HomeStudying the MastersDear Franklin Carmichael

Dear Franklin Carmichael,

You have been gone from this plane for some seventy-one years, but I am writing you anyway. Maybe you can decipher my words through the veil that separates the physical from the spirit? Maybe not? Still I’ll write this letter, because today especially I am touched by something that you created almost one hundred years ago.

I admire much of your work, but there is something about this one piece that has struck me in a most particular way. It is intensely evocative for me, though I really don’t know why. I simply fall into it. I feel this buzz in the space between my heart and throat, as if a dragonfly were drying its wings there.

Silvery Tangle by Franklin Carmichael

There is nothing particularly striking about the scene itself–no grand view of Lake Superior, no rays of light cascading from heaven through a multitude of traveling clouds. It is just the edge of a forest, probably along a roadside. The sky is a subdued turquoise. There are touches of green, so it might be very early spring, though it could just as easily be November, or late October, after all the leaves have fallen. There are, in fact, a few leaves still hanging in the trees. Unless they are the first swells of Spring. After all, Autumn and Spring can, for a few ephemeral days, seem to be identical twins. So its set in that luminous in-between time–either just before the starkness of Winter, when there’s still some color, or just before Spring, when things are beginning to swell. I think it captures the essence of seasonal ephemerality perfectly.

Mr. Carmichael, don’t you find it curious how a particular piece can resonate so strongly with someone that they feel a door opening inside themselves, something wordless and inexplicable? While another person might simply scan the painting and shrug, unmoved?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Should I paint subjects that I know will be arousing to the viewer? Why do we choose to paint the things we do? Do we paint what we want to paint, what others will buy, or try and strike some compromise? Even the beloved Vincent van Gogh changed his style after his brother told him that his palette was old-fashioned. Impressionism, with its liberal use of color, was by then the center of the art world’s attention, and van Gogh’s early work was horribly out of date with his dark and somber tones. Aren’t we all so grateful he picked up a tube of cobalt blue and painted Starry Night?

At a show I recently attended, this guy was telling me, “You have to paint to your audience. If you go to Bell Buckle (which is, according to him, a huge art fair in Tennessee where people throw the money down) then you paint horses, or unicorns, because everyone there is connected to horses. It’s horse country. You paint for your audience, you see what I mean?”

This guy made me feel a little sick to my stomach. The mere thought of painting unicorns for an art fair in horse country is utterly absurd to me. I actually like unicorns. But I am not a unicorn painter. Period. But he’s a businessman. He actually sells moss-covered bunnies. I think his wife makes them, and he sells them. I suppose he tells her to moss up some unicorns and ponies when he goes to Bell Buckle. He probably makes a fortune.

But this question of painting for the audience is one for which you may have answers. You started your career first in your father’s carriage business, painting stripes on carriages. That was a looooong time ago. When you were twenty you moved from Orillia, a small country town, to Toronto, probably after some sort of adolescent surge into adulthood wherein you said, “Screw you, dad, and all your little carriages, too.”  What a world Toronto must have been, where people actually had cars, and money, and there were schools of art and jobs requiring artistic skill that were a little more challenging that striping carriages. Toronto, 1910

You studied at the Ontario College of Art and the Toronto Technical School, and  became a coffee boy at the design firm Grip Ltd. This is where you struck gold. Did you know who was working there? The perfect climate it would provide for your artistic development? Or was it a serendipitous stroke of luck? Because of course, none other than Tom Thomson, J. E. H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, and Frank Johnston were working there, and within ten years of painting together and talking about art and Canada and dreams all of you, with Lawren Harris at the helm, would officially form the now famous Group of Seven. You were married by then. Tom Thomson would have already died an enigmatic death. 

Autumn Hillside by Franklin Carmichael, 1920

Autumn Hillside, 1920

In 1920 the Group of Seven had its first exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The dream was real. But did you paint what you wanted, or what Lawren Harris wanted? You can see his influence in many of your works, as in North Shore, Lake Superior, with its simple bold forms and brilliant light. (Though one could argue that this was more the influence of Lake Superior herself. Having been there I can’t dismiss this possibility).

North Shore, Lake Superior, 1927, by Franklin Carmichael

North Shore, Lake Superior, 1927

But Silvery Tangle, with its layers of branches and weaving lines, is decidedly different. Even the colors, which are light and subdued tones, are a turn from the bold hues most often used by Group of Seven members to depict the Canadian landscape. You painted it in 1921, with oils. Later you would trade oils for watercolors, which are arguably the best medium for creating delicate, subdued colors. Were you marking your creative independence by choosing watercolors?

Bisset Farm, 1933, by Franklin Carmichael

Bisset Farm, 1933

I watched this video the other day that demonstrated the power of the group over individual behavior. In it a woman ends up adopting an entirely contrived behavior so that she will fit in with the group. She’s in a waiting room, and whenever a beep sounds everyone stands up. At first she seems confused, but then she starts standing up, too. Then she’s alone in the waiting room. The beep sounds. She stands up. New people come into the waiting room. The beep sounds. She stands up. And one by one, all the new people stand up too.

I can’t help but wonder how the Group of Seven may have influenced each other. What was gained by the group? Certainly camaraderie and mutual inspiration. A mutual creative dream–to create a uniquely Canadian style–that gained power and focus by being shared.  But what might have been lost?

We need the approval of the group. We are, even the most deeply introverted among us, social creatures. We want to contribute something of value, we want to add our voice to the human symphony. One can’t harmonize if one isn’t listening. And yet we also need to remain in relationship with our authentic self, to see the world from our own unique perspective. Otherwise our voice is compromised. It’s disconnected from the heart, lusterless.

Perhaps our creative work stands as a footbridge, from the heart to the greater community to which we belong. It must be moored in both, or there is no transaction taking place.

Franklin Carmichael

And  maybe that’s what Silvery Tangle does so perfectly. When I look at your photograph you seem calm. Gentle. Thorough and kind. They say you were a family man. And I think maybe you put a piece of your spirit, a bigger piece than usual, into this painting. It’s a sturdy, wonderful bridge into your heart.  I think that’s what I’m feeling. It’s pretty wonderful.

In Appreciation,

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