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In The News: Visual Arts, the Great Depression and COVID-19

“The Minden Hills Cultural Centre has been using an artificial intelligence program called DeOldify to restore old photographs with colour, then posting them to Facebook for the community to view from the comfort and safety of their own home.” – Zachary Roman

This article was originally published in the Minden Times, written by gallery curator Laurie Carmount.

An odd combination of words for a title, I will grant you, but consider the following.

As you are probably aware, during the 1930s, the world ground to an economic halt due to the Great Depression. Canada was one country that experienced some of the worst economic hardships. This was mostly due to the drastic decline in global exports, something Canada was dependent on. It was a social and economic shock. Thirty per cent of the workforce was out of employment, and one in five Canadians needed government relief for survival.

Some interesting results of this economic downturn were that even though most were out of work, homeless and in dire straits, the rich were getting richer. Another was the reversed momentum of the urban centres as many Canadians moved to rural areas. For many unemployed “going back to the land, and growing food” was preferable to existing on government relief.
What you may not know about this time, however, is the work camps that were setup in Haliburton County to build highways – specifically Highway 35.

At this time, there was mounting concern for many with the growing number of restless men without work and “loitering around.” Major-General McNaughton proposed work camps throughout the country to “deter the radical storm troopers of the revolution into communism.” The camps were controversial, some with seriously bad conditions that resulted in the Regina Riot and Bloody Sunday.

The Haliburton County camps, however, located at Hunter Creek Road, Sun Valley, Twelve Mile Lake, Halls Lake and Saskatchewan Lake – rows of buildings laid out like military encampments – were not as horrendous as some. According to Michael Shirley’s article titled “The Building of Highway 35,” where he interviews Dick Kirkwood, a former worker at the camps, there were “three well cooked meals daily, clothes and board.” The camp comprised of: bunkhouses, office, stable, blacksmith shop and living quarters for the “keyman.” The bunkhouses were 16 by 16 feet constructed of rough lumber, covered with tarpaper. The roofs were canvas. Eight men were housed in each bunkhouse, which were not insulated, and in the winter were heated by a constantly fed woodstove.

Generally, work camps were used to build airfields, clear land, build highways, construction and plant trees. This work was voluntary. These workers became known as the “Royal Twenty Centers” because that is how much they were paid each day.

While this was occurring, there was a well-known Canadian, born Russian, artist who was trekking up and down the Highland roads. He periodically resided in Minden, staying at the Hamilton farm on South Lake Road, where his wife was convalescing. Dr. Jamieson would pick him up, while doing her medical calls, and drop him off to sketch.
He carried with him sketchbook, paints and canvases, which he used to record the work of these camps. This artist, Andre Lapine, was considered the best illustrator of horses in North America. His work has been in numerous public collections and has represented Canada in a number of international exhibitions. And he was in Minden, creating sketches that revealed horses doing hard laborious work alongside men as they cut into granite, hauled gravel and moved timber.

It’s interesting to note that the work camps in Haliburton were only using teams of horses. According to Shirley’s article, teams were rotated through from local farms to disperse the hard work.
Included in this article are sketches by Lapine, from the Agnes Jamieson Gallery collection. Also included are images from the Minden Hills Museum collection of men at work on Highway 35.

The Great Depression was a time of major suffering, of economic downturn, and need for government aid. Can we relate to this on some levels today? Will artists capture this time? Artists often fill the important role of real time documenters during historical moments. It goes without saying this gives society a point of reference, meaning and reflection. If you consider what is happening at this very moment in time, the images that are emerging, especially from the United States, are powerful and poignant. Is this “downtime” allowing for one to express their grievances like those who expressed theirs during the Great Depression?
In Quebec, in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, there was a different project put forward to the unemployed during the Great Depression.  It began with Médard Bourgault (1897-1967). Finding himself unemployed, Médard went back home to work in his father’s carpentry and woodworking shop.

In his leisure time, this self-taught sculptor created woodcarvings which he exhibited in front of his house. Seeing this as a good pastime, Médard and his brothers revived the hobby to give their out-of-work neighbours something to do with their idle hands. The Great Depression gave the craft, which had diminished as a pastime with the demands of farm life, new meaning.
The project was successful and renowned ethnologist Marius Barbeau recognized this talent and encouraged them to continue. He even urged him, along with his brothers and fellow sculptors Jean‑ Julien and André, to establish a school – the “École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli,” in 1940. The school was soon supported by the Quebec government, which helped to further the sculpting industry in Quebec. Recognition then came from the National Gallery of Canada and the École du meuble.
These people were acting on an ideological school of thought, advocating the preservation of ancestral traditions and protecting the French Canadian identity from the effects of industrialization. Today the school still exists with 200 sculptors.

Another image included is a wood relief sculpture by Bourgault that resides in the Agnes Jamieson Gallery, one of its most treasured objects. Like its counterpart at the Algonquin Highlands township, the piece (donated by the Irwin family) is not only an example of talent, but also how community and government support led to a successful school, a town’s survival and prosperity, and an important cultural heritage.  

Through these past six months of self-isolation and distancing, we have witnessed shifts in social, political and economic forces. For those who had to step away from their work, this form of “unemployment” leads to those “idle hands.” When, for many, work is their life and it no longer exists, they find they are lost, bored and, in some instances, experiencing depression. It gives one pause as to what the role of our lives is, what is fulfilling and satisfying – what can be tangible accomplishments that give a sense of well being. We have some time now to consider many things. Have you wished recently you had something to creatively make, and enjoy?
When the time comes, and soon it shall, join us again at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, in the town of Minden, and view the many important pieces of history we have preserved for your enjoyment and learning experience.

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