The Group of Seven Reimagined: An Ekphrastic Celebration

Shimmering Water by Lawren Harris

2020 marks the centenary of the formation of the Canadian iconic Group of Seven artists. The Group of Seven movement “dragged Canadian art into the modern age,” writes Christine Sismondo of The Toronto Star in her review of “The Group of Seven Reimagined,” an ekphrastic celebration of the Group of Seven by twenty-one flash fiction authors (including my own “Alien Landscape” inspired by J.E.H. MacDonald’s Lake O’Hara). Sismondo astutely identifies and encapsulates the resonant meaning of the Group of Seven, then and now:

“A hundred years ago, seven Canadian painters got together and decided to start a movement. It was born out of the horrors of war. Now, the potential horrors of climate change are giving the movement an unexpected new life and meaning.”

Jack Pine by Tom Thomson

Sismondo goes on to describe how the movement itself took form:

“At the time, people were trying to put the horrors and sacrifices of the Great War behind them and look to the future to reimagine and redefine Canada itself. It was a pivotal moment, given the role the country had recently played in international affairs and the challenges it faced in becoming an increasingly modern nation. These seven artists—friends and colleagues, many of whom worked together in a Toronto design firm—felt they could help shape this conversation with bold strokes and bright colours to bring out the beauty of the Canadian landscape.”

But in those early days—and more than thirty years after Van Gogh painted Starry Night, Canada still wasn’t ready for Impressionism, or any other art form whose roots came from that movement. Canadian critics disliked the Group of Seven. They were too modern, too experimental. The Group were dismissed as “the Hot Mush School” “a horrible bunch of junk” “the figments of a drunkard’s dream” and “daubing by immature children.”

Mirror Lake by Franklin Carmichael

In his article on the Group of Seven’s reception in England vs Canada, Adam Bunch writes about the reception of the Group of Seven shortly after their formation after the First World War:

The Entrance to Halifax Harbour by A.Y. Jackson

“The reviews by Canadian critics were harsh. The Toronto Daily Star compared Jackson’s work to “a spilt can of paint.” But the English critics loved it. The Morning Post called the Group of Seven “the foundation of what may become one of the greatest schools of landscape painting.” One piece of Canadian art was even sold during the British Empire Exhibition — and it was Jackson’s. Entrance To Halifax Harbour was bought by the Tate Gallery. It’s still part of their collection today.”

“And despite the poor Canadian reviews, the show in London helped to establish the Group of Seven’s reputation back home. Now that the British took the Group seriously, Canadian collectors started taking them seriously, too. The Group even used the bad press to promote their upcoming shows: they printed posters with the angry Canadian reviews side by side with the glowing English ones.”

The Group of Seven Reimagined, published by Heritage House, was elegantly edited by flash fiction author Karen Schauber. Karen had invited me to contribute a piece of flash fiction (a piece of less than 500 words), inspired by a Group of Seven piece I would chose to inspire me. I took my time; this would be the first flash fiction piece I would write. It was an art form I was not familiar with, but was happy to experiment with. But I waited too long to decide and when I finally submitted my first choice for a painting, Karen informed me that it had already been selected by another writer. To my great frustration, this went on for a few pieces.

Shore Pattern by A.J. Casson

I finally took a short trip to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg to find my piece. In the main hall, I passed the pieces already claimed by my twenty colleagues; I sighed that I had waited so long. By chance, a large selection of artwork by J.E.H. MacDonald—one of the founders of the group—was currently on exhibit on the second floor. That was where I first saw the original oil sketch called Lake O’Hara by MacDonald. It was perfect! My story “Alien Landscape” emerged from the sketch like they had always belonged together.

Lake O’Hara by JEH MacDonald

The Star wrote: “while you might expect a lot of peaceful communing with nature on the page, a surprising number of the written pieces are actually dark tales of conflict and danger—forest fires, mining accidents, boat thieves and murderous plots in the woods. Nina Munteanu, a Canadian ecologist and science-fiction writer, takes J.E.H. MacDonald’s Lake O’Hara in a novel direction in ‘Alien Landscape’ by reimagining it as a refuge for a space heroine fleeing a world that had destroyed nature in pursuit of progress and ended in post-apocalyptic chaos.”

Gift shop at McMichael Gallery

The anthology has found itself gracing the gift shop shelves of several art galleries and museums such as the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, and the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. It has likewise received much praise and accolades and appears on several ‘best of’ lists for ekphrastic works, art books, and more.

The anthology was long-listed for The Miramichi Reader’s “The Very Best” Book Award for 2020. The Miramichi Reader writes:

Sunset in the Bush by Frank Johnston

“There’s a very good reason that as I write this, The Group of Seven Reimagined, Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings is sitting at, or near the top of bestseller lists in Canada (currently #3 on the Canadian Art bestseller list at Amazon.ca).  The result is a most attractive book that any lover of art and literature would enjoy, even if they already have more than a passing familiarity with the iconic Group of Seven. All the stories that accompany each image are in the “flash fiction” style, just a page or two in length, a little story that the authors were inspired to write after choosing a particular G7 painting.”

 

Jules Torti of Cottage Life  describd the book this way:

“Seeking equilibrium? This book is like a yoga session without the scheduling logistics and hustle to class. Balance is found in The Group of Seven Reimagined both as an intelligent coffee table book and tangible source of meditation.

Authors of the anthology

Twenty-five writers with notable street cred contributed “flash fiction” to colour iconic paintings by the Group of Seven (and their tagalongs). Flash fiction are stories categorized by length—they are 500 words or less which means they allow for one decent, undistracted cup of dark roast or whisky on ice. For writers or artists, the temptation to reimagine these works will be irresistible. And, what an intriguing resolution to make! Fiction and paintings both rely on interpretation and consideration. Fill in the gaps and colours with your chosen or perhaps newly discovered medium (watercolour?). As Jim and Sue Waddington suggest in the foreword, an art gallery visit becomes suspended in time. We keep returning to certain paintings that resonate and haunt and inadvertently, ‘Your mind sets off on a journey.’”

Author and reviewer Patricia Sandberg describes the anthology through metaphor: “Like a fine wine with dinner, some things cry out to be paired. In Reimagined, the nearly hundred-year-old brandy that was the Group of Seven is introduced to a fresh vibrant cuisine that is flash fiction, and both are the richer for it.”

Stormy Weather by Frederick H. Varley

“As a disciple of the Group of Seven and an aficionado of Canadian wilderness, every page gives me a little leap of pleasure.”—Robert Bateman

“These sharp, imaginative evocations of the world of the Group of Seven are both a joy in themselves and a welcome prompt to make us look at the paintings again. It’s refreshing to find that, a century later, they still speak to us about our lives and our country.”—Ross King, author of Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven

Nina Munteanu with the anthology

“Words, the writer’s paint, are artfully chosen and applied, not one wasted. The stories all compel the reader to dive beneath their surface and linger long after the reading is complete…In 1920 The Group of Seven introduced a new vision for the Canadian landscape. One hundred years later, twenty-one writers in the Group of Seven Reimagined offer a new lens for appreciating their art.”—Ottawa Review of Books

“From one region of Canada to another, a national identity is captured and shared with writers all over the world who, in turn, have crafted beautiful flash fiction pieces that accompany and extend the meaning of the art.”—Niles Reddick, Literary Heist

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

On Writing “A Diary in the Age of Water”

How does any fire begin? With a spark…

FillingAtWaterTap copyIn Summer of 2016, I attended a talk given by Maude Barlow on water justice. The radical talk was based on her recent book “Boiling Point”, a comprehensive exploration of Canada’s water crisis—a crisis that most Canadians weren’t—and still aren’t—aware. Canada is steward to a fifth of the world’s fresh water, after all. It is a water-rich country. Of the dozen largest inland lakes in the world, Canada holds eight of them. So, why water crisis? Well, Maude explains. And you should read “Boiling Point.” It will open your eyes to the politics of water and how multinational corporations—like Nestlé—are already grabbing and funneling water away from Canadians and into the global profit machine.

Maude’s talk was in a church on Bloor Street in Toronto. I sat close to the front to best see her. But I soon noticed that many people had elected to sit in the gallery above. I found myself focusing on a young mother and her little girl. The girl had some paper and crayons and was busy with that as the enthusiastic mother listened to Maude deliver dire facts about corporate water high-jacking and government complicity.

I saw a story there.

What mother would take her pre-school child to a socio-political talk on water? I would later reflect that memory of the mother and her little girl through my characters Una and her little daughter Lynna, the diarist in my novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” (due for publication in 2020 with Inanna Publications).

 

Elora Park something river 4

Reflections on the Eramosa River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The spark for my novel began with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all.

The Way of Water-COVERI named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public iTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public iTaps—at great cost. She is two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst.

The Way of Water” captures a vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

Exile-CanTales ClimateChangeThe story first appeared in 2015 in Future Fiction, edited by Francesco Verso, and in 2016 as a bilingual (English and Italian) book and essay published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. The story was reprinted in magazines and anthologies several times since, including “Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change Anthology” (Exile Editions, Bruce Meyer, ed), in 2017, Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction (Francesco Verso & Bill Campbell, eds; Future Fiction / Rosarium Publishing, Rome and Greenbelt, MD) in 2018; and in Little Blue Marble Magazine (Katrina Archer, ed) in January, 2019. “The Way of Water” received generous praise from review sites and the press worldwide.

FF - Rosarium CoverAfter the success of this short story, I realized that I needed to tell the larger story—how did the world—Canada—get to where Hilda was? Her mysterious mother, the limnologist Lynna who was taken away by the RCMP in 2063, clamored for more attention. I remembered that four-year old girl and her mother in the gallery at Maude Barlow’s talk on water politics. And I thought of my characters: young Lynna and her mother Una. How does a daughter of an activist mother behave and think? How best to express her voice?

NaturalSelection-front-webI had earlier written a short story that was a mix of correspondence (emails) and third person narrative (“The Arc of Time” in Natural Selection), which I felt captured the voices of the characters well. I realized that a diary by Lynna would be an ideal way for her to express her unique worldview and cynicism—yet allow her vulnerable humanity to reveal itself through this unique relationship with her diary. The remaining characters and their narratives emerged easily from there: Una, her activist mother; Daniel, her conspiracy theorist colleague (and her conscience); Orvil, the water baron (and lover she betrayed); and Hilda, her “wayward” supposedly mind-challenged daughter—who appears in the short story that takes place later.

Water Is-COVER-webI had a lot of material; I had already been researching water issues and climate change in my activism as a science reporter. I had recently published “Water Is… The Meaning of Water”, essentially a biography of water, written from the perspective of mother, environmentalist and scientist. I had practiced as a limnologist for over twenty-five years and could mine my various personal experiences in the field, lab and office with genuine realism. I chose Robert Wetzel’s Limnology (the classic text book I used in my introductory limnology course) for quotes to each of Lynna’s entries; this added an opportunity to provide additional metaphor and irony through Lynna’s scientific voice. I placed the child Lynna (who was born in 2012) into actual events in Toronto, where I currently live. This pushed the story further into the area of documentary and blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction to achieve a gritty and textured reality. Lynna also taught limnology at the University of Toronto, where I currently teach.

Just as Water Is…” served as a watershed for all my relevant experiences as mother, environmentalist and scientist, “A Diary in the Age of Water” would galvanize many of my personal experiences, doubts, challenges and victories into compelling story. Although parts of the story wrote themselves, the entire book was not easy to write. There were times when I had to walk away from the book to gain some perspective—and optimism—before continuing. When I found myself drowning in Lynna’s voice, I invoked Hilda to guide me to shore. I found a balance that worked and compelled. Ultimately this opened to some of the best internal conflict and tension I have experienced in my writing.

Diary Water cover finalLike water itself, A Diary in the Age of Water expresses through many vessels and in many perspectives, spanning hundreds of years—and four generations of women—with a context wider than human life. Through its characters, A Diary in the Age of Water explores the big question of humanity’s deadlock with planetary wellness and whether one is worth saving at the expense of the other. One of the characters asks Lynna the hard question: “If you had the chance to save the planet [stop the mass extinctions, deforestation and pollution ravaging the planet], but it was at the expense of humanity, would you do it?”

 

Water is, in fact, a character in the book—sometimes subtle and revealed in subtext, other times horrific and roaring with a clamorous voice. Water plays both metaphoric and literal roles in this allegorical tale of humanity’s final journey from home. The story explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing—and in which each of us plays a vital role simply by doing or not doing.

A Diary in the Age of Water” promises to leave you adjusting your frame of reference to see the world, yourself—and water—in a different way. “A Diary in the Age of Water” is scheduled for release by Inanna Publications in 2020.

WaterDrop-byPeterJames

Water drops (photo by Peter James)

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.