In the footsteps of the Group of Seven

By Paul Knowles

There are a number of places in Canada to which art lovers can go to enjoy the works of those iconic painters known as The Group of Seven – the National Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, for example.

There, you will find wonderful examples of the work that author and art expert David Silcox descibes as, “The images that helped Canada to discover its identity… paintings that reflect a thousand different aspects of the physical environment, life, and spirit of Canada.”

But the Algoma District has gone one giant step beyond collections housed in art galleries, creating a living, walk-in-their-footsteps gallery all along the north shore of Lake Superior, in the Agawa Canyon and in Sault Ste. Marie. For fans of the Group of Seven – and for anyone just discovering this amazing group of Canadian painters – spending time in the land that inspired some of their finest work is, well, absolutely inspiring.

To understand the importance and the impact of the Group of Seven, a little bit of background may be helpful. A pamphlet from the Ermatringer-Clergue National Historic Site in the Sault is quite concise: “The seven iconic Canadian artists that changed the art movement and style in Canada, travelled in Algoma depicting our fantastic scenery/landscapes of Lake Superior and the lands of our First Nations Peoples in the areas of Agawa and Batchewana.”

That is concise – but not entirely accurate. The problem is the math – there were, eventually, 10 members of the Group of Seven. Seven painted in Algoma… but not the original seven.

Of the original seven, only six painted in this region – Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Frank (Franz) Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J.E.H. MacDonald. Group co-founder Frederick Varley never painted here.

However, Johnston left the Group (after their first show, in 1920), and A.J. Casson was added in 1926 – and he did paint in Algoma. The final two to join the group, Edmund Holgate and LeMoine Fitzgerald, have no apparent ties to Algoma.

The Group of Seven was heavily influenced by famed Canadian painter Tom Thomson, but Thomson died in 1917, a year before the first of the Group came to Algoma. It has been recently discovered that Thomson did visit the area, canoeing here in 1912.

Lawren Harris, perhaps the most influential painter of the Group, both in his lasting legacy and in his key role in bringing his colleagues together into the formal Group, was the first to come to Algoma, in May 1918. From then through 1927, Harris and his painter friends returned annually (sometimes several times a year) to paint in the wilderness of Algoma. In the fall of 1918, Harris returned with MacDonald and Johnston; soon, Jackson and Lismer had visited. Carmichael came in 1924, Casson in 1925.

The joint trips lasted through 1927, but Jackson returned often, including a period from 1955 to 1961, when he had a camp in the area. Local people recall Casson coming to Sault Ste. Marie circa 1980, to officially open the Art Gallery of Algoma, and they report that he produced sketches in the area at that time.

David P. Silcox’s important book, “The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson”, includes images of a total of 49 paintings done by Group members in Algoma – and that is certainly not the entire output of these hard-working artists from their time in the district. The images in Silcox’s book include important work like Harris’ “North Shore, Lake Superior” (1926), Johnston’s  “Where the Eagles Soar” (1920), A.Y. Jackson’s “Northern Landscape” (no date); J.E. H. MacDonald’s “The Solemn Land” (1921); Frank Carmichael’s “North Shore, Lake Superior” (1927); and A.J. Casson’s “Approaching Storm, Lake Superior” (1929-1930).

During the period of intense artistic production, in the 1920s, Harris arranged that a railroad boxcar be converted into a bunkhouse/studio. It was transported into the wilds of Algoma and parked on a siding. The railway would move it, from time to time, and the painters also had access to a jigger – a small rail car operated by hand – to move around the district.

That original boxcar deteriorated, but has been replaced by an authentic replica, completely kitted out as it was for the painters; it can be visited in Sault Ste. Marie.

There are several destinations in Algoma linked to the Group – some important to their story, some simply interesting because of peripheral links.

Group of Seven fans – or potential fans, because once you see their amazing work, you will be hooked! – must visit the Art Gallery of Algoma. Their collection of Group of Seven works is still small – 13 pieces in all at time of writing – but include am important study for “Solemn Land” by J.E.H. MacDonald, some fine Jackson works, and pieces by Casson, Varley, Lismer, Carmichael and Fitzgerald. The Gallery is definitely “not a static place,” to quote director Jasmina Jovanovic. The three exhibit spaces are each changed up every three months or so. But you will always find Group of Seven works. And, within a few months, there may be even more Group of Seven pieces, as the Gallery is working to acquire eleven new works by artists from the Group, to increase the collection to 24. The longer-term goal, says Jovanovic, is to have at least one example of the work of all 10 Group members (the current lack of a Harris painting is a much-regretted gap) – all donations gratefully accepted!

The intense focus on the Group and their art is relatively new in Algoma, from a tourism perspective, but an incredible amount of effort is being put into introducing visitors to this important artistic legacy.

“Algoma Country” has created an excellent Group of Seven Touring Route, which features stops marked by easels bearing reproductions of work done in that location by members of the Group, and information about the work and the Group. Impressively, these easels are near the sites they feature, but never close enough to impinge on the view of, for example, Chippewa Falls, where Jackson painted, or Bridal Veil Falls, captured so beautifully by Harris in his painting, “Waterfall, Algoma” (1928).

To get to Bridal Veil Falls, you need to take the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. Most popular in autumn, because of the fall colours, the train runs from June through the fall. It’s a long trip – four-plus hours, one way – but worth it for any Group of Seven fan. However, take a book – or better still, take a small paint set, establish headquarters at a table in the dining car, and honour the Group artists by producing your own – if somewhat less distinguished – work of art.

Chippewa Falls
Bridal Veil Falls

The sites along Lake Superior’s north shore can be visited by car. One delightful spot is at Chippewa Falls, where there is a picnic area at the roadside, near the paths that lead below and above the falls. And of course, there is a discreetly placed easel with information about the Group.

Farther west, you will find another artistic focus – the cliff-face pictographs in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Painted on a lakefront cliff by indigenous people sometime in the last four centuries, these are worth a visit – but probably only on a calm day, by relatively intrepid souls, willing to edge their way along a narrow ledge above sloping rocks that lead down into the cold waters of Superior.

There are many other attractions in this area, some with marginal links to the Group. Like the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site, which focuses on “the people who helped to shape Sault Ste. Marie’s history,” including the events of the War of 1812-1814. The link with the Group? Clergue built the railway that is now the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. Entrance to the site is the Heritage Discovery Centre, where curator Kathy Fisher has partnered with playwright Wendy Hamilton of “Theatre in Motion” to present a very fine one-actor play, “Moments in Algoma”, in which actor Rob McDowell tells the story of the Group of Seven in Algoma, assuming the character of Lawren Harris. This play is usually presented only to groups; inquire at old.stone.house@cityssm.on.ca.

So for long-time and fledgling fans of the Group of Seven, there are many days of delight awaiting you as you travel to the sites that inspired these men who produced such important, uniquely Canadian, works of art. And while you’re here, there are a few other stops that will enhance your trip.

Visit the Sault Ste. Marie locks – and sign up for one of their afternoon teas. And spend time at the Bushplane Museum, which tells the story of an important part of local history. Take the opportunity to go canoeing and – if it suits your fancy – fishing in the fish-rich lakes of Algoma. Discover the stories of the area’s indigenous heritage. Play some golf – there is a suprising variety of excellent golf courses, including the Sault Ste. Marie Golf Course (celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this year) and Crimson Ridge.

And be very sure to dine at one of the more unusual and utterly delightful eateries in the Soo – The Breakfast Pig.  Really. You won’t be sorry. You will  be full.

For more information about everything “Soo”, www.saulttourism.com.