I had the pleasure of being awarded an artist-in-residence at Quetico Provincial Park this August. It was a fair-weathered, sun-soaked, cumulous cloud-rolling, fowl-gazing, beaver-dam hopping, paddling adventure. One trip took me through the backcountry, from Beaverhouse to French Lake, another went from French Lake down to Chatterton Falls and back up again. After threading through massive, white-capped lakes, into smaller pools, some as still as glass, then some impossible, mucky, swampy, reed-invaded waters, river paths thwarted by sneaky beaver engineering, and more solid, winding portage trails, I know I've barely scratched its map.
I thought I would simply be observing and considering the experience of the daring en plein air painters like those in the Group of Seven, but even in a short time, I encountered important stories in visual history: the contrasting artistic renderings of the romanticizing Frances Ann Hopkins and realist Peter Kane, the cabins and wooden castles which naturalists and reclusive souls boarded themselves into so that they could listen the currents, pictograph messages fabricated from animal marrow, fish oils, and natural pigments, splattered over rocks by those who lived in the area thousands of years prior, and the complex cultural clashes between the Lac la Croix reservation, the park, its surrounding communities, and the interest of logging and mining companies.
A place of ever-changing light, ever-changing movement, water, weather. The feeling of Quetico can hardly be captured. Back in Toronto, now I look to the sketches and beaverboard studies of Lawren Harris and Tom Thompson, who also straddled city and tripping life. I visit the AGO to see their legacy, their hot mashed splattered attempts to trap the wild and vibrant light of the Canadian landscape in a way that the city-sheltered Impressionists would never dare. I attend classes at the Toronto School of Art and OCAD, and learn most about how MacDonald pulled together a team of burly, yet sensitive, visionaries to find a National artistic language.
I barely understand how deeply nature touches me. And stretch to explain that to others. It is an experience words can not adequately capture. Drinking water fresh from the lake, dodging dangerously concealed rocks, riding currents that can lull and cradle the canoe and at the same time sweep everything you depend upon far from your reach, feeling morning air invigorate and stir the lungs while the light orchestrates a rising animal kingdom, identifying soaring wings that effortlessly expand and contract across the lakes, and tasting the truth that nothing surpasses the flavours offered by an open flame. At this moment, I still don't know what I carry with me, but the canvas calls. While I work on a piece to help the Quetico Foundation support others to explore this space with a silent auction in fall, I am certain of this - I am completely humbled by Quetico's wild, wild beauty.