February 25, 1917
Another good day of painting. I know it’s a good day when I lose myself in the painting, or in the act of painting, that is.
It’s getting warmer outside so it’s not as hard to get going in the morning and make a good day of it. Earlier in the month when we had a good snap of cold weather and it took longer to get going. Now, the water jug is no longer frozen in morning, and when the stove is started the chill is taken out in mere minutes.
I got going early this morning and never bothered to look at my watch until it was half-past three. Nobody bothered me today as it’s Sunday. Sunday outside, not inside here. I haven’t bothered to go to church the last few weeks. Since I didn’t have lunch I made an early supper – boiled potatoes and I had some leftover bacon fat that I made into a gravy. I had tea too and decided to stay away from the whisky for the day. That was hard to do.
Here I am in the evening, surrounded by my sketches and paintings feeling like unfinished man whatever that is supposed to mean. Usually I tidy up when I’m done, but lately I feel like nothing is ever finished, so I haven’t been cleaning up as I should. Tubes and brushes everywhere, sketches scattered on the floor, dirty dishes in the wash basin, my laundry in the corner, and ashes on the floor everywhere. When I wake up in the morning now, I feel further behind than I was yesterday. The painting helps to get rid of the feel, the painting helps me to go forward in the day. But in the evening and in my sleep at night there are headwinds forcing me backward into a place I don’t want to be. I’ll try to shake off the feeling tonight. I’ll try to do it without the whisky. Another unfinished day.
February 23, 1917
The 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 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
Another 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
I 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.
When 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.