Fall in Canada is about your breath. Seeing it for the first time in months, having it taken by nature that weeps with dazzle, catching it during respites on invigorating hikes through the autumn woods. In 2020, when we are acutely focused on our breath — what microscopic threat it might carry into our bodies, or expel out — it is nature that entices us to draw deep, long inhalations and exhale them with life-affirming bursts into dew and frost. Canada’s national and provincial parks provide the calm so many covet and need. When we can’t readily transport ourselves to an expanse of forested trails and persistent waterfalls, we have the Group of Seven to pull us there.
The collective of artists and nature-lovers brought the raw, tangled, and severe landscapes of the country, particularly Ontario, to prominence a century ago. Inspired by Tom Thomson, whose tragic death in Algonquin Provincial Park in 1917 sparked their official formation, the Group of Seven painted Canada’s rivers and forests as they stand, with screaming colours and lifeless domes of granite and treetops that appear to battle in perpetuity against the lashes of the northern wind.
Made possible by the wealth of their leader, Lawren Harris, the Group of Seven captured Canada with passion and remain adored because of it. In Huntsville, the closest town to the western gates of Algonquin Park, murals of the Group of Seven and an endearing sculpture of Thomson have become landmarks thanks to the efforts of businesses and citizens to celebrate the artists.
Visitors to the Muskoka Region can see the murals in a self-guided walk around town or a guided group tour that explains the art and the artists in detail. Gerry Lantaigne pushed for the formation of the outdoor gallery and, along with being its creative director, is one of the muralists who recreate the paintings of Hawris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, and other members of the Group of Seven. He shares his knowledge of the collective, which ran from 1920-32 and featured Emily Carr among its last members, with the same avidity a painter creates.
“Every brushstroke is a song,” he says of “The West Wind”, Thomson’s masterpiece. “Thomson is really the one who brought this eureka moment to Harris and MacDonald. The style he created was bold. Before him, nobody painted trees, rocks, and water with that kind of stroke and with those colours, and they said, ‘This is Canada.’ It was rugged and intense and that wasn’t what painting was like at that point.”
More than 100 murals are in the collection, which includes paintings in tiny towns in Muskoka — about two hours north of Toronto — such as Oxtongue, Dorset, Lake of Bays, and Port Sidney. The murals have been a driver of tourism to the area and Huntsville has especially benefitted. Each year (when there’s not a pandemic), the city hosts a community mural project where participants can each draw a brushstroke on a canvas, or as was planned for 2020, a canoe. In 2010, when Hunstville hosted the G8 summit, Lantaigne instructed dignitaries such as former U.S. president Barack Obama and former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper on how to paint like a Canuck as they created a mural of “The West Wind” to commemorate the political gathering.
“I got to boss all of the world leaders around for 15 minutes or so,” Lantaigne quips.
While that mural is the one most visitors want to see, there are several other historic images whose original versions hang in Canada’s museums that are also compelling. MacDonald’s “The Tangled Garden” and Harris’s “Northern Painting 25” are among them. These treasures are vivid reminders of why we romanticize our parks system and why Algonquin, the jewel of Ontario, has lured humans for centuries.
“The passionate story of the Group of Seven and of what’s become known as Canadian landscape art starts here, in Huntsville, with that suggestion Thomson gave them that they had to go to Algonquin,” Lantaigne says.
Craft Beer Adds to Huntsville’s Artsiness
The murals have also influenced new businesses in town, including Canvas Brewery Co., which opened at the start of 2020 and turns a no-brainer of an idea — craft beer in cottage country — into a triumph of flavour. The brewery’s rooftop features an eye-catching wildlife mural created by Bruno Smoky that, in contrast to the Group of Seven, is wonderfully 21st century.
The art at Canvas transcends to the beermaking as well. Brewmaster Jeff Woodworth teamed with owner Steven Koncan to bring high-quality beer to their hometown. They’ve achieved delicious brews while commendably resisting the geeky and weird beers that some craft breweries slip into. Canvas’s first beer, its Kolsch, is its most popular, an easy-drinking brew perfect for the summer. Its Sláinte Irish Stout is smooth and velvety, and the Ember, a red ale, has a the right blend of caramel maltiness and gentle hops to complement a campfire.
“I’ve always liked different beers and fresh beer, and that interest leads me to other small breweries, which have influenced what I do. To bring those standards here is special and it’s something I know the community has been wanting,” Woodworth says of his craftsmanship.
The community appreciation has been tremendous for Canvas through the pandemic, Koncan points out, noting that it was through “really good local support” that the brewery was able to build its retail sales during the spring lockdown. With hopes rising for a return to less anxious indoor dining, perhaps as soon as summer 2021, Canvas is poised for a strong spike in interest. It has 20 taps, 126 patio seats, and a 14,000-square-foot building, which will accommodate large groups ready to celebrate togetherness, the outdoors, and the enduring beauty of Ontario’s landscapes.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MUSKOKA
Where to Stay: Deerhurst Resort celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2021. The venerable property, which hosted the 2010 G8 Summit, has 575 units. Its Lakeside Lodge debuted in 2019 with beautiful units featuring full kitchens. Reservations: Visit the resort’s website or telephone 1-800-461-4393 (toll-free). Nightly Rates: Save up to 20 per cent with the Stay Longer and Save promotion when booking rooms for 3-5 nights.
COVID-19 Protocols: Visit Deerhurst’s webpage devoted to learning about its pandemic measures for details.
Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery Tour
Details: Most visitors view the murals through self-guided tours, but creative director Gerry Lantaigne also offers guided tours upon request. He recommends a minimum group size of 20 (though not during the pandemic). Tours must be booked a minimum of two weeks prior to date. Visit the website or telephone 705-380-1710 for more information.
Algonquin Provincial Park
Park Permits: $18 per vehicle for day use.
COVID-19 Protocols: The park has a list of what’s open and what rules are in place during the public health emergency. Its COVID-19 page also includes important information for campers.