Somewhere out in Lake of the Woods — a lake with 14,000 islands straddling the border between the US and Canada — there’s one very special island. After several searches, I located this island in 2004. It was special because, about 1926, one of my favorite painters, Walter J. Phillips, painted on it. We know he was there because he painted another rather distinct island that lay in a certain position nearby. Phillips later made his watercolour into a wood-block print called Sunset, Lake of the Woods.
In my ongoing hobby of finding where historical artists have gone before, I often find the previous artist had chosen a certain type of place to set up. With a bit of looking around on this small, unnamed island — and keeping Phillips’ view in mind — I found a natural “desk” that was there for the taking. A rock to sit on, a place to put my feet, and a rock that took a paintbox and kept it level. There was even a little crevasse that neatly held a can of water.
Naturally, I had to repeat the Phillips event.
Yesterday, Melissa Jean of Kenora, Ontario wrote, “I found it, Bob! You asked me to email a picture to you if I ever found the island (I call it the Phillips-Genn Island). My husband Bill and I found the island yesterday, and we went back today to find the “desk.” We looked at both little islands, and I found the “desk” where you and Phillips painted from. It took a while because it was overgrown with willows — they must’ve been little shoots when you were there. I trampled some down and set up right there. I also found an old tin can that was split open down the middle. It looked like it might have been used as a dish, and it looked pretty old. I imagined it might have been Walter’s. I left it where I found it, and also tucked one of my paint brushes under it, with my initials on it. I thought, maybe someday my kids might discover it with their kids on a little treasure-hunt of their own. The place sure made an impact on them, and our daughter Ruby painted with me there as well.”
Thanks, Melissa. It’s stuff like this that makes it all worthwhile.
PS: “The first thing a painter has to do is to find a good place to sit.” (J.E.H. Macdonald, 1924)
Esoterica: There is a Brotherhood and Sisterhood of painters. Dead and alive, absent and present, we travel together and keep each other company. Members of the ‘hood are our friends, fellow students and occasional critics. We find them struggling and we find them triumphant on sunny shores and in quiet bowers. We honour them with our efforts as they have honoured us. The phenomenon of the ‘hood just doesn’t stop. As far as I can see, it’s eternal.
by Susan Marx, Orange, NJ, USA
When traveling in France, I spend my time doing the same thing, searching for the exact spot where Monet, or Van Gogh, or Matisse would have stood. It helps me to understand their work more. And whenever I have the opportunity, I set my own easel up in the exact same spot to see what Susan Marx will do with those exact same elements.
by Tom Relth, Casablanca, Morocco
What a lovely story. When I went to look at the photos and the original Phillips Lake of the Woods woodblock, I was a little overtaken with emotion. Also the ukiyo-e influence which I love and studied (i.e. Hokusai, Lake Suwa) is so obvious.
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Major collection of Phillips’ woodblocks
by Yvonne Christensen, Oona River, BC, Canada
While I was at the Banff Center many years ago, I asked the curator of the Walter Phillips Gallery why the namesake? The gallery houses an entire collection of WJP block prints that he produced and are bound in a very large and thick book. I asked to view the book and with white gloves on my hands, I spent much time turning each page marvelling at the scope and skill of his work. It is QUITE a journey through his life and times and a wonderful legacy. Artists with an interest in woodblocks passing through Banff should ask for this privilege.
by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA
That Walter J. Phillips woodcut — it is a knockout! Years ago when I was an art student at Oberlin College in Ohio I did a lot of printmaking simply because of the three artists on the faculty. The printmaking instructor was the best teacher. I then moved on to concentrate on painting, leaving my printing days behind. Had I then seen a landscape print as good as this one by Phillips I might have stayed with it.
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Evidence of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I really enjoyed reading this letter. I can just imagine what a thrill it must have been for both you and Melissa to be able to paint from the exact location that Walter did so many years ago. I have been living and painting in Indiana for many years now. And I get a thrill just painting in the same part of the state that T.C. Steel and other earlier Hoosier artists did! There really is a bond that is shared by all artists through all time. I had a minister tell me one time that God prepares us on earth for whatever we will be doing in Heaven. I don’t know if there is any truth to that, but I got more excited about the thought of Heaven than ever before when I heard that! Streets of gold and pearly gates, don’t trip my trigger, but painting and sharing stories with amazing artists both from the past and the future, now that excites me!
Island rock used as a palette
by Vicky Taylor-Hood, Newfoundland, Canada
Insofar as “island desks” are concerned, I found a rather nice one that I thought you’d appreciate. On Exploits Islands, a resettled community miles and miles out in the middle of Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland, Canada, there is a spot where Jean-Claude Roy painted a landscape. While painting from this vantage point, he used a rock as a “palette.”
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Following John Constable
by Judi Pedder, Comox, BC, Canada
I was born and lived close to John Constable’s home in Suffolk UK and have painted several of his scenes in watercolour. I used to go frequently to Flatford for picnics and boating on the River Stour. Just down from the bridge is where Constable’s The Hay Wain was painted. The mill, owned by John’s father Golding, is still there, as well as other buildings including the bridge and Willy Lott’s Cottage. The thatched cottage beside the bridge is pre-Constable, was a tea room when I was little, and now is a museum of John’s work. A new tea room was built and the excavators found Golding Constable’s “dry dock” where he had repairs or new barges built. The 200-plus year-old timbers are still there — I painted those too! The dock has a hollow tree stump into which a stopper could be inserted. Stopper in = dry dock, stopper out — tide in and barges could be floated out into the River Stour. More recently, a dam was built downstream so the River Stour is no longer tidal.
As I was born in a red brick house (built with the same brick as Golding transported to London) and that was built the year of JC’s birth, some time I’d like to present my work with the connecting history and reproductions of John Constable’s work.
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Camaraderie out of past and present
by Melissa Jean, Kenora, Ontario, Canada
That was such a treat to read your letter this morning! I love what you said about the brotherhood/ sisterhood of artists dead or alive… In my experience of that day, I felt camaraderie, and I also felt like I was in the presence of my elders, artists I admire, who stepped there before me… It’s good company! By the way, I’m a little hooked to this and I will find those other 2 places you mentioned to me. Maybe one or two a summer… it’s great to get out of the normal painting and create those new memories for myself and, if they feel like it, with the kids. If you don’t mind, I’d like to carry on your traditions… have this game a lifelong hobby as well… it was great fun for me!! Thanks for that!
And, also, so much of what I’ve learned at the Hollyhock workshop has followed me home. In many ways, what you and Sara casually said about being playful and also, in the morning, saying, “What do I want to paint today?” has really hit home. Sometimes I make an agenda of what I should paint, and now I make it my agenda to paint what I want. One thing is for sure… if I do this every day for the rest of my life… I will die a happy, happy woman!
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Memories of wonderful places
by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada
I, too, have been trekking around this wonderful world discovering places where artists have worked before me. In past years I have travelled to France, Italy and England where many of the great painters lived and worked. I also felt a deep connection to those who immortalized these places with paint. When exploring Monet’s water lily gardens I felt his presence and imagined him looking out from his bridge in search of his next subject.
Recently I had the good fortune to combine my writing and painting and found myself on the Island of Elba, just off the west coast of Italy. It was here Napoleon was exiled during the French Revolution. I know this only from reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Great book… great island. There were many wonderful places to paint and I beat the tourist rush visiting in May so I had no problem finding quiet places to create. It has been a wonderful experience combining my love for writing, painting and travel. I am now working on a book doing just that. It may take me a lifetime to complete, but boy what a ride.
Memories (Italy ~ 2011)
Sitting in the gardens
Birds singing, warm sun upon my back
The water gently ripples as a sculler passes in silence
Church bells ring eight
As a new day is born
I am now caught in her rhythm
This timeless endless quality of life
Living in a moment that is true and perfect
My mind drifts back to days gone by
Of when life was as new for me
As this day that now unfolds
Marbles with colour swirls
Fresh new box of crayons
Mud pies with my sister
Exploring with my brothers
Always curious about the day
Now back in the present
I find myself asking questions
For which there are no answers
I believe at least none of which I am meant to fully understand
For this I am grateful for I really don’t want to know all
Only to accept and live this life I’ve been given
Full of hope ~ the way it was intended
One day this day will be a memory
From days long passed
The thought of this makes me smile
I hope I will still be wondering
In my future life
With childlike innocence
Of this day, this gift we each have been given
May I always see the hope in a sunrise
And comfort in the setting sun.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The tale of an island ‘desk’…
Upper back pasture
acrylic painting, 30 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Teresa Sharp who wrote, “I reposted this on my live-create-connect page, perfect story about creative people connecting.”
And also Leo Proust who wrote, “Even though I have never been to America, I feel the power of the sentiment you must feel for historical artists and the Brotherhood and Sisterhood you mention. Here in Europe we are spoiled and it is easy to forget our legacies.” (translated)
And also Bruce Noel Griffiths of Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, who wrote, “Give me a palette and a place to stand, then I will paint the world.”