March 2, 1917 Letter to Winnie Trainor

March 2, 1917
Studio Building ,
Severn  St.
Toronto

Dear Winnie

I hope this letter finds you well. I’m sorry I haven’t written you sooner but I have been busy painting these past few weeks. I have got quite a bit done. Toronto is pretty wrapped up in the War so I try to avoid the crowds in case I meet up with unfriendly folk that want to make a show of someone that should be fighting instead of being at home. I’ll be quite happy to leave and am planning to go up in the spring as soon as possible.

I received your letter a few weeks ago. Thank you for the socks. As for Joyce, I read some his stories in the magazines. I should read his book. Can you bring it with you to Canoe Lake this spring? I can check on your cabin when I get there and will write you if there is any problem. This War is pretty rotten and it’s having a big toll on Jim MacDonald. His wife is sick and Jim looks like a shadow of himself. Jim tried to convince me to submit to the OSA Spring Exhibition but I refused because I couldn’t give the critics the satisfaction. A review like last year would make it near impossible to sell my paintings. Dr. MacCallum tried to convince me too, but in the end thought it wiser to skip because it would be easier to sell my paintings without the controversy.

The snow has been heavy this year. It’s been cold too. The coal shortage has forced many to scavenge for firewood in the ravine and there’s been many fires. A whole family died in a fire in Kensington and the City wants to tear down the shacks but it will make the problem worse.

With all the snow and cold I doubt the ice won’t be out until May and you probably won’t make it to the cabin until Victoria Day. I’ll write you when I arrive a Canoe Lake.

Affectionately yours,

Tom

January 2, 1917 Return to Toronto

January 2, 1917

I took the train back to Toronto today. Father and Mother  wanted me to stay a few days longer but I said I need to get back to my work. I have a lot to do. I enjoyed my stay up in Owen Sound but after a time I begin to feel trapped into my past and I need to move on.

As she promised, Louise Julyan was on the train too. I saw her in Annan Soiree. She sat beside me and we talked about many things. I was surprised on her keenness on art. I let her do most of the talking, I don’t like talking about my paintings, and she said she wanted to visit me in the shack.

We arrived at Union Station in the early evening. Recruiters were everywhere. A marching band with signs ‘Free trip to Europe’. There were other signs indicating  that it was ‘National Service Week’ and that every man should be filling out the questionnaire delivered by the Post Office.

I walked with Louise up University Avenue and over to Elm where the YWCA was. It was nice, she held my arm, and since we looked like a married couple, we weren’t bothered by the recruiters. On the way we saw signs posted for the Ontario Government Public Employment Bureau for Women. The office had opened last November, and women now had to apply at the bureau instead of going to the factories. Louise mused that if her art didn’t work out, she decided to work in a munitions factory instead. At the front door of the YWCA, I bid her goodbye. I could tell she wanted me to linger for a few moments longer.

“Tom, thanks for the wonderful time. Can we see each other again?”

“Sure,” I said, “but the next few weeks will be busy.”

“I’ll send you a letter next week, Tom.” I could tell from the tone of her voice, there was something more.

From the YWCA  I made my way back to the Shack. I could have taken the street car since I walked this far already, there was no point. I like walking at night to look at the stars, but in the city mostly lit by electrical lighting that’s harder and harder to do. Plus, the smoke and soot from the coal fires make it hard to see the night sky. 

When I finally arrived, the door to the Shack and the wood shed were frozen shut. The snow had drifted against the wall, melted, then frozen again. I managed to get the wood shed door open and used a old miner’s pick to chip away the ice. Inside, all was as I had left it, except everything was frozen solid. I set the stove alight and it will be well into the night before the the chill is gone. I don’t mind the chill so long as I have a good cover on me when I sleep.

I’m looking at my canvas on the easel. It’s been there for almost two weeks in the cold and the paint is set as hard as rock. I won’t be able to do any scraping and if I add anything, it would look no better than a poor afterthought. Tomorrow, I plan to start another canvas. I’m not sure which one, but I plan to sort through my boards to find something.

Returning to Toronto

Toronto was a different place when I returned. Prohibition had just been passed which prompted a wave of law-breaking and unrest. Everyday there was yet another tenement on fire. The last thing we needed was another Great Fire of Toronto. The local business industrialists were accused of profiteering as food prices were spiralling out of control. Tea went up by 10 cents a pound. Biscuits and jam went up by 25 per cent. Fortunes were being made on bacon. We all tightened our belts and squeezed the extra cups as we best could from the tea we could afford.

Many were suspicious of German sympathizers and the witch-hunt had begun to eliminate people of German origin from positions of authority and influence. The University of Toronto bore the brunt of this sentiment which resulted in many of the faculty being let go. It was wrong, many claimed, to pay German subjects in time of war. Those accused of being German spies were thrown out into the street. ‘Go back to Berlin!’ Many did go to Berlin. But it was now called Kitchener after the referendum last May.

Others were accused of being spies sending valuable information to the enemy via New York. I’m not sure what valuable information we had here in Canada, other than the fact that we had the sweetest blueberries in the New World. To be honest, I too had my suspicions, of Germans. Due to the unpleasant exchanges I had with Martin Blecher in the Park, I couldn’t help believe there may be enemies in our midst.

The Massey-Harris company, owned by Lawren Harris’s family was hit hard by the War. Their branches in Germany were taken over. They shut down their Toronto works only to reopen shortly thereafter as a munitions factory. There was plenty of work for the ‘slackers’  as they were called – men who would rather work for $2.50 a day instead of fighting for their country at $1.10. Increasingly, I became uncomfortable in stating my vocation of artist. I could see the reaction in their eyes – ‘Artist? You should be fighting overseas instead of painting pretty pictures’’

And finally, strange as it might be, the piano makers were hiring. A sudden demand for pianos from New Zealand. The collapse of the German piano makers hadn’t dampened the Kiwis penchant for a piano ditty. You never knew how the War was going to upset the balance of things. Strange.

Foreword

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 cherry 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.

Affectionately,

Tom