In September Ray and I went to visit Tom Thomson’s grave in Leith Ontario just outside of Owen Sound, where Thomson grew up.
Thomson of course is Canada’s great painter; one known world wide, who captured the soul of the land and thus the country in his paintings. Contrary to popular belief Thomson was not one of the Group of Seven, having died before it’s formation, but will forever be associated with them because of his subject matter and influence on the painters who did form the Group of Seven. As member painter Lawren Harris wrote “(Tom Thomson was ) a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it.” Thomson is as Canadian as hockey, healthcare or false humility and to some that makes him mundane. Just another symbol to stick in a collage of Canada. But that is Thomson as a symbol not the painter and not the paintings.
Having spent my teen years in Owen Sound the scenery that Thomson painted was all around to see with the naked eye, but being a teen I took it and his paintings somewhat for granted. I appreciated them but I was too busy trying to grow up as fast as I could to really absorb them. It is only returning to the Georgian Bay area as an adult with years of travel and having experienced the rough edges of a life lived, that I see the land around Georgian Bay for what it is, a rich a combination of shape, form, light and colour that is unique to this part of the world.
Looking now at with fresh eyes away from the landscape and at Thomson’s iconic paintings they appear all the more remarkable to me; like seeing the portrait of a familiar face taking on new aspects and truths on the canvas.
It was on July 8, 1917 while on a canoe trip on the perfectly named Canoe Lake in Nipissing District of Ontario that Thomson would have found himself in the water, then under the water and finally submerged in the void that death brings. 8 days later his body was found washed up on the shore. There was a bruise or hole on temple (depending on the account) and fishing line wrapped around his ankle.
Thomson’s gravestone is small , just one of many in the unassuming graveyard of the humble red brick Leith Church. Across the road is open farmer’s field. It was quiet, calm, even relaxing that morning in that place, as fall ushered in with the wind a little cooler, the sun a little lower and the geese honking overhead breaking the stillness as the made there way to southern lands. Tom Thomson died a relative unknown, writing to a friend that he would be happy if he “could get $10 or $15” for a sketch. A sketch by Thomson these days can sell for $2-million or more.
While stories and legends of murder and intrigue have grown up around his death his legend as a painter has grown even more, enshrining him and his paintings as a piece of Canadian national identity; which may be why some people reject him with such force. After all what is an iconoclast without icons to smash and rage against. But truth and legend need not be contrary. Sometimes they live quite well side by side. As Gordon Downie once said referring to the song Three pistols by his group the Tragically Hip, “Here’s one of many Canadian myths, that like many Canadian myths, just happens to be true.”
Looking out over Georgian Bay anyone who has seen a Tom Thomson painting can see Tom Thomson trees, clouds, rocks, water, but they are real, a fusion of his perception with ours across time. That is the magic.
Tom Thompson Gallery, Owen Sound
Three Pistols by the Tragically Hip