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.

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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.





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