Song for the Night Sun © David Beaucage Johnson*
Have you ever had a dream in which a landscape so familiar to you is somehow, different?
As an artist, I strive to paint the landscape as I see it. The Canadian artist of today is preceded by a rich legacy of Canadian landscape art from which to draw inspiration. We are brought up knowing that there are many ways to see and paint a landscape.
Most notably we think of Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. They attempted to see the Canadian landscape in a way that was as unique as the landscape itself. Exhibiting many of their works during the same period as the post-impressionists and the fauves in Europe, the Group of Seven created a sensation, most of which was far from positive. Gradually, the the critics came around and the works of these painters came to represent the our Canadian landscapes.
But, what of the People who knew this land very differently and for considerably longer? How did they see the world?
It wasn’t until 1962 that an ‘indian’ ever had a solo exhibition in a gallery. The climate in the art world had changed substantially by then and in a world primed for abstraction, the launch of Norval Morrisseau in Toronto’s Pollock Gallery resulted in a sold out show. Morrisseau saw the world with a very different VISION.
Norval Morrisseau founded the Woodland School and the Indian Group of Seven. His art has been called ‘shamanic’, inviting viewers into the journey between worlds. Morrisseau saw himself as a teacher that transmitted the stories of his people through art and his work a bridge between cultures. His work opened the door for a generation of First Nations painters and artists, including Arthur Shilling.
Native culture is very connected to the land and so I was interested in seeing how some native artists might interpret the landscape itself. To a people where the land is an essential part of being, how was it being expressed by these artists?
Painted Earth © David Beaucage Johnson*
There are many contemporary First Nations artists. In my region of central Canada, they are largely Anishnaabe artists, including Mishibinijima (James Simon), Roy Thomas, Daphne Odjig, Michael Robinson, Morrisseau and David Beaucage Johnson to name a few. These artists are deeply spiritual. Many of the symbols influencing the work of these artists are etched in the landscape of Ontario in Agawa Canyon, Peterborough and at Lake Superior in the form of rock paintings and petroglyphs.
Mishibinijima, Michael Robinson (poet and painter) and David Beaucage Johnson let the Spirit cross with the representational landscape in their paintings. The landscape, as we know it, is clearly visible, the places recognizable and yet, different. There is little separation between art, landscape, culture and Spirit. Their painting vibrate with an energy that speaks of the mysteries of different layers of existence. For lack of an existing term, I call them visionary landscapes.
I had the privilege of taking a workshop with David Beaucage Johnson. David is unquestionably a visionary landscape artist. His scenes are alive with the Spirits of the water, the rocks, the trees and the skies. The animals appear in Spirit form allowing the landscapes themselves to provide the context. Even the Moon has great personal symbolism in David’s works.
David’s mix of representational and semi-abstract elements create an environment teeming with the, normally, unseen. It is difficult to visit the “Teaching Rocks” in Peterborough, Ontario without envisioning the ancestral spirits David brings alive on canvas. The locations and landscapes have great significance in the paintings and are a part of the story they tell.
Rainbow Dance © David Beaucage Johnson*
David’s richly spiritual paintings have been published in two books of Ojibwe stories by Basil Johnston.
This article does not even begin to scratch the surface of Visionary Landscape and Native art across Canada. Visionary landscape and First Nations art, in general, is so often overlooked in the mainstream art world. It was no surprise to me how difficult it was to gather information. In the case of the linked artists, except for Morrisseau, who was labeled by the French, the Picasso of the North, most of my knowledge of the other artists is through my own experience of the art and personal contact. I hope that this might offer a little more insight into an art form that should no longer be neglected by the history books.
*All of David Johnson’s images are reproduced here with permission from the artist.
A short post from 2008 looking at my experience at the 2001 workshop with David B. Johnson – Art & Spirit