Story by Stephen Near.
Author’s note: I have written a ‘story’ about T.R. MacDonald, touching on his past impact as Director/Curator and how that has impacted the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) as I have experienced in this present. I transposed some of my own memories about the AGH with creative fictional journal entries (and some actual letters) by T. R. Macdonald (as well as Alex Colville).
The Forgotten Journals of T. R. MacDonald, by way of a rambling Hamiltonian
“Hamilton is the 10th largest city in Canada by population.”
Cool text floats atop a strange sculptural map of Hamilton. Constructed from 3D-printed plastic, that looks a lot like Tupperware, the piece is an interactive digital video work called the Stratigraphic City by Taien Ng-Chan. With this piece, she seems to be asking a question about the concept of place in the city. The gallery is at the centre of the sculpture on the table. It is the central hub; the starting point for layer upon layer of meaning.
I move my hand above the sculpture like the hand of some omniscient god of urban planning. A hidden motion sensor tracks my arm and scrolls the text in reaction. The statistic suddenly flies across the intersection of Main Street and Bay. I see spot where I catch the GO Bus in the mornings to get to work these days. I try and envision what a giant one and zero hovering across the sky might look like.
We were given a jeep and a driver and left to do something called war art. We received our supplies of paint, brushes and things in London before we went over; I took oil and a paintbox and a lot of watercolours.
What the experience of painting in the midst of bombings or air raids might be is something beyond my imagination. I have no doubt of the shortage of subjects that might be available for this journey. Yet the nature of the environment makes me stop short. The subject for the canvas of war is not static. And I think my role in all of this must be akin to a journalist; embedded in the lives of the soldiers with only a brush and canvas for protection.
All of this must be more than just posterity. Simply capturing the moments of this war with the oil and the brush would be doing a disservice. I scarcely know how to express this sense of ill at ease in myself. How then can I be expected to convey the feelings of others in this dismal place?
I am wandering through one of the exhibition halls and I can’t stop staring at John Scott’s Trans AM Apocalypse No. 3. An actual Pontiac, like the one Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey and The Bandit, except he’s painted the vehicle matte black and carved on the surface the whole of the Book of Revelation. It sits like an implacable demi-god. The gallery has posted a sign warning observers do not touch. It’s all I can do not to run my fingers across “Faithful Unto Death” on the door handle. Below that the apostle Peter has had his name edged in the keyhole. I ask myself whether Peter, as a Saint, has a special set of keys for this particular ride.
I spend just under an hour sitting in the exhibition hall staring at this muscle car of armageddon and realize that the vast majority of my geek friends, many of whom have never set foot in a gallery, would be utterly enthralled by this and the rest of Scott’s work.
“Well played,” I say to the curator of this exhibit, “well played, indeed.”
I spent the night in trenches. But at that time I guess it was the second largest bombardment of the war—somewhere up in the hills of Italy. This was to break down the German lines before the troops went in. But they would fire on anything you could imagine. The ringed field guns, all calibres, surrounded them and we opened up after dark. The thunder and the flashes were just quite beyond anything I could have conceived…. In the summer it was, as you know, bright, cheery and in the winter it was dismal…. It was awful. I was cold and miserable and that certainly was not on paper.
Now I am here in this city called Hamilton. Far away from my home in Quebec, I am at the base of Lake Ontario. It’s something of a watershed moment. Something historic. I am now the first full-time director and curator of this Art Gallery of Hamilton. On first glance, really, it’s not much to admire. Thirty three odd paintings stored in a handful of rooms within the public library. My post is courtesy of the city’s Councillors who’ve allocated the princely sum of $8500 to revitalize the space.
Well, I’ll go them one better. They want revitalized? I’ll give it to them. More local, more Ontario, and more Canadian work. Thirty three paintings does not a gallery make. Not if we want it to speak to and stand for the community in which it stands. Works without a voice that speaks to Canada and Hamilton will fall silent. I’m not interested in a quiet gallery. Neither is this city.
I am embracing Canada. Or, at least, that’s what the exhibit is called. I am wheeling my son through the gallery staring at landscape impressions of this country from coast-to-coast-to-coast.
If I’m being honest, I’m really just here to see the Group of Seven. And even then, really, the work of Lawren Harris. It’s Friday afternoon. I now have my days free thanks to the paternity leave and I’m intent on exposing my son to culture no matter what. He fidgets in his seat and I turn us around and wheel him down the hall to the children’s play room. An effort to stave off the periodic meltdowns he’s been prone to these days.
It’s not really a play room, of course. Brightly coloured triangle designs adorn the room while four infographics detailing Colour, Texture, Shape, and Form beckon the seeker in every child’s mind. But it’s the giant blackboard covered in dusty chalk scrawl that captures my attention. I can vaguely make out the name Thomas in bold red and white caps that have since been covered over by countless other names and shapes.
How far back in time, I wonder, has this budding young artist been here? My son tries to touch the blackboard. He’s not yet old enough to really get into chalk. At least, not artistically. He’s more interested in sticking the chalk in his mouth right now. But maybe today’s visit will plant a seed for someday?
Later, we’re sitting outside on the southern steps adjacent to the Gallery. The background din of downtown Hamilton is suddenly interrupted by the roar of quad Rolls Royce engines. Heralding the arrival of the city’s famed Lancaster bomber, the sound echoes off of the Gallery and nearby Hamilton Place. Like I’m in the middle of an air raid. My son sees it first and points to sky and. I follow his tiny hands once more to a dark shape crossing the wisps of cloud painted across the sky.
I am delighted that the Hamilton gallery has bought my “Horse and Train”. I have always thought it was quite good but realized that few individuals would buy for hanging in a home (most people seem to consider it exceedingly morbid) and had hoped that it might eventually end in a public gallery.
They’re calling me a collecting genius. The next time I hear someone say that that I’m walking out of the room. All I have done is the job of any curator. Still, it makes me smile to know that this work will be here and not enshrined Ottawa. Early bird gets the worm, I suppose?
Mind you, not everyone agrees with the purchase. The local paper is running the headline “Fine Pictures at Winter Show — but Prize-winner Isn’t One of Them”. I don’t seem to remember journalists being so acerbic, do you? At least not when we shared the trenches together during shelling in the war. To hell with them. If some call it exceedingly morbid I say it has an air of inevitability.
It reminds me of this community. The people here have a strong sense of who they are and where they stand. They rather remind me of the horse in the picture. Running headlong to meet their destiny… whatever that may be.
Frost Bite is kicking my ass. With every step I can feel the chill of an oncoming flu lumbering close and closer. I’m being lead up a set of stairs into the Jean and Ross Fischer space. The walls are stark white broken up by framed works all by artists who have made their home in the city. The few times I’ve been here, it hasn’t felt like a gallery. The first time was a retrospective photography show featuring pics from forty or some odd years of Canadian music. That was in 2015 when the JUNOs came to town. Later that same year, I was chairing a community art symposium held by the Hamilton Arts Council on assessing the needs of local theatre makers.
Two years later, the Fringe Festival has co-opted multiple rooms in the AGH as part of their annual site-specific showcase. After several minutes of awkward pre-show settling on the part of the audience, a dozen dancers bring to life the ballet pastoral of Edgar Degas.
For seven minutes, it seems, time stands still.
There is an immediacy, and an intimacy, in the gallery that’s better than any stage could achieve. I think to myself that the poetry of the dancers, perhaps combined with my rising fever, is having a delirious effect. As time fixes itself in this place, at this moment, my own recollections of past moments coalesce and overlap into and over one another.
The show ends. The performers bow. The audience rises to leave. My friend Aaron nudges my shoulder. “You okay, man?”
“Give me a moment,” I say to my friend sitting behind me, “or three.”
Give me a moment. That’s all I’m asking. One moment away from staff and the press and the public. One moment to process what has happened.
Art stolen from the gallery. Art cut from the frames. Art gone. Someone got access into the building. Someone took a blade and literally cut them out of the frames like they were pieces of birthday cake. Or some grotesque exercise in scrapbooking.
There are no witnesses and no real leads to speak of. No trace of who would have taken them and how to find them. In the wind, the police might say. Art in the air. Maybe if I breathe in deep enough, take a long enough moment, the art will come back to me on the wind.
About the author: Stephen is a writer and educator originally from Ottawa. His plays have been performed across Canada at a variety of theatres and festivals. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada, the Theatre Aquarius Playwrights Unit and is an alumnus of the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen is the recipient of the 2019 City of Hamilton Arts Award for Established Artist in Arts Management and now lives in Hamilton with his wife and two children.
Helen Hadden has been a volunteer librarian at the Art Gallery of Hamilton since 1961. We sat down with Helen on May 9, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton library to discuss her history with the gallery and her involvement with the Women’s Committee (now the Volunteer Committee).
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