/Visual Arts the Great Depression and COVID-19 

Visual Arts the Great Depression and COVID-19 

By Laurie Carmount

Curator Agnes Jamieson Gallery

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 aneconomic halt due to the Great Depression. Canada was one country thatexperienced some of the worst economic hardships. This was mostly due to the drastic decline in global exports something Canada was dependenton. It was a social and economic shock. Thirty per cent of the workforce was out of employment and one in five Canadians needed governmentrelief for survival.

Some interesting results of this economicdownturn were that even though most were out of work homeless and indire straits the rich were getting richer. Another was the reversedmomentum of the urban centres as many Canadians moved to rural areas.For many unemployed “going back to the land and growing food” waspreferable to existing on government relief.
What you may not knowabout this time however is the work camps that were setup inHaliburton County to build highways – specifically Highway 35.

Atthis time there was mounting concern for many with the growing numberof restless men without work and “loitering around.” Major-GeneralMcNaughton proposed work camps throughout the country to “deter theradical storm troopers of the revolution into communism.” The camps were controversial some with seriously bad conditions that resulted in theRegina Riot and Bloody Sunday.

The Haliburton County camps howeverlocated at Hunter Creek Road Sun Valley Twelve Mile Lake Halls Lakeand Saskatchewan Lake – rows of buildings laid out like militaryencampments – were not as horrendous as some. According to MichaelShirley’s article titled “The Building of Highway 35” where heinterviews Dick Kirkwood a former worker at the camps there were“three well cooked meals daily clothes and board.” The camp comprisedof: bunkhouses office stable blacksmith shop and living quarters forthe “keyman.” The bunkhouses were 16 by 16 feet constructed of roughlumber covered with tarpaper. The roofs were canvas. Eight men werehoused in each bunkhouse which were not insulated and in the winterwere heated by a constantly fed woodstove.

Generally work camps were used to build airfields clear land build highways construction andplant 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 Russianartist who was trekking up and down the Highland roads. He periodicallyresided in Minden staying at the Hamilton farm on South Lake Roadwhere his wife was convalescing. Dr. Jamieson would pick him up whiledoing her medical calls and drop him off to sketch.
He carried with him sketchbook paints and canvases which he used to record the workof these camps. This artist Andre Lapine was considered the bestillustrator of horses in North America. His work has been in numerouspublic collections and has represented Canada in a number ofinternational exhibitions. And he was in Minden creating sketches thatrevealed horses doing hard laborious work alongside men as they cut into granite hauled gravel and moved timber.

It’s interesting to notethat the work camps in Haliburton were only using teams of horses.According to Shirley’s article teams were rotated through from localfarms to disperse the hard work.
Included in this article aresketches by Lapine from the Agnes Jamieson Gallery collection. Alsoincluded are images from the Minden Hills Museum collection of men atwork on Highway 35.

The Great Depression was a time of majorsuffering of economic downturn and need for government aid. Can werelate to this on some levels today? Will artists capture this time?Artists often fill the important role of real time documenters duringhistorical 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 expressedtheirs during the Great Depression?
In Quebec inSaint-Jean-Port-Joli there was a different project put forward to theunemployed during the Great Depression.  It began with Médard Bourgault(1897-1967). Finding himself unemployed Médard went back home to workin his father’s carpentry and woodworking shop.

In his leisure time this self-taught sculptor created woodcarvings which he exhibited infront of his house. Seeing this as a good pastime Médard and hisbrothers revived the hobby to give their out-of-work neighbourssomething to do with their idle hands. The Great Depression gave thecraft which had diminished as a pastime with the demands of farm lifenew meaning.
The project was successful and renowned ethnologistMarius 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 deSaint-Jean-Port-Joli” in 1940. The school was soon supported by theQuebec government which helped to further the sculpting industry inQuebec. Recognition then came from the National Gallery of Canada andthe École du meuble.
These people were acting on an ideologicalschool of thought advocating the preservation of ancestral traditionsand protecting the French Canadian identity from the effects ofindustrialization. Today the school still exists with 200 sculptors.

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

Through these past six months of self-isolation and distancing we havewitnessed shifts in social political and economic forces. For those who had to step away from their work this form of “unemployment” leads tothose “idle hands.” When for many work is their life and it no longerexists they find they are lost bored and in some instancesexperiencing depression. It gives one pause as to what the role of ourlives is what is fulfilling and satisfying – what can be tangibleaccomplishments that give a sense of well being. We have some time nowto consider many things. Have you wished recently you had something tocreatively make and enjoy?
When the time comes and soon it shalljoin us again at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre in the town ofMinden and view the many important pieces of history we have preservedfor your enjoyment and learning experience.