Words by Aidan Ware, Director and Chief Curator, Tom Thomson Art Gallery

Among Canada’s artistic luminaries, Tom Thomson stands unparalleled. His extraordinary talent, profound bond with nature, and distinctive artistic approach, has left an enduring imprint on Canadian art, inspiring generations of artists.

It’s impossible to think of Canadian art, or even Canada, without Tom Thomson. But who was he really – this mythic figure, this artistic iconoclast who completely defied and revised the artistic traditions and ideas of his time so fearlessly, so breathtakingly, so beautifully, and in such stunning fashion? Who was this man – standing like a Heathcliff in his plaid jacket, smoking his pipe, ceaselessly and passionately steering his canoe toward the farthest back wood, back bush, bush whack place where he could bear down his brushes to incarnate some magnificent thing he saw, some outrageously true moment in time, maybe just as the sun came up or set itself down, or as the light caught fire in the trees or as the shadows settled into napping forests? Just who was this guy? 

We may never truly know Tom. Who he loved, what his thoughts were, if he truly enjoyed too much butter on his mashed potatoes, or even how he died. The only true thing we will ever come to know of him is through his body of work which is an extraordinary legacy that he has left for us. 

Canada has given birth to numerous artistic luminaries who have captured the country’s essence through art, but none among these visionaries, is greater than Thomson. His remarkable talent, deep connection with nature, and unique artistic style, left an indelible mark on Canadian art, shaping a path for generations of artists to come. 

Tom Thomson’s story begins in the small town of Claremont, Ontario, where he was born on August 5, 1877. He was the sixth of 10 children born to John Thomson and Margaret Matheson. Within months of his birth the family moved to Leith, 11 kilometres northeast of Owen Sound. It was here, by the shores of Georgian Bay, that Thomson grew up. He displayed an early affinity for nature and artistic expression. His innate curiosity about the world around him, coupled with an insatiable desire to capture its beauty, laid the foundation for his future artistic endeavors. 

Thomson had a rootless start to adulthood. He unsuccessfully enlisted for the Boer War in 1899 due to health reasons and then apprenticed as a machinist at Kennedy’s Foundry in Owen Sound for eight months. He briefly attended the Canada Business College in Chatham before relocating to Seattle, Washington, to join his brother George at his business college. This is where he became experienced in the craft of lettering and design, working as a commercial artist. By 1905 he returned Canada to work as a senior artist at Legg Brothers, a photo-engraving firm in Toronto. Throughout these years, as he sought his path in the world, Thomson continued to return home to visit his family which had moved to Owen Sound. 

In 1909, Thomson joined the staff of Grip Ltd. in Toronto which would prove to be a turning point in his life and career. The firm’s lead designer, J.E.H. MacDonald, would become a singular influence on Thomson’s artistic development, helping to refine his design and composition skills. Other employees included Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, and Franz Johnson—all dynamic, ambitious, and adventurous young painters who frequently organized weekend painting trips up north. After Thomson’s death, these men, together with Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, would go on to form Canada’s first national school of painting, the Group of Seven. 

Throughout his time at the Grip, Thomson constantly lusted after the wilderness of Algonquin Park, with its sprawling expanse of pine forests and moody lakes where he would race to capture the mesmerizing seconds of dramatic dawn or dusk skies, or the moments when cumulus clouds would codify into a mass of white epiphany, or the seconds when the sun turned a thicket of dogwood or sumac into the lead stars of some passionate and unknown drama. It was here where he truly found himself, and his artistic form, internalizing and extrapolating the lonesome landscapes, distilling them into icons of impossibly beautiful, saturate, climaxed incarnations of nature and emotion. By 1915, Thomson was living in Algonquin Park from spring to autumn acting as a fishing guide and fire ranger. It was here that he found the impetus and subject matter to create an unequivocal body of work that at its core, dominates Canadian art history.

Tom Thomson’s legacy in Canadian art is multifaceted and profound. His bold use of color, innovative brushwork, and reverent connection with nature set a new standard for Canadian landscape art, one that would profoundly influence the style and philosophy of the Group of Seven after they officially formed in 1920. His paintings, characterized by their dynamic compositions and vivid colour palettes, continue to captivate people from all over the world. His paintings have become symbols of identity, gracing the walls of institutions, public spaces, and even currency notes. The powerful evocation of landscape through unconventional uses of colour and broad actionable brush movement, forged and articulated a new connection between people and the land. 

The story of Owen Sound’s Tom Thomson Art Gallery is not only the story of Tom, but the story of the community. Unlike any other public institution that holds Thomson’s work in their collections, the Gallery, or “the TOM” as it’s affectionately referred to, was established with the sole intention of honouring and preserving Thomson’s legacy and connection with this area, which he called home, and it was only realized through the generosity and dedication of Thomson’s friends, family, and supporters. Today, the TOM holds the fourth largest collection of Tom Thomson’s works at a public institution, and it is an important resource for scholars and researchers as well as a cultural anchor for the community and region, attracting thousands of people annually to explore not just Thomson’s work, but also his enduring influence on the work of contemporary artists. 
Beyond his artistic contributions, Thomson’s life and untimely death have become woven into the fabric of Canadian mythology. His mysterious drowning on Canoe Lake in 1917, at the too young age of 39, left behind a legacy shrouded in intrigue and controversy. The enigmatic aura surrounding Thomson’s life and death have only heightened the public fascination with his work, transforming him into a symbol of rugged and raw artistic passion as well as an allegory for the ephemeral nature of life. 

Thomson once famously said: “Take everything as it comes; the wave passes, deal with the next one.” 

As a steward of Thomson’s legacy, I think about Tom every day. Every morning when I unlock the Gallery door and every night when I lock it, I sense his presence. His paintings, once merely images, have transformed into a deeper resonance, creating a sense of unconditional belonging. I don’t just see them; I feel them. They are in this way, a part of us all—part of our identity fabric, our community and national consciousness. They are not pictures; they are talismans and teachers and touchstones. They are somehow spiritual and somehow worldly all at the same time and once experienced, they exert a metaphysical kind of power through which Tom’s abiding presence remains singular and clear. 

Just as it’s impossible to ever really know who Tom Thomson was, it’s equally impossible to quantify his artistic and cultural impact. It’s so far reaching, so vast and permeating, it’s impossible to articulate. I often think of his words—about the wave that passes. It feels to me that Tom Thomson’s impact on us was so utterly dramatic that it is a wave that is shoreless. And we deal with the next, but we continue to be carried by the currents of his fierce passion and fiercer art. He is, and always will remain – up there in the mixture of all mystery, starlight, and greatness – our bright northern light. E