Wandering Around Out There With A Canoe On My Head

Searching for Tom

by Preston
March 6, 2011

Tom Thomson: Man, Myth and Masterworks

Are you looking for something canoe-related to do while the rivers are still frozen? If you’re anything like me, your canoeing plans are under way, and you’re starting to get desperate for anything about paddling and the outdoors. A definite must is to check out the new Tom Thomson exhibit at THEMUSEUM in Kitchener. What does Tom Thomson have to do with a site dedicated to portaging and canoe camping? Read on to find out, or better yet, go see the exhibit.


“Someday they will know what I mean”

Tom Thomson

The Exhibit

Thanks to a fellow blogger and friend of Portager, Mike Ormsby, I was given tickets to the opening night of the exhibit. What a fantastic experience. Having recently read the new biography Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, the exhibit was perfect timing for me. What they’ve created is a well-rounded tribute, including very early works by the painter, then as you move along you’ll see Tom’s gradual evolution into what became his unique style. More to this, the gallery has chosen other works to compliment Tom’s, including a taste of his friends’ and colleagues’ work – the Group of Seven – and has even included works by the painter’s brothers and sisters. Dashed throughout the exhibit are very famous photos of Tom and his friends, as well as examples of some of his belongings. Finally, they have works by other artists who have been influenced by Tom Thomson.

Speaker Series

To further the experience, THEMUSEUM is putting on a Sunday Speaker Series where you can see presentations by Thomson experts and enthusiasts, every Sunday afternoon at 1:30pm. One that you should really think about attending (I know I will) is “The Artist and The Canoe” on April 3rd. Mike Ormsby is the author of Reflections on the Outdoors Naturally and is a Tom Thomson and Heritage Canoe expert. Check out his extensive writing on the Tom here. The rest of the schedule is shown below (starting March 13th):

March 13: “Tom Thomson: The Man, His Art & Why He Means So Much to Us” – Virginia Eichhorn, curator Tom Thomson Art Gallery

March 20: “Algonquin Elegy” – Neil J. Lehto, author

March 27: “Tom Thomson was a Weatherman” – Phil the Forecaster Chadwick

April 3: “Tom Thomson: The Artist and The Canoe” – Mike Ormsby, Heritage Canoe Expert

April 10: “Canoe Lake CSI: The Remarkable Investigation into the Whereabouts of Tom Thomson” – Roy McGregor, author

April 17: “The Canadian Landscape before Tom – Homer Watson, the Man of Doom” – Sandu Sindile, curator Homer Watson House & Gallery

May 1: “Tom Thomson in Cyberspace, or How to Build a Ghost Canoe” – Marcel O’Gorman, artist

    May 8: “Defiant Spirits: Modernism, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven” – Ross King, author and curator

      Of note are 3 authors whose books I finished recently: Neil J. Lehto author of “Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring“, Ross King author of “Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven” and of course Roy McGregor author of Northern Light. If you haven’t read them already, I suggest taking them and a hammock on your next trip up to Algonquin.

      “Tom Thomson came paddling past. I’m pretty sure it was him”

      – Three Pistols by The Tragically Hip (Road Apples)

      More on Tom

      What is it about the legend of Tom Thomson that makes him so relevant to canoe enthusiasts? I’ve never studied art myself, other than what was force-fed to me in grade school, and I wouldn’t exactly call myself a great “lover of the arts”. But being a canoe guy, I’ve found myself absolutely fascinated by artists and their work – particularly Canadian – that share the love of the outdoors, and clearly express that love. This is why I’ve been looking into the Group of Seven so much lately. One of their intentions for their work was for people to see their paintings and create and/or renew their appreciation for the Canadian wilderness and all its beauty – and hopefully to seek it out for themselves. For me it was the exact opposite, in that my love for the outdoors led me to an appreciation for not only the paintings, but the artists, and particularly the means in which they used to find their subjects.

      The Group of Seven were our kind of people. A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael, for example, lived, canoed, portaged and vacationed in the very same places that we now play. They were explorers, out to see the Canadian wilderness for themselves, and share that view through paint.

      But what about Tom? He wasn’t even an official member of the Group – having died prior to its formation. In fact, I remember talking to my wife about him at the McMichael Gallery years ago. It would be the first time I would see a Group of Seven painting in person. Passing by the Tom Thomson paintings I muttered something about why was Tom getting so much of the attention. Was it just because he died (as we like to speak well of the dead), because he died young (and so much more could have been achieved), or because he died so mysteriously and tragically (and so amplifying his legend)? I thought it not fair to the other painters. Even after seeing the Group’s work, I found myself staring at Tom’s paintings. “Okay,” I said to my wife, “I get it”.

      Searching for Tom in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

      Since reading more about Tom, I realized what he contributed to Canadian culture, and it became clear why canoeing and Tom Thomson go together so logically. It could be said that a very simple way to associate yourself with being Canadian is to associate yourself with the canoe. Tom Thomson certainly did that. Even in the end, it was his empty distinctive cobalt blue canoe that signaled something bad happened to the artist – on the aptly named “Canoe Lake”.

      In the first of THEMUSEUM’s speaker series, Arts reporter for the Waterloo Region Record Robert Reid spoke about how influential Tom truly is – not to just Canadians, but to outdoors people and appreciators of the Canadian wilderness. When Robert Reid spoke of the Northern River, he said that it didn’t matter where it was painted, we all know exactly where it is – in fact it’s not a place at all, he argued, but a state of mind. Tom has been alluded to and has inspired music, novels, films and even ballets (check out this video, Tom shows up around 0:59). Apparently, he even made a mean campfire doughnut – I mean how much more Canadian can you get? Robert Reid suggested, if he had never lived, Canada would have had to invent him.

      Tom would go on to spend half the year in Algonquin and travel throughout a wide area, all by canoe, living in camps, painting, fishing and soaking it all in. For a time he even had a day job to pay the bills, but always had paddling on his mind, practicing strokes at his desk. The only difference between him and us is that he had a fantastic ability to communicate what he saw in a very unique and expressive way. He lived the lifestyle we all want, really. Oh, except for the whole dying-at-a-young-age-under-mysterious-circumstances thing. Personally, I’m hoping for more of a I-can’t-believe-he’s-still-going-out-there-at-his-age kind of ending to my story.

      So go see the exhibit and check out the speakers series, and if you see me there, feel free to say “Hi”.

      Social Networking Postcript

      THEMUSEUM (@THEMUSEUM) is using the hashtag #searchingfortom to group together tweets about the exhibit. Foursquare users should also check in there as well. I got a “Photobooth” badge for doing so, somehow.

      Trip Plans Postscript

      Later this year I will be going up to Canoe Lake, Tom’s most common stomping ground. After reading his biography, and now visiting the exhibit, I’m hoping to see all the landmarks from Tom’s life there from a new perspective. I’ll keep you posted.

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