Thursday, April 23, 2015

"The Smallest Things... Have the Greatest Potential"

"For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born out of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except with the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in the characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men- but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his."

From Mark Twain's letter to Helen Keller reflecting upon an incident years earlier when she had been charged - and - acquitted - of plagiarism

I stumbled upon the title for today's post while glancing through a glossy magazine. It was a sentence used by Kashi to introduce and encourage the inclusion of their quinoa cereal as a healthy supplement to our daily diets. It seemed a simple sentence at first... but being the eclectic gatherer that I am... it seemed to piece together seamlessly with the thoughts and directions that I wished to put forward regarding the importance of tradition in our personal and creative lives.

I thought... how appropriate it was that Spring was the perfect time to validate this sentence. In every corner of creation... at this very brief Spring moment, small and previously dormant things have been coaxed by the new sun to emerge. Though most are but mere green fingers at this moment in time... pointed skyward in hope, a few like these crocuses have already sounded the first notes of fanfare that the world will again... suddenly be transformed. Is this the first occasion? Hardly. It is a cycle... part of a plan we look to repeat.

Is it the same transformation repeated? Not exactly. Each year can... and usually does vary somewhat from others. However, the cycle can easily be predicted to follow a trajectory which leads through the the blazing intensity of growth and colour in summer through to September... and the return of sleep. That doesn't change. Tradition.... reshaped and refined in each separate cycle.

Crocus... first ... as expected... in full bloom!

I incorporated the timely phrase "old traditions... through new eyes" (with permission) from a comment sent to me by Dorset (UK) artist, Lisa Le Quelenec. I used it to create the foundation for my last post which focused upon the evolution and development of the maple syrup industry in Ontario. That post traced that annual rite of Spring in these parts from its meagerly rudimentary origin in First People's culture... through European influence and into the modern era of today's high yield and "sanitized" and high yield production.

Certainly... "modern" maple syrup is a misnomer because one can easily trace its development to from rudimentary heated stone birch bark containers to today's gas-fired high yield evaporators. Yet despite the superior technology... the original process and tradition is driven by climate and remains virtually unchanged.

I mentioned in the concluding moments and lines of that post that I could clearly discern parallel thoughts and application of that "timely phrase" in reference to creating art and the evolution Western Art History itself... as it arrived and was transplanted into Canadian culture through European settlement influences.

A comment related to my "Good Thoughts...  on Friday" post and a further interest in Tom Thomson from my Scottish watercolour artist friend, Keith Tilley prompted me to offer today's post which aligns itself perfectly with Lisa Le Quelenec's wonderful phrase "old traditions... through new eyes."

In the "Good Thoughts..." post, I shared some of the work of the iconic Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson... in the absence of the availability of new work from my own easel. Several decades of emerging and aspiring Canadian artists like myself were "educated" and shaped by Thomson and his Group of Seven associates. Together, they blazed a brave and highly colourful  new trail for Canadian Art away from the earlier established and grayed tonalist tradition of lowland European landscape painters.

This sudden cultural shift in Canadian landscape painting was inspired through a chance exposure by Group of Seven members Lawren Harris and J.E.H MacDonald to Scandinavian work in an exhibition at the avant-garde Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY in 1913. This fateful experience could be said to be "the flash point for the formation of the Group of Seven".

It was from this moment forward, and through their example that Canadian painters have focused their energy and interests on the Canadian landscape,. Was this accomplished in an entirely unique fashion? Hardly. Their very manifesto was created and driven by what they saw in that Scandinavian exhibition... and Canada was "ripe" for such a change. She had reached a respectable station as a recognized nation because of her significant military role in World War I. The stars were aligned perfectly to usher in revolutionary change on the shoulders of this new feeling of nationalism. All that was needed further was a powerful mythic catalyst.

The Role of Tom Thomson in the Emergence of The Group of Seven

Tom Thomson was not a member of the Seven. The group was formed after his mysterious and tragic death by drowning in 1917 on Canoe Lake in the Park. He had worked side-by-side with many of them at the advertising-illustration firm in Toronto called "The Grip". It was here that he met J.E.H MacDonald who took him under his wing and provided the critical knowledge of art and painting. Thomson, unlike the others tended to paint mostly by himself... seeking solitude and quiet. He was complex and for the most part not very comfortable or secure socially.

Though he was awkwardly shy...  it would be this woodsman (by myth only) and loner-by-choice who would bring the Group... and Canadian landscape painting into the wilderness of Algonquin Park. It was his discovery of the unique beauty of this immense and as yet untouched wilderness which proved to be the catalyst to encourage the better educated members to enter this intimidating, unforgiving and alien environment from the city where they dwelled in its forests of restrictions and confining spaces.

His work can be seen to be different than each of the other members whose work undeniably reflects their close proximity to each other and their shared academic training and travel in Europe. What he brought to them was a process of making unfettered sketches on location... by the hundreds in his short tragic life span.

Petawawa Gorge - The on site sketch on 8X10 inch  1/4 in birch panel

In the winter months... he chose specific sketches which he felt deserved a larger format and further thought and development. Hence... he was a "plein air" artist... a century before the term would become the fad that it is today. He painted these while "wintering" in a Rosedale ravine (now a posh enclave for the Toronto elite) adjacent to "The Studio Building". This modern art complex was built by Lawren Harris with all of its trappings to accommodate artists like Harris and A.Y Jackson as studio-residences. Thomson shunned this comfort... preferring to replicate his woodsy lifestyle... alone. The Shack now sits on the property of the McMichael Canadian Collection... a cathedral to the Canadian landscape tradition. But that's a story for another day..

Petawawa Gorge -The finished studio painting on canvas

Though Thomson admittedly chose to  follow his own path... I feel that it can be argued that he was influenced merely by the presence of the other Seven ... a couple of its members like MacDonald and Lismer whom he admired greatly. They freely shared their own learning and techniques with this eager up comer. it can be seen in his oeuvre as well... that he shunted back and forth experimenting with new styles emanating from Europe.

 I will also guess that this influence was peripheral and unintentional ... except at certain points in his program of self- learning and study. Here are some examples that I feel show directly the presence of European influences and interest by Thomson. At best, it can be seen that he experimented with and then left these influences to move forward under his own creative power and specific interests. Many of the Group maintained a closer adherence and preference for the Impressionism, Cubism and Surreal that were in vogue in avant-garde European cities like Paris.

Thomson's Emergence As An Artist

I have chosen Thomson to demonstrate a belief I have in the hopes that his example will encourage you to truly believe that "the smallest things... [do in fact] have the greatest potential"... and that each of us does in fact possess a "voice" of our own. However, that voice within which is vibrant... free and  trusting begins to be dulled and is diminished the moment that we are forced to leave childhood to "grow up".

Few of us can resist that social expectation and we conform out of a need to claim acceptance and to pursue careers. In so doing,we abdicate our right to freely choose and to maintain a truly creative spirit. Simply put... we conform... or we settle. It is not usually until much later in life... usually after career and parenting responsibilities have been met that many hearken back to a former feeling that they had very much enjoyed doing creative things.

Though it is never too late to commence a creative journey and to reclaim that creative inner spirit... it is however... in my humble opinion unreasonable to expect to enter any arts program and to achieve the level off success and accomplishment that other working artists have achieved over an entire life time dedicated to their craft. Could one reasonable expect to pick up a violin and practice for a year and expect to play or tour with a symphonic orchestra? Could we call ourselves a classical musician?

What can... and will be accomplished is a gain in satisfaction... a further incentive to better one's skills and contact with other people who stimulate and encourage further exploration. Each of us can achieve these valuable commodities and find purpose in our adult learning. Learning is a lifetime pursuit... with no final destination. Each day presents a new opportunity to discover more about our creative spirits. Paint on!

Thomson represents one of those rarities in painting for which there seems no complete answer. He entered into commercial art joining The Grip in 1907... completely void of training. His initial oil paintings beginning in 1906 mimic those of every beginning artist in oils... my own included. They are, as one one would expect... undistinguished and lack vision... or any visible sign of exceptional talent.

These are samples of early works completed circa 1907 when he first began his apprenticeship and work as an illustrator at The Grip. This would then mean that Thomson was a late starter in his early thirties. However... it was his exposure to competent and trained artist-illustrators and designers in his midst daily who were willing to share their knowledge freely with him that most likely account for his sudden accelerated rate of artistic growth and development. Add to that part of the equation... his compulsive need to paint. These two factors in my opinion fueled his uncanny rapid mastery of painting.

More rather "ordinary" or at least undistinguished smaller paintings at this point from his early days circa 1907

 This sketch ... though dark in timbre indicates a shifting into a higher realm of understanding and the capacity to paint what he genuinely feels from within. It is an early precursor of the mature work for which Thomson is remembered and revered.

These paintings shown below record his brief interest and experimentation with the "new" and avant-garde ideas coming out of European Impressionism

 Definitely an attempt to include Art Nouveau decorative flourishes and organization ... BUT... within a Canadian landscape birch format... a favourite subject for Thomson throughout his brief career.

"The Fisherman". Here in this mid career painting mimics the Impressionists Sislay, Pissaro and Monet revolutionary break from traditional realism through the use of small strokes of "broken colour" to create form and movement in their work.

Thomson's famous broken colour large studio canvas rendering of "The Pointers"... which depicts log drivers with their long log driving poles being barged our to build the booms of timber to be floated down the main rivers on their long voyage to saw mills. After being squared... the timber was loaded aboard large sailing vessels bound for overseas markets.

This painting "Jack Pine" is perhaps the most iconic of Thomson's studio work. Broken colour can be clearly seen again as the fabric and underpinning method of this tapestry-like master work.

The questions which have arisen to address the mystery of his untimely and tragically young demise at forty years of age are of little interest to me personally any longer. I completed an in depth study based upon reading all the literature early in my own self-study program. In the field of art history... one can easily see that this unfortunate end is hardly unique. One need only look at Van Gogh to see this history repeat itself.

Perhaps... they even shared the same affliction... bipolar disorder because of their high level of creative energy and solitary nature. I wonder? But after a century... these things matter little.

The obvious answer for the mercuric rise of these artists' work from completely average and awkward beginnings to exceptionality can most likely be attributed to their compulsive need to make paintings and being able to sustain their pace of work for long periods of time... before needing to stop and regain energy or inspiration.

Having devoted my entire lifetime to painting... my work has yet to... and perhaps never will mature to their level... or even beyond my own humble talents and abilities now.But that matters little to me as well. I simply "am"..... and will continue to struggle and learn as I am able... until I am either unable... or do not wish to proceed.

I have created this rather large post specifically for my friend Keith Tilley. But... I hope in some fashion... that it offers new insights to others in their searches who might find it interesting and useful too.

I will close out the post... and I could go on forever.... BUT... I have many other projects and issues in my own world to address immediately. I will offer some of my own favourites from his mature works... all completed in this truly unbelievably short period of  of 1915 through to 1917... the year of his death.

"Spring in Algonquin Park" - oil on birch panel 8 x 10 inches

 "The Drive" - I love this painting for its sheer dynamic energy and superior strength of composition. I covet its innate simplicity and rich colour. This painting... as much as any other.. captures the rough and tumble wilderness to which Thomson was drawn and its defining industry... logging.

Once again... his mastery of rich colour and innate good design activate this waterfall of autumn colour... as it fairly tumblers into your lap. It is the Canadian maple wood splendor... unmatched anywhere in my experience!

A somewhat confrontational vertical landscape which is tamed through his mastery of pastels and juxtaposition of complementary colour.

Final Brush Strokes

These last three on site sketches fully discern that Thomson has begun to leave behind his interest in simply painting what was in front of him. In these intuitive panels can be seen his movement towards abstracting the landscape and making it into his own liking

Frost-laden Cedars, Cauchon Lake


"Petawawa Gorge -  Look at the use of rich colour and contrast to create volume... dazzling light and shadow to create grandeur... mood and depth of space.

"Woodland Interior in Winter" - Note the increased abstracting of form and reduction of space to a  two dimensional interest.

 I truly feel that I owe a great debt for my own painting achievement and knowledge to the Group of Seven... and particularly Tom Thomson. We have painted and shared a common pride and passion for our Canadian landscape. Though others may consider our efforts pedantic... and dated... I choose to paint on and to leave that final judgement using the words of a group member A.J Casson:

"Time... is the only critic."

I pay homage to the wonderful book chronicling Tom Thomson's Life by David Silcox and Harold Town... "The Silence and the Storm". This is one of that small grouping of books that I own that I refer to as my Bibles. I pour through it from time to time and I never fail to come away without new energy and an uplifted creative spirit.

David P. Silcox is a respected Canadian art historian, writer of many texts, arts advocate, educator and President Of Sotheby's Canada Art Auction Houses. Harold Town... now deceased was one of the founding members of The famous Canadian Painters Eleven, a group of internationally respected abstract expressionists.

Town's Preface to this wonderful publication... loaded with highly accurate pictorial and historical background to Thomson's life ends with this appropriate quote which I think sums up what I have tried to present in this very precised post for you:

"At the time of his death a perturbed Thomson was poised on the crevasse between figurative and non-figurative art. Whether he would have survived the jump is a matter of conjecture; that he would have jumped is, to me at least, a certainty."

What do you think?...

Good Painting... to ALL!!!


  1. Much to think on, Bruce. But I was captured by your words stating that your work does not and may not ever live up to the works you've posted by other artists here. I have to disagree with you.

    I often wonder what makes some work collectable and highly sought after over others? Quite honestly, I still don't know. I've read a couple of books that made me think about this too. I think your work is as good and better than many of the passed (and past!) artists'. It really boils down to taste for me. One artist that I thought was good never achieved acclaim until he began doing forgeries in WWII. In this biography, there were images of his own work and I'd have been proud to have that ability.

    Van Gogh was not respected for his work in his life time. In fact, I used to think his work was quite childish and couldn't understand what anyone saw in it. Now? I've done a 180 and love it! From his earliest sketches, through his experimentations, and into his madness...I think it is amazing work and to know it sprang from his intensity is music to sooth my soul.

    Bottom line, there are millions of artists in this world. Whether any one will ever garner the type of money that the masters do is truly up to fate. One of my all time favorite artists, besides Van Gogh, of course, is DaVinci. I do not know what it is...but I just love his work. Attention to detail, maybe. And yet, I look at so many artists and their work and would love to have an iota of that talent.

    Watching Antiques Roadshow and a person brought in a "naïve art" piece by a Chicago artist - last name Goudy, first can't remember but it was a woman. Amazed to see what price was put on that hideous piece of work. Truly looked like something a kindergartener would do. Even I do better. And yet worth thousands and thousands. Color me surprised and dismayed. Nevertheless...

    Seems there are no real measuring sticks anymore. The public likes/wants what it wants. There are even people in the world who think I am talented in the art department and I'm left humbled and surprised - pleasantly so.

  2. Dear Sherry!... Thank you for this very thoughtful and well-written comment! Thank you too... for your continued gracious and much valued support of this blog and my work.

    What gives me the most pleasure in reading your comment this morning... is not at all the "cred" that you offer me in terms of the rest of the art world at large. I KNOW... that I am a small fish in the sea in terms of notoriety Sherry. But you see my dear... notoriety has never governed nor has it been an incentive in my commitment to any undertaking in my life.

    It is about the journey... and about the Freedom I find in creating and following my own path. To this point... I can honestly say... that I would make no substantial changes to my journey... were it even possible.

    What gives me great pleasure Sherry... is to hear you voice aspects of change and growth in YOUR OWN journey that you recognize... and seem proud of! That is what all of us should look at as a measure of accomplishment in our separate lives!

    I have always admired your "silver tongue" HA HA!!... your highly organized and expressive language skill. Know this: the power of your word and generous spirit is a beacon to me on a regular basis... and I am so very glad to have you aboard as my peer... and valued FRIEND!!!!

    Stay the course!

    Happy Spring!
    Warmest regards,

  3. Hi Bruce,

    I would say that almost any Canadian landscape painter of our generation has at least at some point been influenced by the Group and many of their contemporaries. This is as it should be and has always been. No matter where are inspirations are formed we each impart a singularly unique and distinct stroke and vision. I still often tingle when I look at the work of the Group and can remember vividly as a 15 year old seeing "The Jack Pine" and "West Wind" in real life. That sight and feeling has never left me and continues to inspire my work.


  4. I agree with Jeffrey so many Canadian landscape painters including the late Robert Genn have been very much influenced by the Group. I have seen Thomson's work before and really liked his paintings very much, it is sad about him dying so young in his painting career, seems a mystery as to how he drowned. But his fine work lives on and is so evocative of the great Canadian landscape. Thank you for sharing his work Bruce, hope you have some time to do some painting yourself soon. best wishes Caroline in Scotland

  5. Hi there Jeffrey!...

    Thanks for tasking the time to visit and to add your own very cogent thoughts!

    Well said sir... and I share that impression of the Canadian landscape painting tradition... and like you.... I am a proud son and disciple in our unique Canadian culture and heritage!

    Those two paintings and a similar face-to-face encounter at age ten years as well... continue to inspire me to this every day. They were for me personally... "the shock and awe" event in my own journey! Were that so for other folks... I wonder???

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  6. Good morning Lass!... Thank you for stopping by and for offering your astute and correct views concerning The Group... Genn... and the rest of us. Our ideas fit seamlessly together Caroline. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. Hope other folks did a well!

    I have already been back "out there" painting with my buddy Frank and have something that has been on hold until these two responses were made by blogging friends. Now that they're both in the done bin... Stay tuned... !

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  7. It's true that each of us is a composite of many influences -- artistic and otherwise in our lives. Some things / people have a stronger effect, others alter us more subtly and sometimes.... those subtle, small things linger and cause us to reflect and see / think / create in different ways.

  8. Good afternoon Marian!... Thanks for your excellent thoughts shared here today!

    As creative individuals, we gravitate naturally and curiously into relationships and towards opportunities to expose ourselves to new insights and ideas... which we can selectively choose to include, or not in our own process. In truth... we are sponges... constantly taking in and expelling things that interest us.

    Some of us are more willing to risk extending that search well beyond our "comfort zones" that you mentioned... and as we both well know... the rewards in terms of growth are exponential.

    Thank you for sharing your own recent workshop experiences. It was indeed an interesting and thought-provoking post for me... and I'm sure others as well!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

  9. Hi Bruce, this is one of those posts that I bookmark for future reference; it's so full of useful information and thoughts.

    Thomson is one of those fascinating 'what if's of art history. Would he have been able to maintain that energy, and would his work have gone in the direction of Abstract Expressionism? How different would the future of Canadian Art have been with his continuing influence?

    All the best,

  10. Hi there Keith!... I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. It was created for... and tailored by your earlier shown interest and inquiry!

    Sadly... the defining answers to those questions that you have brought forward can be never really arrived at. However ... his influence upon succeeding generations of Canadian painters like myself can be clearly noted and attributed to his contributions and innovative painting style.

    I am the better for his his influence. My own style has its foundation based upon what I discovered from his searching his oeuvre in my early growth and development.

    Thanks for dropping by and adding your comments!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,