Tom Thomson (1877-1917) grew up breathing the air of southern Georgian Bay as I did a half-century later. In Canada, Thomson is known as the Great Outdoor painter who got away, the northern magus, the promise of a singular vision at a time when the nation itself hadn’t fully formed. His sudden, mysterious death by drowning occurred as the Great War was raging in Europe, when Canada was earning its stripes as an independent country, removed from England and distinct from the United States in the increasingly modern world.
This founding artistic father of Canada has always been a kind of spiritual brother to me … So, in some respects, this great is always with me. Here’s a sample meditation:
"It’s not like we have many letters from Tom Thomson. Not like Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) a generation before, a loner of an entirely different type, Vincent, whose shouts and sighs and embitterments seem mixed in the thick paint itself and is why I can stand before the paintings of his later years, or the other that started the thrall, “The Potato Eaters,” and if I’m still enough I can shut out the phone-snappers and loud, hard-of-hearing visitors, the ghouls who step right in front of me.
With Tom, you have to fill in the blanks. His paintings, say “West Wind” or “Jack Pine,” don’t shout or even mutter. They are like the place of his birth, Owen Sound, and the bush beyond, the bird-wing and tree-crack, the crunch of dry, hard leaves underfoot – and when Tom could he’d seek out the muddy shores and hear the sound of the loose suck with each step of his bone-dry hunting boots, think of the men at war.
Even in the trenches of Passchendaele, the Canadians don’t shout or mutter or cry of their lot. Tom didn’t go to war and at no point in his few letters and cards home and to friends does he say why. The papers, of course, wrote of nothing else. With photos too. So when he sought out the mud it was to pay homage to his fellow Canadians, those who didn’t rule men but felt the pull of the factory, the farm, the mine and, for Tom, the fishing hole. When he paints the browns, dull grays when the scene demanded something brighter, blame the war. What drove him even deeper into himself, brought a darkness to light."
Next: Running for Your Life: Marathons and War