The Group of Seven and me: A few degrees of separation

By Ellen Bond

The bus trip from Barrie to Kleinburg, Ontario, in 1972 did not take long. We arrived at the McMichael Gallery, home to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, on a sunny spring day. I remember a wide, open space with long pathways from the parking lot that were lined with small trees leading to a cool-looking wooden building with massive stone pillars.

At that time in my life, my family would spend parts of our summers on Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) at Wymbolwood Beach and on the north shore of Lake Superior in Terrace Bay. Walking into the McMichael Gallery was like looking through the lens of my summer: paintings of the places that provided me with so much joy and happiness. I was instantly drawn to the colours, lines, thick brush strokes, and how the paintings captured the rocks, the windswept trees and the majestic landscape.

A watercolour painting of people in a red canoe with colourful trees and windswept trees in the background.

The Red Canoe, painted by J.E.H. MacDonald, 1915 (e003894355)

One hundred years ago, on May 7, 1920, the Group of Seven mounted their first formal exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario). It was the first time that the public had the chance to see over 120 of their paintings in a single location. At that first exhibition, according to the McMichael website, only six paintings sold. One of those paintings today would be worth much more than the total amount originally paid for all six.

In 1920, the Group of Seven consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. Johnston left the group in 1920 and moved to Winnipeg, and in 1926, A.J. Casson was invited to join. Two other members, Edwin Holgate and L.L. FitzGerald, joined in 1930 and 1932 respectively. Although Tom Thompson is sometimes mistakenly considered a founding member, he died tragically in 1917 before the group was even formed.

A black-and-white photo of a group of men in suits seated around a table during a meal.

Group at the Arts and Letters Club, Toronto. Pictured: Bertram Booker, A.Y. Jackson, Merrill Denison, J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick B. Housser and an unidentified man. (PA-196166)

The Group of Seven are famous across Canada. In schools, libraries and art schools, their paintings are used as examples, and students are often taught to paint landscapes in their style. I remember my niece Emma painting a group-like painting at school. It hung on the wall of her house by the stairs and looked very professional. The Group of Seven are easily “googled,” and you can find some of their paintings regularly displayed, or even for sale, from coast to coast in Canada. Recently, while visiting the Thompson Landry Gallery in the Distillery District in Toronto, I actually saw a Group of Seven painting for sale. It was my first time, and I stood and stared at it, wishing I had an extra $133,000 to buy it right then and there. I was in awe!

According to the theory of six degrees of separation, any person can be connected to any other person through six or fewer social connections. Two of my friends have close connections (two or fewer) to Group of Seven members Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson.

I first met Ronna Mogelon through a friend and was amazed at her cake-decorating skills. When I found out she lived in the historic log cabin that I admired every time I drove by, I was even more excited to know her. Then I found out about her connection to Lismer. Here is her story:

My mum and dad were very artsy and involved in the art community in Montréal in the ’60s. They hosted art shows in their home, before artists could find galleries to represent them. My mother, Lila, was from Saint John, New Brunswick, and was very close with painter Fred Ross, who was her teacher at art school. (Several of his works are hanging in the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, Ontario.) Before he had a regular gallery, he showed his artwork at our house.

As well, my father, Alex, wrote the monthly art column in The Montrealer, a magazine from the ’60s and ’70s. Mum usually interviewed the artists, and Dad wrote the story from her reel-to-reel recordings. A real tag team! So our family was very involved with the arts.

Anyhow, my parents wanted us to have a good background in art, and so they sent us to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday mornings to take art classes with Arthur Lismer. Most kids went to nursery school. We went to Arthur Lismer school.

A black-and-white photo of a man standing with his left hand on his hip and a pipe in his hand.

Portrait of Arthur Lismer, photographed in Quebec by Basil Zarov in 1953 (e011000857)

Because I was so young, my recollections are rather scattered. I remember how tall he was, but then again, being only six years old, I was pretty short at the time. I seem to recall he smoked a pipe. I remember how I felt like a real artist because we got to stand at an easel and paint. My older sister, Marcia, who took the class a few years previous to me, remembers the big art show at the end of the year, where all the artists’ paintings were on display and she got to dress up in her best outfit. My cousin Richard remembers the licorice pipes that we got at the end of the class on our way home.

I’m not sure if his classes had an effect on me, but I suppose they might have. Years later, I chose art as my field of endeavour and graduated from Concordia University, Montréal, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Maybe some of his teaching rubbed off after all!

As I mentioned earlier, I have spent many of my summers partially on Lake Superior. My parents were both born and raised in the northwestern Ontario area, I was born in Terrace Bay, and for me it seems like home. One of my sister’s friends, Johanna Rowe, was born and raised in Wawa, Ontario. We have visited and even stayed at Johanna’s camp on the mouth of the Michipicoten River where it meets Lake Superior. It is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been. White sand beaches, incredible rocks to hop on, a huge sand spit—at the mouth of the river—that sometimes disappears after a storm, giant driftwood logs from unknown forests …  truly spectacular!

A black-and-white photo of a man in a military uniform.

A.Y. Jackson, 1915, in his First World War uniform. (e002712910) Take a look at Jackson’s military record (PDF).

Johanna, a local Wawa historian and member of the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals, has a special relationship with this area where A.Y. Jackson chose to create his art. Here is her story:

I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about how a member of the Group of Seven had a cottage in Wawa and regularly took trips with local boat owners to explore and paint along the Superior shoreline.

During a special Glenn Gould and Group of Seven training event in 2015, I was introduced to Ken Ross, son of Harry and Jennie Ross, friends of A.Y. Jackson who co-purchased a cottage together on Sandy Beach in 1955.

Between 1955 and 1966, Jackson ventured by foot and by boat from his tiny Sandy Beach cabin. Accompanied by friends and fellow explorers, he created hundreds of sketches and paintings depicting the Lake Superior landscape from Batchawana Bay to Pukaskwa. Many of Jackson’s Wawa sketches were painted in the vicinity of Sandy Beach.

At the end of Jackson’s Wawa paint trips, he and the Ross family would invite friends and neighbours to a social and bonfire on the beach. Jackson would have all his sketches on display leaning against large pieces of driftwood or tacked to the logs on the outside of his cabin. Folks could purchase one of his creations for $30 to $50, or commission Jackson to make a larger version over the winter back in his studio for $300-plus. Apparently, those he did not sell would sometimes end up as fuel in the bonfire. Jackson was also very generous with his sketches and often gifted them to locals who provided transportation out on Superior, invited him to their homes for dinner, or simply let him sit and paint the view in front of their property.

During my research, I discovered there is no complete inventory of his creations. These sketches are now turning up at fine-art auctions across the continent. In the past five years, there have been at least 30 paintings pop out of the woodwork which we know Jackson painted in the Wawa area. He often wrote Wawa or Michipicoten on the back of the painting. And for those of us who have a first-hand knowledge of the landscape, the roll of the hills, the dent in the shoreline, we are able to pick out the exact spot where Jackson sat and painted. It is the ultimate Canadian scavenger hunt … discovering the site where a member of the Group of Seven was inspired to sit and let the creative spirit flow through their paintbrush to a blank canvas. Still gives me a tingle up my spine each time. …

A black-and-white photo of a man rowing a wooden boat.

A.Y. Jackson in a boat, 1959 (e011177131)

The times I have spent on Georgian Bay and Lake Superior have burned memories in my mind so bright, I can still feel the wind of the Great Lakes blowing in my hair, the waves crashing and pounding in my ears, and the brilliant blue of the water dancing in my eyes. I am thankful for my experiences there, and also thankful that Canada’s most well-known artists were able to capture those feelings in their paintings. I look forward to connecting again on my next trip.

For more images, visit the Flickr album!


Ellen Bond is a Project Assistant in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.

22 thoughts on “The Group of Seven and me: A few degrees of separation

  1. Comprehensive, well written and full of joy this blog is a gift. Lawren Harris’print hung in my mother’s home . Our mother encouraged us as Ronna’s parents did to appreciate these artists. A memorable tribute to our beautiful province. Thanks Ellen

  2. This was a great story. I never knew of the group of seven! I love how you wrote that people familiar with the area can tell exactly where the sketch or painting was done.

  3. Very well written, and very interesting! I have always admired the Group of Seven artists’ works, which have been featured in schools, and as murals on some buildings. Great work, Ellen

  4. Ellen, this essay was so interesting and well written I was sorry to see it end. You artfully reminded us that the Group of Seven consisted of real people who loved painting but also loved interacting with the environment and other people. The personal vignettes added so much to the essay and provided glimpses into the lives of some of these gifted artists. Their style was unique but for those of us with ties to those parts of Ontario, gazing at the paintings always brings back literally floods of memories of good times I had growing up on the north shore of Lake Superior. Thank you!

  5. What a delightful, insightful read about the Group of Seven, some of its members, the spirit they captured of the Canadian “wilderness”, and the bond between that wilderness and water. Thanks for making this available.

  6. Thanks for this delightful article! I live in Wawa & have enjoyed the Morrison Cottage on that shore. In addition, I took a university course on ‘the Group of Seven’ & loved all their works especially Lauren Harris. I have also visited Keinburg. Such an inspiration!!

    Thelma Joyce Smitham

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