Story by David Lee.
The Head of the Lake: Catherine Gibbon and the Canadian Landscape
No two landscape paintings are identical, but each of them straddles a borderland between two powerful forces. The first of these forces is the identity of the landscape itself, which can seem to impose its own will regardless of the artist’s intention. The second is the enormous weight of the landscape tradition – a painter who has done their homework might well imagine all the other painters who have ever tackled a landscape (and almost everyone has) looking over their shoulder as they work.
Heavy as it may be, the weight of these forces is not necessarily oppressive. Artists define themselves through their work, so it is in their paintings that painters focus on what will explicitly identify them, excluding all that they are not. Accordingly generations of Canadian painters, generally of European descent, living in cities built faithfully along European lines, and filled with people wearing the latest fashion trends from Europe, and the USA (who have always answered their cultural questions just a bit differently than us), have traditionally turned to the land in order to summon an art that would appear to be truly “theirs.”
In the case of Dundas-based painter Catherine Gibbon, her most powerful landscapes are infused with an awareness of the land, its innate power, and the ways that that power is stifled or ignited by the human presence. She is intrigued by the interface of human activity and the land it affects, so the Hamilton area, or ecozone, at the head of Lake Ontario, is the ideal site for her art:
It’s one of those ecozones where things meet: the forest and field meet and they’re always some of the most rich areas, and I feel that that’s what Hamilton has for visual arts. That ecozone that has all this new stuff happening in it because of the interface.
One of the earliest of Canadian paintings straddles such an interface, and it is essentially a landscape: France Bringing the Faith to the Hurons of New France, 1666 by Frère Luc aka Claude François. Here the wide open spaces of “New France” are a mere backdrop to the real action: Louis XIV’s regent, Anne of Austria gives a grateful First Nations man a framed painting of Christ and his apostles: a product of European technology that because of its subject, has itself become a sacred object. Already, the Huron man is wearing Euro-styled clothes; he is clearly a successful test subject in the campaign to make the land’s indigenous peoples become Europeans – or else! – the campaign to, in the long run, eliminate the need for an interface between worlds, because eventually these two worlds are intended to become one.
France Bringing the Faith is an example of what Northrop Frye called the “picturesque” tradition: “painters who were reconstructing the landscape in front of them into forms of visions that had been made in Europe.” Into the 19th century, this essentially documentary tradition continued; even Paul Kane was very much part of it, although for a European, he foregrounded the land and its First Nations peoples to an unprecedented extent. Not until the twentieth century did a new generation of painters endeavor to depict the land itself as a cultural force, and source. Early 20th century Canadian artists such as James Wilson Morrice and John Lyman and David Milne, not to mention their successors the Group of Seven, were known for their landscapes. They travelled and trained abroad where they absorbed not only the contrast of different countrysides, but the latest painterly tools and techniques, and the best of these artists used these influences to create truly original works, grafting the latest in European attitudes and technologies into the construction of specifically North American artworks. In 1920s Montreal, Nora F. Collyer, Anne Savage, Prudence Heward, and other members of the Beaver Hall Group brought what was seen as a “jazz age” sensibility to the Canadian landscape, while on the west coast, Emily Carr transformed places few Euro artists had ever seen into paintings unlike those anyone else had ever painted. As Frye writes, “Seven” member Tom Thomson “[used] the conventions of art nouveau to throw up in front of the canvas a fringe of foreground which is rather blurred, because the eye is meant to look past it … a new world is being discovered.”
Indeed, the landscape tradition, such as it is (“tradition” itself being a highly contested term) can be seen to have parallels with the jazz tradition: the same landscape (though as part of nature, landscapes are rarely static) can be a text to be richly interpreted by successive generations of artists in the same way that decades-old songs and compositions can be newly interpreted by each generation of musicians.
Gibbon admits the improvisatory nature of her creative process: the extent to which it’s the doing that leads to the seeing, rather than the other way around:
If you find the place where you feel at home … a door is going to open and then if you follow it through another door, another three doors will be there … it’s like walking through a dream and then you’re picking things up at random and then suddenly things will come into place and then the last stage of that is building the images that reflect what your vision was. And even in the process of building a painting, I will start and not really know what it’s going to look like.
It is a tradition that Gibbon has entered through a lifetime of “learning how to translate what you see in landscape into something personal.” Raised in Hamilton and environs, her background and her art and her environmental concerns, with all their contradictions, can’t be separated:
I’ve carried that landscape with a plume of smoke rising over it with me wherever I go and I see in it as well … a terrible beauty in the sense that we know that it could be very polluting, but on the other hand it’s full of energy, and it’s very very gorgeous to watch that energy come up and unfold and get released into the atmosphere.
Where once, nature in its power and indifference might have been seen as something sinister, in Gibbon’s hands nature is an entity that calls for a richer, fuller, more complex and more aware and respectful relationship. Her introduction to the anthology of writings and artworks, On the Edge, might well apply to her own art: “it is less about a place than about a sense of place … more than an experience of sight, sound, and smell. It is an inward journey of connections … the near landscape [is] the point of reference that shapes our visions.”
On the Edge shows that, certainly as far back as 1995, her concern with nature as a subject was inseparable from her concern with not only humanity’s impact on the environment, but on how our carelessness towards the natural world stems from the unhealthy power relationships imported and perpetuated by colonialism, technology, and the insatiable hungers of capitalism and consumerism. “I’m comfortable being called a landscape painter,” Gibbon says, “but I feel that that pushes me into a niche where I’m not exactly explained the way I would like to be.” A defining moment in her development as an artist was undoubtedly the catastrophic tire fire in nearby Hagersville in 1990, famously depicted by Gibbon in epidemic reds, blues, and smoky greys done in oil and chalk pastel. The 17-day blaze – the single worst environmental disaster in Ontario history – burned up 14 million tires, forced the evacuation of 4,000 people, cost the province a $10 million cleanup, and produced a toxic legacy most apparent in the aggressive cancers it bred in some of the attendant firefighters. The fire chief who led the battle against the countryside inferno later came to the Simcoe opening of what one might call Gibbon’s “fire works”:
He brought all of his buddies and I felt definitely felt that that was a huge honour for me to have those guys come and see my work. And when they looked at it they said, “Wow, if we had known what you were doing, we would’ve been a lot nicer to you.”
If indeed we can see the landscape as a tradition that came from Europe, we might say that, whereas in that tradition where we are and who we are was part of the statement, since the 20th century they have become part of the question. Where are we? Who are we? Some years ago Catherine Gibbon took the opportunity to do a residency in the Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan. The Stegner residency, on the edge of the unique Cypress Hills region, has been an inspiration for scores of artists in different disciplines from all over the world. Gibbon, however, found the experience disorienting:
I walked out and I looked at the landscape and I went, Oh my goodness where am I? I felt like a total alien … all the writers and artists that had been there before had connected with it and I couldn’t. I thought okay, I’m here … I’ve got to work. So, I did. I went out every day and gradually learned a bit more about where I was. I realized that what was happening in Hamilton is my frequency of seeing the place in all these different ways had given me a much bigger understanding of where I lived in all its different varieties of light and colour and seasons … I kind of had that within me. So, I was completely groundless in a new place. It was weird and it gave me a kind of feeling of love for where I was that I really hadn’t realized was that big.
Love for a place. In different hands, a painter might express love in lush, pleasing colours, in sylvan landscapes decorated with plump rustics and fresh morning mists. For this unique locale at the head of the lake, Gibbon expresses her love quite differently. Her neon-bright colours, embattled trees, and towers of smoke and flame ask another question: not only who are we? and where are we? but the most important question of our times: what are we becoming?
About the author: David Neil Lee’s Ph.D dissertation Outside the Empire (U. of Guelph, 2017) traces the influence of the visual arts on Toronto’s improvised music scene from the 1950s to the 1980s. David has lived with his family in Hamilton since 2002, when he moved here to attend McMaster’s MA program in Music Criticism. His books include the novel Commander Zero (Tightrope 2012), Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (Véhicule 1999), The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (Wolsak & Wynn 2014), and the award-winning best-seller Chainsaws: A History (Harbour 2006; paperback 2020). David is also a double bassist who plays with fellow Hamilton musicians Gary Barwin, Connor Bennett, Chris Palmer and Dave Gould, and has performed and recorded with such artists as Arthur Bull, Bob Vespaziani, Bill Smith, Joe McPhee, and Wadada Leo Smith. His novel The Midnight Games, which brought the H.P. Lovecraft “Cthulhu Mythos” to contemporary Hamilton, won the Hamilton Arts Council’s 2016 Kerry Schooley Award for the book that “best conveys the spirit of Hamilton.” He currently teaches creative writing at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus, and is completing the second book of the Midnight Games trilogy, The Medusa Deep.
The following oral history video was filmed in November 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Thank you for
submitting feedback to
Building Cultural Legacies