Steve Martin

Steve Martin, iconic actor/writer/comedian/musician (lately with Edie Brickell) is also an avid art fan who discovered our own icon Lawren Harris of Group of Seven fame, in a book some time ago. It seemed that among Martin’s wide circle of friends including art collectors and artists, the work of Harris (and indeed, The Group of Seven) was not widely known in some pretty big circles in the U.S. So began a thirst, a quest, and an emerging passion for this work which led to this premiering exhibit’s creation and curation by Martin for the AGO. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, opens tomorrow, July 1, Canada Day.

Martin spoke on his love for art and the work of Harris (and his personal / artistic links to Canada/ Toronto) at a media preview on Tuesday June 28th at the AGO. A high profile group including Trinity-Spadina MPP Han Dong and local media and culture pros filled out the main floor atrium space while gallery visitors and staff overflowed second floor balconies above to catch a glimpse of this historic visit and hear about the exciting new show. While The Group of Seven’s work is among the most high profile of national treasures, celebrated and featured in our most staid and formal parliamentary settings and spaces, public galleries, formal textbooks and deepest imagery, Martin’s talk brought some L.A. cool and a refreshingly relaxed approach to this art, this project, and to our own relationship with Canadian and local art and culture. His appearance itself lent something unusual, special, and yet understated to the whole proceedings and to the ongoing art conversation that is such an important one for local/regional/generational/national voices and identities. Also rather important for the future – that we take some of the formality out of art appreciation and bring it back down to earth where the young can be inspired to access, appreciate and create future master works. This approach is something that the AGO is leading in and bringing Steve Martin into the mix is a beautiful facet of this approach.

Ian Lefebvre / Photo via AGO Lawren S. Harris Lake Superior circa 1924 oil on canvas overall: 101.7 x 127.3 cm Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970 © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris Lake Superior circa 1924 oil on canvas overall: 101.7 x 127.3 cm Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970 © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

For Lawren Harris’ work is sometimes abstract and other times, literal. You can visit the near north landscapes that look just like some of these works- although time of day, light conditions, patience and imagination (as well as a move away from the grab and go filter to death Instagram instinct) will be required to find those Harris blues and whites in nature. Those both fortunate and adventurous enough to find the Canadian public, shared, accessible, free Northern Ontario lakes can sit in a water craft or on a bank and see those impossible, pristine, unpeopled, advertisement-free, uncluttered landscapes, feel the stillness and feel truly humbled; “small, but not out of place at all” (as The Tragically Hip coined the feeling).  There are people, there are animals, there is life there out of frame (and always has been- these early 20th century works are not acts of erasure of Canada’s Aboriginals) but the land in the paintings and in Ontario’s rich natural world today is still overwhelmingly broad and generous and uncorrupted, largely, thankfully, protected as Crown Lands, as well as just remote enough to remain so for as far back as those old, even ancient, rocks have stood above clear lapping lakes and rivers.

It’s significant that a very famous, well-loved and respected Hollywood actor/artist and writer who’s no doubt seen every corner of the planet he’s ever wanted to and then some, who is among those few celluloid stars who can probably not go to any city on the planet even the more remote islands and not be recognized over a private dinner in a public space, finds something new, intimate, inviting, and addicting about Lawren Harris (and the landscapes and settings that inspired the painter). The work, these paintings, this Group, for Canadians, has national recognition  and is widely celebrated, while like all public, institutionally celebrated things, is also taken for granted – as we do our actors, our artists, certainly our comedians, our quality films and projects and our famous faces of the world today. Our own actors have long had to go south of the border for us to recognize them. Those who are brave and loyal enough to remain, and those unlucky or landlocked, can become part of the background, decoration for a passersby’s selfie. When really they are, like all artists worth their salt, really diamonds, despite their provenance or name recognition.

It is significant, also, that the broad ability for a painting to reach a collector or a book reader can propel someone very well established into new areas of inspiration and connectedness, outside of one’s comfort zone perhaps, far away from the expected areas of focus and enabling them to not “stay in their lane” as casual hate speech cautions artists, musicians, actors, and thinkers of today who approach debate or add voice to public conversations. It takes a very strong person/ality and a strong stomach, heart (what have you) to step into other lanes even if you have the power and credibility to call up the biggest art collector and biggest guns of the country and have a peek at their private collections in their “warehouses”.

Lawren S. Harris Red House and Yellow Sleigh 1919 oil on pulpboard Overall: 26.7 x 33.7 cm Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift from the Friends of Canadian Art Fund, 1938 © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris Red House and Yellow Sleigh 1919 oil on pulpboard Overall: 26.7 x 33.7 cm Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift from the Friends of Canadian Art Fund, 1938 © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris (via AGO)

As expected, Steve Martin is as quintessentially, naturally (and professionally) funny as anyone who’s ever made it big, and, let’s get this out of the way, most eternally silver fox handsome and funnier than most who probably ever will attempt the game. He’s also, in case you don’t look at film credits or think through the laughter of 40 years, a serious and insightful man. YET! His approach to art is just like ours- when he sees something he loves, it’s like a good wine. “Let’s get drunk!” A bad painting makes you say “Wow. Huh.” and a good painting makes you say “Huh. WOW!” The feeling great art (one could extend to “arts” music etc.) is the urge to dominate and own it, privately “to see it in your living room” followed by the reality check “Oh, I see it’s a national treasure…!” (Art can be both for wealthy big-game hunters but too, is and must be for Joe Public). A few embarrassing film junket-type questions emerge from the star-struck media who are careening out of their little, well trodden lane, as usual, longing to tie a star to our little berg with some little anecdote, when really, this is a citizen of the world and the arts, who has a lot of Canadian friends, great comedians, and likes being around comedians. The shrug Martin deflects such questions with is real, and it’s important. Canada needs to calm down and start being more confident in our worth in such fine company. When will we ever believe we are more than just a backdrop? And his advice to young artists is just about perfect: with reservation as it’s “always a cliche” he offers wisdom that reminds us in this jaded, overexposed, devalued generation that hard work and hustle has always been part of craft, talent, and the life of creative people.  “Do anything offered to you. Always keep making things. ” Martin says. Look for new areas of exposure for your work and yourself- your worthiness and ability to be asked to create for others. Look at all avenues for creating work. It’s a casual little chat. Like the best, probably most newsworthy culture stories. It’s not bombast. As usual, Steve Martin, the artist through and through, is (seemingly effortlessly) inspiring, timeless, mountain-like, and clear in his message. And funny. Nuanced. No pratfalls here.

To sit before a real star, the brightest and the best from the era who knows the world in a way the vast majority of audiences never will, who’s written for obscure 1960s tv shows and authored fine movies, books, and one liners to boot; who’s navigated the mountains and peaks and valleys of the glittery world of entertainment and survived the dingiest back alleys behind that city’s false fronts as well; it must be said, who remains when too many have fallen never to be replaced; an actor who you can name as the direct cause of some of your biggest belly laughs in your life, laughter-as-the-best-only-medicine that could bridge generation gaps and heal families; a performer who survived being a prop comic (the best prop comic); who played a sarcastic waiter in The Muppet Movie in short shorts and outshone Orson Welles, Milton Berle, Bob Hope (giants of their day) and Richard Pryor; who called our heroic talent John Candy a friend and colleague; is heady stuff indeed. To see him brush all expectations aside for a nice conversation about a cool thing he’s curating, while pouring a glass of water for his presenter, is nothing short of the almost forgotten, long promised magic of the Silver Screen.

The Idea of North presented informally, with ease and with a long overdue understatement, is that we have our own fascinating landscapes and artists that even a century on, are still ripe for discovery south of the border (and north of it).

The Idea of North is that we have rich, timeless landscapes that you will simply not believe within a few hours drive north of Toronto, that will make you forget or re-contextualize, if you will (students) the academic notion/reading/critiques of culture for something transcendent, apolitical (for once) and timeless indeed. If Steve Martin appreciates it among all the wonders of the world, it’s certainly worth a look for our own. If you have a friend who can show you the way, make haste, bring some wine or a board game, and count your lucky stars (they will bloom like nowhere else on earth.)

Innovative ballets have now been created in its honour. Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, will speak in depth on this topic and Lawren Harris’ view of this city of great diversity and dense urban growth in the 1910s- just as it is today- July 15th at Jackman Hall. With heavy international political and social concerns at the forefront of today’s news, with massive upheaval, migrations, displacement, wars, changes, and stresses, it’s not only timeless and reassuringly Canadian to look inward (in our historic way) but is also quite timely to look inward in a new, clear, confident way; to find strength, discussion points, context, inspiration, and pride in our art and our landscapes and our riches, in the truest and most pride worthy sense of the word. As usual, additional programming, art classes for children and adults, allow a deeper look and participation in this great new show. See the AGO website for more information, tickets and FAQs.

The Idea of North is flexible, open, not pinned to a wall in a calendar, not a coaster, not something dry and dusty from a textbook, not something for parliamentarians and school kids only to pass by each day at our Legislature. It’s rather exciting, starry, special, BIG, after all. Steve Martin said so.

With thanks to the AGO.

Words by Jacqueline Howell and Photographs (aside from those credited above) by Dave MacIntyre