Archive for December, 2020

There’s a photo of Franklin Carmichael that I just really, really love. In it, he’s seated on a camp stool, in front of a paint box that is opened and there is a little canvas propped up in front of him.

It’s all black and white, and I have a thing for black and white photos. I always have. The more famous one is this one, though…with Carmichael as a strange, hooded figure, looking out over the LaCloche Mountains, a place he loved. (I’ve hiked there with my friend, Jen Geddes…and had my breath stolen by the beauty from the highest point…so I can imagine why he was drawn to these Northern Ontario views. Who wouldn’t be?)

Black and white photos make me wonder what people were thinking when the photo was taken. I start to imagine stories…and then I’m off in my head and imagination. This particular photo show Carmichael just looking at what he’s painted, assessing it, I imagine. I do this, as a poet. I write something, then read it out loud to the dog (who never listens), and then think “Oh, this is rubbish…I should start over” or “Okay, maybe this is the start of something…if I am patient enough to sit with it and not rush it through and out…” I imagine that Franklin Carmichael must have done the same thing as a painter, though one can never be sure of what another person is thinking…or might have thought. He’s been dead a while now. 

Carmichael was born in 1890 and died in 1945. He’s one of the Group of Seven, that famous Canadian group of (mostly) men. (I always kind of think of Emily Carr as above and beyond them, somehow, but I’m biased.) When I stand in front of an Emily Carr or a Tom Thomson, I’ll just start to cry. I’m an embarrassment in art galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Collection, and the National Gallery of Canada. It’s likely why I almost always go alone…because no one needs to see me cry. I’m all blue eyes and sea inside…and then it’s just a mess. Art, though…if it moves me….makes me cry. 

This is all to say that, while I like Carmichael, I’m more in love with Tom Thomson. There are a whole raft of reasons for this distinction, but that would be another blog. The two men did share a studio back in 1914, and they often painted with some of the other members of the Group of Seven. But…back to Carmichael. 

He’s known mostly for painting in watercolours, but also sometimes used oil paints, to capture the raw beauty of the Canadian landscape. (My Art History professor at Laurentian University, the late Dr. Henry Best, would be pleased to know I listened in his lectures…but he might not have been as happy to know that when he asked the class over to his house one day to see his many original works of Canadian art…that I might have surreptitiously touched the frame of an Emily Carr when no one else in the class was looking. People who know me know that I touch things…so…that was a fated Carr encounter in some professor’s upstairs hallway on the way to a fake bathroom break…just so I could grope the frame.)

In the mid-late 1920s, Carmichael fell in love with Lake Superior when he went there to paint, alongside Lawren Harris (I also love his work!) and Arthur Lismer (he’s okay…but he’s not my fella…) Carmichael came to northern Ontario, to our part of the world, in 1930, exploring the industry of mining within the landscape. The Cobalt-based sketches upstairs in the AGS exhibit are really beautiful and feel like home to me. These are places I remember my dad driving us through, when he was a beer rep for Labatt’s when we were in our earlier teens. We drove through places like Cobalt and New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake, and I remember it all quite clearly. I see in photographs and images…and then they become poems.

The exhibit that’s currently on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, Franklin Carmichael:  An Artist’s Process, is really fascinating because it looks at how Carmichael created his work. There are really ‘naked’ and rough sketches, done in pencil and on rough paper, and they seem almost child-like at first. There are notions of hills and mine head frames that are etched out. However, as you make your way through the exhibit, with a skilled guide who lets you know the story of the pieces, you learn that these were beginning sketches, studies, the very places where Carmichael began to work out his more developed pieces.

To be honest, when I saw the roughest sketches, and then moved on to the more finished pieces, I kept thinking of W. B. Yeats. I remember studying his various poems in a fourth year seminar class with Dr. Laurie Steven at Laurentian in the early 1990s. We looked at his revision process. If you study Yeats, you’ll know he kept each draft of a poem, from start to finish. He was meticulous. Carmichael reminded me of Yeats. Both seemed to value the creative process, knowing that the tiny steps they took, with each and every piece, would lead them to a richer final piece. This artistic work takes time. And patience. Both men–artists in different disciplines–would take their time, be meticulous in their work as creatives, and be brutal in their respective edits. I admire that in an artist. A lot. People always think to seem, if they aren’t writers, that poems just magically appear…or that paintings appear just as magically…but they haven’t any idea of the time and effort it actually takes to do this work.

Normally, I would take a foot selfie with the art pieces clearly visible, but you aren’t allowed to take photos in this exhibit. You also need to have a guide with you while you tour the galleries. So, for this photo, you get the bottom of Carmichael’s work. To see the amazing pieces, you need to go to the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

Because I couldn’t take photos of the pieces, and because so many are untitled, I just want to say that if you read this blog post, it’s really worth it to go and see this exhibit. Afterwards, it’s slated to move to the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie. You don’t, though, want to miss it. Of particular note are the pieces, I think, that seem to centre on Cobalt. These are pieces that remind me of old photos of Creighton and Sudbury, too. My grandmother’s family, my great-aunts of Irish descent, often showed me old photos of Creighton. There was my great-grandfather’s General Store and post office, and here, too, in one piece today, was a general store of the very same ilk. And, as well, outside that image, was the likeness of an old wooden sidewalk. I clearly remember my grandmother and my great aunts telling me stories of the old wooden sidewalks that lined the streets in Creighton. Looking at that photo this afternoon made me think of my mother’s family’s history…and of all the stories they told me. Life here, in Northern Ontario, wasn’t easy. It might be simple to think you could romanticize it, but that would be a mistake. That settlers to Northern Ontario struggled goes without a doubt in my mind.

The other thing that struck me this afternoon was that Carmichael was so beautifully influenced by the work of Lawren Harris. I love Harris, too. Always have. His are the paintings of big Lake Superior skies and islands, with clouds that sometimes look like wild birds winging through space. There are two or three paintings in this AGS exhibit that made me think “Oh, that’s so like Harris!” It makes sense. They traveled together up to Superior in the mid-1920s. Harris impressed Carmichael, they were friends and colleagues, and so Carmichael mimicked his style. Poets do this, too, just as I am influenced by Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney. I could never expect to be as good as they are, as a poet, but I am well and truly influenced by their work. Better to be honest than not, as a creative. (Really, let’s be honest, though: who wouldn’t be impressed by Harris?!) So. if you want to see the piece that makes me catch my breath, it’s the one in Gallery 1, just as you enter and to the right. You’ll know it: it’ll look like a Lawren Harris piece, but it’s a Carmichael, and it’s blue and full of spirit. That one. Go see it.

Really, I could try and wow you here with borrowed art history information, but I only just have one art history course from Laurentian that’s over twenty-five years old now. So I won’t. I’ll tell you instead, here, that I really love the Art Gallery of Sudbury. It’s played a role in my life, for all of my life. I fell in love there for the first time. He was in the French section of the art history course, and I was in the English one. (That’s a poem, and not a poem that ended happily, but it’s still a poem, somehow.) I volunteered there when I was in that art history class, and stayed for a few years, without pay, shelving borrowed art books and tiny projector slides. You see, that’s where I fell in love with Canadian art. I studied it in stolen moments, in between volunteer tasks like sending membership renewals and licking stamps and sealing envelopes. It’s also the place where I learned about patience, and how to be studious, and how to be still inside when I encounter art. I owe the AGS a great debt of gratitude. No one else will ever understand that.

Today, after a few issues with my physical health this fall, and feeling frustrated with not being able to ‘feel better’ as quickly as I usually do, it felt safe–like coming home, somehow–to be amidst those walls and pieces from the Permanent Collection. In Gallery 3, I smiled at the walls of old books. Here were the ones I’d shelved in my early to mid-20s, across the street in the old B.A. McDonald House. Now…well…now it’s just a regular house, but then, it was a really special place where a few people who loved art worked every day…

I could write here about all of the beautiful paintings, but I really just want to say that, if you live in Greater Sudbury, and if you’re craving a quiet place where you can just be still, you should schedule a visit to see this Franklin Carmichael exhibit at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. It runs until the 31st of December, so you still have time. It’s so ‘in demand,’ though, that you need to book a week in advance. I’m in my own bubble, so I always have the pleasure of being completely on my own with Tadd, who is a really smart gallery guide. It kind of feels, I guess, like how it would be to have a boutique experience with art. I suppose that’s one way of explaining it. Imagine being given free reign to be with art on your own. It’s sort of like my lifetime dream of being locked in a bookstore or library overnight. I should clarify by saying that I wouldn’t want to be in a ‘regular’ library overnight. I’m more the woman who would want to be locked into the library in Dublin with the Book of Kells…with the ability to actually turn the damn pages at 3:23am on a Saturday. That’s me. Or, maybe, a night locked into Marsh’s Library in Dublin, just round the corner from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’m not simple. I like libraries with spirit and story. Not a chain store or something. Just saying’. 🙂

So. You can book an appointment to see the Franklin Carmichael exhibit at the AGS via their website, or just by calling 705-675-4871.

And, also…I’d always ask you to consider making a year end donation to the AGS. Here’s the thing: I don’t know about the rest of you, but as a single person who loves art, and who knows that all sorts of art has sustained her through this pandemic shit show of an apocalypse, I think we really need to support our local arts organizations. So…my favourites are the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the Sudbury Theatre Centre…but you’ll have your own. If you’ve enjoyed a podcast, a bit of music through the darkest of nights this year, or a recorded Stratford Festival play, or even a poetry reading that’s been streamed live and then recorded for later consumption…I just think it’s the decent thing to ‘pay it forward’ right now. If you need another reason, well…I guess I’d say that’d be your old paper or emailed tax receipt, but…I’m hoping you’ll really think of what’s gotten you through this year…and I’m betting that the arts–theatre, music, literature, and visual art–has played a role in keeping you sane….if you’re honest about it. I could be wrong, but I doubt it…

Go see this exhibit at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. And, please, while you’re at it, think about becoming a member.

From all of this, I’ve learned…that ‘stuff’ doesn’t matter. Experiences do. People do. Stuff with logos…that’s stuff from ‘the before times.’ Don’t carry that nonsense forward into the new world…or else…you’ll be with the anti-maskers…and you won’t have learned that much at all…from this time…that is both a blessing and a curse.

Thanks, too, to the AGS and Nancy Gareh, for asking me to take part in editing their education guide for this exhibit. I’m honoured that you asked me. It feels, really, a bit of a return to my beginnings with art…and I’m thankful for the gift of remembering that time…when I was much younger.

And…also…how to say this? Don’t forget to look at the mugs to the right of the entrance door. I was lucky enough to get a Heather Topp mug and so I’ll cherish it when I drink coffee in the mornings.

peace, people…


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