Painting Algoma

In the footsteps of the Group of Seven

Rocks and shrubbery on the edge of the lake in the foreground and a small island in the distance on the lake.
A view of Lake Superior near Agawa Rock. Scenes like these directed the paintbrushes of Canada’s innovative artists – the Group of Seven.

Canada is undoubtedly singularly blessed with magnificent vistas. But in some parts of the country, sky and rocks, trees and water come together in spectacular and soul-stirring synchrony. Algoma is just such a place. Small wonder, then, that painting Algoma is an imperative for so many artists.

painting of rocks and sky in blues and orange
Lawren Harris painting of Lake Superior in the Fall.

Artists like Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Johnston, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer – all members of Canada’s iconic Group of Seven – came here to paint these landscapes.

Franklin Carmichael's painting of Lake Superior.
The North Shore of Lake Superior by Franklin Carmichael.

They found the harmony in those vistas and it guided their imaginations and their paintbrushes. The results have brought this unique group of Canadian artistic pioneers to the world’s attention.

Artists in Algoma

“Thanks to these five men and the Algoma Region, Canadian art would be recognized by many as a patriotic emblem of our land,” Eileen Halfpenny, a local water colour artist is an enthusiastic promoter of Algoma, “With the essence of Canada as a natural backdrop, and its rugged beauty defined by each artist, they showed the world the treasures that were and remain prominent in the Northern landscape.”

Eileen Halfpenny poses in front of one of her paintings.
Eileen Halfpenny is an artist and ardent promoter of the Algoma region’s spectacular settings.

I’m fortunate enough to take a trip on the Agawa Canyon Railway with Halfpenny. This train ride has been on my bucket list for some time and I relish each curve of the tracks that gives me a view of the engine as it steams past breathtaking scenes of trees and water.

Red train seen from inside the train as it curves along the track ahead
The bright red train curves through the forests of the canyon.

Halfpenny offers some basic instruction and gives us an opportunity to try our hand at painting some of the scenes we see.

Eileen Halfpenny leaning over a train seat on the Algoma Railroad.
Eileen Halfpenny makes the experience so much more meaningful on the Algoma Railroad.

As we pass iconic views, Halfpenny points out stony outcrops and waterfalls. This landscape hasn’t changed much in the 100 or more years since these artists immortalized them.

Clouds and forest reflected in a Northern lake in Algoma
One of many beautiful vistas seen from the Agawa Canyon Railway.

The waterfalls and J.E.H. Macdonald

We pass Bridal Veil Falls on the train. As soon as we stop, I head along the trail to see this cascade up close and I understand why Bridal Veil Falls has inspired so many artists. Pounding down the granite rock face, the water splits into two cascades, before it pours into the Algoma River. Remarkably, trees are growing straight out of the rock face, mute testimony to the tenacity and determination of nature to flourish against the odds.

One of the signs encouraging visitors to compare the Group of Seven's paintings to the actual scene they painted
J.E.H. Macdonald’s painting of Bridal Veil Falls.

Two of J.E.H. Macdonald’s colourful views of these waterfalls are set on an easel nearby. The Autumn scene is striking with bright orange foliage make a sharp contrast to the rock. The summer looks almost dull in comparison.

J.E.H. Macdonald's colourful view of Bridal Veil Falls in Autumn with red foliage and purple rocks
J.E.H. Macdonald’s painting of Bridal Veil Falls in Autumn..

It’s Spring when I visit and there’s a mist rising from the rushing water today, giving the scene an ethereal beauty. It makes me want to rush out, grab some paints and create my own view of these falls.

Bridal Veil Falls in the spring with bright green foliage and brown rocks
Bridal Veil Falls in Spring

Most people have gathered near Bridal Veil Falls but nearby, two more pretty waterfalls are labelled Black Beaver Falls, North and South.

Small waterfalls running down rocks amid bright green foliage with a strem in the foreground into which the falls empty
Beaver Falls are a quite refuge among the bright green foliage of late spring.

The puffing of our train has receded and it’s peaceful here, with only the sound of rushing water and an occasional bird call breaking the silence.

Rocky canyon walls and forest greenery surrounding a view of the river
The Algoma River meanders between rock walls and forest greenery.

I find myself imagining a time before trains, before carefully signposted trails, when the only feet to crunch the leaves on this forest floor were those of the First Nations who inhabited the area. Agawa means ‘shelter” in Ojibwa. And these rocky canyon walls and sheltering trees would indeed have been a refuge.

Agawa means ‘shelter’ in Ojibwa, an appropriate name for this landscape.

Indeed, the story of Algoma is inextricably linked to the indigenous people who once inhabited this land, a land they cherished and protected. Sadly much of that knowledge and history has been lost but fortunately, much remains to be explored.

The Agawa Canyon Railway loading up in Sault Ste. Marie.

Don’t miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary landscape up close and one of the best ways to do this is to take the Agawa Canyon Railway……but don’t forget your paintbox and easel!

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