This post is part of a series called “The Group of Seven and the History of the Canadian Landscape.” On the 100th anniversary of the art collective’s founding, this series reads the Group of Seven through an environmental history lens.
I wrestled with how to write about the Group of Seven in relation to this past century in which these artists transformed into icons of Canadian culture and visual arts. My first thought was that I would write some academic prose to provide yet another critique framing ‘The Group” as an example of nationalist branding in the first quarter of the 20th century. My second thought, however, was to revisit the Group of Seven and how one, maybe two, members have shaped my perspectives of place and the region in which I live.
A.Y. Jackson wrote in his autobiography that the group’s approach to art was not an ‘academic’ endeavor, since the group “members … believed that Canada could never be adequately expressed on canvas by a rigid traditional style.”1 Taking my cue from Jackson, I want to highlight how landscapes portrayed by Canadian artists in general, and A.Y. Jackson in particular, have brought me solace in my recent past as a PhD student and continue to inspire a more thoughtful and perhaps artistic balance in my work as a precariously un/employed academic.
The Group of Seven matter to me as a Canadian historian, not just as relics of Canada’s past, but in this present moment. As a third generation settler, it could be argued that my homeland is actually Great Britain. Yet when I am reminded of the beauty and complicated landscapes of my home region in British Columbia, the daily stresses diminish. I am able to establish a mental space that nurtures my spirit and enables me to move forward with the tasks before me.
In 2011, I left my home in Northwestern B.C., and, at the age of forty-seven, began my graduate studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. I was a fish out of water having left the security of family and friends behind. During that year, I struggled with the course work, but also my emotional wellbeing. I felt I had abandoned the very place that grounded me: my home. In the middle of my first semester, I took a much-needed break and hopped a ‘Go Train’ for a day trip to Toronto, and my first visit to Art Gallery of Ontario. There were many wonderful exhibits to take in, but it was a few images, depicting the rugged lakeshores and autumn colours of Northern Ontario that really drew my attention. Although not of my home region, this immersion in the works of Canadian masters refreshed my creativity and provided a respite of spirit in the more academic world.
A.Y. Jackson and ‘Home’
Jonathan Klinkoff features two Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson and fellow artist Edwin Holgate in a blog post in which he describes their trip to the Skeena region in 1926 with anthropologist Marius Barbeau.2 Holgate, who was not an official member of the Group of Seven until 1929, was an established painter whose artistic style included portraits. Jackson, on the other hand, was almost exclusively a landscape painter. While Barbeau carried out his own research pursuits, he arranged for painters to collaborate on his upcoming book. The two artists tried to capture a visual essence of a place, paying particular attention to incorporating images of totem poles, majestic mountains, and other place signifiers. A general mindset held by Barbeau, and by extension the artists, was what Indigenous scholar Marcia Crosby calls ‘salvaging’ and ‘the aesthetics of dying’: an aesthetic based on the assumption that Indigenous culture is dying, and it is the settler artist or scholar’s responsibility to save what they can of the culture from this fate.3 For this reason there are consistent representations of Indigenous places in these paintings, including Gitsegulkla, Gitwangak, and the community of Hazelton.
On subsequent AGO visits, I realized some of the images portrayed Northwest B.C., and that they reminded me of my home, anchoring my sense of purpose as an historian of that region. This connection to home is the reason that the first image that caught my attention in a recent Canadian Geographic issue celebrating the Groups century was A.Y. Jackson’s Indian House, Port Essington. This painting features a bright green two-story house with rolling coast mountains in the background and early autumn colours of the coastal flora, including skunk cabbage and Labrador tea, in the foreground. There are no people or animals in the picture, but this is consistent with most of the Group of Seven particularly for small oil paintings and pencil sketches done on location. There is both a sketch and small oil on board images titled Indian House, Port Essington. These plein air images were most often used as reference paintings later when the artist has returned to their studio, creating a larger canvas for sale or exhibition.4
Jackson’s Indian House, Port Essington (1926) became Indian Home (1927). This newer piece was a much more detailed painting with a few human figures in the foreground and towering mountains and totem poles added.5 Writer and artist Wayne Larsen explained that this painting became one of Jackson’s favourites, although the inclusion of the human figures “may have been a deliberate concession to [Marius] Barbeau…whose work emphasized the human aspect of local history rather than the landscape.” Instead Jackson’s figures “were part of the landscape – an indigenous people rooted to their environment.”6
Holgate and Hazleton
My initial intent was to contrast these Jackson and Holgate images with current photographs of these locations, I realized, however, that the images I took represent a significantly different view of these northwest communities.7
Edwin Holgate, for instance, painted scenes of grave houses of Gitxsan peoples in the cemetery, which sits on a level spot above the town of Hazleton. Holgate may have objectified cultural practices, but the ever-present mountain, Stegyawden, (aka) Roche de Boule, casts a blue shadow over the scene.
Several years ago I took a similar image, only my picture was of graves of two children of Tsimshian ethnographer Odille Quintal Morison, whose biography was the feature of my MA research.8 I had permission from Gitxsan authorities to visit the grave and was amazed to find that many people continue to be interred there. Holgate’s image, is an example of ‘othering’ of Indigenous practices. It takes me back to a moment in my life when following my own research path allowed me to connect people with the landscape and to work to dissolve this ‘othering’ habit practiced by many settler artists and scholars alike. This connection grounds me and provides a reassurance that the work that I do is important despite my settler roots.9
Visiting Jackson and Holgate’s Scenes in 2020
More conventional headstones have replaced the grave houses, and some of the older graves have become neglected. Nevertheless, when I visited earlier this year, it was clear that this place is a unique location: a place of power that overlooks the old town, at the confluence where the Skeena meets the Bulkley rivers, surrounded by the Gitxan community of Gitanmax.
Out of respect for the health and welfare of the local communities, I was mindful of the “do not enter” “and “residents only” signs. As a result, I did not photograph the totem poles that Jackson and Holgate had added to their paintings.
I did not venture into the villages, but instead witnessed the most unusual sight of a black bear, at least 10 metres up a poplar tree. It may have been resting, but I assumed it was likely stranded since the bear’s legs dangled as if it had given up on climbing down. Although I had originally headed to Kitwanga/Gitwangak to get some images of the preserved totem poles, the COVID-19 closures gave me a reason to travel a bit further up the highway 37, where I witnessed a far more unique scene.
I took a few photos from my car, and then drove the 1/2 km back to the village check point. There, a community worker cheerfully took the information and said they would contact the appropriate conservation officers. Given that is within the boundary of the community, it was of concern not only for the safety of the bear, but also the families who reside on the nearby road. I carried on down Highway 16, thinking of the bear and how I would have missed this unusual sight, if I had not taken a different route.
The Group of Seven often traveled to places outside of urban centres. Like me and the bear, each made choices about what they captured in their landscapes. For Jackson, he rarely included people, yet he was a very social individual, having friends and colleagues right across the country. He fostered and encouraged painters and even visited them on occasion.
Last year my husband, Michael, and I relocated to Williams Lake and he joined the local arts society as a novice painter, an institution that was started by a student of A.Y. Jackson. The Cariboo is a long way from the stresses of grad school, and it will be challenging to come to explore a new geographic region as my home. At one point in my life, A. Y. Jackson provided a momentary relief from my frustrations and fears of graduate studies through his intricate interpretations of place that were familiar to me in location, but of a different time, with diverse motivations and values.
I survived the challenging PhD program, and have grown comfortable with who I am and where I am at this point in my life. While I do not need the lens or canvas of a famous Canadian artist to see the beauty of both the people and places, I have come to appreciate the importance of art and creativity that brings balance and renewal when we need it most.
Feature Photograph: A. Y. Jackson (1882-1974), member of the “Group of Seven” (1919-1933) paints in his studio. National Film Board of Canada.
- A.Y. Jackson, A Painter’s Country: the Autobiography of A. Y. Jackson. (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd 1958): 77.
- Jonathan Klinkoff, “AY Jackson’s Skeena River Canvases”, October 9, 2013. Allan Klinkoff Gallery, https://www.klinkhoff.ca/blog/4790/.
- Marcia Crosby, “T’emlax’am: An Ada’ox.” in The Group of Seven in Western Canada, ed. Carathine Mastin, (Calgary/Toronto: Glen Bow Museum Key Porter Books, 2002): 103.
- For more on the Group of Seven, and ‘plein air’ techniques, I attended an online curated exhibit through the McMicheal gallery near Toronto. These virtual tours take place on Wednesday and Sundays and can be booked through gallery website. https://mcmichael.com/
- Jackson included a copy of 1927 painting Indian Home in his autobiography, and this image is readily available on the internet.
- Wayne Larsen, “A. Y. Jackson: the Life of a Landscape Painter, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2009): 132.
- For more on the specific Holgate grave house and Hazelton paintings you can review an virtual presentation by Brian Foss (2018) for the Alan Klinkoff Gallery: https://issuu.com/alanklinkhoffgallery/docs/2018-08-22_lr_webemail_alan_klinkhoff.
- My MA thesis biography of Odille Quintal Morison describe two of her children who were buried at Hazelton. Helen Miranda Sealy, aged 29 and Charlie Morison (Junior) who was the youngest of the children and died at the age of 12. Inscribed in his headstone is “our darling.”
- I am a Third generation Anglo-Canadian, as both of my maternal and paternal grandparents came from Great Britain.