We realized very early on in this process the need to diffuse the message across all levels of our society that, just like air or water, the act of creation, the beauty of imagination, and the power of ideas, make life worth living. “Arts make life more interesting than art.” And so it is up to all of us to share this idea, to echo it in our communities every day so that our fellow citizens understand how urgent it is that we act together, as citizens, for the common good.
In their wonderful essay, Beyond Wilderness, researchers John O’Brian and Peter White consider the impression this image of the Canadian North—pure and free from all external influences—has had on our art and identity. They said, “Canadianness was defined by way of northernness and wilderness,” and added, “the model of nationhood constructed by the Group of Seven positions Canada between the Old World ‘other’ of Europe and the New World ‘other’ of The United States, while insisting on its distinctiveness from both.” In our quest to uncover the identity of Canadian art, the North and the pieces by the Group of Seven have changed from works of art to icons. The purpose of this sacred image is to tell people who we are, and in so doing, we share this image with the world, we copy it and it ends up becoming the message itself.
In “Death by Landscape,” Margaret Atwood accurately describes the hold Northern landscapes have on her heroine, but she also expresses what the works of Tom Thomson, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris . . . have become to us: “Their work later turned up on stamps, or as silk-screen reproductions hung in the principals’ offices of high schools, or as jigsaw puzzles, or on beautifully printed calendars sent out by corporations as Christmas gifts, to their less important clients.”
Our identity and our art of course need solid foundations on which to build and grow. But when the National Gallery of Canada presented a retrospective in 1996 entitled “The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation,” it was as though we had forgotten that Canadian creation did not stop at the beginning of the 20th century, that is has been enriched by the works of Aboriginal artists, the imaginations of new immigrants, urban cultures …
So, yes, northerliness is a part of our identity and our culture. But during our workshop, when you each came up to show the image you thought represented culture made in Canada, you showed us the real diversity of Canadian creation.
Canadian identity is its land, yes, but it is also its people. In this country, this new home for so many, we encounter and are open to one another. These encounters constitute the mysteries of Canadian identity that will never be revealed, as one of our participants hopes. Because it is these mysterious differences that are the true wealth of our country and that keep our identity alive.
Creation is made of solitude and solidarity; it brings society’s driving forces together and produces its imagination. So what is made in Canada is also what Canada is made of.