Idealism

44

Dear Artist,

When I was growing up, my Dad told me stories about walking with his friend and mentor in the forests near Vancouver. It was the 1960s and Lawren Harris (1885–1970) was deep into his last period of pure abstraction, inspired by theosophy and transcendentalism. Germs of remembrance and philosophy have since filtered through Dad’s studio and eventually onto my own easel as assumed knowledge. It seems there was never a time I didn’t believe that paintings come out of themselves — serving as springboards for the next and the next — gaining power as they appear. Paintings evolve and exist as monuments to the spirit, drawing from the essence of their original source. Long experienced and filed in our imagination, we pull as needed a vocabulary for the heart.

lawren-harris_North_Shore_Lake_Superior

“North Shore, Lake Superior”
oil painting, 1926, by Lawren Harris

Last Sunday, I went to church — The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a breezy aerie yoked with square galleries. Actor, writer, musician and art collector Steve Martin has gathered thirty or so of Harris’ landscapes from the 1920s and ’30s for an exhibition called The Idea of North — named after the 1967 CBC radio documentary by pianist Glenn Gould. Lawren Harris and I are alone together. The paintings capture the moment before he leapt into the freefall of abstraction. They cling to the stark, shadowed stumps and magic pools of Lake Superior or cut rhythms into the arctic ice. The realities of landscape are transcended into a kind of cosmic hymn to nature.

Like a method actor, Harris immersed himself in his places of reference: the Arctic, the Rockies, the lakes of Northern Ontario. By first seeking to understand the real landscape, he allowed time and imagination to overtake second and third generation paintings, knocking at the door of abstraction while gifting nature’s bigger message. “It was an ever clearer and deeply moving experience of oneness with the spirit of the whole land,” he wrote. “It was this spirit which dictated, guided and instructed us how the land should be painted.”

harris-above-lake-superior

“Above Lake Superior”
oil painting, 1922, by Lawren Harris

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “The thought of today cannot be expressed in the language of yesterday.” (Lawren Harris)

“The power of these great Canadian icons, really, is they have the ability to go beyond Canada and inspire people from many walks of life and geographic locations.” (Steve Martin)

lawren-harris_MtLefroy

“Mount Lefroy”
oil painting, 1930, by Lawren Harris

Esoterica: “A long time ago I had a mentor by the name of Lawren Harris. Apart from the tips that this well-known painter freely gave me, he had the ability to talk elegantly about art as if it were bread. He believed that art was life-sustaining stuff, and worth the effort. He had a wise sense of humour and a diplomatic delivery. One time he looked at my work and said that I had ‘a somewhat endearing tendency to show vestigial signs of mental laziness.’ Harris was a Theosophist, and while I didn’t buy the seances, I did buy his sense of spirituality. I seldom pick up my brush without being thankful for his spirit. While he is long gone, in a wonderful way we laugh together now.” (Robert Genn)

“And light has no weight, / Yet one is lifted on its flood, / Swept high, / Running up white-golden light-shafts, / As if one were as weightless as light itself – / All gold and white and light.” (Lawren Harris)


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44 Comments

  1. Thank you for these exquisite concepts, heartfelt intentions, sublime visions…all tied together in a Holiday bow of your loving prose, Sara. You’re an Art Angel to me. What a gift you are…and your father in Heaven is, too.

  2. Beautifully expressed, Sara–your visit to the Harris exhibition must have been almost a spiritual experience, in seeing the work of one of his mentors on the wall. You have expressed the power of art so well: this “letter” is an inspiration to artists to continue the work that they do, to strive to create more “monuments to the spirit.” God bless you for continuing these letters from your father, in your own voice. Your words, to me, are a springboard to a world that is better because of the presence and power of art in it.

    • Hi Sandra;
      It was probably the other way around. If you read Emily Carr’s journals and books she said she was influenced by Lawren Harris and found his work inspired her to try harder. She went above a beyond what he did in her own way.

  3. Oh, Sara this is such an inspirational post! It flows through your work and out to all of us, and we are blessed by you and your father. Thank you for educating and inspiring me.

  4. Your words bring new visions for our ongoing work, Sara. You have helped me see so much deeper into an untapped sea of energy, openness and life this year, that each of us who read, respond and revision our work owe you a ton of gratitude for your constant encouragement and opening windows onto worlds we have dreamed. Thank You, and Robert, for caring.

  5. Lovely, thank you for articulating an important thought from my past. I always felt that each mark leads to the next, if we go to get coffee, the painting/drawing will be different than if we had not paused.

  6. Wonderful writing, all of you. It took a long time for me to realize that every one of my paintings had been born from the previous one. I thought there was no continuity and yet when I looked back, I saw the thread. And I understood finally how all those men had worked together in Algonquin Park and Northern Ontario. How they were still teaching us how to see Canada as it really is.

  7. May I use this quote on my website:…”It seems there was never a time I didn’t believe that paintings come out of themselves — serving as springboards for the next and the next — gaining power as they appear. Paintings evolve and exist as monuments to the spirit, drawing from the essence of their original source. Long experienced and filed in our imagination, we pull as needed a vocabulary for the heart.”

      • May I use the same quote on my website as Steve? It really rang a bell for me. I’m a process-led painter, and often get the feeling that my paintings come from somewhere deep inside my psyche, or even from beyond it! I’m always looking for ways to describe to others what my approach is, and your words sum it up. Thank you.

          • I too would like your permission to use this quote on my website. I change the quotes on my website frequently, as much to guide myself, as to give focus and direction to my visitors. I want to explore your wonderful thought in the context of the work I am attempting now and in the future. Thank you for this essay, Sara. Drawing a line between Harris to your dad to you is a lovely discovery for all of us!

  8. Jeeez I wish I could write like you. What a gift. As for Harris. Love him. I can see relationships to the Canadian 6 (or was it 7?), Maynard Dixon and Rockwell Kent… And contemporaries like Ed Mell..
    Thanks for the great words!

  9. Thank you so much for this letter, Sara. I believe it was a sign…for us and for you as well. You said you went to church, and saw the paintings. I am curious, did you know that they were there, or did you come upon them by surprise.? You probably knew that those fabulous paintings were being exhibited, but how wonderful that you recalled your father’s friendship. The words that Harris wrote: “It was an ever clearer and deeply moving experience of oneness with the spirit of the whole land,”
    Your letter reminds us of the continuity with nature and our own stardust. Thank you sweet girl!

  10. “Bread for my soul” — yes, mine too! Thank you for this essay, Sara, and for continuing the legacy your father began.

    I’ve been saying to my students for a long time that their photographs can serve as springboards for their paintings (they certainly are for mine), and that the paintings are transformed by memory and imagination. I love how you use that marvelous metaphor to describe the evolution of each painting from the one that preceded it! It’s so true. (When I was a student, I used to say that each painting was an antidote for the one that preceded it.)

    And thank you for sharing the Hammer Museum show of Harris’s amazing work! (And for your description of it as church.)

  11. Thank you for this lovely letter. I have always called museums, galleries my church. L. Harris’ work reminds me of Rockwell Kent but much more ethereal. Thanks again for sharing his beautiful work.

  12. Sara, you are right on today. To have been in the Hammer and seen all of those magical pieces in one place must have been overwhelming. I have stood in front of Mount LeFroy and Pic Island, that incredible purple velvet mound at McMichael and felt tears in my eyes. You can only marvel that Lawren was able to distill that immense landscape into such an evocative image. I have always seen the land around me in a simplified version like Lawren but have not painted it myself. Paintings do evolve and exist as monuments to the spirit, so thank you for reminding us and inspiring us to be the light in our lives and the lives of others. Your father, benefiting from his friendship with Lawren took advantage of the special time and place he lived in and was able to share it with us. It’s up to us to continue to search for the spirit and light around us and inspire others. Peace!

  13. Steve Martin fan, will send this to my daughter and son-in-law in Los Angeles maybe they can get to see this special show. As for me, this style of artworks has often been used as a primer for children and new pro artists, since it points so perfectly at concepts of light and composition and form – teaches the eyes. Thank you for sharing and may you enjoy a very fine Holiday Season –

    in fact, holidays are the time to see my site … a new Holiday story daily links form the home page.

  14. Harris was one of the Seven Canadian painters. A really great group that I wish I had studied in art school, quite a while ago. We came across a great show in Toronto ten years ago that featured all of them. I bought the book and look at it often. They really worked at their craft and spent their time out in the cold with small canvases and oils that did not freeze. Thanks, Sara.

  15. This is the first time I have commented, tho I have been a regular reader for over a year. Thank you. These short articles are food for my soul and my art. I cherish every single article for the sustenance they bring me as an artist.

  16. Thank you Sara.
    Art is about stretching the consciousness, enlarging the vision (inner/outer) and opening the doorways to the heart.

    Your posts do that for me. And I love u for it as my spirit sister. Yeah, we both miss dad, your dad, my dad, all dads.

    Let’s keep your dad’s idea alive: he had a beautiful way of saying it: we are all sister and brothers in art.

    PS. You asked me for a new crop of abstract work. They will be coming up. Will keep you posted.

  17. “I went to church — The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles,” — LOL! This is cute, Sara; spoken like a true devotee. I so love and enjoy your writings! They make me pay attention and inspire me to higher pursuit. The images that accompany the article are so beautiful, it’s a joy to see them. Thank You for introducing Lawren Harris and sharing your writings so generously. Blessings,

  18. I remember my discovery of The Seven; it was a revelation! It started with the literary works of Emily Carr, her memoirs. She mentioned them and so I was off on a search; found some books about them I finally got to see some in person when I went to Toronto and was thrilled to the bone. I was influenced by them to paint a Risen Christ Altar Piece, the largest piece I have ever done. I still love to see their work. Donna Veeder.

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