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

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 is 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 3, 1917

I decided not to start another but to continue my canvas from before Christmas. It was still on the easel. I thought it was finished but when I studied it again in the morning, it needed more work.

As Elizabeth had warned me, my vegetables and potatoes did freeze. I had fashioned a root cellar in the wood shed but I didn’t dig it deep enough for this cold weather. Not all was lost, a good portion underneath didn’t freeze, but if this cold keeps up I will have to transfer the whole lot inside. I’ll make a stew from the ones that froze and no one will ever know the difference.

January 2, 1917

I took the train back to Toronto today. Father wanted me to stay a few days longer but I said I need to get back. I could have stayed as I’m not on a company time card, but I did not want to have Father’s disappointing gaze lingering on my any longer. To be sure, he loves me, but he is insistent that I consider joining the War Effort. I told him in no short order, that after Somme, if he wanted to lose another son before the year was out, my going overseas would be the best. I could see my Mother wringing her hands in the kitchen as we spoke. She did not want to lose another son. One was already enough.

I arrived at Union Station in the early evening. Recruiters were everywhere. A marching band with signs ‘Free trip to Europe’. Outside there was a streetcar where you could step right in and sign your life away. I walked up Yonge Street. It’s about 2 miles to the shack on Severn. I could have taken the street car but after being on the train I wanted to be away from people. At night I like to walk and look at the stars. With more electric bulbs it’s harder and harder to make
out the stars. The clouds from the coal fires make it hard to see the night sky too.

When I 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 now near midnight most of the chill is gone. I don’t mind the chill so long as I have a good cover on me when I sleep. Tomorrow, I plan to start another canvas. I’m not sure which, but I plan to sort through my boards to find something that will catch my eye for painting.

December 2, 1916

I woke up early this morning dreaming about Mowat Lodge. I am looking forward to returning North in the spring. It was still too early to get out of bed so I lay there and stared at the beaverboard ceiling. It’s rather close as my bunk is up on the upper level. I can almost reach up and touch the ceiling. If I had a paintbrush in my hand I certainly could.

Later in the morning I did little but smoke my pipe and read the paper. I won’t spend the money to get the paper, so I read the day-old from the foyer at the Studio. I get my mail there too because the postman won’t deliver to the Shack. Wise choice for him.

Florence visited again today. I never know when she is in the city. She takes the train in from Whitby and stays with friends in the City.

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.