Category Archives: outdoor art, plein air art

Part 5: Tom Thomson the Artist (updated November 20, 2016)

Residing for the past thirty years in the Humber River Valley, within sight of the McMichael Gallery – that quintessential Thomson shrine – and canoeing a sizeable portion of Algonquin Park, has been more than slightly conducive to a close study of the works of Tom Thomson.

And, besides having an active personal interest in the artistic creative process, I have been inspired by my late sister Pat Garratt, who was an art historian (University of Guelph). We often talked about Thomson, and art in general. Pat noted that the life of a work of art could effectively come to an untimely end, once hung on a gallery wall. Her point was that art is at least a three-way mystery, dependent upon a viewer bringing new life, new wonder, and new love to the table.

The art of Tom Thomson is refreshed by each viewer who is surprised, often repeatedly, by the strength of communication that can occur in proportion to the depth and authenticity with which artist and viewer has/had contact with the third party – the ‘outer world’ – in this case Algonquin Park.

The loss or other unforeseeable diminution (aesthetic devaluation through undue veneration of urban environments and issues in some looming dystopia?) of Algonquin Park, would thus lead to an impoverishment of Thomson’s art. It would become more of a lonely academic exercise – humans speaking to humans.

Tom Thomson’s muse is certainly found in the Park. And he was undoubtedly predisposed psychologically to ‘be creative.’ His questing, restless ‘aloneness,’ and the temper of the times would have impelled him toward some kind of expression.

Yet many other people, aspiring artists included, have found themselves in similar straits, and have come up empty-handed.

What Tom Thomson had in spades – besides a little talent and luck – was willpower. The ‘will,’ with respect to human artistic creative process, is essentially mysterious, hidden within an individual’s invisible labyrinth. It enabled Tom to channel his energies in new, creative ways with successful, positive results within his allotted time.

I’ve already detailed some of Tom’s everyday gear and procedures. Within that context, it’s appropriate to look more closely at his painterly methods.

It’s immediately noticeable that Thomson liked the ‘shoulder seasons’ best. Earliest spring and late autumn reflected his palette and temperament. These times present obvious challenges to the outdoor artist.

In a recent spring (early May, 2016) we camped and canoed for a few days in Algonquin Park. Although the weather was pleasant and almost bug-free (it’s an art in itself to beat the black-fly hatch-out, usually second week in May), the chill air and water made us wonder how Thomson was able to paint in similar conditions. Exposed fingers quickly were numbed; small-motor muscle control and dexterity were impaired by the chill. To have picked up a brush, let alone focus on painting, would have distracted from the simpler concern of trying to keep hands warm.

Similarly on late fall Algonquin canoe trips, a pair of high-tech neoprene gloves seems appropriate to ward off the chill.

Yet quite a number of Tom Thomson’s sketches depict snow and ice in the bush or waterways.img_20160811_101639_edit

It’s wonderful how he could create these sketches amid the oft-choatic conditions of a rough wilderness camp, not to mention hand-numbing environmental conditions.

I would assert, too, that these ‘sketches’ were not quickly dashed-off in moments of bright inspiration. Rather, they are the products of prolonged and intense observation. Tips of icebergs, so-to-speak. Results of hours and days of collar-up, hand-numbing, dogged, apparently passive observation and experience, mysterious and unfathomable to the ‘normal’ uninitiate.

 

 

 

 

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Tom The Canoeist, Part 4: The Territory: Algonquin Park (updated December 2, 2016)

It can be succinctly stated that Tom Thomson, in his five or so years of seasonal residency in the Park, visited most of Algonquin’s approximate 3,000 square-miles via canoe or on foot. He paddled the lakes, rivers, creeks, wetlands in all their variety, and hiked the portages and look-out trails.

He did not arrive there as a greenhorn, but with extensive on-the-water experience from his youthful years growing up on the shore of a Great Lake. ‘Messin’ with boats’ is something he learned early in life (particularly small sailboats). By the time he first visited Algonquin in 1912, he’d already developed a tough-minded artistic sensibility that would see him through inevitable rough times.

Tom did venture beyond the Park’s boundaries. For instance, we know he regularly canoed to the village of South River – a challenging trip through the full spectrum of Algonquin land and water – to obtain artist’s supplies.

In 1912, with typical youthful bravado, he and William Broadhead embarked on a major canoe expedition down the Mississagi River in Northern Ontario.

However, Tom Thomson cleaved close to Algonquin Park thereafter (not withstanding a little mid-life restlessness). And I believe the Park would’ve stood him in good stead through the rest of a long life – if such had been his lot. For, truth be told, few places on Earth can match Algonquin as a canoeist’s destination and as a place allowing contact with natural wilderness and its wild inhabitants.

In addition to much of Algonquin, I have canoed Lake Superior’s North Shore, Pukaskwa, the White River, Temagami, the Cheepay and  Albany rivers to James Bay, numerous smaller southern Ontario rivers in high-water conditions from headwaters to mouths (ie. Rouge, Humber, Credit…) and after a hiatus of about fifteen years during which I sailed the big waters of Lake Ontario, I returned to continue to explore Algonquin Park, now with my son Brant, and have found it to be largely unimpaired and unequalled.

True, other visitors will be encountered especially during peak seasons, but for me the Park’s human history and touch, add to its richness. There’s a lotta love gone by there. Let’s ‘feel that love.’

Those who seek remote isolation in ‘true’ wilderness often bank on the possibility of quick rescue if anything goes wrong, or are clients of some guided expedition. Too often, the extreme wilderness quest assumes the qualities of a recreational stunt. In all these cases, what is really experienced is faux wilderness.

The Park however is not scot-free of problems; some are long-standing issues that I believe Tom Thomson would’ve increasingly engaged with if he had lived longer.

Touching briefly on several:

*The impact of on-going logging in the Park and its legacy of logging roads.

*Increased visitation during certain times along with heightened expectations of ‘comfort.’ For instance, on recent October Thanksgiving weekends, cars were lined-up for almost thirty kilometres from the West Gate waiting to get in.

*Pressure to open more of the Park to hunting.

*Maintaining sources of funding and manpower to continue the huge task of managing Algonquin.

*Bringing new generations and cultures into the Algonquin Park ‘fold.’

* Respecting and increasingly re-incorporating indigenous Algonquin culture into the Park’s fabric.

Throughout  all these issues, the land, water, and natural life of Algonquin should provide objective criteria against which human desires are accommodated or discouraged. A consensus has long emerged that aims to grant primacy to non-human life in the Park. Often times this means people have to be excluded, their activities constrained.

For instance, I don’t believe ‘sport hunting’ should have any place in Algonquin Park (currently it does, in certain times and places). The possible presence of even one hunter in a huge area of land seriously degrades the potential experiences of the majority of other visitors (not to mention placing additional burdens on already stressed-out wildlife populations) .

With hunting comes a kind of mechanized invasion of the backcountry – ATVs, chainsaws, motorboats, snowmobiles, roadways (how else does one extract a thousand-pound moose carcass?) – a state of affairs commonplace everywhere in Ontario save for a few ‘protected areas.’

I believe that a non-consumptive, non-predator-prey, relationship with wild nature is as authentic as any, and am prepared to argue the case on any grounds.

Hunting aside, perhaps the best solution to most of these issues resides in expansion of the Park’s area – whether through creation of additional ‘satellite’ parks, increased buffer zones, or boundary extensions.

After more than three decades of working in parks and dealing with the public  (no, not in Algonquin), I can say that the success of these special, more-or-less protected, areas depends upon enforcement of pertinent regulations. You can have all the high-falutin’ ideas in the world, but once word of lax enforcement gets ’round, a free-for-all soon ensues and it’s then difficult to win back control.

Of course, ideally, enforcement should be invisible and client-based. But we often do need to heed the ‘experts,’ and allow those closely attuned to the land to speak-up and point the way.

Tom Thomson, of course, was one who knew the spirit of Algonquin Park intimately, almost since its inception. He did not create that spirit, but helped reveal it – making it OK for people to publicly celebrate what they had already privately delighted in.

Today, anyone contemplating stewardship of Algonquin Park would do well to study Tom Thomson’s life and work (as well as indigenous Algonquin knowledge). His vision was that of a true, archetypical environmentalist.