Researchers uncover Canada’s history through exhibit, graphic novel

beaver hall group, Montreal, Canadian modern art, Brian Foss, Carleton University, arts and culture, Group of SevenOne mention of the Group of Seven and the mind immediately conjures up bold colours and dynamic paintings of sublime northern landscapes.

But what about the Beaver Hall Group? You’re probably not the only one hearing crickets.

Carleton University’s Brian Foss, art history professor and director of the School for Studies in Art and Culture, is hoping to close the chasm between the knowledge of the two Canadian artist groups, and provide further insight into Canada’s rich cultural history.

Foss spent the bulk of the last decade researching the Beaver Hall Group, an early 1920s Montreal-based group of artists, equal parts Francophone and Anglophone, male and female (during a time when to be considered a professional artist one had to be a man).

“The Beaver Hall Group was thus a broadly inclusive collection of artists,” Foss told FASSinate (page 6), Carleton’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences annual magazine. “Unlike the Group of Seven, they encouraged women artists as members of their network….The group also featured both Francophone and Anglophone artists, which helped bridge a divided Montreal scene.”

Foss’ research culminated in an exhibit—the first major exhibit to feature the Beaver Hall Group—at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last October. The exhibit received the Canadian Museum Association’s Award for Outstanding Achievement, and its accompanying catalogue received the 2016 Melva J. Dwyer Award.

It’s currently on a cross country tour, completing a stop at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and continuing on to the Art Gallery of Windsor as well as the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

The artists of the Beaver Hall Group took modern approaches to colour, draftsmanship, and composition in their work, depicting contemporary individuals, rural life, and populated urbanized cityscapes. Their paintings provide historical context and insight into 1920s Montreal and Canadian cities, illustrating a complex and multi-faceted nature of Canadian modern art.

“The Beaver Hall group offers an alternative, progressive vision of what Canadian modern art can be,” Foss said.

The catalogue contains six substantial essays: dealing with the social and artistic contexts within which the group was formed; the ways in which the group was later incorrectly interpreted as being a collection of women artists only; the influence of the members’ artistic training; Montreal’s rich art, theatre, music, film, and dance scene during the Beaver years; the ways in which the artists explored modernist concerns in their choices of subjects and styles; and the complex roles occupied by women artists in the Beaver Hall Group and in the larger Canadian art world.

Illustrating Hamilton’s history

Robert Kristofferson, Wilfrid Laurier University, arts and culture, steel city strikes, Hamilton, graphic novel, labour, unions, Showdown! Making Modern UnionsFor his examination of a period in Canadian history, Robert Kristofferson delved into a more recent past. The Wilfrid Laurier University (Brantford) professor took Hamilton’s labour strikes of 1946 and transformed them into an action-packed graphic novel: Showdown! Making Modern Unions, co-written with Simon Orpana.

Officially launched last month, the book brings to life the steel city strikes where 12,000 workers fought for job security, better wages, equitable treatment, and union recognition.

“The reader is an active participant in the story more so than with other forms of history,” Kristofferson told the university. “Readers have to engage with the book and fill in for themselves what happens within and between the frames.”

In Showdown!, there’s a book within a book midway through, as guest artist Matt McInnes recreated a photo album that belonged to Tom McClure, president of the United Steel Workers Local 1005 in 1945.

The book is part of a SSHRC Connections knowledge mobilization grant. Kristofferson also developed content for WorkersCity, an app that offers walking tours of Hamilton’s labour history that includes over 100 sites.

“The book serves to highlight the degree to which unions can bring dignity and respect to workplaces in the past and in the present,” said Kristofferson.

See the first and second parts of our arts and culture series: “Using performance art to create social change” and “Transforming research into art”.

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