February 23, 1917 Stronger Light

February 23, 1917

UrNBbm4The light is stronger now. It’s still a far way from spring, but the sun’s rays are stronger and the light is coming into the Shack earlier in the morning. By 7am, it’s as bright as it can be during the day. The morning sun comes through the windows, the rays onto my working canvas.

The stronger light is lifting my spirits. Spring is not far away. It’s making me yearn to up North as soon as I can. I remember Alex going up to Mowat Lodge by himself and it was pretty miserable for him. It’s only Shannon and his family during the wintertime and they only kept the kitchen stove on the north side of the lodge going.  Alex froze in his room, just like the water jug. I’ll wait until it gets a bit warmer, later in March.

The opening of the Spring Exhibition is just two weeks away, on March 9th. The Hanging Committee has finalized their selection and Jim is working on the program now. They set the date for the OSA Annual meeting for March 13th. I heard that Florence, Frank Carmichael and Frank Johnston have been nominated as members and will be elected at the meeting.

I’m working up another large canvas. It’s large. It should  keep me occupied for a while – not just my hands, but my mind too. When I put my efforts into a new canvas, it takes my mind away from all the things going on. But sooner or later, the world pulls me back. It’s an escape, but the real escape will be to leave from here.

February 13, 1917 Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day

February 13, 1917

TT ProfileTomorrow is Valentine’s and I’ve been thinking about Winnie.

Winnie was 27 years old when I first met her in 1912. I was 34 then. At that age she was considered to be a spinster, and at my age, I was a bachelor but that was much less called into question than spinsterhood. Men were expected to be free until decided to settle down in their own time. This was not the case for women, and I believe this had a bearing on her parents’ view of her and of me.

Up North, when Winnie and are together, we have a grand time.  I enjoy her company as she’s not like the other women.  She has a love of the outdoors and we’ve spent many pleasant hours together, fishing and canoeing. Her parents have come to know me well and I know they have the expectation that the relationship would become more formal one day.

I should write a short Valentine’s note to Winnie. I’ve been so absorbed in my painting that I didn’t think of it until now. If I mail it first thing tomorrow, she might get it with the Saturday morning mail.

February 3, 1917 Winter Storm

February 3, 1917

UrNBbm4Another winter storm has come. About 8 inches of snow came down last night. Heavy stuff. It’s weighing down the branches and some are breaking off. The city has all but given up on clearing the smaller streets. Too much snow. The road down into the ravine is little more than a toboggan run. The cars can’t  go on these roads anymore , only the horses and sleds and, of course, kids on toboggans.

I was out snowshoeing this afternoon and ran headlong into the Rosedale Women’s Snowshoeing Club. There was about a dozen of them, all bundled in sweaters and mufflers. I bid them good afternoon and gave the wide berth. I didn’t want to risk being presented with a white feather.

Back at the Shack I started a new canvas. It’s of geese flying south for the winter. Jim MacDonald said he was working on painting of wild ducks and I thought I’d try my hand at painting a scene of geese flying that I did at Round Lake in late summer. I’ll use the same composition in the sketch but I plan to set the canvas in late November. I’ll use the same colours that I used for the log drive canvas.

I should write some letters. I owe one to Father. One to Winnie too. I received a letter from George and he wants me to visit him in Connecticut in the spring. I don’t think I’d be able to afford the fare and back.

February 2, 1917 Like a Sketch

February 2, 1917

TT ProfileI must write my journal entries like I paint my sketches, rough, fast and in the moment with no mediating filter. It’s been a few days since my last. I’ve been preoccupied with my canvases, they don’t want to let me go. When I’m at the easel, I feel like I’m in a boxing match. I try to last the ten rounds, but I can never deliver a knockout. The canvas is ready to fight me fresh again the next day.

I’m writing while lying in my bunk. The light is poor, the position is awkward, but when I think of all those letters coming home from boys with their writing blocks and pencils in the trenches, I don’t have it so bad.

There’s rumour of a coal shortage coming this month. The trains that bring it up from the States might stop running because of strikes. It doesn’t affect me, I get the wood from the bush, but it will hurt others hard. It’s been terribly cold these past few weeks and anything wooden that isn’t tied down is stolen for fuel.

I’m reminded that today is Candlemas Day. February 2 is the depth of winter. It’s on this day that you’d check your hay, and if you had half left, you wouldn’t have a shortage in the spring. I’m not sure what I have left, but it feels less than half. My cash is getting low. Shannon Fraser has $250 credit with me because of the loan I gave him. I can draw on that when I go North. I just need enough to get through the next two months and enough for the fare. I can do jobs for my board when I’m up there.

It’s cozy up here. The heat from stove comes up and it stays warm well into the night. I can see my canvases down below. At night, they stay on Earth while I am in Heaven. The electrical lights on the streets outside bring a light through the window and makes shadows of the panes of the floor. The frost on the panes, I can see their shadows on the floor too. It’s never quiet. I can hear the constant din of construction of the Bloor St Viaduct. It seems to get louder every night. I can hear the whistles of the trains from all directions. The rumble of the York and Radial is regular and close by. It usually lulls me to sleep.

Jim MacDonald is asking me again if I’m going to exhibit. this spring. I’ve got some good stuff down below. But to show any of it and put it for sale I can’t see the point. Nobody’s buying art.

Foreword [Book Draft]

Foreword

UrNBbm4When Tom Thomson disappeared on July 8, 1917 he didn’t leave a lot behind. His room was nearly empty and the few items he left behind at Mowat Lodge were of little value. When his canoe was found with its provisions stashed under a rubber sheet in the bow, Tom was nowhere to be seen.  Maybe he was stranded ashore with a broken leg. But the hope that he was alive and would return quickly dwindled and was dashed eight days later when a submerged body was dislodged by a little girl’s fishing line.

Tom’s  disappearance (or death as most would believe) was a mystery to all but a very few. Tom was an enigma, preferring to sit in the corner by the fireplace reading alone. Tom would disappear for days on end. ‘Tom’s gone sketching,’ was the standard answer to his spells of disappearance. Tom came and went as he pleased and he liked it that way. It was freedom. Or it looked like freedom to others.

Many thought Tom couldn’t write. It may be a surprise that he kept a journal. Tom was known as a fisherman, a guide, an artist, not as a writer. As his few letters attest,  Tom never had much to say to others, in words that is.

Tom’s journal was unlike his letters. It wasn’t meant to be read by others. It was a record of a sort. His mind was full of images and words but his outward expression was in sketches, canvases and drawings. No one knew Tom was keeping a journal. It was private, recording his thoughts, intending these thoughts to help him with his work. Tom never intended his journal to tell another story, until now. His sketches and paintings expressed what Tom saw, what Tom felt, but his journal captured what he experienced.

This Tom’s daily journal from March 1, 1917 through to his disappearance on that fateful day of July 8, 1917. Never say ‘death’ because despite the rumours, hearsay and evidence, Tom’s ultimate fate was never truly known – until his journal reappeared.

Follow the journey of Tom Thomson’s last days on this earth. Follow Tom’s final days in Toronto, going up North, his time in Algonquin Park, and to that final grey day in July when he met his fate.

P. S. You can follow Tom Thomson on Twitter too. Relive his final days at @TTLastSpring. Ask him a question about his art, the mystery, or life as it was in 1917. He might respond.

January 23, 1917 Letter to Father

January 23, 1917

TT ProfileMonday, Studio Building,Severn Street, Toronto

Dear Father,

I got both your letters Saturday night. The first one had got down behind the directory in the hall and was out of sight until I looked for it where I got two other letters for people in the building.

The cranberries were shipped from Achray between North Bay and Pembroke on the CN. I think they are charging too much as I was only charged 55 cents for two boxes the same size and weight, and a packsack weighing more than both together, that included  delivering from the shed to my place which is three miles, so you can see that compared with my stuff, they are charging more.

I will pay the freight myself later on as I could not do so at the place they were shipped from. There is no agent at Achray and the conductor could not attend to it on the train.

I was very sorry to hear that you have all been ill and hope that you will get over it quickly.  I hope that Peggie didn’t start away too soon after her sickness and that she will be all right at North Bay.  For myself I have been first rate and am getting considerable work done. It is too bad about your first letter but I have fixed the board so it cannot happen again.

Hoping you folks are all well soon.

I am your affectionate son,

Tom

January 19, 1917 Night at the Arts and Letters Club

January 19, 1917

TT ProfileLast night was quite the spectacle at the Arts and Letters Club. It wasn’t what happened during the formal proceedings and program but what happened after. It took me the better part of the day to get out of mood so I could write. I didn’t do any painting today.

When I was working in the commercial business, I preferred in my off-hours to go to the tea-rooms instead of joining a luncheon and dinner club. Most everyone else joined a club, but I saw enough of my chaps at work that I didn’t need to see them at lunch and dinner too. I needed time to myself. The tea-rooms you could go alone and no one would single you out for it. I’d bring something to read because I had enough of conversation and your nose in a book is a good barrier to someone approaching to socialize.

This didn’t mean I never wanted to go a club . I just didn’t want to become a member because once you become a formal member of a club, it’s the club obligations that begin to chip away at your freedoms. I’ve seen enough people, especially women, who’ve had their lives regulated by churches and clubs to the point of having nothing left for themselves.

The program for the members’ dinner started at 7pm. I walked from the Shack – it’s about two miles to the old Courthouse on Adelaide. I could have walked on Yonge, but I decided to go down Church instead because I liked walking through the Garden District instead. For some reason I could not get the TS Eliot poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” out of my mind. I got the issue of Poetry from Arthur Heming. To be truthful, I swiped it from him after an all night bout of drinking with Curtis Williamson amd Bill Beatty. We also managed to mash up Arthur’s hat. He was none too pleased about that.

Prufrock is nothing like I’ve ever read before.I found the words in poem absolutely spellbinding with its imagery expressed in an entirely alien way. I knew that what he was doing with poetry, I was doing with my sketches and a lesser extent my canvases. As I walked along Church, all I could think of were “one-night cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants” on “half-deserted streets”. Prufrock was giving a voice to my feelings in Toronto. I feel like I am living a life of indecision, isolation and unspoken frustration. Needless to say, these thoughts about Prufrock did not put me into a good disposition for the evening. I also was thinking that this type of poetry along with the War would be the death of the type of Canadian poets of the likes of Duncan Campbell Scott, Bliss Carman and Wilfred Campbell. Fortunately I’d be able to make a judgment because Duncan Campbell Scott was on the program tonight to do a reading from the his new poetry book followed by a talk on the Indian Problem.

After a walk of about three-quarters of an hour I arrived at the club – shortly before 7pm. The club is on the second floor, and you can only access it through a narrow stairway in the back lane. Roy Mitchell, the club playwright, usually had a play prepared for these type events. But Roy had gone to New York to work as a stage manager so we were spared the preparation for one of his productions. The major effort being the creation of the stage in the Courthouse room. There was no permanent stage, so Roy had managed to procure 150 crates that he stored on the first floor. We’d have to bring these crates up two long flights of stairs and assemble at the far of the room. And of course, at the end of the evening (or the next day) bring them back down to storage. Then there was the jury-rigging of lighting equipment, made of biscuit boxes, stovepipes and tin wash basins. Once these were set up properly – with no electrocution or incendiary mishap – the show would go on. Unfortunately, for tonight, there was no show for Roy. I’m sure he was busy on Broadway, not thinking about us.

I could hear the low buzz of the conversation as I mounted the stairs. The lights were electrical, but it was still dim because the Court room is cavernous. The cigar and cigarette smoke (everyone smoked) hung in the air like a dissatisfied she-fog twisting itself around the men and then rising up into the ceilinged darkness. In the daytime I could see the ornate tin ceiling tiles, but tonight, these tiles were on the other side darkness, either in heaven or hell.

‘Tom, my boy! You made it!”

Dr. MacCallum emerged from the cigar-smoke gloom and greeted me effusively. I knew he did this because he really did welcome, but he also did it to signal to the other members that I was someone to be regarded highly. Every once in awhile, someone would be invited to the club that didn’t seem to quite fit, and the club members would unconsciously close ranks to squeeze them out so they would never come again. But most of the members knew, or knew of me well. I had a oil sketch exhibition here at the club in late 1915 that was well-received by the members with the exception the few. I’d come quite often with Lismer, Jackson and Harrison for lunch. I came along a few times with Varley, not since since we had a falling out last year. I saw that Varley was here tonight, talking to Gus Bridle.

There were numerous conversations going on. Not much of a talker myself in social situations like these, I had a tendency to dip in and out of conversations that didn’t require an effort from me to keep the momentum. That wasn’t a problem here, because most of the men of the club were journalists, writers, poets, and artists. “Men of the pen, pencil, and brush”, they’d like to call themselves, and they’ll talk themselves to their own graves.

“Victory Gardens!” The words jumped out from the buzz. They came from Jim MacDonald. He was having a lively debate with Rufus Hathaway, the club’s librarian. What I had discerned from the conversation was that Jim was still upset that the club decided not to have their Victory Garden club at his farm in Thornhill, but instead in York Mills. Jim moved north so he could farm his own vegetables, but with his poor health, and his wife’s too, it was more difficult than they had expected. He needed help gardening and was hoping to get it from the club. That was not the case.

Other topics were buzzing about the room: the rumour of Orville Wright making flying boats on Georgian Bay (he bought an island there this past summer, Dr. MacCallum told me), the immorality of Hun submarine warfare, the benefits of TB as a cleansing disease, and “Toronto the Beautiful against Toronto the Scientific”. Someone was bemoaning the impending completion of the the Bloor St. Viaduct. Someone from Rosedale, assuredly.

I sat down by the “Artist’s Table.” It didn’t have that official name, but whenever the artists came from lunch, they sat at the same table near the back far away from the fireplace. The tables closer the fireplace were reserved for the more established men of stature. Where we sat, court room still felt like a cold storage room. I sat with Bill Beatty, Curtis Williamson, and Fred Varley on the other side. Bill was president of the club once, but after his office ended, he too was relegated to the cold storage section of the club. The dinner was good, as best as what could be served in wartime to eighty hungry men at once. Boiled mashed potatoes, roast beef, carrots, turnip, and apple sauce. Dessert was apple crumble and tea and coffee. Nothing of the alcoholic sort was served due to the recent Temperance provisions, but several bottles were being furtively passed about. The “club medicine” as the men called it. Now I understood why the water glasses were never filled. When the club medicine came my way, I filled my glass and noted it was a mail-order whisky from Montreal. Jackson’s from Montreal. I should move to Montreal.

After dinner, the cigar smoke began to thicken further. Under shoulder height, the air was still clear to see through. About shoulder height, the smoke was becoming as thick as the approaching snow pillars I’d see in the Park in the spring and fall. The dim light from the street came through the tall narrow window like a ray of divinity and cut a solid beam the room. Only the fireplace, with its roaring fire, threatened the dominance of the divine ray of light. Through the thick smoke (or snow pillars), I could see Lawren Harris’s snow paintings on either of the fireplace. Harris gave them to the club, because, during his fascination with snow phase, he had a numerous canvases that looked pretty much the same and he decided to give two away. Beneath one of his paintings was a new instalment. I didn’t recognize it but from what I could make out in the dim light it was a recently deceased figure adorned with garlands and flowers. I found the painting particularly hideous, but given the sentiments of the time, it was a popular theme to depict dead people in glorious circumstances. I couldn’t help but think of the Varsity War Supplement I saw the other day. You had to be dead to get on the Roll of Honour – the pages with the fancy flowers and designs. If you were still alive, your page was mundane with crammed rows of photographs.

With the dinner completed, and the plates and cutlery whisked away by some unknown force, Dr. MacCallum announced the after-dinner program.

First, a poetry reading and talk, by Duncan Campbell Scott (who came down from Ottawa for this special occasion).

Next, the unveiling of the club portrait, by Sammy Sampson (his name is John Ernest, but everybody calls him ‘Sammy’).

Finally, a mystery painter speed-painting competition to round out the evening. I had heard the meat-carving contest at the last dinner was a rousing success, but a speed-painting contest, that was something new.

After Dr MacCallum’s introduction, Duncan Campbell Scott stood up and walked over to the fireplace and rested his hand upon the mantel.

“Gentlemen, I thank you for your fine welcome.” He took his hand off the mantle. I believe he realized that because of the mantel’s height, it made his pose look awkward and vaudevillian. This was certainly no vaudeville show, that was to be later in the evening.

“It is such a pleasure to be here with such learned men here in Toronto! Ottawa is such a bore with its bureaucrats. I came down on the train earlier today. I shall not bore you with Ottawa’s war efforts or the re-building of Parliament. Instead, as a man of the arts and letters, I shall read from my new book of poetry and talk to you about another grave problem plaguing our Dominion, the ‘Indian Problem’. ”

It was difficult to hear Scott. He was at the front in the court room and his voice did not carry well through the sounds of scraping chairs and  persistent coughing. I did manage to make out the title of his poem, “The Half-Breed Girl”. I was familiar with it; I had read it a few weeks ago in the reading room of the public library. It was in his new book, published late last year. The main saving grace of this poem was that it wasn’t too long, unlike much of the incessant romantic tripe that passes for poetry these days. I knew that T.S. Eliot’s poetry was having an influence on me. I’d never read a poem the same way again.

Scott started into the first stanza:

She is free of the trap and the paddle,
The portage and the trail,
But something behind her savage life
Shines like a fragile veil

I knew these words so I could follow along through the noise. I did not listen to the rest of the poem because I already had the effect of the poem.  And there is nothing more boring that listening to a poet reading his own poems at a dinner function. It is a license to let one’s own mind wander. Once Scott finished,  he was met with a muted applause that barely supplemented the persistent coughing. With that poetic episode complete, he commenced his talk. I could tell he was a little too warm by the fireplace. He had sweat on his brow that reflected the electrical light from above. From where I was, I couldn’t help but imagine that his balding head looked like an electric bulb that was about to burn out. He stepped forward, away from the fireplace, for the next part of his delivery.  Once the coughing subsided, he began with a changed voice that had an odd authoritative resonance to it. This voice was different than the tone he used as a poet. It was like a different man was speaking. I am sure this was the voice he used to pass pronouncements as a bureaucrat.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”

His talk continued for another twenty minutes. Men, like these, could speak for hours when given the opportunity, but when the coughing was accompanied by the occasional belch, and the men start to pay more attention to the bottles being passed around, he began to conclude his speech. I was in the back, paying more attention to the lighting of my pipe and the repeated replenishing of my glass; the bottle passed by me twice during his speech and was about to come around for the third time. Bloody bureaucrats at their desks, sending men off to war and stamping out races. All in the name of principles and the superior British way.

Dr MacCallum kindly thanked him, and the club was on to the next item of business: the unveiling of the club portrait.