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In the Wilds: Canoeing and Canadian Art

June 27 to November 15, 1998

The canoe is a Canadian icon as familiar as the moose, the beaver and the maple leaf and, as such, is an important symbol of our mythologized northern identity. Not surprisingly, therefore, the theme of canoes and canoeing is one that has often been employed by artists, from prehistoric times to the present. As may be seen in this exhibition, the manner in which artists have depicted the canoe has changed over the years. In art from earlier days, the canoe was largely portrayed as a ubiquitous element of life in the New World. The interpretation of the canoe image in contemporary art has shifted considerably to become a more complex, even ambivalent one.

Appropriated from First Nations culture, the canoe facilitated exploration, trade, mapping/surveying and, ultimately, colonization and settlement. Canoeing as a means of transportation made Canada possible and although it seems obvious, it should perhaps be stressed that canoes were used by anyone who travelled beyond the early developed eastern areas of the nation. Missionaries, explorers, fur traders, military topographic, and professional or fine artists who travelled north and west did so by canoe. So perfect and practical both in design and form, the canoe is still the most appropriate way to travel through boreal country.

Once the trans-Canada railway was completed, more eastern-based artists were able to travel West, and perhaps, once there, did some travelling by canoe. Although we have no documentation on the canoeing of artists like the so-called “CPR artists” of the late 19th century, this mode of transport must have affected the painters' vision, experience, and thus, their rendering of the land. Happily, however, there is some written material on the English artist Frances Anne Hopkins and her Canadian canoe voyages, including thoughts on how canoeing influenced her painting. Hopkins was active in Canada in the 1860s and 1870s, and painted many pictures featuring canoes, her principal method of transport through the Great Lakes with her husband, an inspector for the Hudson's Bay Company. Robert Stacey's coining of the term “canoe-eye-view” in his catalogue essay on the artist is of itself a welcome addition to this area of study. It carries with it implications for our enriched experience of paintings like those by Hopkins, which were consciously executed to appear as though painted from a canoe vantage point—as indeed many of them were.1

In contrast to Hopkins' detailed, naturalistic canoe scenes, a fanciful theme that has captured the imaginations of several French--Canadian artists is that of La Chasse Galerie. One version of this popular legend tells of a group of lumbermen at a remote camp, who wished to visit their loved ones in Montreal and sold their souls to the devil so that they might travel by flying canoe, with Satan himself paddling in front.2 Cross-culturally, in primitive belief systems, the boat (or canoe) image is a soul-boat, a vessel for carrying the souls of the dead to the afterworld, often travelling through the skies. It would seem that the Quebec legend retains elements of this archetypal symbolism.

For many people, what readily comes to mind when considering the subject of canoeing and Canadian art is the Group of Seven, and the Group's immediate forerunner and companion, Tom Thomson. In using the canoe to travel into places like Algonquin Park, the Group was not out of keeping with general cultural trends of their time. After the turn of the century, the canoe was no longer associated solely with First Nations people or the fur-trade and exploration, but had been fully adopted by whites, first for hunting and fishing and later, for pure recreation.

Although it may seem surprising, information on the canoeing abilities of the members of the Group is sketchy. A.Y. Jackson recalls that J.E.H. MacDonald could neither swim nor paddle.3 Jackson himself was a late starter, but apparently became proficient as a canoeist. At first, however, he was paddled about by Tom Thomson.4 Lawren Harris mentions having had a canoe shipped north on the Group's box-car visits to Algoma, (1918-1921), but no reference is made as to who paddled it.5 In general, the canoeing experience seems less central to the work of such artists as MacDonald, Lismer, Varley and Jackson (and their contemporaries) than to that of Tom Thomson. Most of their best-known works seem very much to have been composed while they were on land.

Relatively few Thomson paintings have canoes in them; most depict the landscape itself, or could be said to be concerned with “painting-as-painting,” the landscape serving as a jumping-off point for his treatment of paint, colour, and space. In those rare paintings of Thomson's in which the canoe does appear, it does so modestly and rather prosaically, merely as another compositional element. Looking at Thomson's paintings and sketches, it is quite easy to imagine that the majority of the artist's small sketches were partially or fully executed while he was in a canoe. The low horizon line common to so many of these works was likely employed to give the sense of being surrounded, cupped in the landscape, with the overhead skyscape as important as the vegetal one on shore. The implied presence of the canoe underneath and around the painter—and by implication and extension, around the viewers of the paintings—can be as palpably felt as that of the café table underneath a Venetian sketch by J.W. Morrice.

Emily Carr, the West Coast contemporary of the Group, widely known today for her works depicting the Northwest Coast First Nations villages and artifacts, as well as the British Columbia rainforest, does not appear to have canoed herself. However, she did create a few paintings featuring First Nations ocean-going canoes, which, as in her other works of aboriginal artifacts, were an effort to document First Nations creations before they were entirely destroyed by the influence of white culture.

An aspect of canoeing that holds a very strong appeal for many contemporary artists is the activity's spiritual nature. Richard Gorman explains: “I don't have to canoe, I could use any kind of boat, or even a car, to paint in Central Ontario, but I like the poetry of the canoe—which can only be called artistic.”6

Landon Mackenzie's first painting depicting a canoe was Canoe/Woman, in which the kneeling figure of a woman paddles a canoe bearing the spherical cosmos in the bow. Dolphin-like shapes play around in the water surrounding her. In a sense, Canoe/Woman could be seen as a female answer to the classical motif of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.

Known for years as a printmaker, Don Holman has recently turned to painting. Canoeing on Bell's Lake includes his own canoe as an element in the painted construction. For this artist, the canoe becomes a personal symbol, an image evoking a feeling of freedom.

In Michael Robinson's work, the canoe, portrayed in great detail, comes alive, whether borne aloft while being portaged, being paddled in the water, or appearing in the sky as a celestial craft. While Robinson's themes draw on the myths and legends of his people, his etchings and paintings are more than mere illustrations of these tales. They also function metaphorically, with dark and light referring to evil and illumination, respectively, and horizontal bands across the painting or print surface alluding to the different levels of the shamanic universe.

Blake Debassige is highly aware of the spiritual significance of the canoe, and includes its image in his work with this notion in mind. His work is bold and immediate, inviting the viewer to delve more deeply into the meanings of the subjects portrayed.

In the work by contemporary artists who employ the canoe image, or whose work is informed in some way by their own canoeing, there is often a strong streak of nostalgia present. This nostalgia is not just for Canada's past, but for Canadian art history, and past artists who canoed, especially—as one might suspect—for Tom Thomson.

Gordon Rayner's paintings are often related to his canoeing experiences on the Magnetawan River in Ontario. In a painterly series entitled Concerning a Drowning in Canoe Lake, which includes Evidence II, Rayner explored the theme of Tom Thomson as a mythic hero.

Still other contemporary artists use canoeing to allow them to penetrate into places that would otherwise be inaccessible. The canoe image may or may not appear in their work, but their art is, at least in part, a response to the experience of canoeing and to the wilderness where canoeing takes them.

The influence of Jeannie Thib's canoeing enters her work subtly, and only rarely manifests itself as an image of the canoe itself. In her untitled piece, she was interested in exploring the relationship of lines from a text describing animal behaviour with the notion we have of what human behaviour is, especially when humans are placed in a wilderness setting. Blueprint considers the human urge to make a plan, leave a mark, and overlay a system of logic on the natural world.

Bridget Corkery has included the canoe theme in several of her woodcuts, linocut prints and small book projects. Canoe Trip depicts a canoe paddle, seen from the level of the water line, moving through fragments of flotsam and jetsam. An underlying concern for the threatened wilderness environment in Canada would seem to be active in this work, albeit, made subtle (but perhaps more cuttingly effective) by its rather dead pan treatment.

Ed Bartram declares that he has realized increasingly, but only recently, the huge role that the canoe and canoeing play in his work. His recent print of shoals is a departure from his earlier etchings of rock faces, as we are now given a view towards the distance, rather than facing a rock surface frontally and at close range. But both directions of this work come from his canoeing on Georgian Bay, and are visceral, emotional responses to that environment.

Another aspect of the canoe that has been explored by several contemporary Canadian artists is its important status in popular, grassroots Canadian culture.

The Regina “funk” painter, David Thauberger, has been working with images drawn from popular culture for some years. As it happens, Thauberger has never been in a canoe himself, and chooses the image, in his typical light--hearted, humourous manner, for its pop-culture, myth-of-the-north associations.

Although Keith Harder expresses a love of canoeing in his writing, his pictures seem light-hearted and fun loving about his craft. The interior “tableau,” which includes his Christmas tree and is ironically titled Coureurs de Bois, places his work in line with David Thauberger's tongue-in-cheek approach.

The beauty of the canoe's shape and structure has appealed to artists who don't necessarily canoe themselves, and have not necessarily been influenced in their work by the canoeing experience. In two of his series of works, Derek Besant selected the canoe as well as other images, such as a wheelbarrow and an umbrella, as neutral, recognizable objects. The canoe in Site/A.drift, he writes, “. . . is not so much a canoe, but rather a shape, a piece of identifying debris . . .”7

Paul Béliveau has canoed extensively in northern Quebec, and writes that he feels the beckoning power of the canoe, calling on us to embark on a journey.

Several contemporary Canadian artists explore the notion of the canoe as an archetypal representation or stand in for the self, or the human body.8

David Alexander uses landscape as a springboard for feeling and an expressive use of paint, much in the Canadian tradition of David Milne, and in the prairie context of painters such as Dorothy Knowles. In Alexander's work the canoe may be seen as a metaphor for the human body or the self. Alex Colville treats the canoe archetypally, as he does other objects in his work: every possible nuance of meaning seems to be alluded to, so that a non-specific, open-ended reading of the painting seems encouraged. Often the canoe seems to be a parallel to, even a metaphor for the body of the female in the paintings, echoing the archetypal idea of the female body as vessel.

Kevin Sonmor has canoed extensively in Alberta and British Columbia, but the earth-toned landscape setting of Tarpaulin III looks more prehistoric and ominous than anything that may have been remembered from these trips and transcribed literally. The single canoe looks primordial, like an imagined bog-canoe, oozing bitumen, and surrounded by steam.

All of these themes—the nostalgia, spirituality, love of the canoe structure, and the notion of the canoe as an archetype—seem to intertwine in many of the artists' thinking, and in their relation to the canoe. As a subject, or a point of departure, the canoe and canoeing cut across regional, generational, media-related, and stylistic boundaries in the complex fabric of contemporary Canadian art, allowing an enriching examination and enjoyment of a group of otherwise unrelated artists.

Liz Wylie
Guest Curator

1. See Robert Stacey, “Frances Anne Hopkins and the Canoe--eye--View,” in Janet
Clark and Robert Stacey, Frances Anne Hopkins: 1838--1919: Canadian Scenery=Le
paysage canadien (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery 1990), 44--68.
2. Shelagh Grant, “Symbols and Myths: Images of Canoe and North,” in Canexus:
The Canoe in Canadian Culture (Toronto: Betelgeuse Books 1988), 6.
3. A.Y. Jackson, A Painter's Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson
(Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Co. Ltd. 1958), 45.
4. Ottelyn Addison,in collaboration with Elizabeth Harwood, Tom Thomson: The
Algonquin Years (Toronto: Ryerson Press 1969), 33. Also A.Y. Jackson, A
Painter's Country, 30.
5. Lawren Harris, Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove, eds. (Toronto: Macmillan
1969), n.p.
6. Telephone conversation with the artist, 19 July 1990.
7. Letter from Derek Besant to the author, 31 July 1990.
8. J. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1971),

La Chasse-Galerie by Henri Julien

Henri Julien , 1852 – 1908
La Chasse-Galerie, 1906
oil on canvas
53.8 x 66 cm
Collection du Musée du Québec

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson on Canoe Lake

Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson Canoe Lake
Algonquin Park
May 1914
McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives

Landon MacKenzie Canoe/Woman

Landon MacKenzie , 1954 –
Canoe/Woman, 1987 - 1988
arcrylic on canvas
152.4 x 182.9 cm
Sandra and Jim Pitblado

David Thauberger, Lake Reflecting Mountains

David Thauberger , 1948 –
Lake Reflecting Mountains , 1982
arcrylic on canvas
167.6 x 228.6 cm
Private Collection

Keith Harder, Couriers de Bois

Keith Harder
, 1955 –
Coureurs de Bois , 1991
oil on canvas
153 x 102 cm
Collection of K.B. Harder

Alex Colville, Woman Carrying a Canoe

Alex Colville
, 1920 –
Woman Carrying a Canoe , 1972
acrylic on panel
43.3 x 78.7 cm
Private Collection

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