Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rural Requiem

If one was to search for something that could be considered the symbol of America... or Canada one need need not look much further than our forests for an answer. As difficult as it may be to accept such a statement in the face of skyscrapers, automobiles, space age accomplishment and the current cyber world that most of us are trapped in... or party to ... it was the "tree" that gave us our initial leverage on pioneering and developing our path to modernity... as we know it today.

William Cullen Bryant, a beloved and respected early American poet stated that "the groves were God's first temples" and he embraced the notion of creating Central Park in New York... the first designed urban park in North America and that refuge today stands as a monument to the thinking then... that trees and forests formed "the backbone of America."

In looking over my own artistic journey and the library of books that I have used "to school" my Self... I came across five books dating (in reprinted versions) all written by Eric Sloane. Those books in tandem with my numerous books on the Group of Seven... would form the crucible in which my own vision and artistic direction would be forged. The equivalent of Sloane in Canada was C.W. Jeffreys. Both were fine painters... but it was their pen and ink renderings of Americana and Canadiana that drew my attention to what would become my lifelong focus and pursuit of "things wooden"... and in particular the recording of Canadian barns.

Things wooden... include tools, utensils, decoys, carvings, canoes, boats and architecture... particularly barns. I was blessed to have been born and raised in a part Canada where many barns... derived from American, French-Canadian, British and European traditions were still present to be sketched and studied without having to travel more than a stone's throw to do so.

I continue to sketch and photograph barns ... searching them out and to record them before they finally vanish due to the mindless sprawl of urban development. Many of my sketchbooks and my photo reference materials from the past house ghost images of these relics... already gone forever along with our rural traditions.

Harrowsmith Magazine's December 2010 issue contains an article entitled "Ode to the Barn- A Vanishing Landmark". This post's introduction draws upon the shared ideas from one of Eric Sloane's books published in 1955... entitled "Our Vanishing Landscape."How ironic that Sloane... Harrowsmith Magazine ... and "I" should be aligned in our elegiac view of the sad plight of our barns! How ironic too, that my brother and I both contributed artwork to that same magazine depicting the declining population of barns back in the 1970's. I lived and operated the Gingerbread Gallery in Camden East, Ontario... the very place where Harrowsmith Magazine conceived and born.

This "green"magazine was aimed at "back-to-the-earthers"... offering editorial and state-of-the-art ideas and techniques that encouraged a Whitman/ Thoreau vision of self-sufficiency.... blended with the appeal for responsible stewardship to accompany land use. The meteoric rise and success of Harrowsmith was followed by the creation of Equinox their second success story... a glossy, eco-friendly Canadian version of National Geographic. In months, it became equally successful in grabbing a huge and responsive readership. Living in the small village of Camden East... being part of this experiment was one of my greatest blessings. It had the feel of family. It had a sense of community... where that term existed physically... beyond being just a word. They were both heady and halcyon days where the respect for rural life and tradition were given value and recognition!

Back to the Present... or sort of . I quote from another of my favourites from my library...The Owl Pen written by Kenneth McNeill Wells... and beautifully illustrated using the crisp woodcuts of his wife Lucille Oille. Wells was a highly successful columnist with the now defunct Toronto Telegram. They both became disenchanted with urban life in Toronto and purchased a rather dilapidated pioneer home in the Oro-Medonte not far from our Gallery. They chose "the road not taken".... long before it was in vogue in the 1970's. Their saga began in the mid to late 1940's... when homesteading was really the only life available to this beautiful, hilly and undeveloped area of Ontario.

The book chronicles their homesteading adventures and the hardships they encountered in finally discovering and enjoying the benefits and peace of rural living. The book is well-written... Wells is a trained writer whose heart and soul seeks to find a place out of the din. The wisdom of Wells' perceptions and discoveries further illuminate and give credibility to our need to retain contact with the land... and the traditions of stewardship that ensured its maintenance and survival for succeeding generations.

The demise and rapid disappearance of wooden barns from the American and Canadian landscape are simply visible scars of a deeper illness. It is the illness of a kind of greed that has no conscience... no plan for a sustainable future... nor more dangerously to us all... no concern for the land that provides food for the masses of population who depend upon it. The land that we are developing will never in our lifetime be ever reclaimable as an arable resource. That situation of imbalance is more damning to mankind around the planet... than the depletion of fossil fuels. Both are in fact not only inevitable... but imminent in this century.

My blog is indeed intended as a forum and resource for artists to openly share ideas, feelings and their paintings. It is also an opportunity to verbalize our awareness and concerns about the landscape and heritage that each of us enjoys. While there may exist differences in each because of location and culture... the observations we make are first hand beyond most citizens or politicians. Our cumulative voices ... together can perhaps provide "a canary in the mine" signal to those we meet and speak to... to address the very serious consequences we face globally... if we continue to be silent... and to ignore what we know we know is wrong... and is happening unchecked around us.

I earnestly believe in the "Power of One".... and that change begins ALWAYS ... with "Me." All revolutions of change in history have begun through the actions and hands of the "ordinary" man. All revolutions occurred because the ordinary man's interests and welfare were taxed beyond reason, or his physical well-being. Be assured that corporate controls such as we have already born witness to in the Monsanto seed monopoly and the various governmental-run boards for milk, wheat, corn, poultry, beef... the list is endless... have no interest beyond their ledgers and dividends to improve the lot of food producers... or consumers. These same injustices and poor management of land and crops existed in the time of the Pharaohs... and ultimately led to the rapid and eventual decline and fall of their vast and rich civilization.

I will end the post with a quote from page 105 in The Owl Pen... which I feel prophetically supports my appeal here:

"It is a queer thought, but a demonstrably true one, that except for the reeking manure spreader there would be no silvery old barns, nestling down among gnarled maples and beside quiet farm houses or gurgling creeks. Medonte would still be, or would be on the way to becoming again land of savage huntsmen. And our cities, denied the endless bounty of our fields, would starve and crumble. Famine and disease would sweep them.Nature has her own pitiless way of dealing with people who grow proud of their machines and indifferent to their soil, and in their own minds superior to the mound by the stable door."

Avarice and arrogance are solely the characteristics of Man.

"My name is Ozimandias, king of kings!Look upon my works , ye Mighty, and despair!"


-Percy Byssche Shelley

I have included a few samples of barns I have enjoyed painting... in various parts of Canada for your viewing and enjoyment. Maybe you have a few barns that might be interesting to record and share with other artists.

Good (barn) Painting to All !


  1. Hi Bruce,

    As you have read on my blog, we have the same issues here. Old vernacular buildings are disappearing, or being converted into modern dwellings and, inevitably, losing something in the process. It seems that the price of progress is a move to urban communities, while the countryside is becoming a refuge for the wealthy.

    All the best,

  2. Hi Bruce, there is such a strong atmosphere in each of your barn paintings, the lighting, composition etc makes each one unique. We must paint what is familar and what inspires us, your post here took me back to a world a simple world that does still exist here in the highlands in a very small way or living close to the land without the need for big machinery and with the love of sheds, outbuildings and barns! It is a whole life that is lived everyday in those farm buildings, many never know or knew a holiday, yet they didn't seem to mind. They accepted their roots, their simple connection to the land and their ancestors and carried on from early in the morning until dusk fell in a world full of earth colours and a splash of red on that barn door!

  3. I shall look for "The Owl Pen" in our library collection - it sounds like something I would very much relate to and enjoy. One reason we moved up here to the north section of Vancouver Island was to get away from too much urbanization and the normal rat race so many human beings seem to have made a bargain with. There are cultural advantages to the city that I miss but otherwise I hardly think about it. Reading Atwood's "The Year of the Flood" right now a testament to the very possible, frightening future ahead for our race if we don't wake up soon. Bob and I have also gone vegan now...can't deal with factory farming practices any longer. Sometimes I feel like we are floating in a dream world over the nightmare of modern day reality. It is hard to stay optimistic some days.

    1. It's funny. I did a search to try and locate the address of The Owl Pen and I've happily stumbled upon so many wonderful blogs and people who still remember the book and remember Lucy the artist. Myself, I remember Great Aunt Lucy as the tiny woman with the huge personality. The woman who drank, swore and smoked and could take on the world. I cannot believe that that almost 80 years later people are still reading and appreciating their writing and artwork. They would be thrilled! I myself, am living where the Gold Rush began so maybe it's a genetic thing.

  4. Hi Keith!... Thanks for your very keen and supportive observations!

    We do indeed share so many common beliefs and principles... making it always enjoyable to "connect" and to share insights into our lives in very different parts of the world.

    I believe that we both embrace change when it is beneficial and necessary. We both have gone well beyond being simply maudlin in our complaints. We are indeed losing some things both in Canada and in Scotland... that are priceless... and necessary to the well-being of future generations who will come after us. That's I believe... called conscience!

    Good talking with "You"... as always Keith!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  5. Hello Caroline!... "You" sum it all up beautifully!

    It is not just the barns we are losing... but rather the close contact with and respect for the Earth! Our values and the things we gain comfort from all seem to be attached to a monetary gain.

    I live amongst simple farm folk... who live happily... with less money... and not without sacrifice or adversity. Yet I hear little complaint about their lives! That's why "I" choose to live amongst them... far away from "The Big Smoke"!

    Good painting... and Peaceful Living in your Highland refuge!
    Warmest regards,

  6. Hello "You"... and Bob!... Good to hear from "You"!

    Living in harmony with the land in your own terms is a very difficult proposition. Entering it ... as one has to from time to time... is indeed painful... discouraging and a test of one's optimism!

    Life is only about choices... and "I" firmly believe that the Universe offers them up to us as individuals and as couples as well.Living with our choices... and accepting the consequences arising out of those choices becomes our Karma. The Good... bad... and the ugly!

    My family and my Art sustain "Me"... and give
    "Me" ample reason EVERY day to keep my Faith and optimistic attitude. I can't save the world... don't try really any longer. But... I don't stop sharing my ideas and my Hope for the Future with other kindred spirits! Beats laying down and quitting!

    My motto/mantra:

    "Don't give up the ship!"

    Much Peace... Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,