Chill November

     November is a dreary month with nothing much to recommend it.   Bare trees, gray skies, and chilly temperatures with nothing to look forward to except perhaps the Black Friday sales (we had our Canadian Thanksgiving in October) and the jingling of distant Christmas bells.   This year we had several pleasant weeks of t-shirt weather with record breaking temperatures, followed by sweater-weather perfect for yard-work cleanup, but now we’re deep in the chill of November. 

Unlike their human equivalents, the snowbirds, who are stuck here in the wintry north this year, deprived of their annual jaunts to Florida, Arizona, and all places warm, the Canadian geese are honking their way south.

Honk if you’re heading south….

This photo is courtesy of Linda, who recently blogged about a Canadian Goose Convention. It has always amazed me how the geese can elect a leader (hopefully without all the current drama), adopt a flight plan (ideally bi-partisan) and wing their way south in a perfect V formation to a better place in the sun.   But knowing how cantankerous geese can be, I doubt it’s all smooth sailing.   Anyone who has ever sought to capture geese in-flight has eventually given up, as by the time their loud honking announces their presence and you whip out the camera, they are long past.   We do have some geese who overwinter here in a park, where an industrial plant ejects warm waste water into a nearby creek, but they are annoying creatures who deposit green goop all over instead of winging their way south like good little geese should.     

This painting “Chill November” depicting the annual migration of the geese against a frosty background, was painted by Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, in 1916-17. 

Chill November – Tom Thomson, 1916-17, oil on canvas.

After WW1 had ended, a group of local women, who had been part of the Red Cross volunteers raising money for the war effort, decided to form a committee, known as the Women’s Conservation Art Association. Their aim was to purchase art for a public gallery they hoped to open someday in the city.  After four years of war and with the Spanish flu still raging, perhaps they dared to hope for a brighter future?

Their focus was on acquiring Canadian art, and at the forefront of this movement was the now iconic Group of Seven, (see Wikipedia link), an association of male landscape painters known for their scenes of the Canadian wilderness, especially Algonquin Park.  Tom Thomson (see Wikipedia link), although often included in this famous group, knew several of the members but died tragically before it was formed.    There is much mystery and speculation about his death during a fishing expedition in 1917. The official report was accidental drowning – his canoe found adrift and his body 8 days later with a large gash on his head – but was it an accident or murder, suicide or revenge – the tall tales abound.  He was only 39 and as often happens, the mystique surrounding his early and sudden death only added to the value of his work.       

“Chill November” was one of the art committees first acquisitions in 1920.   Last spring I attended a hundred anniversary exhibit of the painting, which was accompanied by artifacts surrounding it’s purchase and a preliminary sketch on loan from another gallery.

Wild Geese – preliminary sketch for Chill November – Tom Thomson 1916

The small (8X10) preliminary sketch Wild Geese, was painted “plein air” in the summer of 1916 in Algonquin Park and served as the model when he painted Chill November in his studio in Toronto the following winter as was his custom, for the wilderness trips were not suited to larger canvases.

I like to picture Tom lying in his canoe on a dark and chilly afternoon, studying that V formation, as the geese pass overhead – maybe having a sip of whiskey from his flask, for he was known to have a drink or two…

Chill November, is a large piece at 34 X 40 inches. This is not the best shot unfortunately, as the lighting was soft in the gallery with the spotlights making it too dim for picture taking. The painting itself was sacred of course, as anything of artistic merit is, but as a history lover, what I liked most about the exhibit was the historical documentation of the purchase.

Here’s a copy of some of the correspondence, as Dr. James McCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and early patron of the Group of Seven, tries to steer the art committee, towards this particular piece.     

At that time, $600 was a fair bit of money to spend on one painting, but they did, and here is the cash ledger book recording the purchase, and incidentally not a bad return on their investment with today’s current value at one million plus.   

There was lots of other historical information on display including a booklet documenting how it was loaned out over the years, for it was a well traveled painting, plus information about the artists life.

He displayed no early artistic talent – his painting evolved from his job as a graphic designer and his love of the great outdoors. From 1913 on he spend his summers working as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park, and once a fire ranger, sketching on the side, occasionally sponsored by Dr. McCallum who owned a cottage on Georgian Bay. Predominately known as a landscape painter, he was well into his 30’s before he sold his first painting (1913) and in his short career produced 400 oil sketches on wood panels and 50 larger oil canvases. Known for expressing self-doubt, he would sometimes give away his sketches if someone admired them – one was recently unearthed in someone’s basement and sold for half a million. A turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings, a recognition unheard of for an unknown artist. His love of color and broad brush strokes remind me of Van Gogh, although his subject matter was the wilderness – trees, skies and rivers.

Dr. McCallum’s history of first meeting the Painter of the North

He does look like a lumberjack in that picture, but he cleaned up well.

His most famous painting, The Jack Pine, an iconic image of the Canadian wilderness, resides in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (Wikipedia link)

Jack Pine – Tom Thomson 1917

The women’s art committee continued to raise money and bought several other Group of Seven paintings, which along with Chill November, were part of the 25 pieces they donated to the city library in 1956 when they disbanded.  I remember going to visit the art room atop the main library branch, and being underwhelmed.   All the good stuff was stored in vaults for security reasons.

In 2012 the city finally got it’s own art gallery, to the tune of 9 million dollars worth of fund raising.  It was a case of either having a proper temperature/humidity-controlled environment or getting rid of all the art.  Much public complaining ensued about wasting tax payers money, especially when they renovated an old heritage building downtown, but with the aid of government funding and corporate donations plus a large benefactor after whom the gallery was named, they met their goal, a hundred years late. (They now number 1253 pieces in their permanent collection, many through private donations). There was a lot less complaining after the Beaverbrook Masterworks exhibit came through in 2015 (a major coup for a small gallery) and the public got to view the famous 13 foot high Salvador Dali painting, “Santiago El Grande.” – truly an awesome sight. Even those who haven’t had much exposure to art, can learn to like it, myself included.  

I had little interest in the art world until my mother started painting (age 87) and exhibiting (age 90), and even now I sometimes find it to be a strange and foreign land. (When I was in school you were either an “artsy-type” or a “science nerd”, now known as a “STEMi” but never both, now most colleges want a well-rounded individual). If someone had told me decades ago that I would be hanging around the fringes of the art world in my retirement I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m still puzzled about why one painting is worth so much, while another, much nicer, is not. Art tends to be subjective, while science deals in reality. Abstract painting seems to be very popular, but is the genre I struggle the most to appreciate and understand, as well as art installations which may be thought-provoking but sometimes just seem too weird. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in my younger years, left me baffled over the display of a solitary three-dimensional fence post, similar to the weather-beaten ones on my parents farm. I recall taking a picture of it to show my dad.  

So that brings us to the question – what place does art and culture have in lifting our spirits in troubled times, for 2020 has definitely been a year of gloom and doom.   If you don’t have art, music, books, movies, or whatever form of culture you happen to enjoy, aren’t the days all just the same – work, eat, sleep, repeat, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to soothe your soul. (Books are my preference, but lately while walking, I have Moonlight Sonata on endless repeat. It seems the perfect soundtrack for these gloomy November days).

What possessed those women one hundred years ago to spend their left-over funds on art?  They were war-weary, and pandemic-weary. Certainly, there were more worthwhile and practical causes to spent the money on, with returning soldiers unable to support themselves and the Spanish flu leaving many families without incomes.  Or did they feel the world needed some culture instead, a glimpse of hope for a brighter future?  Maybe they felt buying a piece of beauty was the better purchase, something to lighten their days and to last for always.  

Here is a letter documenting the turnout to view the paintings in 1920, (hopefully they wore masks).

The Library building was crowded and hundreds of people came to see the paintings….

Even if you’re of the opinion that Chill November is a rather gloomy picture, you have to admire it’s very Canadianness.  It’s the way the country was, a land full of wilderness….and geese on the wing!

What will be remembered of us, a hundred years from now?   Time will tell…..in the meantime – bundle up.  It’s chilly out there!  

29 thoughts on “Chill November

  1. Anne says:

    WHAT a fascinating read! I have thoroughly enjoyed your account and have learned a lot while doing so. I think art is a bit like wine: both are subjective items. Some people go into raptures over wine (because that particular bottle is very expensive?) and pooh pooh one that might be more friendly to the palate but is cheaper. Sometimes the vineyard, the particular winemaker, or even the brand is what swings it. A friend put this to the test more than once by filling expensive wine bottles with very ordinary box wine – then enjoyed the oohing and aahing that followed! Art can be like that: who painted, when was it painted, what is currently in fashion. I tend to enjoy both art and wine because I LIKE it and not because I am meant to 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks for reading Anne! That’s funny re switching the wine bottles! I find the art world can be kind of snobby in some ways – my mother is definitely an outsider. I’m with you – I like what I like, period.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. avwalters says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, post! From my side of the border, I’m reminded that one of the cancelled events this summer was a planned trip to Kleinberg, to see Group of Seven paintings, and to share them with my husband who has never seen them before. Maybe next year. In the meantime, this was a wonderful reminder. As a former Canadian art student (who left the field precisely because of its capriciousness) I still love the stories and images. Indeed, though my career was in no way artistic, it is at the center of all my novels.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Linda Schaub says:

    That was interesting Joni and I really like those sepia-toned vintage photos. A flock of migrating geese was as fascinating back then as it is now. I know that I never fail to look up when geese are overhead and honking their heads off. They look graceful in V-formation. It is incredible when you think of it. Thank you for the shout-out and the link to my Goose Convention post. I’ve never seen so many geese in my life in one place. You were a science whiz, but now a convert to “the arts” – and speaking of the arts … did you hear about the recent discovery of a chalk art drawing by Leonardo da Vinci? It was verified to be his work based on comparing the paper of that time with the drawing paper used to make the sketch. Pretty amazing. Your mom was/is pretty amazing taking up painting at age 87 and then exhibiting at age 90. That is an inspiration to all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks Linda…..I know art isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and most people are busy with their turkey day, but I had fun researching it. I had not heard that about Leonardo daVinci. I read a biography about him a few years ago – such a fascinating life. Yes, my mom is an inspiration. Her exhibit is amazing, too bad not many people are seeing it because of the pandemic.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I could tell a lot of research and hard work was involved Joni. I took an art appreciation class many years ago … I had to take two one-credit classes to fulfill part of my core liberal arts classes and took that class and learned a lot. I may have told you our high school lost its accreditation for two years, so we took just four basic classes … not anything in the arts, music or drama department as it was not available. This sketch was in very good shape, no smudges and I thought it was incredible how they verified its authenticity based on other artwork paper from that era. That’s too bad – I wonder if they might hold the exhibit over longer due to the pandemic and low attendance because of it.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Joni says:

        They have another bigger art exhibit (200 paintings) booked for May, so they won’t hold it over. Of course we could take it to another gallery eventually, but I’m not looking into any other place until COVID is over. Cases are skyrocketing here today, record high for Ont. 1855/day cases. I think people are out shopping and are sick of the restrictions. I had no art classes ever, even in high school, we didn’t have to take art/music or drama unless we wanted to, and I wasn’t good at any of that. Whatever happened to your sketching from last summer – I remember you blogged on it once? I hope you keep that in mind for your retirement someday. I think an art appreciation class would be fun, as I know so little about art, and would come in useful for that future trip to Paris and Italy! I wish there was a community college somewhere local where you could take courses like that, and I don’t mean online!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I don’t blame you Joni – it is unfortunate after all the work you put in long before the actual exhibit, that COVID ruined the experience. I think people are COVID weary here too and we now have a “three-week pause” where more restrictions were put in place. I don’t think they are unreasonable, but many people don’t like our Governor’s earlier rules and regs, so don’t like these that are in place until December 8th. I think she will extend them and the restaurant and bar owners are mad … too cold to eat outside now. The other day on the news they said “Canadians got together for their Thanksgiving and their stats doubled – do you want that to happen here?” (Sigh – just tear down Canadians who have been fairly low stats until now!) We have 90,000 people in the U.S. currently hospitalized for COVID, the highest to date, plus 50 Americans are dying every hour in the U.S.. Not great odds and I am happy I’m done with errands and told the allergist’s office I will not be back for a while. I’m not taking a chance when they closed down (except emergency visits to see the doctor) from March 15th to May 15th. Spring is a busy allergy time for me and I wore a mask and took OTC Alavert – never sneezed once. I’m not going to drive the car except to take it for a few short runss a week to keep it in good shape battery/electrical wise and that’s it … I don’t want to have to get gas either. Gassed up the other day – too bad as it was a clear-weather weekend but snow is on the horizon, so not going out in that sloppy mess either, except on foot.

        I am mad at myself as I had several things I wanted to do this year and did none of them. I bought those sketchbooks, the paper, charcoal pencils, smudgers, etc. … was all set to draw a few bird and squirrel pictures and never touched it. I likely will wait til retirement now. Same with reading – vowed to read one book per month, then didn’t. So I will read a book over Christmas and hopefully New Year’s holidays. I have to spend less time online and working on picture/posts and that’s difficult not to do that. I wanted to sort through all my photos taken in late October and all of November and separate them for posts – looked through the DSLR pics, got about ten pics culled out and have not returned to it. I have walked 21 miles this weekend so far as I am pushing to finish before bad weather comes in. I have to rake leaves in the back one more time – none of the leaves are mine. Has to be done tomorrow as yard waste pickup ends Monday the 30th.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Joni says:

        I’m not sure that it was our Thanksgiving that did it for stats, because that was Oct 11, and the numbers have only gone up recently. I think people are out and about Christmas shopping and eating in restaurants, and the most important route is “shared space”. We got moved from yellow to green and our stats only went from 5 to 15 or so, but it was done to prevent more risky behavior as Christmas approaches. I still need one errand day before Christmas, for gas, pharmacy, grocery, etc, but that’s it. Bad weather all next week.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Linda Schaub says:

        They were essentially bad-mouthing Canadians in my opinion, as you all have been smart. Your PM has once again extended the border crossing restriction – that’s a good thing as it’s terrible here. They are worried sick here with such horrible stats and the Thanksgiving COVID gatherings’ aftermath have not yet surfaced. I am happy to stay home … my errand day was last Monday. I am dreading the bad weather after all this clear and snow-free weather.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks Alison! She is an amazing woman, but I think the secret is, she is in good health and therefore doesn’t think of herself as old, plus she is still interested in lots of different things. I read a non-fiction book this summer called Extra Time – by Camilla Cavendish – I think she is a British journalist – about how our definitions of old age and what we do with our extra years are changing now that people are living longer. I may blog on it someday, it was a good read.

      Like

  4. Eilene Lyon says:

    I enjoyed learning about this artist and the collectors and galleries. I, too can not fathom what makes some art so ridiculously priced. Millions of dollars? I just don’t get it. I like some abstract work, but prefer more representative pieces. I try to support local artists, but have very limited space in my home for anything. I hope someone finds one of my watercolors in a basement someday and gets a million bucks for it.😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      You never know! You could still be discovered! I don’t mind abstract if I can see something of reality in it, like a partial image, but some of it is just too strange for me. I like watercolors but have heard it is harder to do. My mother either does oil or acrylic (easier). I have an artist friend who does alcohol ink and that is even harder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        I’ve tried one or two paintings, (only because all my artist friends nagged me), was not happy with the results, and I paint with a clenched jaw, so way too stressful for me, a type A personality. My mother paints for fun, she doesn’t care if it doesn’t turn out. I don’t have a steady enough hand for it, and really can’t even draw a straight line! Never took art in school, as I wasn’t any good at it.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. annieasksyou says:

    This is a super post, Joni! It’s got so much: history, art, philosophical musings, and more. I found some lovely lyrical passages. I hope to reread this essay in its entirety.

    And Moonlight Sonata is one of my favorites. Our older daughter showed great promise as a pianist, and for quite a while we had her rendition of Moonlight Sonata on our answering machine. So your ending was perfect for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      Thanks Annie! I put much time and effort into the post and enjoyed researching it, but at 1600 words I know it’s lengthy. I get into a subject sometimes and don’t know when to quit! I find Moonlight Sonata such a soothing piece, but no walk today as it’s raining cats and dogs…..tomorrow it will be snow!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. annieasksyou says:

    You’re talking to the right person about word count. I’ve been trying to keep mine under 2000, but, like you, I get all caught up in things, and then, and then…

    I love snow—used to love to be out shoveling, but we seem to be getting less and less of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Dave says:

    I didn’t plan on reading this one all the way through (not much of an art fan) until I saw “Chill November” and you started in on the artist’s life. They’re both captivating. Thanks for sharing the whole story. It seems an artist’s life is typically as interesting as his/her artwork. This was never more true than with Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect (an artist of sorts, no?)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks for reading all the way through Dave, all 1600 plus words! I do get carried away sometimes when something interests me. I don’t know much about the art world and the story captivated me, esp with respect to who gets famous and who fades into obscurity. I know even less about architecture and the life of Frank Loyd Wright – so that may be a subject for your blog someday? I enjoy reading biographies and often find a writer’s life more interesting than their books sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. J P says:

    I agree that there is not enough art in the world. I am not as fond of the modern, abstract stuff. I believe that art should depict beauty because beauty is refreshing to the soul. Architects seem to have lost this belief after WWII.

    I had a grandfather who, like your mother, took up painting late in life and whose work was quite good. His paintings are prized in the family.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks JP. We are especially in need of beauty these days when the news is all bad. Those family heirlooms are precious. My mother paints from a feeling of fun and so her paintings are joyful and comforting. I find a lot of gallery art depressing to look at, but that might be the emotion the artist chose to express, at least so they tell me. I prefer to look at the happy pretty stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

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