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The Canadian Icons Still Getting Fan Mail Long After Death

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2012-11-29-tombstone.jpg

There are signs that the Group of Seven is finally hip with the Canadian people, even those who don't go to art galleries. I was out at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection with a video crew last week. The McMichael has a hot show called Painting In Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. It is a show that blew off the doors at galleries in the U.K. and Europe over the past year. It has the best Group paintings from private collectors, the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael. This is the final (and only Canadian) stop for the touring show.

The show is experiencing record attendance in the public gallery located in Kleinburg, Ontario -- even though many of the paintings have hung in the log cabin gallery for decades. The art gallery going public is rediscovering what has been in front of them all the time. It took a London, England art gallery, the Dulwich, and its curator Ian A.C. Dejardin, to bring the Group and Tom Thomson across the pond for an almost year-long tour. This blockbuster exhibition has managed to rekindle interest in early 20th century Canadian landscape paintings.

At the end of last week's taping I took the TV crew to see the Group of Seven cemetery. It is a quiet thoughtful park that is not often seen by visitors even though one must drive past it to get into the gallery's parking lot. But, now with visitors wanting to see everything Group related, people are taking the time to stroll out onto the wooded grounds and see the graves. Some have attempted to interact with the dead.

We got there and I found that someone had taken the time to write fan letters to the long-dead artists and placed them in front of their rough-rock headstones (the stones were cut from the Canadian Shield when the Trans Canada highway was being blasted through Northern Ontario). Bouquets of wild flowers and even a small stuffed bear pin have been left as well.

Now leaving notes and gifts for dearly departed artists, writers and musicians in Europe and even the United States are not unheard of. The mailman calls quite regularly at Oscar Wilde's gravesite in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Jason, Paris. (visitors used to kiss his headstone wearing red lipstick, but that is no longer allowed). Jim Morrison's nearby tomb is a veritable dead letter office. A few aisles over, Amedeo Modigliani gets the occasional flower and note. In the U.S., letters and flowers are routinely dropped at the door of Marilyn Monroe's California crypt. In Central Park, fans not only leave cards and letters for John Lennon at the Strawberry Fields memorial site, they also sing him Beatles song marathons... sometimes in key. But in Canada? Never. Until now.

The Kleinberg graveyard, by government statute, is only for the artists who were in the Group of Seven, their wives and for gallery founders Robert and Signe McMichael. Tom Thomson is not there; his death pre-dated the formation of the Group (he died in 1914 and is twice buried elsewhere).

In all there were 10 members of the Group of Seven. All but one of the artists were married. Lawren Harris was married twice. Of the 10 artists who were members of the Group of Seven, six -- Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson -- are buried in a small cemetery on the McMichael grounds, along with Robert and Signe. Esther Lismer, Florence Johnston and Margaret Casson are buried there with their husbands. Harris is buried with his second wife, Bess. Jackson never married and Varley's wife is buried elsewhere. I only attended two of the funerals (I am not that old!).

In fact I have been at the McMike on a part-time basis, on and off for the past 15 years. I have spent hours over the years sitting in the cemetery -- best place for cell phone reception. I have never seen flowers, badges or letters left at the grave sites before. I was really curious, but no I didn't open the envelopes. I do know that so far the artists have not responded to their first mail call since their burials back in the 20th century.

More information: Last month my associate, art videographer George Socka interviewed Dulwich curator, Ian A.C. Dejardin last month and asked him why the Group of Seven has suddenly been embraced by art lovers in England, Europe and yes back here in Canada. This video is unique to Huffington Post.

McMaster University professor James King just released a long overdue biography about Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. Socka has also filed a YouTube video story about James King lecturing about Lawren Harris and Tom Thomson.

Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris is available at bookstores and online.