In the history — and mythology — of Canadian painting, Tom Thompson is the St. Anthony figure: the first to strike out on his own into the Canadian wilds, and a figure whose example, rather than his actual social or administrative labours, founded a movement. We know Thompson, or think we do: but how, then, do current painters think of his work?
In the past, Toronto-based painter Joanne Tod had expressed a strong interest in working with The Walrus. Given that one of the current streams of her work is about the museum setting, memory, and the history of art, this seemed an exceptionally good time to call her.
Unless the parameters are very open, it can be remarkably hard to work on a cover with a fine artist. This is not because of any lack of skill or vision, but rather that the whole point of fine art, other baggage aside, is the evocation of a vision beyond the present moment, beyond present limitations. I’m certainly not suggesting that every artist is on a shamanic quest, but there is something about art where a piece, as it is being worked on, begins to dictate to the artist. Works run off like wild horses because that’s what they do; this is why artists make them and why people seek them out. Surprise is good. But a magazine cover has more classical constraints.
What I had hoped to convey was this: what does Byng Inlet the painting feel like in the McMichael, and what does Byng Inlet the actual place feel like in paint, today? Joanne was full of enthusiasm. She grasped the matter immediately, and went up to Parry Sound a week after we first talked, so that she could see what Thomson saw with her own eyes.
Her results, a diptych entitled Divided Touch, were ideal. To answer the museum question, she stripped Thomson’s composition to its essential elements with the colour — always his strong suit — dialed up to brilliance. In her painting, his sings on the wall of the gallery. This we ran on the cover.
Turning to Joanne’s vision of present-day Byng Inlet, in plein air the old pines have fallen, and the scrub has risen over the grey halos of their branches. We ran this landscape inside the magazine with the story, a turn of the page after Thomson’s original.
Brian Morgan: After we spoke about this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?
Joanne Tod: I was intrigued that the story described a pilgrimage to find the precise site that inspired Thomson’s well-known painting, and looked forward to my own sleuthing in the area. It was like a treasure hunt! I love the Georgian Bay landscape.
Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this assignment? And what is your typical process for generating ideas?
Joanne Tod: The first part of my research involved a thorough inspection of the Byng Inlet painting at the McMichael [Canadian Art Collection] to take note of Thomson’s palette and technique.
Then I used Google Earth to get a satellite view of the actual Byng Inlet. I made a reservation for a water taxi at Wright’s Marina in Britt, Ontario. Coincidentally, Wayne, our water taxi driver, had taken Ross King [the story’s author] to the location a few weeks earlier, so he was able to direct me to the presumed location where Thomson made the painting. At the site, I took lots of photographs to use as reference for my own interpretation of Byng Inlet today.
Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?
Joanne Tod: I take lots of photographs and “harvest” the images that are the most exciting to me. Sometimes I have an idea or concept first, then I do the research. This involves taking photographs and also reading up on the subject. But sometimes I just stumble across something that inspires me and I develop the concept around it.
Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?
Joanne Tod: The final work is actually a diptych. It celebrates the Thomson painting as a cultural artifact and also attempts to record Byng Inlet as it exists today. I was inspired by the wonderful phrase, “Divided touch,” coined by Paul Signat, which describes the manner in which the impressionist artists achieved such luminous colour. Divided Touch is the title of my diptych.
In addition, I have always loved the majestic white pine. In my research, I discovered that these trees can live for 250 to 400 years! This piece of information itself was awe inspiring, and I have no doubt that the overturned tree I painted was actually one of the trees Thomson depicted in his work.
Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?
Joanne Tod: Michael Snow has certainly influenced me. Although he is a multi-media artist, I relate to his use of language in the creation of artwork. He is an Artist ’s artist! Chuck Close is also a painter dear to my heart.
My style was shaped early on, during a time when colour field painting was in vogue. I really had to stand my ground and persevere when realist painting was not the latest flavour. And I must say that Michael Snow was an early, enthusiastic supporter and critic. Also, painter Michael Adamson impresses me with his intelligent, rigourous critique and principled work ethic.
Brian Morgan: Now that you’ve painted Byng Inlet both in person and from the walls of the McMichael, what do you think of Thomson’s original landscape? How did it feel to reinterpret a Canadian classic?
Joanne Tod: I actually prefer Thomson’s small wood panel studies, which, because of their scale, possess a more spontaneous freshness of paint handling. Byng Inlet is a relatively large work for Thomson, and I feel that the size of the brush stroke is a bit small in proportion to the scale of the painting.
But this is nitpicking — it is really an incredible painting and I absolutely loved the process of attempting to recapture the spirit and mood of the work. And something unexpected and profound has come out of this exercise: I now, like Thomson, have started to prime my canvases with an underpainting of burnt sienna.
Brian Morgan: I know this is a technical point, but how have paints changed since Thomson’s time? Was it easy to achieve the same colours and effects?
Joanne Tod: Up until the early 20th century, paints were primarily earth tones. Lapis lazuli, used to create an intense blue, was a very rare and expensive mineral. Then synthetic pigments became available and this introduced prismatic colour. However, Thomson’s palette was primarily earth tones, so it’s really remarkable how he was able to create such jewel-like hues with a limited range of colour. In my reinterpretation of Byng Inlet, I similarly tried to restrict my palette. In spite of trying faithfully to replicate the original, my version seems too bright in comparison.