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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.