‘Like a Reed in the Wind’ – Canoe Art

—Alex Colville, “Woman Dog and Canoe” 1982

I’m not into canoeing.  I prefer the kayak.  But canoes are such a part of Canadian life that I am endlessly drawn to the often mystical imagery of paddling, especially in art.

David Thauberger, Lake Reflecting Mountains , 1982, arcrylic on canvas

So many iconic Canadian moments are tied to canoeing, including the wilderness trips of Group of Seven founder and painter Tom Thomson.  He died mysteriously on (yes) Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in 1917.

Group of Seven artists Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, May 1914 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives)

Canoeing is firmly entwined with our history.   One of  the most influential trippers was former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  He traveled to the ends of Canada by canoe and wrote:

What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.  Source: published in French in Jeunesse Etudiante Catholique, November 1944.

“Canoe On Kluane Lake, Yukon,” Rolf Hicker Photography

Thousands of Canadian artists have included the canoe in their portfolios, making the craft an integral image in our mythologized northern identity.  A handful of examples:

Emily Carr, War Canoe, Alert Bay, 1912 – sold for a record $1.23 million in November.

Peter Doig – Canoe-Lake, 1997 – click on image for more information

(Ken Campbell’s canoe gallery website here)

Christine Montague, Dreaming of Summer Some More series: Ghost Canoes. Oil.

From the Singing Wilderness, By Sigurd Olson: “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores”.

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There are 8 comments

  1. The Wanderlust Gene

    I think you’ve given us a delicious tasting of works inspired by the canoe – I’d forgotten how this vehicle is so entwined with the history and mythology of Canada, and of course, as a recreational vehicle in more modern times. Frankly, I was amazed at how attracted I was to so many of these pictures. I’m conflicted, and bedazzled by the stylised vibrancy of several of the images, but if I were being tortured to reveal a preference, I’d probably nominate Christine Montague’s Ghost Canoes. They seem more in keeping, somehow, with my memories of Canada.

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    1. boomerontario

      Oh what an interesting response. I guess it’s because so many artists have “done” the canoe that some of them (ie Peter Doig) are so stylized, as you correctly label it. I can see why the Ghost Canoes reflect your time in Canada. Not only are they frequently laid out that way, that image is more in keeping with the basic, beloved shape of a canoe. Thanks so much. I always enjoy your comments, and the thoughts they provoke.

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  2. Jean

    “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature. Source: published in French in Jeunesse Etudiante Catholique, November 1944.”

    I think PM Trudeau forgot about the cyclists who cycled with their camping gear and cycled across Canada (I haven’t done this yet, but my partner has done it solo, twice). It definitiely is not a bourgeois feeling to cycle with the weight of camping gear, clothing and food. 🙂

    Anyway, maybe you might find more canoe art for installment #2. (I did for the bike across Metro Vancouver). I love the canoe as an iconic symbol of Canadian exploration.

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