Tom’s Canoe

What a horse is to a cowboy, a 16-foot canvas-covered canoe is to Tom. (Dr. R.P. Little, “Some Recollections of Tom Thomson and Canoe Lake”)

Tom Thomson came paddling past
I’m pretty sure it was him
And he spoke so softly in accordance
With the growing of the dim
He said, “Bring on the brand new renaissance
Cause I think I’m ready . . .” (Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip, “Three Pistols”)

This blog documents the creation of an installation called “Myth of the Steersman,” which is based on Tom Thomson’s legendary canoe. What follows in this post is an excerpt from the proposal I submitted, which won the Gamble Award.

Perhaps the only thing more Canadian than Tom Thomson — and equally mysterious — is Tom Thomson’s canoe. We’ve seen it painted in “The Canoe” and “Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park.” More poignantly, accounts of Thomson’s legendary death begin with an overturned greyish-blue canoe, floating ominously on Canoe Lake. But what do we know about this mythic vessel that vanished along with its owner? Thomson and the canoe are metonymically intertwined, a symbiotic icon of Canadiana. “Myth of the Steersman” resurrects this vessel with a spirit of adventure and pioneering inspired not by Canada’s pristine lakes, but by the vast and equally mythic expanse of cyberspace.

Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park

"Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park," 1912

While debates about Tom Thomson’s death and the location of his remains are a facet of the Canadian myth, debates about his canoe are less well-known. What kind of canoe was it? Where did it end up? Was it somehow responsible for Tom’s death? All we know is that the vessel tipped over at some point, and Tom was found with a suspicious head wound and an even more suspicious length of fishing line bound around his left leg 17 times. There was a campaign to recover the canoe in 1930 at Camp Ahmek, but none of the canoes investigated were Tom’s. This seems to have been the last attempt to rescue the vessel. More recently, the mystery of Tom’s canoe was revisited online in the forum of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. This discussion yielded some noteworthy information. For example, written and photographic evidence suggests that Tom’s canoe was a 16-foot Chestnut Cruiser or Guide’s Special, which he purchased in 1915. We also know that Tom painted the canoe himself with a concoction of grey canoe paint and a $2.00 tube of cobalt blue artist’s paint. This makes the Chestnut itself a lost Thomson canvas of immense value. Such details might serve to demystify the legendary canoe that has reputedly been sighted in the wee hours of the morning, gliding across Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. On the other hand, Thomson’s quirky repainting of Canada’s most popular brand of canoe adds to his mystique as a cultural re-inventor.

Catalog Ad for Chestnut "Guide's Special" 1935

Cultural re-invention is one of the primary goals of “Myth of the Steersman.” The canoe, known as the proud bearer of Canada’s first people and the vehicle of national expansion for fur traders, shares a place with Thomson in the cultural consciousness of Canadians. In fact, the canoe has become a cliché of Canadian culture, right alongside the buck-toothed beaver and the awkward Mountie. These quaint caricatures belie Canada’s contemporary status as a nation of technological innovation. One way to right this situation is to refashion the canoe as a contemporary icon of digital pioneering. The term cyberspace, after all, comes from the Greek word kybernetes, which means steersman. Thomson’s work with paddle and brush might even be considered as the effort of a canoe-man cybernetic organism — one that reinvented the Canadian landscape in luminous colours and brilliant spots of light, foreshadowing our current spectacle of digital displays.

Tom Thomson in his canoe, ca. 1916.

“Myth of the Steersman” revisits the myth of Tom Thomson through the lens of this canoe-man cyborg, producing an electronic sculptural object that is at once tactile and ethereal; an evocative object that technologically refashions the themes of solitude, mystery, and sublimity found both in Thomson’s painting and in cyberculture.

What will this project look like? I can’t wait to find out. But I do have a plan, as outlined in the rough sketch below. Note that this project will NOT involve the use of iPads. More on that later. The rest of this blog will likely be less formal, as I document the process of giving life to “Myth of the Steersman.”

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