Alexander Young Jackson or Alex, as I called him. I first met him in November of 1913. He had recently arrived from Montreal and was at Lawren Harris’s studio at Bloor and Yonge. I knew of him, I had seen his work, Edge of the Maple Wood at the OSA Spring Exhibition.
When I first met Alex, I was nervous and felt like a country school boy, because he had returned from the European Painting schools when all I had done were sketches and still-shoots (photos) up North. At first, he didn’t think too much of my work He thought it was a bit dull and muddy. Colours of Dutch landscape painting, but without the Dutch landscape.But he was impressed that I had only taken up painting seriously only the year before. He said my technique was good and he would only be too happy to show me some of the new colour theories coming out of Europe.
I owe much to Alex as his persistence was greater than my stubbornness. If it wasn’t for him I would have been drifting between commercial art firms and living out my days in rooming houses. Dr. MacCallum had repeatedly offered me a year’s stipend to focus on my art. I repeatedly refused, but with Alex’s constant jibbing, I accepted and soon Alex and I were sharing space in the Studio on Severn Street. We were both tight on money, save for the money from Dr. MacCallum, but we were doing exactly what we wanted and in a place where we’d rather be.
I was still struggling from the change of colour of the country to the grayness of the city. The summer of 1916 was a glorious time. I spent a lot of time canoeing with Ed Godin, “Ned” as I often would call him. We discussed many things ranging from the War and where to find the best pipe tobacco. Even though we were alone for weeks and remote within the Park, the shadow of the War still loomed large. But despite the shadows I did some of my brightest and best boards of my career.
During August and September Ed and I travelled by canoe down the Petawawa River and to Lake Travers. After sketching very little during the summer, I sketched a lot during this trip. Mostly in the early morning when the light was good and before we would begin to break camp. The evenings had good light too, but often I was too tired by the end of the day. Up North, the fall colours would start subtly but earnestly. The leaves of summer were still green but lacked the vitality of the earlier months. As the leaves began to turn, the light of the early morning or early evening offered a new menu of colours each day. The sun becoming lower in the sky brought different angles of light bringing, as I would say to Ed, two magic moments each day: one in the morning and one in the evening. I tried to work our daily routine around these ‘magic moments’. Ed would smile when I was preoccupied with getting out my sketch box to catch the magic moment and he would tell me we had the whole night to set up camp and the whole day to get going.
1916 proved to be a dismal year for all of us. With no signs of the Great War abating, nothing worse could happen than Parliament Hill burning down, which it did on February 3, 1916. The after effect was most demoralizing when we heard that the National Gallery was decimated. Its space was taken over by Parliament and its budget taken away.
But the events of Parliament Hill burning down and the National Gallery passing out of existence was nothing compared to the reaction we received at the OSA Spring Exhibition of 1916. The Toronto art-going public, it seemed, were ill-prepared for any colour of paint other than brown. And others were shocked at the lack of cows and windmills.
The reaction by the critics hit us all hard. In the newspapers, there was even a direct strike at me, but I secretly relished the critic’s comment that my “fearless use of violent colour which can be scarcely called pleasing” hit the mark. I was not out to please anyone and my resolve began to galvanize that I would never again participate in the OSA exhibition. The French artists had fled the Salon years ago, I could do the same.
And thus ended my Toronto Spring of 1916. In early spring, I left to go up North, and began to reflect on whether I would ever return to the gray city that so-much loved the colour brown.
I like Jim. I feel sorry for him too. He’s been having a hard time of it lately. Ever since last year’s exhibition, he’s been branded a radical. ‘Tangled Garden’ as Jim titled his painting was the target of the critics.
For reasons, beyond the understanding of all of us artists, the critics seized on his painting like a robin on a worm. Jim had the temerity to paint something different than what the critics expected and he wasn’t to be forgiven for it.
The words of the Toronto Daily Star, “Rough, splashy, meaningless , blatant, plastering and massing of unpleasant colours which seems to be a necessary evil in all Canadian art exhibitions nowadays” What do they know?
Hector Charlesworth is another. He says that a painting should be more than a shout.
“Oscar Wilde”, Charlesworth opined, “that Nature constantly imitates art. If what we have seen at the OSA Exhibition is nature, then we will all have to wear smoked glasses to appreciate the true meaning”
Thankfully, “Heck” as we now call him, neglected to comment on my paintings. If he had done so, I would have stolen his Psalter Hymnal and run an entire palette through its pages.