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John Boyle

Point in Time

artscanada #244-247, March 1982.
(originally published in artscanada, Vol. XXXII #2, # 198/199, June 1975).
[ 1,403 words ]


'My heart is broken . . . . I will not last much longer. I am broken down,' he said, his hair cut in the manner of white men, the small sac of sacred charms shorn from his head, broken bones of an owl's skull on the floor of the Stoney Mountain prison barber shop, a white man's coat on his shoulders, white man's cotton from the sunny south on his back, the long deep sorrow‑filled lines of a wise man's face, shortly before he died. Chief Big Bear in prison, his people destroyed, beaten down and broken for as long as the sun in its wisdom shall shine, and I am filled with feelings of sadness and shame. My body shivers for each of the twelve angry Indian soldiers poised for the charge on their fast prairie ponies, hung by an unjust tyrant for common murder. My spirit swells before the image of Gabriel Dumont, leader of the great hunt, feared warrior, his rifle at his side, his strong arm resting on the saddle of his horse, unheroic but unafraid, confident and present, of Poundmaker, brave and wise, arrayed like a proud cock in headgear and brightly coloured robes, vanquished but unbroken.

It is disturbing to read of the efforts of Catharine Sutton, Nahneebahweequay, Upright Woman, who represented her people, the Chippawa Indians, to the Canadian Legislative Assembly and to Queen Victoria in a vain effort to prevent the theft of the Indian lands by the Canadian government through the imposition of loaded 'treaties', and their (the government's) failure to live up even to the unfair terms they themselves had dictated. The old church where I now live and maintain a studio is located on the land for which she was fighting and on which her people had lived for many generations. Her descendants and those of the white settlers who took the land and built the church are my neighbours, and they are as far from understanding each other now as they were in 1856. We peeled back the last layer of brown wallpaper and discovered an 88 year old fresco painted by untrained workmen's hands; a tiled floor several shades of yellow ochre receding too slowly to a blue wall, clumsy green drapes on either side, red trim, a frog‑like lectern, deep purple, holding an open Holy Bible, a thick brown border with stenciled design framing the entire rectangle and looping off in a great part circle above like a giant keyhole. Even the oldest members of the community could remember nothing of the painting. Could remember nothing. Two large (for him) oil paintings by David Milne hanging high in the vestibule of the Southampton (Bruce County) Museum among the stuffed owls and portraits of the queen. I wonder if they're removed each winter or if they remain where they are to freeze and thaw. No one in Burgoyne could remember a painter named Milne, no one in Paisley, no one. Where are Tom Thomson's footprints in the streets of Owen Sound? Where did he walk and sleep and buy his groceries, his hardware?

Once when I was eight years old I sat on the steps of the old Covent Garden Market building in London, Ontario, and stared into the inquisitive eyes of a grey mouse who had surprised me in his rounds of the building. He remembered the footfall of Paul Peel 80 years before and assured me I was not alone and never would be, that those steps were the center of the universe and would remain so until several years later when the Market was demolished to make room for a modern parking building. It's common knowledge that Canadians have the shortest memories in the world.

It is essential I believe for us to know and understand what came before. John Diefenbaker once claimed that a nation that does not know its past can have little hope for its future. As an artist, it was extremely uplifting for me to learn in recently published histories of painting in Canada, by Dennis Reid and Barry Lord, of early artists such as Daniel Fowler and Joseph Lé;garé;. Their books reminded me that I follow from a long tradition of painters in Canada who have worked in all corners of the country and experienced and overcome difficulties similar to those I now face. Indeed they brought home the realization that things have hardly improved for the artist since the earliest days, the Canada Council notwithstanding. Until these books appeared, I had fallen into the trap of believing that my contempor­aries and I were doing the first ever significant work in Canada. Somehow I had been spared the other common notion that all important work has been done outside Canada. Most important, I came to realize that I am a practitioner of a trade that has always been a response to humanity and nature for the benefit of both, that has never been apart from man and nature, or benefited only itself. As an artist in Canada at this time it is essential for me to study art history and the history of artists as part of and not apart from the history of my people, for better or for worse. Tom Thomson is Buzz Beurling is Jim Donnelly is Emily Carr is Louis Riel is George Laithwaite is Lucy Maude Montgomery is Gus Madsen is Almighty Voice.

Poor Almighty Voice. Death the only choice for a proud Cree warrior who would not be domesticated by the Canadian police. Killed along with Dubling and Little Saulteau by a seven and nine pound canon and a hundred rifles of the Mounted Police for the crime of shooting a stray cow for the wedding feast of Almighty Voice. And Gus Madsen, the great St. Catharines lacross star, perhaps the greatest of all time, dead for many years. I have used him and his brother Frank in my paintings several times. His widow telephoned me when she saw him in my painting Ontario Street reproduced on a billboard in St. Catharines. And the other week, after playing with the Nihilist Spasm Band at the regular Monday night Forest City Gallery sessions, we were served beer in a nearby pub by Tom Madsen, his younger brother, who also played lacrosse with the Double Blues. And Leonard Hutchinson, who helped set up an ill-fated artists' union in the 1930s with goals similar to those of Canadian Artists' Representation in which I am now heavily involved. Called Communists and Fascists and racists then as now for postulating that artists like other domestic animals must be fed. Completely forgotten until very recently.

Artists in Canada especially those who are not concerned exclusively with formalist problems are in a special position quite different from that of their colleagues in most other countries. Like all artists they must have developed a great inner strength and sensibility through the assimilation of life experience in general, the accomplishments and support of their peers, and readings in the reservoir of information provided by the earlier generations who have built the structures which now influence their hues. In Canada our political and social history has been downplayed, distorted and ignored to the point where a well‑known and respected art critic can claim that the use of cowboys and Indians in Canadian painting is an American influence, and where generally people are more aware of American and world history than of their own. Canadian art history has in many cases never been recorded and suffers from such a lack of serious scholarship that most Canadian artists and art students are under the mistaken and terribly destructive impression that nothing of consequence has ever been done here or can ever be done here, and that one must look outside our borders for standards of excellence and direction.

Last year I spent several months with Gabriel Dumont and the Mé;tis people, with Poundmaker and the Indians of the prairies, with Almighty Voice, and with Tom Thomson as a young dude in Seattle, and they had many things to tell me. Tonight I shall go to the Russell House, one of the oldest pubs in St. Catharines, to drink beer with my friends and listen to the stories the old painted brick walls have to relate.

artscanada #244-247, March 1982.
(originally published in artscanada, Vol. XXXII #2, # 198/199, June 1975).

Text: © John Boyle. All rights reserved.

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