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River Dance

by Pat Myers

The canoe slices the river's surface. The water slips willingly aside. The paddle hovers like a dragonfly above the ripples, then dips down to break their pattern. The canoeist doesn't see the coyote right away. Along the bank the animal mimics the man's journey, shifting to miss a rock, slowing to test the wind. When their eyes meet, it doesn't stop the dance. Partners, one on water, the other on land, dance away a prairie afternoon. For painter Grant McConnell, magical things happen on the river. For him, rivers are more than passageways. They are messengers, they are vantage points, they are bloodlines. On the water, the traveler is both vessel and prophet, both audience and actor. Paddling these liquid highways has taken Grant McConnell on an artistic journey into western Canada's history.

His journey started in childhood, in York County, Ontario. After high school, a hitchhiking stint across Canada stalled in Edmonton when the money ran out. He got a job, and fell in love with the western landscape. After studying at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, McConnell came back to the West to take a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan. The attraction of the land and its rivers hadn't dimmed, and the romance started again. 

McConnell's landscape is a peopled one, infused with the traces of those who had come before, of those who are here now. He describes himself as an artist who is interested in history. He spends a lot of time digging around in archives, looking at photographs and reading original accounts of long-ago events. He likes to while away afternoons with old copies of the Canadian Illustrated News, or Canadian yearbooks. He believes art should come from where we've been.

McConnell experiences a vital connection between past and present most vividly when he's paddling. For thousands of years, western Canada's rivers have carried travelers and hunters, idlers and officials. They have seen drama and tragedy. In his canoe, McConnell finds he works in unison with the water, picking up its rhythms, taking the gifts it has to offer. 

The languid pace of summer canoe travel on rivers slowed by heat and little rain makes time to notice all the subtle differences, all the changes along the journey. There's time too for speculation, for wanting to make a connection with the river, with its banks, with yourself. Just around the bend, maybe there will be a break in the trees. Maybe it's a crossing point, maybe a ferry landing or a road. It offers a chance to make a connection, to have a conversation.
McConnell's art is full of these connections, of these conversations. The western landscape, he argues with word and paintbrush, is not a wilderness. He calls his landscapes peopled landscapes, and shows the human imprint at every turn. Similarly, McConnell sees the canoe not the romantic hues of many Canadians who have painted and written it into our mythology, but as a workhorse. The history of the canoe, he argues, is that of a tool used to do work. "It's the pickup truck of the waterways," he says.

For McConnell, the canoe works with the river to give him the heightened sense of distance and time that has found its way into his art. The canoe not only carries him to meetings with our history, but gives him a vantage point to experience the landscape. In some of his work he uses light to point to the discoveries he's made. All of his paintings begin with coats of black gesso. Then, as his vision takes form, the light emerges from darkness. What gives light? He argues that we get illumination from the past. The layers of history are what give life to a place. These layers can be seen in the landscape. All we have to do is look.

Images from Alberta's history emerge naturally from McConnell's work. In his Fort Road, the river passes a bank. A ferry cable stretches overhead while a cleared landing invites the traveler in. Soft light welcomes the traveler here, then, further up into the trees and into the painting, soft light again hints at what might be. And what once was. These connections, these layers that stretch backwards and forwards in our historical narrative, resound throughout McConnell's work. Perhaps we're at Fort Victoria. Perhaps the clearing once sheltered a Métis winter camp. Did a homesick traveler heading for the Peace country imagine the glint of the fabled west through the trees? McConnell believes his peopled landscapes give value and importance to many of the threads of our historical experience.

From the river, McConnell finds he can get in touch with a place, find its life, its soul. He describes canoeing through Batoche as almost overwhelming. "The history and drama just well up at you," he says, "the sense of place is so strong. That such a pivotal event took place at such a tiny point on the landscape…" His voice trails off. We're standing in front of Approach to Batoche. McConnell has placed an unassuming white-washed cabin beside the river. Overhead, a red cloud stains the sky, leaking to the horizon and beyond. The image is powerful, filled with both foreboding and heavy realization. The stain stretches beyond the painting, beyond the frame. McConnell's theme of connections emerges again, of the past informing the present, of history being more like a layering process than a linear march through time.

Approach to Batoche illustrates too McConnell's commitment to showing the peopled landscape, of activating a landscape with an event. In Northcote Approach, these influences are at work again. The steamer Northcote is quite small, steaming along behind a menacing grove of trees that defines the riverbank. This part of the painting is backlit with fire. The steamer and trees grow like the inside of a coal furnace. The landscape ahead, still awaiting the Northcote's passage, is a cool green. It has not yet been coloured, not yet been activated, by the drama that is the steamer's passenger.

McConnell paints a lot of horizontal work, a format that reflects his belief in the importance of passages, of time, and of collected experience. It also comes, he says, from his western focus. The width of the horizon, not its depth, is what captivates McConnell. Historically, he says, we have spent a lot of time scanning the horizon, sweeping its horizontal dimension looking for smoke, or rain clouds, or a grain elevator. We're looking, he says, to make a connection. McConnell believes art is conversation that should open doors and invite interpretation.

Typically, McConnell has 10 or 15 paintings on the go at any one time. One of his friends has called it "his ongoing search for citizenship," this mingling of paint and history and experience. McConnell paints with acrylic paint on horizontally planed, utility grade fir plywood. He likes the roughness, knots and all, this kind of wood offers. He doesn't try to hide them; they're part of the the history, part of the conversation. He likes making wood, which has already lived once, live again. He likes providing opportunities for the viewer to make connections, to interpret his work through their own viewpoint and experience.

While McConnell believes art can leap boundaries - the trees in Northcote Approach are sufficiently impressionistic to be reminiscent of both Tom Thomson and Tennessee Williams' South - he argues it has to come from one place to be true. For McConnell, that place is western Canada. This summer, he's going on a river dance down Alberta's Red Deer River, renewing his search for his personal sense of place. With fir and paint, he'll share that sense of place with us. Then we must turn and find our own way, our own sense of place.

Along the way, Grant McConnell hopes we'll dance with him awhile, like the coyote did on the river bank. While he watched, the silvery animal tossed a final glance then slipped into the underbrush. The canoe glided on. A new dance was about to begin.

Patricia Myers is a freelance writer in Edmonton.
Reproduced with permission from the author and Legacy Magazine

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