Making Myths, Fighting Myths at the Mythical McMichael Canadian Art Collection


Early version of a piece
written for Sunwings' inflight magazine,
summer 2009 edition

There is a myth about Canadians that just won’t go away. It says that we are a nation of hewers of wood and drawers of water. Truth is, most Canucks live in urban communities within 150kms of the American border, our trees are for shade and the water comes right out of the tap.
A visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario (just north of the City of Toronto) shows, however, that the myth has done some good things for the country. The publicly owned gallery is the only major art gallery in the country that solely collects and exhibits Canadian Art, and its most prized works were created by the Group of Seven, painters who painted the myth!
In 1920, seven artists – Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson – decided, for the first time, to exhibit as the Group of Seven. The Group’s first exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto in May 1920. The seven were committed to exploring, through art, the unique character of the Canadian landscape. Collectively they agreed: Canada’s rugged wilderness regions needed to be recorded in a distinctive painting style. This style would break from European tradition and reflect an increasingly nationalistic sentiment.
Today, these men are among Canada’s most famous artists. For many, their works have come to symbolize what is the distinctly Canadian identity. The McMichael is called the spiritual home of the Group and six of the ten members of the group (three more artists joined the group in later years) are buried on the grounds.
The gallery itself is made out of logs and stone and sits on a hill overlooking the verdant Humber River Valley. That other old myth – that you can’t see the forest for the trees isn’t quite true at the McMichael. Looking out the gallery windows you can see the top of the CN tower, but the thousands of trees that cover the 150-acre parkland that the gallery sits amongst, block the rest of the view of the city. (The public walking trails through the woods are almost as popular as the gallery itself!)
The Government of Ontario owns the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The gallery is located on Islington Avenue, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in Kleinburg, (a few minutes from the Wonderland Amusement Park) and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In addition to its extensive holdings of the Group of Seven and the famed Tom Thomson, the McMichael also collects and exhibits Inuit and First Nation work. This summer there will be a huge exhibition of British Columbia First Nations art. “Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast” explores the art of nearly forty contemporary Northwest Coast artists. It examines the individual artistic interpretation each artist brings to their work based on their cultural traditions. It also looks at how these individuals grapple with the challenges of interpreting traditional Northwest Coast design in the modern age.
The big West Coast exhibition and a tour of the gallery’s permanent collection are two things that visitors won’t want to myth this summer!
Cutline: One of the signature pieces in this summer's West Coast exhibition at the McMichael. Bill Henderson (Kwakwaka’wakw, b.1950)
Sun Mask,2007-2008
yellow cedar, cedar bark rope, acrylic
147.3 x 147.3 x 9.1 cm
Private Collection, Courtesy of Inuit Gallery of Vancouver Ltd


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