The tree in a land of forests

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Jim Pol­ing

Ah, “The West Wind.” Out of seem­ingly solid granite, a pine tree de­fi­antly emerges, giv­ing rise to a painter and, along the way, adding def­i­ni­tion to a coun­try.

“The West Wind” is said to be among Tom Thom­son’s fi­nal can­vases and con­sid­ered among his great­est works. A paint­ing that de­fined an artist and ar­guably the spirit of a coun­try.

One hun­dred years ago to­day, Thom­son dis­ap­peared. His body sur­faced on Ca­noe Lake eight days later, on July 16. His death in On­tario’s Al­go­nquin Park re­mains a mys­tery. Did he tip his ca­noe and ac­ci­den­tally drown? Was he in­volved in a quar­rel and mur­dered af­ter be­ing struck on the head with a pad­dle, the lake and his ca­noe used merely as cover-up props?

Thom­son, 39, was buried in a nearby ceme­tery, but an un­der­taker was sum­moned later to un­earth his body so it could re­side in the fam­ily plot in Leith, just out­side Owen Sound. Even his burial is shrouded in mys­tery. There is sus­pi­cion his body was never moved and some be­lieve he never left Ca­noe Lake.

Tom Thom­son was part of an emerg­ing art move­ment that gave rise to the Group of Seven, land­scape painters who gave Canada artis­tic promi­nence. He was a self-taught painter, an artist whose paint­ings ranged from un­re­mark­able in the be­gin­ning to bril­liant for hav­ing cap­tured a sense of hon­esty and sub­tle vi­brancy in thun­der­heads, wa­ter, sun­sets, leaves and trees of the Cana­dian land­scape.

Thom­son was guided by, and equally in­flu­enced, a group of trail-blaz­ing artists and friends who shared his pas­sion for cap­tur­ing the coun­try’s rugged­ness. Their names are well-known and to­day their body of work is con­sid­ered a na­tional trea­sure. They were known as the Al­go­nquin School and later be­came the Group of Seven: Franklin Carmichel, A.J. Cas­son, Lawren Har­ris, A.Y. Jack­son, Arthur Lis­mer, J.E.H. Mac­Don­ald, Fred­er­ick Var­ley.

It wasn’t al­ways that way. In the early days of Thom­son’s paint­ing, his work and that of his con­tem­po­raries was often un­cel­e­brated, even mocked by crit­ics, for their work was con­sid­ered too raw, too ab­stract, and not fit­ting with the norms of the day.

One of the beau­ties of Thom­son’s work is its ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Even 100 years later, a per­son can hike, drive or pad­dle to spots in On­tario to see what Thom­son saw. You can portage to spots in Al­go­nquin Park, walk the Ox­tongue River or wade the shore­lines of Ca­noe Lake where his pig­ment and pas­sion came to­gether.

Thom­son’s an­niver­sary al­lows us to pause for an artist who is time­less. He lived close to the ground and felt the rain and wind and saw beauty in dead branches. The early crit­ics were wrong.

Thom­son left us much, in­clud­ing “The West Wind,” the tree in the for­est, a sin­gle sweep­ing tree in a land known for its forests.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.