Lawren Harris and La Landscape de Kanata

Lawren Harris, a member of the Massey-Harris families, was founding member of the Group of Seven artists. Without his financial backing, the group would not have been able to ascend to their importance in the art world.  Harris was born and resided for his first 9 years in Brantford.  Two years ago with the assistance of MPP Dave Levac, the Lawren Harris Movement was formed. It was a grassroots group that consisted of art administrators, artists and citizens, who saw the importance of Lawren Harris name being elevated in people’s minds in Brantford and in the greater community.

Ana Olsen, Director of Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant was integral in bringing this movement about and had the following to say about a project that became the crown of our City’s tribute to Harris:

“One year has passed since artist and founder of the Group of Seven, Lawren Harris has been brought out from the background of Brantford’s cultural landscape and the city and province has finally given this Canadian art hero, the recognition he deserves. The City of Brantford recognize a day in his honour – his birthday, October 23 .

Over 2 years ago with the assistance of MPP Dave Levac, the Lawren Harris Movement was formed. This grassroots group consisted of art administrators, artists and citizens, whose sole task was to see the Lawren Harris name elevated in people’s minds in Brantford and beyond.

Lawren Harris was born in Brantford in 1885 and lived in two different residences here until his ninth birthday. Brantford did not mould his creative path, but what is not debatable is that the wealth created in Brantford, certainly provided the financial support needed to launch the Group of Seven, and their inevitable success.

As cities around Canada honoured Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and others involved with the Group, Brantford stood silent. The Harris Movement’s mandate was to change that and acknowledge his success in his home town. The most prominent idea was to create a very visible piece of public art in the downtown core.

As the Director of the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, a non-profit organization, I was able to approach my Board of Directors to apply for funding to pursue this idea. The gallery’s mandate has long supported public outreach of the arts, outside of our walls, so of course, the idea was supported and the grant writing began.

We applied for several grants and in the end, we were awarded funds from Ontario 150, the City of Brantford Public Art fund, Brant Community Foundation as well as corporate sponsorship from The Crew Real Estate and Murky Productions. This support allowed us to not only commission a piece of public art, but also to spend a week celebrating Lawren Harris in Brantford and educating the public on his important legacy.

The next step was contacting the Lawren Harris family. They live in the west coast and are very involved in building his legacy. When they heard about what we were doing, they were thrilled and wanted to participate in any way they could. The third step was finding a home for this public art. We approached the City of Brantford, to see if perhaps this work would fit into their existing collection of public art. They agreed to accept the art as a gift and chose the wall of the Brantford Public Library as a location.

So in 2017, how does one honour a white, rich man without alienating a community that does not see much public money for art, and most certainly does not walk in the same shoes as someone like Lawren Harris? Well, you ask the public for ideas. A Request for Artist Proposal was sent out and we received 21 entries from across Canada and the US.

A jury of community members was chosen and they quickly took on the difficult task of selecting an artist. After much conversation and debate, the choice was made and Brantford Artist, Dave Hind and his Aluminum Quilting Society were chosen. Not because of their amazing proposal diagram – they didn’t have one. Not because of their experience with public art – they had lots, but so did others. They were awarded the commission because the entire approach to their work would be maximum community involvement. Dave Hind wanted more than to honour Lawren Harris, he wanted to honour the land he walked on and painted, the community that nurtured him and his family, and diversity of this place and its people. He wanted to involving people from all walks of life and including our indigenous neighbours as a core group in the planning and creative input sealed the deal.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. In spite of the politics, and bucking tradition, what was erected on the Library wall, on that crisp October day, was a tribute to a man who loved this land. He is surrounded by lovers of the land – from all parts of our community. He is surrounded by nature, by water, by love, by hope. He is honoured in such a profound way that it speaks to everyone, uplifting minority and majority alike, and praises the best of our community. It tells a story and inspires change, which in our minds, is the purpose of pubic art.”

From City of Brantford’s website:

Hind, at the unveiling of the piece on October 23, noted that “the idea of competing against my fellow artists did not sit well with me, so when my proposal was accepted, I wanted to open this project up and involve as many of my friends and as much of the art community as I could.” Hind brought together a team of artists, including Jason Dong, Thomas Anderson, Bonnie Whitlow, Ralph Heather, Shana Elijah, Daniel Hill, Arlene Laskey, Steph Jacobs, Andrea Flockhart, plus many more artists and participants from the community.

The final piece, called La Landscape de Kanata, is fifteen feet square and made of salvaged aluminum and paint. It is installed on the west wall of the Brantford Public Library in downtown Brantford, and was unveiled to a crowd of over 160 people on the inaugural Lawren Harris Day – October 23, 2017. Two of Lawren Harris’ grandchildren travelled from British Columbia to attend the unveiling and meet Hind and the other artists involved.

The image really needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated; take a trip downtown and spend some time with it, and seek to learn more about the individuals depicted. From left to right around the “fire” in Mohawk Park are: Deskaheh (by Thomas Anderson); Ignatius Cockshutt (by Ralph Heather); Arlene Laskey (by Dave Hind, Arlene Laskey, and Andrea Flockhart); Lawren Harris (by Jason Dong); “She is All of Us” based on a photograph of Amanda Polchies by Ossie Michelin (by Bonnie Whitlow); Pauline Johnson (by Daniel Hill); and a portrait by Shana Elijah of her son, to represent the children and their connection to the land.

Hind, a self-proclaimed “tree-hugger,” calls it a “positive, real, unified message of hope and commitment to a healthy natural environment.” Of the piece, he had the following statement to share:

Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven’s paintings of the north are synonymous with what it means to be Canadian. “La Landscape de Kanata” uses this relationship as a starting point to celebrate Lawren Harris’ life and work, his hometown of Brantford, and the importance of the “Land” to the diverse groups of people that call this place home. In this piece we have tried to bring these histories together, in a contemporary context, one that broadens the scope of the connection between the landscape and our evolving Canadian identity.

In the spirit of community and collaboration, this project set out to share the public commission with as many people as possible. It features a portrait of Lawren Harris by Jason Dong amidst a symbolic group of seven, where each figure was conceived and created by a different local artist. Each artist decided who their figure would be, basing that choice on the story of Lawren Harris, the histories of Brantford and/or Canada, and our connections to the natural environment. In doing so, the “group gathered around the fire” illustrates a diverse cross-section of the people and cultures that call this place home.

Lawren Harris’ contribution to Canadian culture speaks to the reverence of the natural landscape that he loved, an appreciation shared by all those who have inhabited and experienced it, past and present.”

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