Wandering Around Out There With A Canoe On My Head

Tom Thomson Documentary

by Preston
November 11, 2011

With the lakes about to freeze, once again there comes a time when us paddlers need to find ourselves something else to do. Like I mentioned in a previous post, there’s plenty of stuff to do, but what’s really great is to find something that’s canoeing or camping related. I can think of nothing better than a documentary about a famous paddler and outdoors-man, Tom Thomson.

Last night I had a unique good fortune to go to the Toronto premiere of the new documentary “West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson”, made by the appropriately named film company White Pine Pictures.  How did I get such a prestigious opportunity? Was it my because of my minor celebrity status of running the best and most famous website dedicated to portaging in Ontario (with a little white spotted dog named Nancy, starting with the letter “P”), and the fact that I had done so much Tom Thomson related research and trips this year? Well, no. I happened to hear about it and bought tickets. Nevertheless, I was very glad to get to go.

West Wind Invitation

The Big Smoke

It did mean that I had to drive to Toronto, in bad weather and traffic as it turned out, and navigating the city streets. I barely made it there on time. The other problem I had was that it looked to be quite a fancy, with directors, producers, actors, benefactors, contributors and art lovers all in attendance. It meant yours truly might have to dust off the fancy clothes (way back in the closet) so as not to stand out. I’m an outdoors guy who’s comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts. As I wandered around in my showy outfit, I wondered what Tom Thomson would have thought of all this. He was certainly an outdoors guy as well, but he did know how to put on a collar and check out the city night life back in the day. If he could do it, maybe I could as well. While I felt like a monkey wearing makeup, I should also mention that I did look quite smashing.

While I did feel a little awkward in my duds, by myself, among a crowd of people I’m normally not around, I found a nice comfortable seat and when the lights went down I was immersed into the documentary. From the beginning, the voice performances, lead by Canadian icon Gordon Pincet, created the perfect mood for the film. It began with shots of the outdoors, trees, skies, fog, and of course a lone man paddling a canoe. Beautifully filmed on locations from Tom’s life – Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Leith, Toronto, Seattle, and in particular Canoe Lake – these places would star throughout the film as a secondary character. The film-makers obviously know that to understand what Tom did, what he painted, what he saw and hoped to convey, you’d have to understand where it was that he came from, where he traveled and from what he drew his inspiration, and they did a great job showing it to us.

Some Big Names

Obviously Tom had a unique connection between what he saw and felt with how to express that on canvass. I think we all know that, even though we might not be able to express exactly how and why. What was great was that the film included many interviews with people that have spent a lot of time trying to figure that part out, and shared that with us. For example, they demonstrated how Tom’s paint strokes emphasized texture and mood, and explained the brilliance of his use of colours (pun totally intended). A prestigious list of art historians and curators contributed throughout the film, along with thoughts from noted art collector David Thomson, who we found out during the Q&A session after the film allowed the producers use of any of his privately owned Thomson paintings. This explains why some of the paintings included in the film are some that are rarely seen. (One interesting note was the inclusion of Ian Desjardin, the director of the Dulwich Gallery in London, England, where as I write this, many Group of Seven and Tom Thomson paintings are on loan.)

The contributors to the film also included some renowned biographers of Tom and the Group of Seven, including Ross King, Roy MacGregor, and David Silcox – who was in attendance and participated in the Q&A session after the film. From interviews with these authors, archive footage and a subtle amount of dramatic recreation, we were presented with a detailed picture of Tom’s life, included much of Roy MacGregor’s most recent discoveries regarding the painter’s mysterious death. What was truly impressive was the inclusion of so many pictures, film and even audio from Tom’s life. What absolutely blew me away was hearing the voices of some of the well known names of people involved in Tom’s life, specifically that of  Ranger Mark Robinson. I’ve read much on Tom Thomson, and with Robinson being such a central character in Tom’s life in Algonquin Park, much of that reading involved Robinson’s writings and interviews, usually written down, paraphrased by someone else. I’ve heard about the audio tapes that he made for a historical project for the park, I’ve seen transcriptions of his letters, and it’s been said that he used to regale campers about the life of Tom Thomson, often and enthusiastically. But for me to hear his voice, to hear him say specifically, out loud, in his own voice, what other people had told me he had said was very, very powerful. To hear him telling the story of meeting Tom Thomson for the first time, and the story about the “artist” (“what kind of thing is that?”) would have been by itself worth the price of admission.

A Big Reception

I should mention that this film is about Tom Thomson’s life, his work, and the affect of both. First, it doesn’t really get into is specifics about particular paintings, focusing instead on his style. Secondly, the film focuses on his life rather than being solely about the mystery behind the painter’s death. I thought that this choice was appropriate, and a little unconventional. An entire film could be dedicated to each of those other elements, and the most important information was covered, but there is plenty out there about the paintings and his death – especially his death – but I found it refreshing to celebrate the author, his work and his lifestyle. Perhaps with all the material they’ve collected doing this film, it might justify sequels and follow-up documentaries. That might be good too.

Eventually the film did have to end, and when it did, the credits ran in front of more pictures of Thomson paintings. There was a reluctant attempt as applause just as that happened, but was instantly muffled. We all sat and watched the paintings, obscured by the contributor’s names. I thought for a moment that we were all trying to soak in just a little bit more, and I really liked that idea. It was only later that I had the thought that because of who was in attendance, perhaps they were paying respect for their colleagues, or even looking for their own names. All kidding aside, we sat and watched the last of the paintings, watching for those strokes and use of colours about which we were told, and when the credits ended, there was a great round of appreciative applause.

When the lights came up, we were invited to ask questions to the film’s directors and producers, Michelle Hozer and Peter Raymont, along with Sound Recordist Bruce Cameron and the aforementioned David Silcox. Questions were asked about the paintings involved in the film, what the Thomson family felt about the film (not answered, by the way), and of course how the film-makers believed Tom Thomson had died. Then something strange happened.

A Little Problem

A question was asked about whether or not the film included places where some of Tom’s paintings had actually been painted. After mentioning there were some obvious locations that had been used and shown when it was possible or relevant, the question was handed over to David Silcox. “It’s not really about the location, at all. It’s about the paintings,” he declared. Now, I know where he was going with that, and what he meant, but I’m still surprised at how taken aback I was at hearing that, offended possibly. Not about the location? No, it was in fact all about the location. Admittedly, it wasn’t about exact spots – what was surely his point – but the location, the setting was what all this was about. The thought stayed with me while I made my way out of the theater and on to the reception. That’s when I happened to spot Jim and Sue Waddington (as if on cue), and went over to say “Hi”. You’ll recall they have dedicated a lot of effort in finding the exact painting locations of Group of Seven works. (So great to see you guys again, by the way. Thanks so much for not making fun of my mustache.) Almost the first thing he said to me was about David’s comment. “I’d be very interested in what you have to write about that,” he said to me. “Me too,” I replied. So here goes….

Tom Thomson painted the outdoors, the Canadian outdoors. Something that had previously been seen as an ugly, useless subject. The “Algonquin School”, comprised of Thomson and the original members of the Group of Seven, was dedicated to change that perception, to prove it was completely wrong. The love of our, local, Canadian, natural environment was the binding force behind their movement. What is said most often about why Thomson’s paintings are great works is the fact that it captures the environment  – both the visual but also the mood – even when on the surface it shouldn’t. Personally, it’s what draws me to his work, as I’m sure is the same for many. If he painted anything else – buildings, portraits, abstracts – I might have an appreciation for it, but not a strong connection to it.

Aside from his own paintings, obviously, what made Thomson truly influential, his greatest affect on future works, was him inviting and encouraging others to pursue and appreciate it. They called Tom their guide, even after his death, and would go on to continue where he and they had left off, and did some pretty good stuff I might add. They would continue to search for more inspiration that would take them further north, west or just further in. Or to put it another way: to more locations. At the risk of over-emphasis and analysis of a point that I’ve taken the wrong way, I would say that I disagree, respectively, with it not being about the location. I mean, what would this film have been had it not been for their gorgeous cinematography of all those locations helping to show the Vision of Tom Thomson?

That being said, it was a great film, a great chance to experience the legend of Tom Thomson and possibly catch a few things you may not yet have seen or heard. The film will be touring film festivals, including a showing at the McMichael Gallery this weekend that I’m also going to attend – this time because Roy MacGregor will be there giving a talk. (My niece is studying the Group of Seven in school now, so I thought this might be a great opportunity to get some extra research in.) Next year the film will be shown on Bravo, then later available on DVD. For more information check out White Pines website (they’re also on facebook).

Interesting Thoughts Postscript

What a time to be looking researching Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven! I started to focus on Tom because I became captivated in his story, relating to his life (sans the artistic talent), and have of course always admired anyone who shares an strong admiration of the outdoors – especially the Canadian outdoors – and expressed it in unique ways. With this film coming out, Roy MacGregor’s new discoveries, the Tom Thomson exhibit in Kitchener, Jim and Sue Waddington’s exhibit, the Dulwich Gallery and european tour of our great Canadian paintings, all happening within the last year or so, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to have been exposed so much on the subject. This year I have focused many trips and experiences on the Group of Seven, but particularly Tom Thomson, and will be writing about all of them over the winter. You’ll hear about visiting a bunch of landmarks, painting sites, and the interesting people and places I happened upon on my journey, so be sure to check back here often.

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