Doc fol­lows Lawren Har­ris into the mys­tic

The Georgia Straight - - Movies - > BY ADRIAN MACK

His glow­ing can­vases are fa­mil­iar to all of us, but a new doc­u­men­tary re­minds us that the work of Lawren Har­ris was il­lu­mi­nated in ways his­tory tends to forget.

“I al­ways adored them, but I didn’t know about his spir­i­tual back­ground and his in­tent in the paint­ings,” says artist turned film­maker Nancy Lang, whose film Where the Uni­verse Sings: The Spir­i­tual Jour­ney of Lawren Har­ris, di­rected with Peter Ray­mont, opens in Van­cou­ver on Fri­day (Jan­uary 27).

The clue is right there in the ti­tle. Lang and Ray­mont’s movie sug­gests that Har­ris’s in­ter­est in the mys­tic school of theos­o­phy—quite vogueish at the time he joined Toronto’s Lodge of the In­ter­na­tional Theo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety in the early ’20s—pro­vided a the­o­ret­i­cal back­bone to his tra­jec­tory as an artist, in­form­ing the ra­di­ant vi­sions he even­tu­ally pro­duced.

“Har­ris be­lieved that beauty was some­thing that would lend to spir­i­tual in­ner sta­bil­ity and so­lace,” Lang tells the Straight, in a call from Toronto. “He med­i­tated, he did yoga, he would have his gra­nola ev­ery morn­ing.” Theos­o­phy, she adds, “was ap­plied to his art in that he was try­ing to find that sense of the divine. He was de­lib­er­ately set­ting out to cre­ate paint­ings that take you to a place that’s eter­nal and more en­dur­ing, that’s be­yond our ev­ery­day lives, that’s time­less. They’re al­most like al­tar­pieces, some of them. You can stand in front of them and med­i­tate.”

Mak­ing an ap­pear­ance in Where the Uni­verse Sings, ac­tor (and avid col­lec­tor) Steve Martin speaks of Har­ris’s “me­ta­physics of land­scape”, while author-his­to­rian Lisa Chris­tensen ap­praises 1929’s iconic Mount Rob­son with the words: “He could give you the ab­so­lute most sim­ple path to fol­low to be­come as spir­i­tu­ally en­light­ened as he wanted to be, by fol­low­ing theos­o­phy. He could com­mu­ni­cate that to you through his paint­ings.”

Lang and Ray­mont are also care­ful not to be­labour the point. Where the Uni­verse Sings of­fers a crisp and sat­is­fy­ing over­view of Har­ris’s life and de­vel­op­ment as an artist, from his for­ma­tive time de­pict­ing Toronto’s work­ing-class neigh­bour­hoods to the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned na­ture stud­ies he would pro­duce in his peak Group of Seven years dur­ing vis­its to Lake Su­pe­rior, the Arc­tic, and the Rock­ies.

It was in Al­berta, Lang can­didly re­veals, that Har­ris would have a full-bore en­counter with the mys­ti­cal. “There are sev­eral peo­ple who were with him and who talk about how he had an ec­static mo­ment when he went up to Mount Le­froy, above Lake Louise,” she says. “He did start speak­ing in tongues.” That in­for­ma­tion was im­parted to the film­mak­ers by peo­ple in­clud­ing Chris­tensen, though it isn’t widely known. “Those kinds of things didn’t get shared eas­ily with his friends,” she says. “Ev­ery­one re­spected his de­sire for pri­vacy.”

Per­haps equally in­trigu­ing is Har­ris’s turn to ab­stract com­po­si­tion, which he pur­sued un­til his death in Van­cou­ver in 1970. In Lang’s view, it’s here, in a house over­look­ing Jeri­cho Beach, that the ag­ing artist pro­duced the purest ex­pres­sion of his spir­i­tual jour­ney and an at­ten­dant yearn­ing, per­haps, for its next vi­tal step. “Are you fright­ened of dy­ing?” Har­ris is asked in a rare clip. “No, I think it’ll be darned in­ter­est­ing,” he replies.

“There could be a whole movie on just his ab­stract work,” Lang says. “It’s re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing what he did. Those ab­stracts, at the end, they’re not of this world any­more. It’s not a moun­tain or tree. It’s just a light­filled space.”

In Where the Uni­verse Sings: The Spir­i­tual Jour­ney of Lawren Har­ris, the Group of Seven’s most beloved fig­ure is driven by the es­o­teric teach­ings of theos­o­phy

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