Published Jan. 1, 2007
Picture This was a different, fun project I undertook for ABC life Literacy Canada. As a writer, I’m naturally in favour of literacy; you could even say I have a vested interest in it. The literacy rate in Canada is very high, about 99%. But this is deceptive; the definition of ‘literacy rate,’ according to the World Bank, only means that an individual “can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.” More realistically, the Conference Board of Canada, responding to the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) of 2003 notes that four out ten Canadians have literacy skills too low to allow them to participate in today’s economy, and these skills only require “low-level inferences” to be made from reading a document. (I’m not sure this will get you through Tolstoy.)
ABC Life Literacy Canada runs many programs that try to boost the literacy skills of adult Canadians. These programs need reading materials that are adult in content but have lower reading levels—understandably enough, adults in literacy programs don’t want to read children’s books. The Good Reads Program tries to meet this need by providing shorter (100 pages or so), entertaining books that will appeal to adults. Picture This is part of this series, which also includes stories by Joy Fielding, Frances Itani and others.
The story is about an art theft, which—like all good heists—turns out to be not quite what it seems. I enjoyed writing it. My father was an artist, and I grew up with the smell of turpentine and linseed oil, and was helping stretch canvases at age eight; the books cover shows a number of my father’s unfinished paintings propped up on his old easel. It was a challenge to keep the reading level at an appropriate level, but there’s nothing wrong with a simpler style. Short sentences? Hemingway. Vocabulary? Shakespeare’s was 35,000 words, only a little larger than most native speakers today. My goal was to create a story that anyone might enjoy, regardless of reading level; and I rather enjoy it myself.
MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE
Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) was born in Pennyslvania, son of a farmer who owned the local general store. He began to paint in his teens, moved to New York and then spent fifteen years travelling in Europe and the United States, keeping himself alive painting portraits. He began to paint landscapes in the 1850s, and is especially known today for his subdued sea marsh scenes and marinescapes. Heade travelled through Brazil in 1863 and 1864, where he made forty paintings of hummingbirds about which he admitted to being a “monomaniac.” Later, he journeyed to Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama and Jamaica and painted tropical flowers, birds, and scenes for the rest of his career. Settling in St. Augustine, Florida, he also produced a large body of Floridian landscapes and seascapes. Heade knew members of the Hudson School, and is sometimes grouped with them, but their grandiose waterfalls and gorges have a quite different feel than his soft, luminous work; and indeed he’s sometimes categorized as a Luminist, like Robert Salmon. For a nineteenth century painter, his work was extraordinarily varied, as he also produced many remarkable still lifes. Only moderately successful during his lifetime, Heade was largely forgotten until a revival of interest after the Second World War. He was quite prolific over his long working life (he produced perhaps 25 canvases a year) and sold his work all over the United States. For that reason, paintings have often been discovered in unlikely places—garage sales, and attics. Two Magnolias on Blue Plush, for example, was purchased for $29 in a rummage sale in 1989, and sold 10 years later by Christie’s for over eight hundred thousand dollars. A very similar painting, Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth was used by the U.S. Postal Service.
Wifredo Lam (1902 – 1982) is Cuba’s greatest and best known artist, his paintings powerfully expressing Afro-Caribbean culture and spirituality.
Lam was born and raised in the sugar farming province of Villa Clara. Lam’s father—84 at Lam’s birth—was a Chinese trader who’d probably come to Cuba as an indentured labourer around 1860, while his mother was of mixed African and Spanish descent. Lam never showed any interest in his Chinese background, but he was surrounded by Afro-Cuban influences as he grew up, transmitted especially by his godmother, a santeria princess.
In 1916 Lam moved to Havana where he enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (the oldest institution of its kind in Spanish America.) He was successful, and in 1923 received an official stipend to study in Madrid: his teacher there was Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, official painter to the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. This training was academic—but almost at once Lam fell under the influence of “the moderns,” especially Matisse and the Surrealists. He also moved politically left, fighting with other Cubans in the defence of Madrid against fascist armies under General Francisco Franco at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, he suffered chemical poisoning while working in a munitions factory, and in 1938, after convalescing—and just before the Republic fell—he left for Paris, where Picasso took Lam under his wing. Lam met Matisse, Miró, Braque, Léger and other major artistic and literary figures; and it was through Picasso that Lam first encountered African tribal art, which ultimately joined with surrealism as the great influences on his own painting. But he was still caught up in European history. In 1940, as the Germans advanced, he fled to Marseilles, and eventually escaped on a ship whose passengers included André Breton and Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist; this journey ended in Martinique, where Lam met Aimé Cesaire, the writer, founder of “the negritude movement.” The two would become lifelong friends.
In 1942, Lam was finally back in Cuba. He spent the next ten years there, though he often returned to Europe, and made trips to Haiti, other Caribbean countries, and the United States. During this period Lam immersed himself in Caribbean colours and Afro-Cuban culture and religion, imagining an exotic world in which hybrid creatures, half-human, half-animal, dwelled. His great work from this period was The Jungle (1942) but he produced numerous powerful paintings which join surrealism—Lam is a painter of dreams and visions—with an eclectic range of Cuban and Caribbean motifs drawn from voodoo, African mythology, and santeria rendered in a style that moved toward abstract expressionism but always emphasized an African origin.
In 1952, Lam settled in Paris, and later established himself in Italy: though he was a strong supporter of the Castro regime, he never lived in Cuba again. He maintained connections with groups that were descended from the surrealists (the Situationists, for example) and continued to work productively through the 1960s and 70s, experimenting with engravings and ceramics. Lam died in Paris, September 11, 1982.
Thomas John "Tom" Thomson (1877-1917) was born near Claremont, Ontario and grew up in Leith, near Owen sound. In 1901, he went to Seattle, where his brother was running a business college, but he studied art instead and worked for a time in a commercial art studio. By 1905 he'd returned to Canada and joined Grip Ltd., a Toronto design shop producing commercial and advertising art. A number of prominent Toronto artists worked there, including C.W. Jeffreys and J.E.H. McDonald. Through these men, Thomson became involved with a group of young painters, led by Lawren Harris, who'd formed a ginger group in the Canadian Art Club and the Arts and Letters Club (both in Toronto.) Their approach was nationalistic—they wanted to paint Canadian scenes in a Canadian way. They found their inspiration in northern Ontario—first Algonquin Park and then Algoma—which they visited in a series of sketching trips, travelling by canoe and even (in Algoma) railway caboose. Returning to civilization, they produced canvases of increasing strength and power. Thomson, technically, probably began a little behind the others, but soon caught up, helped especially by Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson. By the spring of 1914, he was producing sketches with his characteristically emphatic brushstrokes and powerful colour. His first major work, Northern River (1914-15) is still derivative, an Art Nouveau design hauntingly projected on the Canadian north, but in 1916 he was painting completely assured masterpieces, sketches like Autumn Foliage and the great major pictures, such as The West Wind (1916-1917) and Jack Pine (1916-1917). Though often considered an Impressionist, these paintings are more accurately placed in a Symbolist tradition: stark statements of a natural world that excludes the human. After this great achievement—Thomson painted seriously for only four years—catastrophe struck. On July 8, 1917 Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, on a sketching trip. His body wasn't discovered for eight days, and there's always been a certain mystery about his end. Suicide? Murder? After various investigations, from the forensic to the fictional, the most likely verdict would seem to be the original one, accidental drowning. Thomson's death, of course, was a tremendous blow to Canadian art. His painting friends would later go on to form the Group of Seven and provide a definition of Canadian painting, and indeed the country itself, that endures today. Thomson's paintings are held in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and other major collections. Those of his works still in private hands, and which do come to market, fetch very high prices; a small sketch (11 x 8 inches), Pine Trees at Sunset was auctioned for almost $2 million in 2008.