After World War I, Canada suffered an identity crisis, struggling to define itself as a nation in a way that was no longer determined by British colonialism. Arthur Heming, the right man at the right time, helped to fill the void.
"He was part of a larger movement establishing Canadian identity as being all about the Northern lands," said Cassandra Getty. "The coldness and the snow was seen as purifying."
Getty is curator of art at Museum London in London, Ontario, and is guest curator at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, which is now showing "Arthur Heming: Chronicler of the North."
Heming (1870-1940) was born and died in Ontario, and had very little formal schooling. For decades, starting at 16, he ventured to the Great White North for inspiration for his artwork and writings. He traveled by canoe, York boat, buckboard, snowshoe, dogsled and an amphibious vehicle called an alligator. Everywhere he went, he sketched and took notes, and did his paintings back in Toronto when he got home.
Many paintings in the exhibit illustrated articles — he worked for about 60 magazines — and three popular novels he wrote. His books centered on members of Native Canadian tribes teaching southern Canadian city slickers how to survive in the frigid, forested sub-Arctic region.
"He would tell stories of the fur trade, of Native groups, of trappers, of woodcraft, which is how to survive in the woods," Getty said. "How to make snowshoes, how to walk in them. His stories respected the codes of honor and the dignity of the Native population."
Florence Griswold Amy Kurtz Lansing adds "He was a spokesman for the knowledge that the Native people had, but he did not put himself forward as one of them."
Heming's canvases are populated by bears, deer, moose, caribou, wolves, buffalo, smugglers, hunters, trappers, poachers, rightful hunters catching the poachers, lawmen, criminals they had collared, rapids, canoes, frozen lakes, and meteorological phenomena including aurora borealis and mock suns, in which the sun seems to appear several times in the sky.
At times, Heming's work illustrates Native Canadian myths, such as the belief in Spirit Moose. "He saw the energy of the Northern Lights as warriors and hunters from beyond," Getty said.
As the years went by, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police became an increasingly common sight in his work. "He emphasized the stereotype of the Mounties as always getting their man," Getty said.
Oddly, Heming was color blind and until he was 60, he worked exclusively in black, white, gray and yellow. Later, friends taught him how to use color.
After Heming died in 1940, his fame faded in Canada, especially in comparison to the Group of 7, a community of artists who worked at the same time he did. "When you ask a Canadian, 'What is Canadian art?' 100 percent of the time they will say 'The Group of 7'," Getty said. "They defined Canadian art for a generation."
The members of that group knew Heming, and some derided him for his graphic, narrative style, which they considered naive. "Heming didn't mind," Getty said. "His work served a different purpose." The Group of 7, in turn, have been criticized by some for stripping their landscapes of all traces of human habitation, the opposite of Heming's people-centric work.
Getty said the artist who seems to follow in Heming's footsteps, glorifying the Canadian North for a new generation of Canadians, is author Farley Mowat.
Despite Heming's relative obscurity in the United States, the placement of this exhibit is appropriate. Heming visited Florence Griswold's boarding house for many years. By all accounts he wrote more than he painted, but when he did paint, he stood out in Griswold's usual crowd of impressionists. "He was incongruous, compared to the other artists," Getty said.
ARTHUR HEMING: CHRONICLER OF THE NORTH will be at The Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until Sunday, June 2. It Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $10, $9 seniors, $8 students, free to children 12 and younger. Details: www.flogris.org.