GROUP OF SEVEN
By Guy Rex Rodgers, Executive Director, English Language Arts Network
The $11.2-million record-breaking sale of Lawren Harris’s painting "Mountain Forms” has cast a renewed light not only on the precious nature of the artist’s stunning mountain portraits, but other breathtaking landscapes that he and other Group of Seven artists painted across Canada.
While Mountain Form depicted Alberta’s Mount Ishbel, located in the Sawback Range of the Rockies, Harris and other Group of Seven artists travelled and worked extensively from Georgian Bay to the shores of Lake Superior, exploring many sites now accessible via The Trans CanadaTrail.
"People think of the Group of Seven travelling by train and hiking mountains, but they also paddled on Lake Superior," says Joanie McGuffin who, with her husband Gary, first circumnavigated Lake Superior in a canoe almost three decades ago. More recently, in collaboration with art historian Michael Burtch, the McGuffins have explored the Lake’s northern shores in search of locations where the Group of Seven painted.
Lawren S. Harris was the first of the Group to travel to Lake Superior. His family had a summer home at Kempenfelt Bay on picturesque Lake Simcoe, and Harris spent a considerable amount of time painting there from 1916 until his first autumn painting trip to the Algoma region of Lake Superior two years later with J. E. H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston.
Group members travelled on the Algoma Central Railroad and lived comfortably in a specially adapted box car for the first trips. By the time Harris and A. Y. Jackson ventured all the way to the northern shores of Lake Superior, they were travelling by water and sleeping in tents.
"We have discovered hundreds of painting sites along the TCT’s Lake Superior Water Trail," says Gary McGuffin.
Gary and Joanie are featured in a richly evocative film entitled Painted Land. Its website (www.paintedland.ca) enables visitors to compare Group of Seven works with Gary’s carefully detailed photos of the painting locations.
While online simulation is the next best thing to being there, this new water route offers the full experience. "When you’re on the water and travelling along the Lake Superior shore," says Joanie, "it is like being inside the paintings. You are actually travelling in the Group of Seven’s paddle strokes."
"Our Site Discovery project has taken us all the way from Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park to Algoma and up to the north shore of Lake Superior,” adds Gary. “We’re finding sites where the Group paddled into sheltered coves and climbed up onto rock promontories to paint the lake and its islands."
No one has devoted more time to the paintings of Lawren S. Harris than his grandson, Stewart Sheppard, who is copyright custodian of the works. Sheppard had the pleasure of a guided tour along the Lake Superior’s north shore with the McGuffins and Michael Burtch. The trip gave him a deeper appreciation of how his grandfather’s work was animated by a spiritual connection to the land. "The landscape up there is emotionally stirring," he says. "You need to stop and take the time to let it soak into your soul."
Travelling the rugged shores of Lake Superior and climbing its steep hills was a reminder for Mr. Sheppard that his grandfather was a man who loved the austerity of the bush as much as the refined world into which he was born as part of the Massey-Harris clan. "My grandfather was equally happy camping in the woods, swimming the lake’s cold waters and sleeping in a tent as he was dining in a tuxedo with the Queen, which he did do."
Sheppard applauds the Trans Canada Trail’s desire to connect the natural beauty of the Lake Superior Water Trail with the cultural heritage of the Group of Seven’s legacy. He also appreciates the efforts of the McGuffins and the project’s major stakeholders – the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, the town of Marathon, Pukaskwa National Park, Neys Provincial Park and Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry – to create a nature trail that respects and protects the natural environment. After all, there is no need to disrupt the landscape with plaques when wireless technology can give visitors personal access to a wealth of information, which can even be GPS triggered.
Joanie and Gary McGuffin love this region of Canada and want to share it with visitors. When asked what other highlights The Great Trail’s new water route has to offer, examples tumble out. "The lighthouses have a great story to tell," says Joanie. "And this is the same route that fur traders travelled in their big voyageur canoes."
Her husband mentions that the Biigtigong people have lived and hunted these shores for at least 12,000 years, as evidenced by fragments of chert used as arrowheads and spear points, along with shards of pottery. The new trail at Biigitigong Nishnaabeg, with its cultural aboriginal historical focus, is a model of trail story telling that has the potential to connect Ojibway communities around Lake Superior.
The McGuffins share many other unique features of the area, noting that Lake Superior creates a micro climate for subarctic vegetation not seen again until James Bay, that the area is home to columnar basalt formations as spectacular as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and that visitors to the region can get up close to the world’s largest stromatolites.
Stromatolites are structures formed by huge colonies of blue-green algae, the first oxygen-producing life forms on earth. The unusual concentric rings, which vary in colour and size, are actually fossils almost two billion years old, and they can be seen along the shore of Lake Superior's Schreiber Channel near Rossport, which is an important access point to the Lake Superior Water Trail.
History, geology and unsurpassed natural splendour will complement the major attraction of the Lake Superior Water Trail – paddling through Group of Seven landscapes. The Group’s paintings continue to attract new admirers, and an exhibition of Lawren S. Harris’s work was recently curated by Hollywood actor Steve Martin (also a Harris collector) for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.