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The Murky Marshes of Memory and Conjecture

April 5, 2013

tom and the boys

Amongst the Tom Thomson artefacts that are part of the Gallery’s permanent collection, there is Tom’s copy of The Cloister and the Hearth, written by Charles Reade. By turns a tragic love story, an adventure novel, and a testament to finding and being true to one’s calling, it is revealed at the end that the young man in the story, Gerard, is actually the great Catholic scholar and Humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam. While Erasmus is indeed a major historical figure, little is actually known about his true parentage. Using likely scenarios, research and imagination, Reade conjured up the parts of Erasmus’s story that are unknown. And who is to say definitely whether or not they happened as described? And even what we believe we “know” as fact can be questionable, especially when it involves the past. Marcel Proust described the past a being “…broken and scattered…poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest…” The Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard addresses this subject in a number of his works and believes we are wrong to imagine that those of the past are anything like us, for “our world is only one of many possible worlds.”

There are some facts about Tom Thomson which are incontrovertible. Yet many aspects of his life remain within the realm of conjecture and (sometimes contrarian) supposition. The Murky Marshes of Memory and Conjecture exhibit offers an opportunity for viewers to explore the less-documented times in Thomson’s life. Using real places and events as a jumping off point the exhibit delves into the idea of how memory and conjecture can create alternative, but not necessarily false, only unproven, narratives. It also brings into the discussion the role that museums play in being custodians of “authenticity” and that what is a “fact” can actually be a mutable idea.
Last year, someone began posting on Twitter as Tom Thomson under the name “@TTLastSpring” gaining thousands of Twitter followers and national media coverage. Blending impeccable research with conjecture and fantasy, @TTLastSpring embodied the spirit of Tom in dialogue with contemporary and historic personages (including Winnie Trainor and Shannon Fraser) while creating a window into the soul of Tom with words and reflections that he imagines Tom to be feelings. These are interspersed with authentic excerpts from letters by and about Tom and are hinged upon actual events. The crescendo of feelings expressed by @TTLastSpring’s followers that culminated on July 8th (the anniversary of Tom’s disappearance) and July 16th (the anniversary of when Tom’s body was found) illustrate how effective this mixing of fact and fancy can be in creating an alternative, but not necessary false, other or expanded reality around the life of someone from the past.
Another project, this one a collaboration between Germinio Pio Politi and Joel Richardson, envisions what Tom was up to when he took one of his trips into the deep forests of Algonquin Park. Whereas traditional the assumption was that Tom went alone Politi and Richardson posit the possibility that he had companions – James, Louis and Antonio – who also had their reasons for wanting to spend time away from “polite” society. Inspired by letters from the TOM’s collection, where Jack Wilkinson (who grew up at Canoe Lake and, as a child, knew Tom)recounts his memories of hearing his parents discuss Tom’s antics when he “went off in the woods,” Politi and Richardson develop a scenario of what would it have been like, had Tom encountered a philosophical disenfranchised, Italian aristocrat; a young man who rejected involvement in the Great War and who was in love with a young First Nations woman; and a young Ojibwe man who rounded out their travelling party. And what, they ask, would it mean to our understanding of Tom’s story if a book was found almost a century after Tom’s death containing a photo of the four friends, a hand-drawn map indicating the spot where they camped and possibly left other so-far undiscovered artefacts, and the discovery that Antonio and James vanished in the fall of 1917 never to be seen again. It is all within the realm of possibility.
Photos are supposed to be 100% empirical. They document things and as such, are not supposed to be false – especially the photos from the past. Yet the photos that Tom Thomson took offer their own mysteries. An unidentified man. Indistinct locations that could be bodies of water in Algonquin Park or closer to home in Owen Sound. The same shack – off in the distance – seen clearly in one image but which is cloudy and blurred in a second image. What are we to make of these images? Whatever our imagination and knowledge of Tom allows us to. We have to fill in the story and decide what they could mean and what stories they tell us.
It has been said of Tom Thomson that had Tom not existed, Canada would have had to invent him. While rooted in fact and flesh and blood, Tom Thomson has reached a mythic level in our Canadian psyche. Charles Reade once wrote “Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” This can be applied to Tom – his artistic genius and passion, the mystery of his life and death – all serve as sources of inspiration that continue to inspire and intrigue. The unknown elements around Tom and his story allow for people to project their own particular theory, thoughts or suppositions around who he was, what he was like and what ultimately happened to him. The truth to the secrets, to the realms of unknowns and what ifs that surround Tom, will likely lie hidden from us forever as if drowned in the muddy waters of a marshland. And the fact that so many of the truths are hidden from us will continue to inspire musings, imaginings and conjecture as we look to know Tom better, regardless of how murky the total picture is that we might have of him.

(Watch for more Tom-related “discoveries” in Algonquin Park as Canadian Spirit continues.)


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