Photo Credit: Shania Bhopa.

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OCT - NOV 20 2018

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In October, 2012, I came across a 40 year old catalogue of photographs taken mostly by Tom Thomson. They were in a ‘Bulletin’ published by the National Gallery in 1968, and written by Dennis Reid.


Two rolls of unprinted film were found in one of Thomson’s trunks, by his family, and donated to the National Archives, in 1967, fifty years after his death.
When the Archives printed the film, it was discovered that several images had been altered by water damage, mould and the inevitable corrosive effect of time.  While viewed as a disappointment at the time, in our age of digital manipulation these damaged images seem rather au courant, eerily familiar vestiges of a lost world captured by a now waning technology.

Imagery & Questions

To see these images today, a century after they were taken (most were from a canoe trip in northern Ontario in 1912) gives pause to reflect on their nostalgia, their evocation of  Thomson as the lone Canadian questor, a mythical figure in the archetypal canoe.  These black & white prints serve to document and interrogate Thomson’s odyssey. 
What might Thomson do with these photos if he had today’s digital technology at his disposal? These two rolls of film were the only survivors of a packet of 14 that Thomson is thought to have shot. The others were lost when the canoe overturned in a rapid. In letters, he suggested that he valued this material. Might he have based paintings on some of these images if they hadn’t been lost? There seem to be no paintings that correspond to the surviving images.


Thomson was an avid naturalist, with a mystical sense of the natural world. His photos sometimes show the environmental damage of his day. How would he feel about our management of the environment today?


He was proud of the fish that he caught for sport and sustenance. How would those habits support him in Algonquin Park today? 

The Craft

My father was a lithographer in Toronto, with Rolph Clark & Stone, then Brigdens.
As a child, I was enlivened when he would bring home large rolls of images off the press in which one colour might be off line. I used to draw and paint on these.
He often talked of going upstairs to the studio to talk with the artists, and I imagined myself to be continuing their work.


Thomson was such an artist in such a setting ( at Grip, then Rous & Mann), though that was 20 years before my father began operating lithography presses in such a place.
When photographs are re-worked on the computer, the technology reduces them to delineated tonal flat planes, resembling the delineated flat planes favoured by Norval Morrisseau and other First Nations artists of the Woodlands School. This style of delineated flat planes of colour is also a hallmark of Thomson’s most radical later paintings (eg. The Jack Pine).


In the acrylic paintings, I start with an archival, still film image with some obvious damage. When that is processed on computer, colour and pattern come to dominate the image. This image is then transferred to canvas, to which I apply paint in such a way that from a distance, the painting alludes to its black and white inspiration, with colour added.
As the viewer moves closer, the image breaks up into animated patterns of surreal phantom figures. It is still a wilderness scene, but as you get closer to the image, approach the forest, you are aware of the spirit world of the forest that surrounds you. Inspiration for this heavy outline style can be found in Norval Morriseau’s explorations of native spirituality, and, of course, in Tom Thomson’s own work, particularly in his studio canvases, such as “ The Jack Pine”.

 

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