January 13, 1917
Summer of 1916 was a hot and dry summer. I was a Fire Ranger on the eastern part of the Park keeping an eye on the log runs. It was starting to get tinder-dry in late August and we were all worrying about another big fire like the Matheson Fire that burned down all the towns around Cochrane. The fires killed over 200 and the smoke lingered across the province for weeks. It made the sun look sick.
Most fires started from lumber camps or from the trains. Ordinarily, not an issue, but with the Matheson fire, the Province decided to come down hard if a fire got out of control. A fire started on the train tracks was bad publicity and the train companies were especially vigilant in keeping the grass down and the dry debris away from the railbeds. The lumber camps were the problem and it was our job as Fire Rangers to keep an eye on the companies of men doing the drivers. They didn’t like us. And neither did they take a liking to me sketching. I didn’t do much last summer.
These recollections came back when I was preparing my next canvas. That happened to me often. When I looked at my study sketches what flooded back to me was not the images but the feelings and impressions I had at the time. When I sketched my focus was to translate what I felt, not necessarily what I saw onto the board. When I look at these boards here and now I try to translate that feeling onto the canvas. Someone once asked me if making a sketch was the same as painting a canvas. I told them they were completely opposite processes. That’s why canvas painting is so difficult for me. I have to take what I have inside of me and bring it out. Sketching is bringing the outside in. It’s funny that I just came across that phrase. Late in the summer when I was done fire ranging, I was with Ned Godin at the Ranger Cabin on Grand Lake. We did some good and long fishing trips and I managed a good number of sketches. When we got back he wanted me to paint a sign for the cabin, which I obliged, calling it the “Out-Side-In”
Applying the ground to a canvas is more than just preparing the surface. It’s bringing your imagination to bear to what will be part of the whole picture. It’s similar to chess and playing a good game. I played a lot with Frank Carmichael when we had the Studio together when Jackson left for Montreal. In chess, it’s not seeing the pieces on board that makes you a good player, it’s seeing how the pieces work together and the possibilities of what you can do with them. It’s the same with putting ground on the canvas, you are visualizing, planning what you are going to paint.
It took me the better part of the day to apply the ground. I don’t recall how many layers I put on, but on some parts of the canvas there were more layers than other parts. I didn’t mind it rough because I wanted to have the same feel as a board. Although my eyes could only see the light brown umber on the canvas, my mind had already compose the picture. This way I had the luxury to change my plan of composition several times, all without setting down a single brush stroke of colour. I can remember the dam and its churning fury. The logs were jammed up on the lakeside and the men with their log poles breaking up the jams and guiding the logs through the chutes into channel below. This was on the Madawaska, near the Mazinaw. The logs would make their way to Arnprior into the Ottawa River and into the St. Lawrence to wherever they went.
I was exhausted by end of the day. I nearly didn’t have enough energy to write this entry, but I did anyway. It’s a good type of exhaustion and I realized I didn’t spend any of the day thinking about what was going on in the city. That’s a good thing. Canvases may be a difficult thing to do, but it’s gives me the escape I need.