Land of the Silver Birch

 

Mixed media installation

2009

In the fall of 2007 Stuart Reid, director of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario asked Persona Volare, a Toronto artists’ collective of which I am a member to hold a group show in which pieces from the collection would serve as inspiration for contemporary interpretations by each of us. After much consideration, I chose to work from a black and white historical photograph of Tom Thomson’s tent taken at Canoe Lake, a place where he loved to fish and paint and in which he died soon after this photo was taken. The simple documentary like quality of the picture appealed to me as did the fact that the only evidence of Thomson’s presence was the catch of fish hanging over the tent door. The stark white, even ghostly colour of the tent seemed to symbolize Thomson’s absence and impending demise.

At the same time, in looking at this photo I was reminded of an almost performance piece I had done in Algonquin Park in the early 90s in which I had used a large section of found birch bark as a head and torso masking device for myself. My friend had photographed me in this costume and I had subsequently superimposed the picture onto a map of the area complete with contour lines and indications of local forested areas and lakes. I placed the two works side by side. The fact that I don’t normally exhibit photos of myself, even incognito ones such as the Algonquin piece didn’t seem to matter. Was I channeling the spirit of the Group of Seven, even Tom Thomson himself? The fact was that the two photos seemed to resonate with each other and together they became the starting point for Land of the Silver Birch.

My completed installation contains several elements: photographs and found plastic toy canoes but also a collection of wooden oars and paddles that I procured near my home on Toronto Island. The disbanding of the old Sea Hawks Sailing Club had resulted in the abandonment of all sorts of gear including these oars and paddles constructed from red cedar and dating back to the 1920s — just the sort of thing Tom Thomson would have used on his canoeing expeditions. I translated a number of the oars into bronze using the sandcasting method which, I think, adds gravitas and a timeless quality to the installation. The oars and paddles carry small replicas of vessels on their blades which are made of cast iron that has been left to rust. These boats are simply roped onto the oars and paddles, rope being another common material used in the nautical world. The juxtaposition of elements and their reversal in terms of size in relation to each other is odd, a little unsettling and gives the work a humorous edge. The final part of my installation is contained in a nearby glass-topped case where Tom Thomson’s double reel from the gallery’s collection sits with two of my own pieces, a hand carved stone fish and the miniature bronze casting of a fisherman. Again, I am playing with scale in combining these artifacts, but the overall message is that even the most quotidian object like a double reel for fishing has resonance, that is both formally beautiful and evocative in terms of the memories it elicits.

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