Every country has a “national school” of art making, and for Canada that place of honour is undoubtedly held by the Group of Seven, who began as a formal association 100 years ago this year.
Their actual membership can be confusing. The original members were J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Lawren S. Harris, Frederick Varley, and A.Y. Jackson. In 1926, Johnson left the group to be replaced by A.J. Casson. In 1930 Edwin Holgate was invited to join, followed by L.L. Fitzgerald in 1932, making the Group of Seven a group of nine.
To further muddy the waters, two of the best-known artists associated with the group were never members: Tom Thomson died before its founding and Emily Carr was never invited to be a member, despite the support of her career by group members, most notably Lawren Harris. The Group of Seven eventually merged into the much larger Canadian Group of Painters. And that’s the end of the lesson.
Mary Wile thought that the centennial of the Group’s founding was worth celebrating. Canadian art has been a long-time interest of hers, and for the past fifteen years she has been an active member of Dartmouth Heritage Matters, a group of over seventy rug hookers, founded 40 years ago.
Hooked rugs have long been a staple of Maritime homes, but over the past decades much of the focus on hooked rugs has switched from practical household items to art. It is as common to see rugs hanging on walls these days, as it is to see them on the floor.
Famous examples such as the hooked rugs of the Grenfell Mission have even been the subject of nationally and internationally touring exhibitions, and Nova Scotia has had some well-regarded hookers as fine artists, most notably Nancy Edell and Deanne Fitzpatrick.
She convinced the group to mount a special exhibition of rugs inspired by the Group of Seven and friends (including Tom Thomson). “I thought it would be good to get us out of our comfort zone,” she explains. While many rugs are made from original designs, a lot of the members of the group were used to using existing designs and following the patterns. To adapt paintings to rugs was a new challenge.
“We started last September,” Wile explains. “We wanted to incorporate education into the project. Every week we had a mini-lecture on a member of the Group of Seven.” These presentations had their desired effect. “We adapted their work into our patterns. We got into designing.”
Dartmouth Heritage Matters (they also have a sister group from the Eastern Shore participating in this exhibition) meets every Thursday at the South End Baptist Church in Dartmouth. Members work together on rugs, sharing encouragement and ideas, with the more experienced members acting as mentors to the less skilled.
For Wile, who has been the chief organizer of this ambitious project, it has been a busy but rewarding experience. “It was interesting for me to watch the excitement growing and the interacting of the women,” she says, adding that the activity is both social and educational.
There are 57 participants in the project, and while they studied all of the group’s members, Wile admit that there some got more attention than others. “Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, and A.Y. Jackson were the favourites,” she says.
For all the work and planning that has gone into this project, it will not be on view for long: Group of Seven & Friends runs May 2–5, at the Fairbanks Centre, 54 Locks Road (off the Waverley Road) in Dartmouth. The exhibition at the Fairbanks Centre is free of charge. It opens on Thursday May 2, from 5–9 p.m. Hours for the rest of the run are Friday, 5–9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1–5 p.m.
The show will travel, with stops at the Musquodoboit public library in June and the Fraser Cultural Centre in Tatamagouche this August. And watch for more projects from this group: Group of Seven & Friends was so popular that Wile hopes for more group exhibitions that continue to expand their creative comfort zone.