Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NP - JOSEPH BREAN Na­tional Post jbrean@na­tion­al­ Twit­

Ahun­dred years ago this sum­mer, the painter Tom Thom­son died in On­tario’s Al­go­nquin Park. His artis­tic legacy is un­ques­tioned. Barely five years of se­ri­ous paint­ing dur­ing the First World War pro­duced works, like The West Wind and North­ern River, that still in­spire the Cana­dian imag­i­na­tion of wilder­ness. His con­tem­po­rary ad­mir­ers be­came the Group of Seven, al­most in his hon­our, like apos­tles car­ry­ing on the work of a lost prophet.

But Thom­son’s death, a month shy of his 40th birth­day, con­tin­ues to be a source of mystery. Like the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion for Amer­i­cans, pick­ing through the Thom­son the­o­ries about mur­der and grave-rob­bing has be­come al­most a par­lour game. And now, a new art project in hon­our of the artist’s cen­te­nary has added an­other wrin­kle, and per­haps even a chance for mod­ern day fans to look Thom­son in the eye, in three di­men­sions.

Draw­ing on au­topsy pho­to­graphs of a skull un­earthed from a grave that once (at least briefly) con­tained Thom­son’s body, Michael Markowsky, an artist and pro­fes­sor at Emily Carr Univer­sity of Art and De­sign in Van­cou­ver, and sculp­tor Louise Solecki Weir have pro­duced a head that bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to pho­to­graphs of Thom­son.

Markowsky’s first thought on see­ing the fin­ished prod­uct was “Wow, that’s Tom. We’ve solved the mystery.”

If so, then the great Cana­dian con­spir­acy the­ory is true. Thom­son’s grave near Owen Sound, Ont., does not ac­tu­ally con­tain his body, per­haps just stones put there by an un­scrupu­lous un­der­taker. And Thom­son’s true rest­ing place is in the woods above Canoe Lake, marked with a white­washed cross in a stand of ev­er­greens, near the ru­ins of the log­ging town of Mowat.

But if the skull be­longs to some­one else, then a se­ri­ous in­dig­nity has been com­mit­ted. In that case, this man — likely indigenous, ac­cord­ing to foren­sic ex­am­in­ers — has been de­nied both a proper burial and a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances of how his body ended up se­cretly buried in the rough grave of Canada’s great­est painter, with a hole in the left tem­ple of his skull.

Ei­ther way, the leg­ends live on. “I think it’s a per­fect mystery be­cause so many peo­ple have such con­flict­ing mem­o­ries of him,” said Markowsky, whose cer­tainty about the iden­tity of the recre­ated skull has wa­vered, such that he is no longer sure what to be­lieve.

The mystery be­gan in early July 1917 when Thom­son was back in Al­go­nquin for a fifth sum­mer, paint­ing on small wooden boards that he would en­large in Toronto over the win­ter.

He was last seen July 8. Two days later, his canoe was found, with pad­dles lashed in­side as if for portag­ing. Six days af­ter that, his de­com­pos­ing body was found out in Canoe Lake, with fish­ing line wrapped mys­te­ri­ously around his legs.

A doc­tor ex­am­ined the body and con­cluded he drowned. A coro­ner sup­ported this, and ruled it ac­ci­den­tal, which re­mains the lead­ing the­ory, that this ac­com­plished canoe trip­per some­how fell, ei­ther on shore or in the canoe, per­haps hit­ting his head, and it was the mo­tion of the waves and cur­rents that wrapped his fish­ing line around his legs.

He was buried im­me­di­ately in the Mowat plot, but dug up two days later and in­terred in the fam­ily plot near Owen Sound.

As Thom­son’s legacy grew in the fol­low­ing years, in­ter­est in his death rose, and new the­o­ries emerged, notably about a love af­fair, bad blood with var­i­ous local men, even sui­cide. In 1956, a judge called Wil­liam Lit­tle dug up the Mowat grave with three friends, and rather than find it empty, they found a man’s skele­ton, with that wor­ri­some hole in the skull.

That led to a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a coro­ner’s re­port that con­cluded this was the skele­ton of an indigenous man, not Thom­son, and it was sim­ply re­buried, un­marked. The coro­ner, No­ble Sharpe, died last year, and left a trove of records to the Tom Thom­son Art Gallery in Owen Sound, which is how Markowsky came to be in­volved.

With great drama and se­crecy, the gallery of­fered these records to Markowsky for what turned into his ex­hibit, now on dis­play at the gallery, called The Per­sis­tence Of Doubt. It in­cludes sketches by Markowsky of the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios of Thom­son’s death, from a bad fall to falling asleep drunk in his canoe, to be­ing shot from shore. It also in­cludes the mys­te­ri­ous head.

“I felt there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween a sculp­ture and a draw­ing,” Markowsky said. “It ex­ists, and peo­ple would have to con­front it and think about it.”

To make it, he started talk­ing to ex­perts, foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists, po­lice con­sul­tants, peo­ple who knew how to put flesh on bones. That is how he met Solecki Weir, a por­trait sculp­tor who mainly does heads, and who has stud­ied foren­sic tech­niques in the U.S., in­clud­ing at a Texas univer­sity “body farm,” where ca­dav­ers are left in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments to see how they de­cay.

She built a three-di­men­sional ren­der­ing of the skull, based on two au­topsy pic­tures — a front view and pro­file — and also images of the skull just af­ter it was dug up, which gave a use­ful per­spec­tive at an an­gle. A Van­cou­ver coro­ner guided her, advising that it was prob­a­bly an adult white man, not too old to judge by the good teeth.

Us­ing a chart of av­er­age flesh depths, and with some guid­ance from the bone on the shape of the nose, she built up a head. The ef­fort was “prob­a­bly more art than science be­cause I built the skull as well,” she said. The hair was cer­tainly artis­tic. She re­searched hair styles of Thom­son’s era, and re­pro­duced a com­mon one, but tried to make it as in­con­spic­u­ous as pos­si­ble.

She was more skep­ti­cal than Markowsky. “The fore­head slope of my fel­low is quite pro­nounced,” she said. He also has a pro­nounced over­bite, which Thom­son did not seem to have. But like Markowsky, her view has changed. “I was quite du­bi­ous it was Tom Thom­son un­til I saw a photo at the art gallery, taken when he was quite older. Oh boy, now I’m not sure again.”


The Group of Seven painter Tom Thom­son died 100 years ago this sum­mer, but his death re­mains shrouded in mys­tery. Now, a B.C. art project has added to the leg­end with a clay sculp­ture cre­ated in hon­our of the artist’s cen­te­nary.

A clay bust, which was cre­ated from au­topsy pho­tos of a skull un­earthed from a grave many years af­ter Tom Thom­son died, and which some be­lieve to be that of the Group of Seven painter.

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