Camping In January in Algonquin Park

21 01 2014

This weekend, I felt like I had fallen into a Group of Seven painting, not unlike the way C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s characters get to jump around into past and future eras. When I placed the heavy leather tumpline of a loaded toboggan across my chest, and leaned into the blowing snow, I got sucked into another era, one long before the combustion engine, tourists and Mountain Equipment Coop.

Leaning into the past

Leaning into the past

I’m just warning you, in case you decide to go winter camping with Craig and Doris MacDonald in Algonquin Park in the middle of January. No slick synthetics, and no  lightweight titanium snowshoes or tents on this trip. Nope. Lash on the old-fashioned babiche and wooden snowshoes with a few feet of lamp wick and follow the ancient trail that the first white man recorded in 1827 near the park’s East Gate, beyond the gargantuan virgin pines. It leads to Sunday Lake where you’ll find Craig, master winter camper and expert on Algonquin Park and on the old ways of the Natives and the traders. He comes from generations of northern postal carriers that were more comfortable in snowshoes battling a blizzard than you and I are in our slippers sitting by a fireplace sipping a latte.

We are eight people camping together in the snow. No slackers allowed. It’s a race against a setting sun. A rough, six foot chisel and two metal pails are handed to my son who heads for the lake. “Don’t forget to pile snow on the top of the filled pails so the water won’t slosh all over your legs. And don’t lose the chisel in the lake!” Doris yells out. Someone searches for firewood and bark. My husband and other son stagger out of the forest and into the campsite after retrieving caber-size poles that Craig lashes together to make a structure to which we tie the locally made Egyptian cotton tent. Before my dazzled eyes, the exact shape of the tent in Tom Thomson’s painting The Tent begins to take shape. It’s cream coloured, spacious and gracefully proportioned.

Setting up the tent Doris is showing us how to weave a soft fragrant carpet of balsam boughs, the way the Native people do. Craig and Wayne, who still wears the traditional voyageur garb, hook up the stove whose skinny chimney pipe angles up through a metal square in the gable end of the tent. Wayne, the "voyageur"A fire is crackling and, in no time, the tent is heating up. A toboggan, placed in the centre of the tent, becomes our table. Wooden stakes that hold candles are driven into the ground. Soon, we are sitting in our T-shirts, eating home baked bread and chili and swapping stories of adventure and travel, especially tales of Craig’s interactions with the Natives in years gone by. Before I climb into my sleeping bag, I slip outside. The tent is glowing like an old-fashioned Aladdin lantern turned down low. The snow is hard and crisp and the temperature is dropping as the night darkens. It is dead silent and perfectly still.

So, this is how those Canadian painters did it a hundred years ago. Well, Tom Thomson, there’s still one painter who is thrilled to be camping,  your style, in 2014.





A Good Cure for Restlessness

13 01 2014

It always happens every year, that irksome restlessness that comes after a period of too much stimulation. It seems to take me forever to calm down after all the excitement of Christmas when the house bulged with guests and rocked with music and merriment, and our bellies protruded with too much gourmet food.

The inner turmoil goes something like this.  “I really need to thoroughly clean the house now that everyone has left.  I’ve got to get working on my spring show of 101 small watercolours.  Maybe I should participate in the summer Muskoka Arts and Crafts show with my cards, after all.  That means painting at least six cards a days.  I’d like to start blogging again.  And, oh, Sarah left her cello here.  Should I take cello lessons?”

So, I end up doing nothing.  I am suspended like a hummingbird before a feeder, wildly whirling my wings but going nowhere, then, erratically sipping at this feeder and dashing off to that flower.  No matter how many firm talks I give myself about focus and self-discipline, and no matter how many noble quotes I read about success, I just can’t seem to get very far on any project.

Matters came to a climax this afternoon when I found myself rarely alone for a few hours on a Sunday. It was the perfect time to start blogging again.  A full pot of hot rooibos tea before me, and a blank Microsoft page open, I waited eagerly for the gates to creativity to swing open.   But, they didn’t.   I hadn’t a clue what to write about, just like I haven’t had a clue, since Christmas, what to paint on the enormous stack of blank canvasses in the corner of my studio.  With each passing minute, the anxiety increased.   It was time to take a walk.

My quiet country road weaves through the forest and traces the rugged contours of the Algonquin Highlands.   I couldn’t help noticing that a raccoon, a grouse, a mouse and a fox had, each, gone for a walk not long before me. Why, even a car had made a new tread pattern in the snow part way up the road before the driver lost his nerve and turned around. The top, wispy branches of the naked maples were gently sweeping the clouds to the side so I could enjoy glimpses of the startling blue sky.   A playful breeze pinched my cheeks and rattled the dry beech leaves clustered tenuously on saplings.  Nervous nuthatches fluttered noiselessly in the branches while a hairy woodpecker hammered relentlessly at a tree trunk until it offered up a bug.

I noticed, when I sat down again to my cold tea and computer, that the gates to creativity had mysteriously opened in my absence.  Ideas and words flowed easily and I was able to write.

For me, a brisk walk in nature is the best cure for just about anything.





From Cross Lake to Shoe Lake

20 04 2013

Cross Lake to Shoe Lake 1981

Planting potatoes in June in Cross Lake, Manitoba, is a dangerous job,  especially in Katherine McKay’s garden.  She lives beyond the Sinclairs’ shack, close to the Narrows where the Nelson River bellows at the shriveled forest and the wind picks up speed for its morning charge through the town.

Raging like an angry bull, Katherine’s husband is leaning over the fence, shouting something unfriendly in Cree, then doubling over with laughter as he points at us gardeners in the enclosure. The villagers had warned us about him.  “He hates white people with a vengeance.”  No trace of Katherine who had ordered the garden.

Brad and I are on our honeymoon.  Book–blearied university students, sick of the stale atmosphere of libraries and labs, and looking for a summer of fresh air and adventure, we impulsively volunteered with a relief organization to create kitchen gardens with the Cree in order to promote local food production, healthy eating and active living, and to decrease dependency on the Hudson’s Bay Store.

Just days after our May wedding, the bush pilot dropped us off with a bag of seeds, rakes, hoes and a rotor tiller.  He promised to pick us up at the end of August, then rattled his plane up into the clouds and was gone.  Swarms of black flies descended to welcome us.  Nobody else.

But that was last month.  Right now, I am shivering in Katherine’s freshly tilled garden, despite three layers of sweaters on my back. But it’s a garden, another precious garden to add to our other three.

Gardens are not a real hot item on this reservation. We’ve tried everything to promote them: a booth in front of the Bay Store, radio announcements, community involvement.  It was only when we dressed up like a tomato and a cob of corn and paraded through town, waving our garden-promoting banner, that a few kind souls took pity on us and signed on.

This morning, however, something other than potato pieces was seeding itself –  a memory.  I recall another village in a forest –  also on a narrows.  Cedar Narrows, Brad had called it.   I visited Dorset two years ago with Brad and his family.  We stayed in a primitive cottage on Shoe Lake.   I did not connect with it then.  Recently moved back to Canada from Europe,  I secretly found the endless, Canadian wilderness terrifying and the cabin awfully dingy.   But here, half a continent away, Dorset and Shoe Lake are reconstructing themselves in my memory, in all of its quaintness and natural beauty.”

“Hey, Brad”, I holler through the wind. “I think I’d like your uncle’s cabin in Dorset now. Could we spend some weekends there this fall and winter?  Would your uncle Gord lend us the key?”

Well, I can quickly see that my comment is setting off firecrackers in Brad’s imagination..  It is taking immediate root and growing into an idea, a whole plan in his mind. Shoe Lake is his favourite place in the world, where he has spent all his summers since he was a baby

“Elizabeth, let’s post-pone our studies for a year. Move to the uncle Gord’s  cabin and spend the year learning about the bush, canoeing, hiking, and hunting, instead. We’ll have time to think, read, paint,  and pursue whatever we want.  We’ll live simply on our savings, get paying jobs next summer, then pick up our university studies,  refreshed.  Anyway, I don’t know if engineering is right for me.

Our reckless and spontaneous plan warms us to the core.  The  Dorset Venture becomes a beacon of light that illuminates every activity with purpose.  Suddenly it is important to learn about survival and the ways of the bush from our Cree neighbours.   We borrow Mother Earth News magazines from George, the Metis, and start eating lambs quarters at lunch and catch fish from the Nelson.   I read about the benefits of cattail silk and sew it into my sleeping bag for warmth, that is,  before I notice the tiny worms in the silk.    After one week, when we feel totally sure about our plan, we phone home.

“What? You’ve gone mad with love.”  “Finish your education first.”  “We don’t like that plan at all.” were the responses.   Uncle Gord was the worst.  “Old Charlie Bean froze in his sleep up there.  Could happen to you.  You could burn the cabin down and no one would even know.  Neither of you are familiar with wood-stoves.  If something happened to you kids up there, I’d carry that guilt around for the rest of my life. “

But, in the fall, he hands over the key when we offer $60.00 a month to rent the cabin and assure him that we’ll keep an eye on his own big cottage.

One cold, October evening, Brad gallantly carries me over the threshold and sets me down in the middle of an uninsulated, dark and damp, mice-infested shack with no running water, except for what is leaking through the holes of the roof and the broken chimney. I hear a strain in Brad’s voice as he welcomes me to my first home.  No surface is without mouse droppings.  Night is falling.  My quivering candle guides me to a musty bed in the corner and I crawl in,  button-lipped. Before I fall asleep,  a mouse runs down my leg.   The luster to our dream is starting to fade.

All of that happened thirty-two years ago.  We cleaned, polished, and patched, that cabin, hauled water, built an outhouse, and made a warm, happy home.  We had a fabulous year and learned a great deal about ourselves and each other, but it will be the subject of another blog.

We did, indeed, go back to our formal studies at university,  and on to our professions, but  we vowed we would return to Dorset to raise our family.  Six years later, we bought the lot with the cabin from Uncle Gord.  Two years after that, we quit our professions and moved back into that cabin with a toddler, Katherine and a newborn, Sarah Jane.   But that story will also have to wait.





Let it Snow!

14 12 2012

The world outside my studio today is a grey, cast-iron caldron of popping popcorn and I am peeking over the rim watching the fluffy stuff jump, swirl and pile up and up.

I wish those white blobs were edible. My lunch date at my friend’s house was cancelled due to this big snowfall and I’m starving. Like her, most of us in Muskoka live isolated at the end of windy, hilly, back roads that are not plowed very often. When it snows like this, we just learn to change plans quickly and sit tight until we can budge.

Thankfully, I don’t have to budge for another hour. Tom Allan is playing Vivaldi and I am reminded just how well Vivaldi and snowy days go together. The two seem to be mimicking each other with their pristine, joyful dances.

It is a great joy just to see the snow finally return to Dorset. It certainly took its time this year and I was beginning to worry that global warming was going to deprive me of one of my favourite painting subjects. I love it when the winter snow dresses the trees like royalty in stately mantles of ermine and lays down a thick spongy carpet over the impassible, debris-strewn forest floor. Snow transforms it into a smooth, white desert that I can stride easily across on racket-shaped snowshoes into the remotest of places.

Winter Garb

Winter Garb  by Elizabeth Johnson  24×20″ acrylic on canvas

As I watch the first big snow come down in Dorset, I think of A. Y. Jackson’s First Snow Algoma, of A. J. Casson’s big blobs in First Snow, Grenadier Pond  and of Kathleen Moir Morris’ snow-laden Montreal scenes. Many Canadian painters have even managed to sneak those beautiful snow shapes into their spring and summer paintings. Whether they were put there subconsciously or intentionally, they are there.  Just have a look at Lauren Harris’ clouds and Arthur Lismer’s blossoms in Georgian Bay, Spring. What about Tom Thompson’s Lily Pads? I bet those painters were longing for the snow to come back soon after the spring melt.

A gallery owner once advised me not to paint winter scenes. “They don’t sell,”  he said.  He might have just as well told me not to be Canadian. Snow is the trademark of so many Canadian painters.

My hour is up. I must go out into the popping, dancing whiteness and find my son for his violin lesson. He will be playing a Vivaldi concerto for his teacher this afternoon.





My Solo Exhibition Speech at the Huntsville Public Library, Nov.9, 2012

15 11 2012

Walks in Beauty

I  cannot remember the exact moment in my life when I responded to art.  Certainly, the beauty of stark simplicity and things made by hand were givens in my childhood: the bright, patchwork quilts, the thick, braided wool rugs, the jewel-coloured jars of home-canned fruits, jams, relishes and sausages, the vases of flamboyant flowers against a bare, white wall of my Mennonite home – these were some of the moments when I responded to art early on in life. Back then, I had all the time in the world to walk around and stare.

Just how I jumped from these early sensations to becoming a painter, I don’t really understand myself.  I had a little box of paints that my brother had given me.  Just seeing the clean, shiny colours,  smelling the turpentine, and feeling the spring of the brush hairs  thrilled me.  I started looking at the  world differently, dividing everything I saw into little blobs of paint.

While I always struggled with orderliness in my life, somehow the  organizing of shape, colour, texture and pattern on a two-dimensional, clearly defined plane was manageable and terribly exciting.  I felt like I was the conductor of an orchestra –bringing in separate parts to make a splendid, unified picture that sings beauty. Later on, one of my art teachers referred to colours as notes and told me to “Paint like a (wo)man climbing a hill, singing”

I am very honoured to be part of such a great painting tradition, one that stretches back 15 thousand years to the cave painters of France and Spain. It warms my heart to think that we humans still come together to celebrate the act of making marks, one by one, by hand, especially today when computers can make thousands of pictures for us instantly in any style and colour. Art exhibits remind us that we are not machines.  Each little brushstoke made by a human hand is crammed with information about what it is to be a particular human being.    No wonder ancient civilizations thought that art carried magical powers.

And just maybe it does.  After all, angels always seem to pop up whenever I go out painting.  I was shivering one cold autumn day while painting on the front stoop of an old house. I thought no one was home. The door behind me creaked open and someone dropped a warm shawl over my shoulders.

A few weeks ago, I drove past Tally Ho in Hillside on hwy #60.  I have always loved the view of the big garden and the small bight cabins under the big trees.  Since I had my easel with me,  I pulled over to the side of the road and set it up, squeezed out blobs of paint, and was all ready to go, when I realized that I didn’t have any turpentine.  Well, you can’t paint oils without some thinning agent. At that very instant, a car drove up behind me  – the owner of Tally Ho.  She put a call into housekeeping and within minutes, another car drove up and handed me a  jug of turpentine.

Last month, I set up my easel by some unused railway tracks in a rough end of Port Colborne, my hometown.  I was deep in concentration when I heard the flatulating engine of a passing Harley Davidson suddenly stop.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a leathery, tough-looking dude, heading right for me.

“What are you doing here?” He yelled at me.

I braced myself.

“This is no place for a painter.  Can’t you see there’s garbage all around?”

He was right.  I hadn’t noticed before.  I was even standing in it.  The beauty if the starkness of the houses had absorbed all my interest.   After a good long look at the painting, he burst out laughing.

“Hah!  That’s beautiful!  Imagine that!  You do find beauty in all the garbage and weeds. I live here and I never seen it before.   Hey, can I take your picture?  They won’t believe this.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” I answered, wondering who THEY were.

“Thanks,  he said, “You know, you’ve made my day.

“Thank you, Sir. You have made my day, too,“  I answered.  Away he went, muttering to himself something about finding beauty in the strangest places and I went back to my painting, smiling inside and out.

The challenge for the painter in Muskoka is not the sifting through garbage to find beauty, (at least not yet).  Rather, the challenge is to sort through a surplus of jaw-dropping beauty, ever changing landscapes, to find the little unexpected nugget that, on canvas, will say just enough of what I found to be important about the whole majestic scene.

It is very important to have local, original art hanging in a public library which is dedicated to another form of art – the written word.  Since a picture is worth  a thousand words,  books and visual art are a splendid team that speak truth in different languages.   In fact, it was from literature that I took the title for my show – a poem by Lord Byron entitled, “She Walks in Beauty”.  You walk in beauty, too. The many exhibits that will pass through this library will help you to develop the vision to recognize it  – the beauty of nature, the beauty of the commonplace, the beauty of the abstract, the beauty of the ugly, the beauty of the unexpected.  Painting is a lot about seeing.

One of my teachers was Bill Schultz.  His teacher, Brachman, was a student of the great American painter, Robert Henri, who wrote, “Art in the community has a subtle, unconscious, refining influence.” With art hanging on its walls, the library will become the life-centre of Huntsville from where powerful, stimulating ideas and discussions will radiate, just as Henri predicted of art schools.

I thank the show curator, Mary Rashleigh  and head librarian, Debbie Duce for having the vision to create this venue  for artists to communicate with the public. It’s a great privilege for me to be the first to have my say about my little slice of life and my impressions of it. Thank you to musicians, Josh, Graham and David and a heartfelt thank you to everyone for coming to look at my paintings and to share this celebration with me.

“Walks in Beauty” hangs in the Huntsville Public Library until December 21, 2012





“Walks in Beauty” : Art Exhibition, Nov. 9 – Dec. 21

2 11 2012

 

 

 

 

 

I invite you and your friends to the opening of my art exhibit, “Walks in Beauty,” at the Huntsville Public Library, Huntsville, Ontario. The grand opening is next Friday, November 9, 2012, at 6:00 p.m. If you can’t make it then, the exhibit runs until December 21, 2012.

http://www.ejohnsonart.com

 





A Different Kind of Landscape Painting

6 06 2012

“All gardening is landscape painting.”

Alexander Pope

My mother grew a huge vegetable garden in which we four children had to put in a certain number of hours of planting, weeding and picking.  My favourite memories of the garden concerned peas.  I loved planting the peas.  They looked like soft green buttons  sewn on the umber-coloured shirt of a sleeping giant,  and I was the seamstress as I dropped each pea- button, one to two inches apart, into the trough.   When they grew into plump pods, I’d eat them raw, cramming whole fistfuls into my mouth.  No snack can compare to those freshly shelled garden peas.   Even the pods were delicious, once you peeled off the inner membrane.

It took me many years to have a vegetable garden of my own.  But now I have one and it is a miracle.   Two years ago, my husband and I purchased the  land on which my husband’s business sits (Portico Timber Frames).   The soil itself is mostly sand and rock – fill that had been dumped into a swamp.   But  the site has sunshine and it is flat, both rare features in Muskoka and the Haliburton Highlands and I began to dream of the possiblility of growing a garden there.    Since the soil grew scruffy weeds, I wondered if it might just grow vegetables, too.  I could just see that desert bloom.

After reading Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening,  I went to work trying out her no dig, no till, no weeding system of gardening.   After mowing down the weeds and grass, my husband and I built long rectangular boxes with wood from Portico’s scrap pile.  I lined the bottom with 4 sheets of wet, overlapping newspapers to kill the growth.  On top, I dumped layers of manure, coffee grounds from Tim Horton’s, peat moss, chopped leaves,  straw, top soil, compost, anything I could think off that might make a good soil.  Then, I sowed my seeds, flowers and veggies all mixed in together.

Today, it is a verdant, bountiful garden that feeds my family all summer long and provides a quiet and refreshing place where people can stroll and rest in.  Much more has grown up in this garden.  My daughter opened a wood-fired pizzeria in my garden (mypizzaonearth.com).  My new studio opens out onto the garden.  My husband and nephew built an English-style brick pathway and patio in the garden.  My little garden developed further to include a burgeoning Dorset community garden where members meet to garden, trade plants and gardening tips and to socialize.   Birds love to visit the garden, too.  Miracles do happen. Deserts really can bloom.

As I dropped the peas into the soil this afternoon and was transported back to my mother’s garden,  I looked up at my own beautiful garden with is tall spires of garlic, its deep blue irises, its bright yellow-green lettuce, and fragrant herbs. I realized that, while I paint for a living, I now live in a painting.  My surroundings are also my canvas.  Gardening is just another form of landscape painting.   No wonder I am totally absorbed by it.