Modern art critics and academics have fairly uniformly tended to downplay the ‘skilled woodsman’ aspect of Tom Thomson. They have apparently seen it as getting in the way of a true, demythologized evaluation of his art. Answering to egalitarian times, they have wanted to ‘normalize’ Tom as far as possible: His canoeing was ordinary; the wilderness he traveled, not so wild.
As an example I suggest reading Harold Town’s 1977 ‘Introduction’ to his major Thomson book, “The Silence and the Storm.” In that same book Town’s co-author, David Silcox, also makes disparaging remarks in a similar vein, though to a lesser degree. Very recently, Gregory Klages in his 2016 book “The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson,” continues the trend, somewhat muted, but with clear intent; he writes:
“Thomson has been characterized as a deft outdoorsman with natural skill at painting a uniquely distinctive Canadian environment that he knew well. This is the image that Thomson’s friends and supporters worked to advance after his death, and that was integral to the rise of his reputation. If Thomson died as a result of a canoeing accident on a calm lake in the middle of the day, this image would be significantly destabilized.” (pp 236-7).
Although I certainly agree with constructing a clear-eyed overview of Tom Thomson, from my perspective as a seasoned wilderness canoeist, I think it’s important to more closely investigate both the level of his bush skills and their relationship to the artistic achievements that flowed from them, rooted in his time and place.
By comparing wilderness canoe equipment/methods, circa Thomson’s time (early 1900’s), with modern gear and turning an experienced eye on Thomson’s on-the-water accomplishments, with consideration of Algonquin Park itself, a more grounded sense can be had of his woodsman’s expertise or lack thereof.
In the process of doing so, I have gained other insights, obliquely, into Tom Thomson’s life and art, and share these where appropriate within this Log.
Tom’s story continues to evolve – thanks partly to new efforts by on-line commentators such as @TTLastSpring.
I believe more insights, more material, and more truth is out there waiting to be had by those intent on finding it.