Landscape Painter Drowned in Canoe Lake
July 8, 1917 Aged 39 Years 11 Months 3 days
When I disappeared on July 8, 1917 I didn’t leave a lot behind. My room was nearly empty and the few items I left at the dock were of little value. My earthly possessions dwindled even further when Shannon Fraser sold what little I had for his own personal gain. And when they did find my canoe with its few provisions stashed under a rubber sheet in the bow, it too was sold off to settle my financial accounts. Despite months of searching the shorelines of Canoe Lake my paddle never reappeared. It met its fate either as firewood kindling or abandoned at the Highland Inn on Cache Lake.
My disappearance (or death as most would believe) was a mystery to all but a very few. I was an enigma, preferring to sit in the corner by the fireplace reading alone. I would disappear for days on end. ‘Tom’s gone fishing.’ was the standard answer to my spells of disappearance. No suspicions were ever raised at my sometimes erratic comings and goings. I liked it that way. It was freedom. Or it looked like freedom to others.
Many thought I couldn’t write. It may be a surprise that I kept a journal. I was known as an artist, not as a writer. As my few letters would attest, never had much to say to others, in words that is.
My journal was unlike my letters. My journal wasn’t meant to be read by others. It was a record of sort. My mind was full of words but my outward expression was in images of sketches, canvases and drawings. No one knew I was keeping a journal. I was private, recording my thoughts, intending these thoughts to help me with my work. I never intended my journal to tell another story, until now. My sketches and paintings expressed what I felt, but my journal captured what I thought.
This is my daily journal from December 1916, the winter and spring of 1917 through to my disappearance in the summer of 1917. I never say ‘death’ because despite the overwhelming odds and evidence my ultimate fate was never truly known to anyone who knew me before July 8 1917.
In retrospect, it’s easier to look at your life once you’ve passed on. When you’re alive, time has a tendency only to march forward, much like those fresh-faced boys marching off to the Front for the first time. But when you are freed from the constraints of time, money and self-doubt about the future you can step back (or float back) to see your life in the larger picture. But when you are living your life en plein air that is not the case. Your thoughts and feelings are expressed from a very narrow view of self but the words put down and read nearly a hundred years later take on additional significance. I hope that you as a reader will see through the immediacy of the words, much like seeing through the crude strokes of my paintings as my critics would say.
A good story, they say, should have a beginning, middle and end. But the best stories, I say, are the ones that have no end. A good painting should be finished. But I knew that my better paintings were the ones left undone. I would let the wood show through. I let the canvas be exposed. When the right mood is captured, why bother to continue?
Sometimes I was compelled to completion despite my mood. But I soon discovered that the act of completion could be an act of destruction. If I tried too hard to complete something that shouldn’t have been, I destroyed it in the end and was back at the beginning. I lost count of the sketches I broke and left in the bush. And the meals I made with the fuel of my failed paintings could have fed a platoon.
People didn’t understand my art, but more deeply, I believe they were afraid to see something new. What they thought was hideous (a dead tree), I saw beauty. You see, in 1916 the world was falling apart before our very eyes. Like a gas attack or a shell killing all the boys and brothers of an Ontario village in some godforsaken trench in France, our world was being blown to bits and art was no exception. Canada being defined as a nation was the last thing on our minds as our men were piling up in the trenches and our women were being left alone on the farms during the long cold winters.
West Wind was never finished. Nor was the Jack Pine. I left them behind in the spring of 1917 and I’m glad I did. If I stayed any longer in the shack for the sake of completion, I would be preparing meals for yet another platoon. During the summer of my death, they remained in the shack, still on the easel and stacked against the wall. It’s good that Jim MacDonald and Dr. MacCallum took care of them. Because I would have taken care of them, in my own way.
I started my journal in late November 1916. Leading up to that I was too busy sketching in the spring, working as a fire ranger in the summer and sketching again in the fall. I returned to Toronto in late October and it took a few weeks to sort myself out.
So what you have here is my story, a good story I believe. This story is like an unfinished sketch and the wood shows through in places. I may cover these pieces of wood over time and then again I might not. Don’t expect a story of mythology. There is no myth here. Just a story about an Ontario farm boy who disappeared one summer day and a girl he got in trouble with. And the story doesn’t end there.
I’ve tried to create my daily journal as best I can. But I found that on its own, it is rather dry reading, so I added some colour and texture in places where needed. Think of my journal as a sketch, and this book as the canvas. Then you’ll know what I mean.