The power of the Great White North

In the solitary splendor of Canada, these painters found energy, possibility, and a national identity.

Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay, 1914–1915, Tom Thomson, courtesy McMichael Collection

Here in Maine, we import our weather from Canada. In fact, we share a lot with our Canadian neighbors, including black spruces, granite, and the spodosol soils that are good for growing potatoes, blueberries, evergreens, and not much else.

Maine has a contemporary painting style that’s driven by this sense of place. It’s curiously unrelated to our most famous summer painter, Andrew Wyeth. Instead, it derives from an earlier generation of painters, including Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper.  Maine is just too sunny and wild to sustain Wyeth’s quiet melancholy.

Mt. Lefroy, 1930, Lawren S. Harris, courtesy McMichael Collection

This combination of influences and landscape gives us some curious parallels to our Canadian neighbors, the Group of Sevenpainters. This group consisted of Franklin CarmichaelLawren Harris, AY Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, JEH MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Later, AJ Casson, Edwin Holgate and LeMoine FitzGerald joined them.

Bright Land, 1938, Arthur Lismer, courtesy McMichael Collection

Although he died before the official formation of the group, Tom Thomson was a profound influence on them. Emily Carrwas never an official member as she lived in Vancouver, but she was influenced by them. Lawren Harris, in particular, was a support. “You are one of us,” he told her.

Shoreline, 1936, Emily Carr, courtesy McMichael Collection

Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Group of Seven, and the most able to articulate their mission. He was a very malleable painter. He went from impressionism to art nouveau realism to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred in the early 1930s, after he visited and painted in the Arctic.

Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”

First Snow, Algoma, 1919/1920, AY Jackson, courtesy McMichael Collection

The Group of Seven painted this ethos. In the solitary splendor of Canada, they found energy, possibility, and a national identity. That’s an idea that has become politicized in recent years. Indigenous people have argued that these areas were always inhabited. The depiction of emptiness was a de facto endorsement of the pernicious policy of terra nullius.

But for artists trained in Europe, many of whom saw duty in WWI, Canada was desolate. As AY Jackson wrote, “After painting in Europe where everything was mellowed by time and human associations, I found it a problem to paint a country in outward appearance pretty much as it had been when Champlain passed through its thousands of rock islands three hundred years before.”

Goat Range, Rocky Mountains, 1932, JEH MacDonald, courtesy McMichael Collection

I’ve painted through every Canadian province and Yukon Territory. (Nunavut and Northwest Territories remain on my bucket list.) To my American eyes, Canada is empty, and that’s its attraction. Canada is unique in having so much wilderness, untouched, in the modern world. That Great White North, which reaches down and embraces the country in an iron grip every winter, is wilderness’ fierce protector.

Everything the Group of Seven painted derives from that unique understanding of wilderness and its value. Maine artists work from the same wellspring of inspiration, so it’s no wonder that our paintings look similar to our Canadian neighbors’.

It’s not the subject that makes the picture

It’s what you bring to it. That’s true in life as much as in painting.

A wee little demo I did of water tumbling over rocks. I’m using the same watercolor kit as my students will use next week aboard American Eagle.

This week I’m on a ranch high above Pecos, NM. The owners and the cloud of dogs who usually trail after them are elsewhere. It’s just me, three horses and a donkey. “Aren’t you worried about being alone out there?” one of my workshop students asked me. No.

I had horses when I was young but it’s been a long time since I’ve handled them closely. They set a rhythm to my day. I block out time in the morning and evening to attend to them. Among the pinon and dust of a New Mexico September, I have long stretches of absolute silence. That’s a rarity in the modern world.

Donna finds serenity in the Pecos River.

We don’t form as tight a bond with horses as we do with our dogs, but the potential is there. In 1910 there were about 20 million domestic horses in North America, or around one for every six people. They lived and worked side-by-side with their humans with an intimacy we can’t imagine today.

The owner of Scout, Lucy, Duke and Jimmy (the donkey) is a tiny woman, but she bosses them with impunity. She’s their alpha human. I’m a stranger. Inevitably, like children, they had to test me.

The monkey business started on Tuesday evening, when I came out of the tackroom with an armful of hay to be mugged by the two geldings and a donkey. I’m half a foot taller and sixty pounds heavier than Jane, and I could not push those knuckleheads out of my way. They leaned on me, inevitably getting me to drop their supper. After I’d retrieved and separated it, they started fussing at each other.

Yves painting in the historic barrio of Santa Fe.

Duke bit Jimmy, and Jimmy kicked out at anyone who was nearby. I yelled. Jimmy laid back his ears, stuck out his lip, and brayed. He looked so much like an angry toddler that I started laughing. “I don’t know which one of you started it,” I yelled, “but you’re all grounded!” At that moment they reminded me powerfully of my own children back in the day.

The horses outweigh me, but I have an advantage: my opposable thumbs. On Wednesday, I scarpered out the back and around to the other side of their corral, where I distributed their hay before they realized where I was. Peace has reigned ever since in the Horse Kingdom.

I’ll horse-sit these darlings any time!

I love this place, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for my own home in Maine, or my workshop aboard American Eagle, which starts Sunday. Would I be this happy in a flat in a rust-belt city? It’s been almost forty years since I’ve lived that life, but I hope so.

I do an exercise with my workshop students where I ask them to paint a scene chosen by committee. It’s not the subject that makes the painting, it’s what they bring to it. That’s true of life as well. Obviously, crisis and grief are exceptions; we all go through seasons of loss, and we’re not expected to be happy in them. But in the general run of events, we are designed for happiness. If it eludes us, it behooves us to figure out why—and to fix it.

No blog next week, because there’s no internet on Penobscot Bay. Please, techies, never fix that!

Why facts matter

What is an artist if not a truth teller? To tell the truth, you must understand what you are looking at.
Painted by Sandra Hildreth from Eagle Island during the ADK Plein Air Festival.

Sandra Hildrethnever wins prizes at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. She exempts herself because she’s the organizer, but I hate seeing her work overlooked in the jurying. Part of what one registers in art is passion, and hers is very passionate work. She is the Adirondacks’ most tireless art champion, a fine painter whose skills are focused on what she loves.

“I paint what is wild,” she wrote. “It might be a moss covered glacial erratic deep in a tangled old growth Adirondack forest…”
Barnum Brook, 12X48, by Sandra Hildreth.
Full stop here: that’s the difference between Sandra and most of the rest of us. I understand rocks but could never identify a glacial spill under the mess of foliage of an Adirondack hillside.
A student at this summer’s workshopasked me why knowing what we were looking at was important. I was slightly nonplussed, since I like knowledge for its own sake. Still, understanding the natural world informs painting, and Sandra’s work demonstrates this.
Nocturne, by Sandra Hildreth.
Her painting of trees, top, has the authority and authenticity of fact. Her trees could be nothing other than Eastern White Pines clinging to a mountain rock in a cold lake in the northeastern forest. She has told us, as clearly as a photograph could, about the feathery needles, the soft color, the mature mien of the trees, and how the rock has cleaved with great age. Accuracy with drawing allows her to be loose with the paint. It also gives us a whiff of mountain air when we see the painting.
I don’t know Sandra well, but we painted together in a boreal wetlands a few years ago. She’s a friend of my pal and former student Carol Thiel. The two of them clamber around the ADK’s 46 mountain peaks together. Sometimes they bring their paints along on these hikes. Walking in the woods is a powerful learning experience.
Split Rock Falls, by Sandra Hildreth.
Sandra grew up in Wisconsin and has a BFA from Western Kentucky University. She taught high school art in northern New York for 31 years, moving to Saranac Lake after she retired. She paints full time and is a devoted grandmother.
She paints what she identifies as wilderness—not just the splashy big national parks, but the places where man has not yet tamed nature. “They just need to have some of the qualities of wilderness, such as very little evidence of humanity,” she wrote. “Places where nature is dominant, not civilization.”
Eclipse, by Sandra Hildreth.
At some point, an artist moves past what is painterly and beautiful and arrives at what is true. If you want to be a truth-teller, you must first understand your subject. We have all seen paintings of inoffensive, unremarkable trees and rocks. They tell us nothing about the terrifying majesty of nature. They have no lasting power. Sandra Hildreth’s forests are for the ages.