Tag Archives: @TTLastSpring

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 2: The Traditions (updated October 15, 2016)

Before reviewing his canoeing / camping equipment and exploits, it’s best to touch on Canadian canoeing traditions to see where Tom Thomson fits.

The oldest canoe tradition is that bequeathed by Aboriginal Peoples. Modern Canadian canoes are but minor variants of the original birch-bark craft. These earliest canoes (dating from prehistory) functioned as tools of survival, providing transportation to seasonal territories for food-gathering etc. I trust, however, that their creators and first paddlers found much unexplainable joy when using  these near-perfect craft.

As European settlers (‘colonizers’) arrived, they quickly adopted some of the Aboriginal tools of wilderness life, and the original survival value of canoe travel remained paramount. Personally, based upon my own experience with Native people, I feel that this initial transaction among Aboriginals and Europeans – the gift of the canoe – was a largely positive and voluntary one, both ways, at least between individuals.

Europeans did bring a more industrial and restless edge to canoe travel in North America. The canoe became even more of a workhorse, bringing timber surveyors (‘cruisers’), land surveyors, prospectors, and retail merchants deep into the wilderness. As villages became established, brigades of skilled canoeists (comprised often of Metis) continued to make extensive forays into the hinterlands. I believe that quite a few of these canoeists actually loved this arduous endeavor, and devoted their lives to it with fierce joy (‘Voyagers,’ etc). IMG_20160811_092905

This original utilitarian canoeing acquired recreational overtones as leisure-time became available. It morphed into the several sub-sets of activity that define ‘canoeing’ today.

Perhaps Calvin Rutstrum (1895-1982; in books such as “The New Way of the Wilderness,” 1958) best straddled the transition from survival-based canoeing to a more recreational focus. He, along with others such as Bill Riviere (d.2005; “Pole, Paddle, and Portage,” 1965) and Stewart Edward White (1873-1946; “The Forest,” 1903) introduced new generations of recreational canoeists to the old tried and true canoeing ethos, steeped in ‘workplace’ rigor. IMG_20160727_194400_edit

This ‘canoeing as a workplace’ as taught by Rutstrum, stressed the ability to travel far, for long periods of time through all weather, into remote wilderness. Self-sufficency was paramount. If things went wrong, quick rescue was not anticipated. The canoeist eventually returned to ‘civilization’ with ‘the goods,’ – be it some personal achievement or something with more commercial flavour.

On the other side of the coin are the whitewater thrill-seekers and sport canoeists. Unlike the Rutstrum school of paddlers who largely view whitewater as an obstacle to avoid, today’s sport canoeists seek it out and make it the focus of their excursions. Perhaps Canadian author (ie. “Path of the Paddle,” 1980) and film-maker Bill Mason (1929-88) best exemplifies this newer school.

Technical whitewater paddling manoeuvres such as ‘back-ferry,’ ‘playing the eddies,’ etc. were not consciously practiced by the old-schoolers. Their main tactic, when forced to run rapids, was to paddle quickly forward to maintain steerage-way and thus dodge obstacles.

Of course,there are many nuances within the canoeing spectrum but I think it’s safe to say, without delving further into canoeing history, that Tom Thomson fits comfortably within the Rutstrum ‘workplace’ tradition of wilderness travel.

That’s not to say that Tom was a stranger to whitewater. For instance, in the summer of 1916 he worked as a fire-ranger with Ed Godin in Algonquin’s north and eastern areas; as Silcox writes:

“They travelled the Petawawa River… and Thomson again followed and painted part of the Booth Company’s timber drive along the Petawawa.” (p 58)

The Petawawa is known as a premier whitewater river, with all grades of rapids and lengthy, very challenging stretches. George Drought says the Petawawa: “continues to provide some of the best whitewater canoeing in the country” (“Petawawa River Whitewater Guide,” FOAP, 2013, p 6). It seems likely that Thomson was very familiar with and at least dappled in all of this river’s rapids.

But again, Tom’s intent was ‘workplace oriented,’ with his main focus on fire-ranging duties, or corralling subjects fit for his brushes.

 

 

 

PERSPECTIVES ON CANADIAN ARTIST TOM THOMSON (1877-1917), Tom the Canoeist, Part 1: The Issues (updated October 15, 2016)

img_20161027_225546_editModern 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.