A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 32: Crying in the Gallery


j-23Ever start crying in an art gallery? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you when you’re there with about 200 other people for a guided tour?

Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. Seemed to come out of nowhere but, really, it built up from the inside until it showed up on the outside.

Last Sunday afternoon here in Ottawa my wife and I attended a guided tour of the National Gallery’s career retrospective of Alex Janvier. Janvier is a Native Canadian artist. I had never heard of him before this show came to the Gallery. I won’t forget him now. I came away believing that Janvier should be treasured by all Canadians. He is an artist of exceptional skill who has been painting for seven decades. Seven. Decades. He won an honourable mention for a painting submitted to a Vatican show when he was only fifteen years old. From Cold Lake First Nations, Alberta, he was sent to a residential school when he was eight years old. It was there that his talent was recognized and encouraged. He became a founding member of an artists’ collective that would be called “The Indian Group of Seven”. Born in 1935, he’s about the same age as my dad.

So it was an incredible show with dozens and dozens of masterful paintings: Why the tears? Whassup with that?

Certainly, I get emotional around really great art. I find myself catching my breath or feeling slightly stunned when I see something particularly wonderful. As an artist I have a sense of the skill and the hard work, the genius and the dedication behind a truly outstanding work of art. Alex Janvier is a giant among abstract painters, of that I have no doubt. But tears over that? No. But the emotional foundation had been set.

j-04I was tired that afternoon, making me more susceptible to emotions getting the best of me. But I’m not in the habit of breaking down crying every time I’ve had a poor night’s sleep. I may be a big baby about some things but that’s taking it too far. However, that may have something to do with it.

It’s funny because even when I was fighting back tears, I was thinking, “What the hell?” They just came on like that. Bam! I remember where I was, too. Not standing in front of one of Janvier’s great paintings. No – I was reading a description on the wall next to one of his paintings. This one below as a matter of fact:


This is an abstract painting having to do with the drum and its place in Native culture. As you look at it you can definitely see the form of the drum. The whole piece dances, there’s a rhythm to it, a Powwow beat. Beside the painting was a description, and in that description was the comment that from the late 1880’s until 1951, according to the Indian Act here in Canada, Native peoples’ were forbidden to use the drum or to celebrate any of their cultural ceremonies and traditions.

And that was it. Right there I couldn’t stop the tears. What was going on?

At the heart of it, I believe it is because I have been struggling so much lately trying to make sense of how people in my “tribe” – Christians – can support the new president of the United States and his policies.  It was just this past weekend that chaos reigned at airports in the U.S., people with all the legal documents they needed and have always had, some who have lived in the States for years, were denied entry; the announcement came, too, that there would be an indefinite hold on accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S., this most desperate of desperate groups in our world today. I was so saddened and disheartened by all of this, and equally angry and disgusted by the American Christians who allowed this to happen in the first place.

What did any of this have to to with Alex Janvier and this show at the National Gallery? I mentioned earlier that at the age of eight, Janvier was sent to a residential school. Most of these schools were run by Christian missionaries. And at these schools, Native children were forbidden to speak their language, forbidden to participate in anything having to do with their culture; punished, in fact, for doing so. They had Christianity force-fed to them and were told that their grandparents were evil, of the devil. Worse, many of these children faced the horrors of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in these schools. The official tally of children who died in the care of these “servants of Christ” is 4,000 but the estimate is many times more. Some died from the abuse, some from starvation and disease, and some simply lost the will to live. Taken from their homes, they were stripped of their identities and backgrounds, everything they had to cling to for support and strength.

If you are not the least bit emotional after reading the above paragraph, read it again.

As I walked through the show, Janvier’s own record of his experience and his lament over the experience of so many Native people hit me at every turn. Injustice, oppression, hatred – and so much of it in the name of Christ; so much of it allowed to happen or perpetuated by the ones who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the Son of God. This stripping of the drum – the silencing of the heartbeat of the Native people – was the last straw for me on that Sunday afternoon.

So I had my own time of lament. Not for my people but for Janvier’s people; not for the pain I endured but the pain inflicted by people like me. That gallery space was huge but not big enough to contain the heartache that filled the place from floor to ceiling. And yet such beauty, talent, wonder – despite it all, Janvier gave us all this gift. A gift we don’t deserve.

Heavy thoughts, I know. But I was in the National Gallery surrounded by sublime and profound works of art. Sue me.

It was cathartic. And it was an amazing show to witness. The photos I took with my Samsung phone cannot do justice to Janvier’s work and, of course, truly convey the power of being there in person. But I want to take you on a brief photo walkabout in the space below. I would encourage you to look up his artwork online or, if you get the chance, to see it for yourself.

Just don’t forget the Kleenex.

Without further ado, here’s the pics…


A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 25: Canada’s Greatest Painter


He’s the greatest Canadian painter you’ve never heard of. Well,  maybe that’s unfair. If you are Canadian and you are reading this, you probably know who that is in the photo and also have a good guess at the name of the painting beside him. If you are clueless about him and also a Canuck, turn in your Tragically Hip t-shirts to the first Mountie you see: You’re not worthy.

Relax! I’m joking, eh? However, he is the greatest and most influential painter Canada has ever produced. That is the humble opinion of this transplanted ‘Merican. Even though I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and took all those art history courses, I don’t remember ever talking about him or ever seeing his work. But two years into my time here in Ottawa, I went to see his paintings on display at the National Gallery of Canada. I will never forget seeing his paintings live and in person: To paraphrase Bono when speaking of the first time he saw the Clash perform: It wasn’t life or death; it was more important than that.

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is his name and his story is inspiring and tragic. He was a man of the wilderness and he loved the solitude of a hike in the woods or a canoe ride on a still and silent Ontario lake. He was a mostly self-taught artist who conveyed the natural beauty of his country better than anyone before or since. And he inspired so many, including some of his contemporaries who became known as the Group of Seven. He was a quiet, kind, introspective soul who was a master of color. Every landscape painter in Canada since is a reflection of Tom Thomson and his genius.

Seeing his artwork in person was a profoundly moving experience. I know that sounds cliche but I am not joking when I say I got emotional standing in front of some of the most incredible paintings I had ever seen. Part of that was because I felt I just met someone who I could relate to so strongly; part of it was because at that time I was so far removed from being an artist and found I missed it dearly; and part of it was the sheer power of the work that came from the hand of this master.

Tom Thomson’s life was brilliant and brief. He died, ironically yet fittingly, on a canoe trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Ontario at the age of 39. The presumed cause of death was drowning, despite his vast experience in the wilderness. His life and death are part of Canadian lore. But the real treasure he left behind is his passion: his painting.

Below is a small gallery of his artwork. Photos on a blog cannot do justice to the color and energy in these pieces. If you ever get a chance to see his work in person, Go! See! Experience! It may help you discover just how life-changing a work of art can truly be.


Morning Cloud, 1913


Northern River, 1915


Pine Island, Georgian Bay, 1916


Jake Pine, 1916


Woodland Waterfall, 1916


Path Behind Mowat Lodge, 1917


Maple Saplings, 1917


The West Wind, 1917