter there. Many of the Group are actually buried on site. When my parents first went there in the 1970’s, A.Y. Jackson was still living and making art on the property. One time when I visited there in the early 1990s A.J. Casson, the last living member of the Group, was visiting and had an exhibit. It was pretty cool to be in the presence of a “living legend”, but my heart was always with Tom Thomson.
His depictions of nature were sometimes so accurate, I actually used two of his “Northern Lights” paintings in Jr. High when I had to do a class report on the subject. I’m not sure what our science teacher thought of me using art to explain a scientific phenomenon, but I think my love of the subject (Thomson that is, not the northern lights) helped me squeak out a passing grade. I knew even then if I had to choose between arts or science, my heart was already with the arts.
In high school, I became a little obsessed with the mystery surrounding Thomson’s death. For a kid growing up on Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes stories, it couldn’t have been better. All we know is that Thomson rowed out on Canoe Lake alone in the early morning of July 8, 1917 and never came back. Later that day, his overturned canoe was found and 8 days later his body was spotted floating out in the middle of the lake. A number of theories have been put forward as to what happened. Could it have been simple drowning? Did he have a fight over wages with his boss and the fight turned physical? It was reported that the night before his death he had been at a party and had gotten into a fight with a hunter of german descent over Canada’s policies in WWI. Threats were uttered. My favourite theory involves a love triangle between a young lady and resident of Algonquin Park Winnifred Trainor, Thomson, and another man who had been sent off to war. Did the jealous soldier return? We do know that the side of Thomson’s head had a huge four inch gash in it consistent with a smack from a paddle. Since this all happened before the days of C.S.I., we will probably never really know the truth. The story is covered in much more detail in the excellent book “The Tom Thomson Mystery”, which I devoured cover to cover in high school.
There is even mystery surrounding his final resting place. After the body was brought on shore, it was immediately buried in the tiny cemetery at Canoe Lake. The coroner didn’t even see the body before he signed the Death Certificate. Two months later, Thomson’s father insisted that the body be exhumed and buried properly near Owen Sound. Only problem many local residents believe that the undertaker never took the body away with him. The exhumation site wasn’t very big and he did the job himself without any helpers. In the 1950’s a group of conspiracy theorists actually went up to the cemetery in Algonquin Park and dug around looking for proof. Well, they found a body all right. (I’m not making this up). Thomson’s family had the body “tested” using whatever state of the art forensics that were available in the 1950s and it was determined that the body these conspiracy dudes found was actually that of a young aboriginal male who just happened to be buried in the same spot as Thomson and just happened to have a 4 inch crack in the skull on the correct side as Thomson did. Just recently, modern forensic teams have done reconstructive analysis on that skull and have proven, in their minds, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the body at Canoe Lake is in fact Tom Thomson’s. If this is true, then who the heck is buried in Owen Sound? (cue scary music!)
Speaking of cueing the scary music, in high school I actually thought that this would make a wonderful movie. My friend Mary (of the social) and I set out to write a screenplay. We didn’t really get past the “treatment” stage, but I will always remember the opening scene I had in mind. It would be the arrival of the train at the Algonquin Park station. On it rides the inspector up from Toronto who had been assigned to this “famous painter missing person” case. He would get off the train, surrounded by steam and look around the lonely platform. The Park would be shown as beautiful with just a hint of menace. I was really influenced by “Twin Peaks” in those days so I imagined the inspector to be sort of a “Special Agent Dale Cooper” archetype. As he interviewed the various quirky characters in the Park, we would then tell Thomson’s story through flashbacks. The inspector would send telegrams back to Toronto explaining his progress (or lack thereof) on the case. I even had a director picked out: David Cronenberg. And if he wasn’t available I’d settle for Atom Egoyan. In high school, you’re invincible, right?
A couple of years later, when I wasn’t feeling so invincible, my friend Ed sprung me from the hospital for the day. There was a Tom Thomson exhibit on at our local art gallery and he thought I’d like to see it. It was like a geek’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. We spent the morning looking at comics, Arby’s for lunch, and the afternoon at the gallery. Ed just had his wisdom teeth out the day before and he was still pretty bruised and swollen. He had these codeine pills that he had to take every four hours for the pain. At one point the pain was getting pretty bad for him and we were looking all over the art gallery for a water fountain. We were quite the pair. Here was one guy who looked like he just got out of a fight, popping pills and slurping down water, drooling it down the front of him, and here was this other unshaven sketchy looking guy wearing a hospital bracelet from a psych ward. We both realized how absurd we looked and we got the giggles. We just couldn’t stop laughing at our situation and it felt so good to have a break from all the literal insanity and just have this amazing day with my best friend. I don’t remember the Tom Thomson exhibit at all, but I DO remember getting followed around by a security guard for the rest of our visit. Whenever we saw him we’d whisper to each other, “Oh shit! There he is. Look NORMAL!” and that would set off a new round of laughter and tears.
When we bought our house and were deciding on colours for the living room and bedrooms, a friend of my wife’s brought by a “Group of Seven” colour palette as a joke. The joke was on her, because we both really liked, no loved, the idea of painting our house in Group of Seven colours. The barley colour in our living room is the same colour that Tom Thomson used in many of his tamarack sketches, I’ll have you know.
About four years ago my wife and I were visiting her relatives’ cottage just southeast of Algonquin Park in late June. I was talking to her uncle Herb about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I always imagined Canoe Lake as being unreachable by foot. Sort of unattainable by mere mortals, you know? I was surprised when Herb said, “Heck no! It’s right off the highway. You’ll see it tomorrow when you drive through the park on your way to North Bay.” I couldn’t believe it! Was I actually going to see the lake where Tom Thomson lived, painted and ultimately died? Well I did. It was pretty great to actually see the place, but it didn’t look at all like the mental picture I’ve carried all these years. For one, it was July 1st and the height of summer. No mist, no fall colours. For another, it is now the main launch for most canoe trips into the park, so there’s a restaurant, tackle and gear shop, and canoe rental place. There was even a goddammed guy selling hotdogs! It wasn’t exactly mysterious, you know? I spent a half hour or so wandering along the shore taking it all in, imagining what it must have looked like a century ago. I realized from all I’ve learned about the lake that it probably wasn’t all that remote and pristine even then. Even in Tom Thomson’s day there was a huge “Mowat Lodge” situated on the lake and the main railway station wasn’t very far away. I took a picture of the plaque that you could reach by foot, and debated about renting a canoe to get to the monument one can only see by canoe, but time dictated a short stop. By the time I got back to the beach, my wife had gotten out her watercolours and was jotting down a quick sketch. I teased her, “You need a wooden board and oils to make it legit!”. She gave me a look and carried on. She knew we didn’t have alot of time but she thought it was only appropriate to paint Canoe Lake in the flesh. At the rate she was going, you could almost say she was painting with reckless abandon.
The summer after I got out the hospital for good I had a few days in Toronto by myself. I didn’t have a car, but I found out how to take the bus to Kleinburg. It wouldn’t have been right not to go. It wasn’t that I even wanted to go so much as I just had to go. Does that make any sense at all? When I got to the gallery, it felt like a sort of homecoming. The paintings hadn’t lost any of their lustre.