Artist brings Group of Seven to McIntosh

The Search for Tom Thomson tips its hat to historical art

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


Jon Purdy

In a fast-paced and hectic world, Jeff Willmore brings us back to basics. The local artist reminds audiences of the beauty of Canadian wildlife in his exhibit Organizing the Search for Tom Thomson.

Inspired by the landscape paintings of Thomson and The Group of Seven, the exhibit evokes nostalgia for a rural Canada lost to skyscrapers and suburbs.

However, the exhibit is less a comment on Canadian wildlife and more an exploration of painting itself. The artwork is a result of a six-year fascination with landscape painting and its place in contemporary art.

“[It] is an installation exploring the current-day meaning of the landscape tradition within Canadian painting. The title of the exhibition is a metaphor for examining landscape painting from a contemporary standpoint,” Willmore explains.

Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven are arguably the most influential members of the Canadian art canon. This isn’t the first time an artist has used these pioneers as inspirations for their own work. Willmore is well aware of the looming criticism surrounding the topic.

“It’s obvious, it’s cliché, and it’s a tad boring and old-fashioned. But they certainly were a huge influence,” Willmore says. “They established the first truly Canadian esthetic, truly Canadian look in anything visual. I think they laid the groundwork for us to begin to establish our own visuals in this country.”

Willmore’s interest in Thomson’s work stems back to his childhood aspirations of becoming an artist.

“Those people were held up as our heroes, so they’ve been a huge influence on me,” Willmore says. “I think Tom was the best. He was the one who inspired the other guys.”

The exhibit also validates painting as an art form, as today’s art is increasingly expressed through new and innovative technology.

“I’m hoping the exhibit can illustrate the point that this kind of work is still valid even though the visual arts have so many exciting new ways of creating imagery,” Willmore says. “Look at what you can do with a digital camera or video. There are so many ways to express art that painting has become a little old-fashioned. I’m trying to present it in a way where the painting is a small cog in a larger wheel.”

The largest of the paintings, appropriately titled “Organizing the Search for Tom Thomson” depicts a traditional landscape of rural Canada, which Willmore believes deserves our attention.

“Rural tradition of the visual arts isn’t really represented these days,” Willmore explains. “I think these paintings are representative of a rural-class people.”

The exhibit’s most visually interesting piece is the 35-foot sculpture entitled “Concord,” that consists of split birch wood suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. The structure ties the Canadian landscape theme together.

“It’s emblematic in a few ways. Birch is an emblem of Canada and the north. It also speaks to the fact that it was up against an industrial landscape,” Willmore says. “It was being clear-cut as Thomson was painting. It talks about the rural industrial ethic.”

Organizing the Search for Tom Thomson is currently on display at the McIntosh Gallery. For more information, visit

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