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.
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
"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!!!