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The Drift: The 'picturesque ruins' of Cobalt make their debut at the McMichael gallery

Upcoming exhibition will showcase new landscape art from Cobalt's mining history and how it became a gathering place for women painters
A Northern Silver Mine by Franklin Carmichael, 1930 (Supplied by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

The Drift is an ongoing editorial series by Northern Ontario Business about the people, companies, projects, technologies, and innovation that encompass the mining industry in northeastern Ontario.

The historic northeastern Ontario mining town of Cobalt will be in the spotlight this fall at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, north of Toronto.

The exhibition, which runs at the Kleinburg gallery from Nov. 18 to April 21, will display, for the first time, the wave of art that was produced during the 1920s and 1930s from many leading and up-and-coming artists of the time.

The show, entitled Cobalt: a Mining Town and the Canadian Imagination, will feature pieces by A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael and Lawren Harris of Group of Seven fame, Bess Harris, Yvonne McKague Housser, Isabel McLaughlin, Dr. Frederick Banting, and earlier visiting artists such as John Wesley Cotton and Lady K.S. Robertson.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a new book on the artwork of Cobalt by noted Canadian art scholar Catharine Mastin, the show’s guest curator, the former executive director of the Art Gallery of Windsor, and the granddaughter of Franklin Carmichael.

“So much of our identity and the reality of life in Canada for so many Canadians is around mining,” said Sarah Milroy, chief curator at the McMichael and the brainchild behind the show. 

This is a first-time display of some 100 paintings and photography from 21 artists on loan from provincial and national galleries and private collections.

Cobalt is the birthplace of Canada’s hard-rock mining industry. It was a global sensation more than a century ago when rich and wide silver veins were discovered along a stretch of what’s now the Ontario Northland Railway just after the turn of the last century. It led to the Silver Rush that reached its mining zenith in 1911.

The focus of this exhibition will be on the contingent of artists that came north between the First and Second World Wars, well after the town’s mining heydays. Cobalt’s population had dropped from 5,000 to slightly over 1,000 and the interpreted derelict beauty of the former mines were scattered everywhere.

Labelled by Mastin as “picturesque ruins,” the whistle stop town became a place of fascination for modernistic painters, including some members of the Group of Seven.

But Carmichael’s and Jackson’s work is only part of a much larger story on Cobalt’s story and the itinerant artists who went there, particularly a small group of women painters.

“Cobalt, looking back on it now, it seems weird that people would flock to an industrial site, particularly a semi-abandoned one at that time, and paint the ruins of industry,” said Milroy.

Each artist had their own “quirky” take and interpretation of the area, she said. “They were looking at it as something intriguing and epic.”

Many embraced the structures of the once-booming mining camp. The scale of the mining operations looked impressive and awe-inspiring. Towering headframes were captured on canvas by some as lofty castle-like structures. 

Cobalt and its abandoned mine workings represented the industrial achievements of the New Canada, a modern and growing industrial nation with its brawny process of extracting minerals from the ground.

“Overall, it’s kind of a heroic view of Canada’s North, this frontier,” Milroy said.

“They were seeing a boldness there, an intrepid quality that they identified with the Canadian spirit.”

Compared to Group of Seven’s scenes of the unspoiled, pristine shores and forests of Lake Superior, the Algoma country and the Canadian Rockies, painting landscapes of industry was entirely new subject matter.

Franklin Carmichael focused on the austere geometric shapes of the mine headframe and how it related to the form of the landscape behind it, said Milroy, as in his painting of A Northern Silver Mine.

But a number of women artists had their own unique perspectives.

Yvonne McKague Housser was more interested in the human element of the town. She looked for ways to capture the lives of its inhabitants, such as a painting of laundry hanging out to dry. She was one of the few Canadian artists who painted Indigenous people during her travels, an obvious cultural blind spot today.

Mastin hopes one of the show’s takeaways for the public is that Cobalt enabled a small group of women to branch out and form their own sketching groups outside of men’s networks.

“This book and exhibition will begin to tell the story,” said Mastin.

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Housser was at the centre of this movement.

She became an encourager to her friends and colleagues, described by Milroy as a sort of “den mother” to other women artists. Like many, Housser was excited and inspired by the first exhibitions of the Group of Seven.

She made repeated trips to Cobalt to paint, first on her own in 1917 and later through the 1920s and 1930s with organized groups of women artists, “quite the daring thing during the day, 100 years ago,” said Milroy.

With Bess Harris, the wife of Lawren Harris, they kept nocturnal hours and often painted Cobalt at night.

“That enabled them to kind of gloss over some of the industrial shambles below,” said Mastin. 

They were almost forerunners to the later industrial landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky, who’s written the forward to Mastin’s book.

“These artists were doing very much the same thing, I think, trying to find a way to talk about industrial waste, but not at the same time alienate their audience,” said Mastin.

“They were trying to sell their pictures, and to completely create a scene of industrial mess with no effort to make it palatable would be very unappealing to audiences looking at their pictures. They were trying to balance that gritty reality with a painterly one.”

“I think it was that tension that interested them,” said Mastin.

Milroy thinks a show-stealer will be the photography of Isabel McLaughlin, a modernist painter who studied in Paris, and came from the prosperous family of automotive tycoon Robert McLaughlin of Oshawa.

Artists who came to Cobalt and sketched on site mostly used graphite oil and water colour before finishing enlarged paintings in their home studios.

An outlier, McLaughlin used photography to guide her studio work.

Inspired by modernistic B.C. photographer John Vanderpant and his pioneering work of Vancouver’s industrial docklands, McLaughlin made use of his approach towards examining textures and the bold contrasts of light and dark.

“Her photographs are fantastic,” said Milroy. “We’re thrilled to have them.”

“They’re amazing images,” said Mastin, who unearthed this treasure trove during her research. They were among McLaughlin’s private papers donated to the Queen’s University archives. “Nobody’s done anything with them.”

“It will be a revelation to people to see,” Mastin added. 

“She had an incredible eye for the structure of form and has done incredible images,” of mining structures, tailings ponds, stacks of leftover mechanical parts that were organized into piles to be recycled for other mining projects.

Many of these early drafts of paintings, photos, even letters home to their families from Cobalt will be part of the exhibition.

Also featured will be the art work of Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, a famous figure and an introverted personality who longed for quiet time. A.Y. Jackson took him under his wing and taught him how to paint with excursions to Cobalt and to the Canadian Arctic in the 1920s.

As part of her research, Mastin said she went to Cobalt for the first time in June 2022 to walk the Heritage Silver Trail and in the footsteps of Carmichael and other artists with orientation from a member of Cobalt Historical Society along with a local poet, David Brydges.

Mastin said it was beneficial to “see and digest the place.”

“I really enjoyed my trip there. It was great to see it. I wouldn’t have wanted to do the show without that experience."