Friday, April 17, 2015

"Old traditions... through new eyes"

           A Brief History of Maple Syrup Production in Ontario

The phrase I have chosen to use for today's post is a phrase shared in a comment by fellow blogger Lisa Le Quelenec of Dorset, UK as a reference to how traditions of a previous generation can be seen to be passed forward through exposing them to the "new faces" in their early childhood years. Such is certainly the case in our family... which compelled Lisa to send along her phrase while viewing our annual spring adventure in the sugar bush.

Such an undertaking by our family can be hardly be viewed as totally unique. But it is not at all a "main stream" practice by any means, nor is it an outrageous act either, It is more as a localized response to Spring's much awaited arrival. For our family... it represents our distillation of the practices and responses practised by earlier generations of Ontarian inhabitants to mark and celebrate this rite of Spring.

The earliest of maple sap gatherers were the numerous tribes of Woodland First Peoples. In order to survive the harsh winters, they separated into smaller family groupings to lessen the pressure upon hunting and to reduce the spreading of deadly illnesses. Starvation and disease hung over these wintering nomadic peoples.

It was during Spring that waters were finally freed of their thick winter ice... hunting trails were again free of winter drifts too deep to penetrate... and the maple tree sap was coaxed by an ever-strengthening sun from the roots upward through the trunk to the new buds high in the canopies. It was a time of renewal... marked by the return of separated tribal factions to shared summer fishing and hunting sites. It was a time of returning plenty where fish ran abundantly up creeks and into shallows to be snared and speared easily and in great numbers.

First People Tapping and Boiling Traditions and Methods

The native peoples long recognized the value of the clear white maple sap and most likely discovered it in a purely accidental fashion... perhaps simply by tasting the "sapcicles" that often hang off sapplings and then heating it to make a warm drink for winter consumption. Through some unknown method, they began gathering the sap by gashing the trunks and catching the sap in birch bark vessels and gourds which could be hung under a wooden peg driven into the trunk. I have seen very ancient trees in maple stands where very deep notches had been cut into a lower root... on which a bark vessel had been set to collect the sap from the wound.

Boiling was accomplished in one of two ways. Round field stones were heated in large open fires and were then dropped into large birch containers... or into hollowed out tree trunk troughs. In this way,the process was continued until the sap was boiled down to the desired rich syrup.

However these First Peoples arrived at commencing this annual rite of Spring... we are today indebted greatly to them for the knowledge of it that they shared so willingly with first explorers and settlers. Though these indigenous first tappers collected and boiled their syrup in the crudest of containers and processes... the method remains the same. Just the process has been updated and improved.

Pioneer Syrup Gathering and Boiling Methods

Early European arrival and influence completely changed and replaced the native traditions almost immediately... even for the First Peoples. The French introduced iron to the native peoples in the form of trade axes and iron kettles, morphing the maple syrup production into a whole new and more efficient production method.

At first, the sap was gathered in handmade wooden, or metal pails which were used to collect the sap. Wooden spigots or spiels were driven into drilled holes in the trunk... from which the sap bled freely into the bucket attached below. Sap was gathered in large wooden barrel-like tanks aboard a sled pulled by a horse or an oxen. Gatherers traversed the deep snow in the woods on snowshoes to ease the gathering process.

The sap was then delivered to a wood-fired central boiling site, where it was reduced to maple syrup through a long and tedious boil in a very large cast iron kettle hung low over a continuous hardwood fire. These fires often ran continuously throughout several days and nights.

Production was low using this method... given that it requires forty gallons of clear sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. There was also the very high risk that the syrup could be burned... as it reached that critical time when it thickened rapidly into the desired syrup form.

Early settlers most often created maple sugar from the syrup by pouring into unique and finely crafted and decorative wooden molds. These molds today fetch huge amounts of money from eager antique Canadiana collectors. The sugar could be stored and used in baking as well... or as a sweetener.

Sweet maple relics... handmade hickory or butternut pails... maple candy molds and sumac spigots... a reverence for things wooden... which I share and collect.

Here is an "updated" version of the original single pot boil -  the three pot. In this new process, the syrup was moved at specific intervals to lower heat in each of the other pots... to lessen the chance of burning the gold. Shown here are two "early pioneers" tending the kettles at Sheppard's Bush circa 1997. Bryn and Liam loved our annual forays to the different bushes. "How sweet it was..." when we were the Three Musketeers - "One for all... and all for one!" We even ate... and settled sibling uprisings and disputes... around the family "Round Table." We had such fun growing up together!!!

The single flat pan in the bush setting was the next improvement to the process. The larger boiling surface reduced the boiling time significantly and greatly increased the volume of syrup that could be processed. Being located centrally right in the bush greatly reduced the time factor in gathering to the site for boiling. and reduced the labour in the deep snow.

Eventually... the pan was covered in with a rough shanty structure which prevented unexpected weather elements and airborne debris from ruining the boil. They as well afforded the gatherers protection from the elements and the cold.  Wood for the seasonm coul be kept dry and cut during the summer for the next season's fuel supply.

The boil offs would continue uninterrupted... day and night during the entire month (or so) of sap producing. Some shanties even operated with two pans operating simultaneously... one to boil fresh sap. It was then  transferred into the lower second pan at the time it was starting to become syrup for a slower boil and finish into syrup to cool. So production was then continuous.

This ink sketch documents clearly the various components and functions of a tradition sugar shanty in Ontario. This sketch portrays one located at Glen Smail, Ontario near Ottawa. It was continuously operated by Willy Smail" family from United Empire Loyalist land grant time (circa 1812) until the late 1980's. It is now a ghost... disappeared into history!

Here is a photo of McCutcheon's... "under full steam"... in April

This is the McCutcheon Family's modern gas-fired evaporator operation located in Horseshoe Valley in the Township of Oro - Medonte north of Barrie Ontario. This family business produces world class maple syrup, tapping over 600 trees annually to produce the hundreds of galleons that they sell yearly.

Syrup along with Ken's honey operation and Rene's artisan pottery permit them to operate a self-sustaining family business based upon their maple syrup production. They often gather in excess of 2500 gallons of sap daily through the miles of tubing that brings the sap from their maple stands directly to their boiler and pans. They have separate areas in their shed displaying and selling their products to visitors, as well as space set aside for bottling the syrup and making the maple butter and candy that they are known for.

Maple shaped maple sugar Candy... a much sought after favourite of many children and tourists

This shows the large pan receiving the boiled syrup with cloth top filter out any impurities before they bottle the product.

Here is a sample of the maple products of McCutcheon's Maple Syrup displayed with the numerous honours and awards... including World Championship Awards from The Royal Winter Fair Competition. Truly... "Canadian Gold"... par excellent!!!

Concluding Thoughts...

I decided to use this opportunity to acquaint those of you who have never visited Canada ... or have never visited a bush with some insight into the origin of this sweet Canadian Spring harvest. Not only did annual production of maple syrup serve to provide farmers with additional revenue from their land... it created a much anticipated opportunity for entire families to come together early in the year to work and play together... both adults and children. It was a family social occasion fondly looked forward to. Even school took a back seat.

Maple syrup could be found at roadside stands everywhere one travelled on rural side roads... and signs like these announced that they were in business. That tradition continues today... but as always... the government has imposed controls and hovers over producers... limiting maple syrup sales to the large producers... or worse... corporate... mouthwash!.... Not even maple syrup! A pity!!!

There is a broad comparison that I will address in my upcoming post. That comparison will examine my view that the production of art can well be compared to the growth and development of maple syrup. Interested to find out?...... Stay tuned!

Sweet Buckets of Spring ... from The Paint Box Gang...

Good Painting... to ALL!!!!

Post Script

The above title for today's post is a phrase borrowed from a comment sent to me from a regular blog friend, Lisa Le Quelenec... a Dorset, UK artist whose site I visit and enjoy. You can make your own way there at  The phrase spoke to me of in inner "conversation" I had been having in preparing for this post.

Thank you Lisa... for the phrase,... and for the permission to use it here!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Spring Tonic.... Simply Breathe In!

Painting has been set aside lately to allow for other important things on the spring "to do" list... to get done. The first of these was to catch my breath after a few too many months tied to the easel and a bad dose of the flu/cold.

That was accomplished on Easter weekend with a weekend long celebration with family. Eggs and chocolate really had but a small role to play in this year's fete... for all of the "wee ones" (as the pictures of this post will clearly show)... have either themselves become Easter Bunnies... or have moved on to newer adventures.

Some Bunny's... having Easter fun!

This year, we... as a whole family shared Easter together in Kingston... taking turns walking... reading to and entertaining Mr Mac... the newest member to our Sherman tribe. Each contributed to the sumptuous Easter feast that we enjoyed together on Good Friday. It was a perfect way to put Spring into my step!

Joan sets the very finest of festive holiday tables... always has! A cook... extraordinaire!

Grampa reads funny guys!....

Mac sharing smiles... double chins... and his Easter train with Grampa...complete will bell... whistles and animal noises at every press of another gaily colored button.There is no greater gift for a life fully lived than the warmth of a grandchild that tells one... you have lived a good life and will leave the world a special gift to say so... for years to come!

On Sunday, we all met again and traveled to the Cataraqui Regional Conservation Authority's nature preserve to visit their Syrup and Pancake Festival. They have created a tour on site that chronicles the full history of sap gathering... from the First People's methods right up to the present day steam pan production.

Gramma Joan... ridin' shotgun..

Saddle up Pardner!... It's Giddy-up time!

"Snuggles"... with Dad... He's my main man!

The sweet adventure commenced with a tractor ride through the snowy woods in covered wagon replicas... much to the delight of Mr Mac. His eyes never left the sight of those behemoth tires as they edged us slowly... but surely on the muddy road bed. Two BIG Easter eggs for wee Mr Mac!

"Lookit them big wheels turnin..."

The 2015 Sherman Sugar Bush Troupe... note the "borrowed" plaid Canadian tuxedo on Andrew! Now... you're in  official "Dad" uniform Son!

The Three Rockwood Shermans chowing down! Melissa, Mac... and Andyrewster!

The sweetest rite of Spring!... BIG pancakes... fresh from the griddle... topped with creamy butter and a pouring of hot... freshly made maple syrup... served in the grandeur of the very bush it comes from!

I mentioned that "other things" have taken over in this man's world, but I think that these photos well demonstrate the wisdom of this necessary "stepping aside". Even a creative spirit needs frequent and new nourishment to remain fresh and fulfilled. A man cannot live by the brush alone. I have learned that!

However... all of this said, I feel that it would hardly be appropriate to close out a post without at least one painting. I concluded the last post with a sharing of the iconic paintings of Canadian landscape painter Tom Thomson. Today ... I have selected the work of yet another Canadian painter I deeply love and admire... for his kind gentle, generous spirit... his loyalty... and his intellect. it is an early work... completed en plein air in my company that still stands the test of time.

This painting was painted in the small village of Newton-Robinson on a plein painting trip together in the late fall of 1998. Newton - Robinson became a "honey hole"... as we jokingly called our favourite spots to paint. This wee gem of a sketch hung in my own home for many years... and I greatly miss it now. I had traded it for the canvas that I had painted alongside him that day. It now hangs, back where it rightfully belongs... in my "wee" son Andrew's own home ... along with mine. Not bad... EH???... for a twelve year old's painting!

A regular art collector and dealer who purchased only my best sketches and paintings once asked if this one on my wall could be for sale. The answer was as expected... but it speaks to an unspoken truth. An artist is one who paints what's before him, or her using the eyes and hand. But he, or she only produces an exceptional and truthful painting... when it comes from the heart!

The run is over for 2015 in our area... but I will post a series based upon the dioramas that were present at The Cat sugar bush. It really graphically illustrates the evolution of maple syrup production. Stay tuned.....

Good Spring Painting!... to ALL!!!

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Good" Thoughts... on Friday

Today is Good Friday... the first day of an annual holiday weekend celebrating Christian Easter. It is a happy time for children's Easter egg hunts. It is also importantly, a time set aside for family gatherings for dinner... which is in our plan for later today. Generally speaking... it is a holiday... embracing Spring... and Happiness. Paradoxically... it is also the time of the Passion... or Crucifixion of Christ in Christian beliefs. It is a story which retells the incomprehensible pain and agony for Christ in his sacrifice for Mankind. Strange in life... how the original path can become overgrown... even unseen fewer choose, or are taught to follow it.

I shot this photo as I passed the Roman Catholic Cemetery on one of my nightly walks not so long ago... when winter was still deep and cold. It drew to my attention the cold and the barrenness of death... yet at the same time, the presence of Light... though fading at the end of this February day... offered me a feeling of Hope... and continued Faith!

I include myself in the masses who have "stepped off" the path. There was a time... ever so long ago now... when my parents and particularly my dear Mom blazed that pathway for us as children. I know the difference this morning because of her teachings... and I thank her, in her absence... for that gift of knowledge. I, at least have the basis and foundation for understanding of the real meaning of Easter... and Good Friday in Christian terms.

Though I have indeed wandered far off that earlier path that "She" led us on in early life, I have not surrendered her teachings. I have continued to hold my personal belief in God or in Christ based upon my deep sense of Faith. I have rather cultivated my own personal kind of spiritualism which blends her teachings with my own deeply held beliefs into a workable model that I can commit to and practise in my daily life.

I have no need to edge my Self into a pew in any denomination every Sunday to feel  God's presence in my life. He is with "Me"... each and every time that I "speak" with Him in my prayers... or every time that I stand in awe and reverence... in his magnificent and ever-expanding outdoor cathedral. I can truly say that my experiences in some of the most majestic man made cathedrals in Europe rarely match the feeling that I have each time that I choose to "attend service"... when painting en plein air..

I felt compelled to offer this opportunity to share a "conversation" today because it is timely and because the wonderful blessings that I felt this morning... as I listened to thousands of returning Canada Geese moving over me and along the river. There is magic everywhere about me... and the "goodness" of Creation trumpets Hope and Renewal in my own spirit. Sadly... I have no paintings to share this morning to accompany my words. That would mean that my second "voice" would be be more mute than is usually the case.

So I have decided to share with you... the paintings of an artist that I still consider a mentor of my journey... though I never met him. His name is Tom Thomson. Tough considered a member of our Canadian Group of Seven by many... truth be told,he stayed more to himself in his painting journey and drowned under mysterious circumstances on Canoe Lake in July of 1917. That mystery remains unsolved even today, and became the legend upon which the Group "surfed" to create their own reputation... direction and fame.

I began my painting journey copying his and others of the Seven and I do in fact owe much to the very spirit of my work. Algonquin has become my own place of painting worship over thirty odd years and is really my second Home... after the Saint Lawrence River.

Here are some of the paintings that I admire from Thomson's vast oeuvre of 8x10 inch plein sketches on birch panels. Does that ring a bell? I wonder...

This small plein air sketch on a birch panel first sealed and primed with shellac is typical of the hundreds that Thomson painted in his canoe trekking and fishing through the maze of lakes and streams within the Park. This one is simply titled "Spring in Algonquin Park" (1916-17) ... as was always the case. Many lacked either signature or title at his untimely death. That task became the task of his Group painting friends. He would often burn sketches in his campfire before anyone laid eyes on them while he camped. He never placed much significance on approval or acceptance. He lived a solitary existence to paint. The landscape was his mistress... and muse. He died ... as I believe he would have chosen...peacefully in their arms.

This is a large now iconic studio painting on canvas 127.9 x 139.8 cm that now hangs in the National Gallery Collection in Ottawa and is viewed by many... including myself, as among the most iconic of his works. It is titled "Jack Pine". 

Here is the small 8 x 10 inch panel created en plein air by Thomson that served as the reference for the larger studio-conceived masterpiece. Despite its smaller scale... it has a bravura and spirited... deeply felt response and accurately and better portrays the passion which conjoined Thomson with the Algonquin wild

During my period of introspection and planning for the solo show that I recently opened in Kingston, I stumbled across this illustration that I had purchased and had fully intended to have framed and hung in my end of the downstairs studio. I discovered in tucked safely away (and forgotten) in a veritable sea of papers and projects.. as yet not accomplished. It was simply adrift in "floatsom n' jetsom" of paper reminders... that to Deb's chagrin... are everywhere at my end of the space... and are "lost at sea"! HA HA!!

My argument is based upon my observation (and contention)... that such Epiphanies are to reappear (miraculously it seems to me anyway)... when they are most useful to my purpose and current thought. Today is in fact one of those moments. And lest ye be a non-believer... this illustration is the pen and ink illustration work of... Tom Thomson. It is a beautifully rendered decorative landscape format bearing a quotation from the poet Henry Van Dyke. This graphic was created by Thomson when he worked as an illustrator at The Grip Design Company in Toronto with other Group members. It now hangs in The McMichael Collection in Kleinburg, ON.

The Van Dyke quote speaks so eloquently of the man... and quite frankly... underscores all of what I have tried to express to you this morning in my conversation. It is my goal to continue my own journey... much in the same vein and with the same purpose as expressed in these words, Could we all endeavor... from this Friday and forward to put into practice in our own lives such goals and directions... both our own lives and the livers of other travelers we meet would find greater Peace and Happiness?

I wish to leave you with these thoughts... an yet another Thomson relic that I have acquired and now is hung in a place of honor in our home. The hand pulled graphic is a large silk screened reproduction of "Northern River"... my all time favorite work by Thomson. It was created by Sampson and Matthews printing in Toronto shortly after Thomson's passing in 1918. Below it is a poetic tribute created by his Group friend and fellow artist J.E.H. MacDonald. The tribute was placed on a brass plaque and is forever embedded in a cairn built by group members on a tiny island on Canoe Lake... where he passed so tragically from this life.

The characteristic which I most admire about Tom Thomson as a man was his Humility. This unfortunately is something which I view sadly ... as missing in life of many others around me... including many artists. In my mind, it is as important an ingredient for successful and happy living as talent... position... or wealth. The potential to include this desirable attribute in one's cache and to be recognized and admired by others for it... is simply to consistently practise it.

" Northern River" silk screen... a bad photo because it is glass-covered

Note" The tribute commences.... "He lived humbly, but passionately with the wild..." What an epitaph for all of Mankind... could we but earn it!

"I"... am greatly blessed to have been raised and spent most of my journey in such a beautiful  country and nation... where "Peace"... and "Happiness"... are more than mere words!

May it continue to remain so... I will do my best to pass these values and principles forward!

Good Painting ... to ALL!!! ,... and Happy Easter!

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Spring" - ing Forward..."

Spring continues to show more of a presence here on the River, as larger and thicker pans of ice drift continuously toward the east. The quiet groups of robins just arrived a week ago have swung into their noisy... boisterous and aggressive territorial pursuits which signal the mating season and the lead in to nesting. Trumpeting Canada Geese do continual flybys along the edge of the river ice, while squadrons of returning turkey vultures circle their way northward on their annual migration trek. Many can be seen lunching on the plethora of inexperienced winter born young of squirrels... raccoon and skunks... now lying as fresh road kill to satiate the vulture's ravenous hunger resulting from the huge energy demands of their long migratory journey back.

Shards of ice headed downstream towards Tar Island... where the current will whisk them to the outer channel and down river along Grenadier Island and into the main Seaway Shipping Channel.

Sea Prince... fully inspected... and "at the ready"... to "heave off" on her inaugural 2015 voyage this Friday. Rumor has it that she will carry over a thousand Asian visitors over this weekend... providing the weather holds... and the ice presents no shipping danger.

In the bird feeding area of our yard... winter residents must now compete with newly arrived red winged black birds, starlings, emerging chipmunks and night time masked bands of resident raccoon... fresh out of hibernation and anxious to find their share of the booty. The yard echoes with the challenges and squabbles of a variety of voices... new and old. Even the familiar soothing smell of the once covered grass and soil can be detected. Spring is indeed... in the air!

Mourning Doves preening n' pecking... courting is under full steam!

Anxious irises... poking their heads through the still frost-filled soil and ice to retain their crown as first to emerge in our garden

On a personal note, we can now divert our energies and attention to preparing for the opening of The Paint Box Gallery in early May. Withe my solo show in Kingston successfully out of the way this past weekend... I can resume my own painting journey attending to themes of my own liking and interest. I very much look forward to being able to get outside more regularly... since the cold seems to be relenting.

While the show was not what I had hoped for in terms of attendance or sales at this point... it has already accomplished the goals that I had intended to achieve in accepting the challenge to produce it. I have created some of the very finest work that I have produced and I know from my years of retail experience... that openings are hardly the measure of the overall success of a show. Many factors play into opening success... and those factors are beyond my ability or responsibility to control. I am after all... only the painter!

Curator Kate cruising the early visitors at the show

My talk was well received by those present and it offered me an opportunity to reflect and deliver a precised overview of my journey and process. Judging from the interest and the quality of the many questions asked of me... my talk was indeed a conversation... that is... a successful invitation to discuss and share opinions and ideas. Mission accomplished!

"Me"... giving my talk... while couched comfortably in the warmth and ambiance of the artisan glass wood and pottery.

Kate Ducharme, the gallery curator did a splendid job and completed the hanging job flawlessly.... articulating a flow and artful interaction between my work and the many other creative pieces in the gallery space. Thank you Kate... for all of your hard work!

A  full wall housing a nice cluster of four landscapes... depicting the four seasons

A trio of River landscapes... fronted by a tiered grouping... blending beautiful and varied hand crafted pieces.

"River Dance"... the tour de force in my mind for this show... nestled between two very different landscapes and fronted by some magnificent glass,,, wooden bowls and pottery. A spectacular looking natural wall.

 My son... and supporter Bryn... admiring some of the glass.

The small "Time Stands Still... on the River" triptych tucked into a small alcove in concert with the warmth and natural quality of these salad sets and delicate glass.

"Tangled Garden"... standing tall and alone... above the elegantly sculpted trio sitting colorfully below.

These three River scenes blend ever so naturally and handsomely with the bevy of handmades on the shelves below. Bravo Kate!

Deb and I are ready to sit down together this weekend to fully review our inventory of creative offerings that we stocked throughout last season... to facilitate re ordering... or not. It also will be the time where we will determine what new products and projects each of us will undertake to create new and exciting additions in the Gallery for Summer 2015.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling to be thinking summer again... and well before it is actually upon us. While we have worked continuously downstairs in our shared winter studio space... there is a sense of freedom gained by visualizing the end of the confinement which winter brings here in Rockport. Many of the resident winter "snowbirds" have found their way back... and human activity has once again returned in its usual gradual fashion. It is rumored that the first boat cruise might head up River under the International Bridge... as early as Friday... despite the existence of a lot of heavy river ice. Spring ... is on the water as well!

In closing... I hope that you have enjoyed my offerings of a few jpeg glimpses of the show opening. Hope that these provide you with some insight into the space and the presence of paintings there. Certainly... a "jump start" for The Paint Box Gallery for Summer 2015! I am pleased...

Good Painting... and Happy Easter Egg!... to ALL!

A "Sweet Taste of Spring"... to All!! Happy Easter from The Paint Box Gang!