This is Mark Robinson’s calendar from 1917.
Mowat P.O. Algonquin Park
May 27, 1917
I am sorry I did not give you a proper goodbye on Friday morning. Your train had left before I was up. I know that you were angry for all of the time I was spending with Dr MacCallum. I am sorry. We had planned a canoe trip and camping but with weather being so miserable he decided to stay at Mowat Lodge instead. The Dr and his son Arthur only stayed for four days instead of the two weeks so you can see why I spent all of my time with them.
You are back in Huntsville now. I don’t know when you’ll be back at the Manse. Your father will be down here for work but I don’t reckon I’ll speak to him, or give him letters to bring back. I hope this letter gets to you through the post. I left my sketches on the porch of your cottage late Thursday night. No one was up, so I left them on the porch in a potato sack that Shannon gave me. Did you take some back with you? I don’t remember how many I gave away but there should be forty at least. I think my exhibition went well, but many of the guests were too dazed with the war news in the papers from Toronto. I’ll check if they are still there and put them inside with my other gear. Shannon wants to charge me for storing extra stuff at the Lodge. Says he needs the room for his guests. I’ll keep my canoe off to the one side and out of the way.
Shannon does still owe me money. But he will be good for it. He says he needs to account some for room and board and I don’t have much choice but to stay at Mowat Lodge. The weather is poor and I need to stay close in case I get guiding work. A fair deal in some ways because business is bad all around for everyone. Shannon and Annie need some help putting in the garden and can be of some use being the gardener. I suppose you heard that Charlie Scrim isn’t doing well. Some days are better than others. I promised to spend time with him to help lift his spirits.
I doubt I’ll be doing any more sketching in the next while. Summer doesn’t have the colours I’m looking for and there’s little mood for art when the war is going so badly. The word around is that a conscription bill might go through. Up to 45 years in age. They need more artists fighting the Hun. Jackson’s still in England. I may see him there after all.
Well I’d better get this finished. It’s still early and I might have a guiding job today. Give my regards to your mother and sister. I may see your father here on occasion.
Arthur Lismer first visited me in Algonquin Park in May of 1914. I met Arthur at the Canoe Lake Station. It was about ten o’clock in the evening when the train rolled into the station. After nine stuffy hours in the train, Arthur revelled in the fresh and cold air, invigorating his body and forgetting about the city left behind.
It was a cold spring night, the frogs were piping as we drove through the bush to the Fraser’s at Mowat Lodge. The glorious moon was coming over the spruce tops shedding a yellow and mysterious light on everything. The air was tang and I could see that Arthur was anticipating every bump – he did not know what to expect – this was an alien land to him. Continue reading “Me and Arthur Lismer 1914”
If I was asked to describe Mowat Lodge in a word or less, I’d diplomatically describe it as ‘rustic’. Less diplomatically, I’d describe it as ‘run down’ but that’s two words, so I’ll refrain from the less diplomatic description and say nothing.
Humour aside, what made Mowat Lodge so endearing was Annie Fraser. That is to say, not Shannon Fraser. Annie could make the most wonderful meal from the most forlorn root vegetable and she knew how to make the rooms just right.
Mowat Lodge was a former hospital turned resort and some days I did feel like a patient there. The Fraser’s desperately needed the business and it was a fortuitous event when Mark Robinson pointed me in the direction of Mowat Lodge in 1912.
‘Rooms are cheap there”, Mark said, suspicious of me being a poacher. His motive was to keep me away from the more reputable establishments in the hope I would leave. Over the years Mark and I became good friends, and I still managed to stay away from the more reputable establishments, as I would joke with him, unless there were girls there.
Shannon Fraser was a piece of work, mind you. He originally came to disassemble amble the lumberworks but saw the opportunity to create a resort. With the Highland Inn and its high falutin’ guests, it was only a sure thing that guests of equal or lesser pedigree would stay at his establishment. He was right. It was me and my artist friends who made Mowat Lodge into a summer artists colony of sorts over the next few years.
But it was Annie who kept the place together. Bless her heart.
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.
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.
March 2, 1917
Studio Building ,
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.