We’ve been traveling. Over the course of past ten days we drove out to Illinois to visit family, then up to Toronto to explore the city, its museums, and the natural world that surrounds it. Yesterday we drove the nine hours home. The drive home proved stormy, yet we somehow stayed ahead of the rain most of the way; a couple of hours east of Toronto a tornado formed behind us, touched down briefly, then dissapated. Today, the storms have arrived here, repeatedly drenching the landscape.
One of the activities we greatly enjoy is going to museums and galleries. In Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario had a breathtaking exhibit of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe. After looking at her work one wonders how she was able to breathe the life of the landscape into her paintings.
Just north of Toronto we discovered a museum that is new to us, The McMichael Collection. The museum specializes in the work of the Group of Seven, and in contemporary Native artists. (An entire gallery is dedicated to the work of Ojibwe artist, Norval Morrisseau). I was a bit disappointed that the major summer shows all focused on European Canadian artists. That said, the exhibitions were all exceptional, as was the building that houses the museum’s collection.
The Group of Seven were seven male landscape artists, most of whom painted the wilderness that was Ontario at the turn of the last century. Their work is iconic Canadian, and decidedly modernist. Six of the seven are buried in a small cemetery on the museum property. There were other important artists, male and female, who associated with them, including Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, and one of the major exhibitions was of work by Thomson.
The museum sits in the midst of a small nature reserve, and trees and sky fill pretty much every window. This makes a fabulous backdrop for displaying the work of Canadian landscape artists and Native artists. One can leave the museum proper and explore wooded trails and a sculpture garden, although we chose not to do so in the midst of a pouring rain.
This museum was a welcome relief after visiting museums and parks in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan where the only mention of Native people was that we had all, “sadly”, been driven out over one hundred years ago. I had a familiar feeling of anger and despair as I repeatedly read of my own demise, and was reminded that my father’s family had good reason to insist on invisibility.
Our trip took us along parts of Lakes Erie, Michigan, and Huron, and along a stretch of the St. Lawrence. I like to think Native Artists, the Group of Seven, and Tom Thomson remind all who view, and interact, with their work that the land is indeed sacred, and that we are empty beings without it. One of the major exhibits at the McMichael was an overview of contemporary Canadian artist, Joyce Wieland’s work, a tender, angry love song to Tom Thomson and the Canadian landscape. For more than forty years she has used a range of new, and traditional women’s, media to insist the fate of Native people, the landscape, and the soul are inexcusably connected.
Over the course of our trip we were forcefully reminded that North America’s deep conflict between embracing Natives and the land, and obliterating all traces of Indigenous presence and Nature, remains central to our cultural experience. It seems the passage of time has done little to heal the deep and abiding wounds inflicted in the course of colonization.