Winter in the Shack

I worked alone in the shack behind the Studio Building during the winter of 1916-17. That winter I applied myself very diligently to produce eight of my most important canvases. These are known today as Petawawa Gorges, The Pointers, The Drive, Birch Grove, Autumn, The West Wind, and my most known piece, The Jack Pine.

The winter was a great time of struggle and discovery for me. I was productive to say the least, but I had not resolved myself to a consistent approach to my works. I painted what I felt and saw; I expressed bold form and my techniques of bright and vibrant colours seemed to be a heresy beyond that of my friends Jackson and Harris.

The War had broken us up. Lismer moved to Halifax with his family to be the head of an art college. Lawren Harris was stationed at Camp Borden, and only Jim MacDonald and Fred Varley remained in the City. Poor Jim was too preoccupied with his family’s poor health and tight finances to be much of an inspiration. And Varley, well we didn’t go out of our way to see each other, since the argument we had earlier this year.

I tried to remain oblivious to the world falling apart around me. The canvases I worked on consumed all of my energies both negative and positive. Unlike my sketching outdoors, an almost automatic impulse to me, painting canvas within a studio, I needed to draw upon within me a discipline of something that came naturally to me when I was outdoors, but not within a studio.

I was never sure what I painted was good. Despite the endearing comments of others, I always felt that they rang hollow.

Alex

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.

1916: Struggling with the Changes in Colour

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.

Early 1916

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.

Jim MacDonald and the Tangled Garden

UrNBbm4I 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.

From the Summer of 1914

I really don’t know where to begin. I’ll start in the Summer of 1914. Even though I liked to have a chum with me, I liked being alone better. After my canoe trip with Arthur Lismer in May, he returned to Toronto. I stayed for the rest of the summer. I no longer had to worry about work, money or domestic obligations becasue of the stipend I was receiving from Dr. MacCallum. A canoe adventure was in my cards.

I took the train west from Algonquin to Parry Sound. This was the westernmost reach of the J.R. Booth realm. Parry Sound was the terminus of the Ottawa-Arnprior-Algonquin rail line and as many tourists would descend from Ottawa as there would be from Toronto. Parry Sound was a busy little town; I tried to avoid all of the hubbub but it was difficult. I would try to get as far away from the town and sit on the rocks that would jut into Georgian Bay. I was fascinated by the raw power that could be unleashed by a storn. One day the Bay would be a serene blue-green sheet of calm and the next day it would be a wrathful cauldron of grey. I recall the poems of Wilfred Campbell, Lake Lyrics.

My winter months with Jackson were really starting to pay off. That was apparent in the expression of Dr. MacCallum’s eyes when I showed him the sketches I just did. After Parry Sound, I traveled north by steamship and camped with the Dr. at the mouth of the French River. I showed him my sketches and his remark was, “Tom, these are good! They do capture the same feeling when I’m around here.”
Jackson warned me that the Dr. knew very little about art and to be careful and how I should receive his criticism. “Just remember, the Dr. is paying the bills.”

My inclination was to disagree with Jackson. The Dr. might not know about techniques and mechanics or art but he seemed to know what was good to express the northlands. He had the eye of an artist, not necessarily the hands of one.

I accepted the invitation to stay at the Dr.’s cottage on West Wind Island. I stayed for June and July and spent time canoeing and painting with leisure. I had no duties or obligations, only that I would provide the occasional painting lesson to the Dr.’s daughter, Helen.
I enjoyed the time on the island, but the company began to wear on me after awhile. The nature was great, the company wasn’t. Many of the folks vacationing on the island were a plain annoyance. I just wanted to escape from the cake and ice-water socials and find a place to paint in isolation. Despite wanting to be alone, I missed the company of Jackson, Lismer and Harris. Unlike the present company, we could all shut up and paint when the time came. I wrote a letter to Varley asking him to come for a canoe and camping trip but his domestic obligations kept him at home.

Then it hit. The declaration of War, on August 5th, 1914. It was on the same day I was about to depart to Algonquin. It was the day before by 37th birthday. Everyone greeted the declaration of war with great enthusiasm. No one needed reminding that it was actually Great Britain that declared war and the Canada’s decision simply followed suit. I decided I need to get out alone and fast.

I took the steamer from Go Home Bay to the mouth of the French River and managed to purchase an cheap canoe. I canoed east on the French River to Lake Nipissing. At time the river and rapids and treacherous. At one rapids I counted thirteen white wooden crosses – thirteen deaths and probably many more.