Stories from the Northland
the Expressionist Paintings and Prints of John Hartman
Selected from The University of Lethbridge Collections
There is an abundance of activity in the work of John Hartman, marks left by brush, paint and printmaking tools. Some figures float in the sky, others tower over the land; some seem at peace while others appear in agony. The titles, with their references to specific places, people, events, Christianity, are suggestions of stories, of some narrative, recounting of personal stories combined with an expressive interpretation of landscapes. Even the number and volume of buildings, roadways and other land marks seem over powering. What does it all mean? What is going on? John Hartman’s work was not always like this.
Hartman grew up in Midland, Ontario, and was introduced to painting by his grandfather, who was an outdoors man and artist. The elder Hartman served as a role model, leading his life in a “somewhat unorganized and casual” way, “doing things a bit differently than usual” (Painting the Bay: Recent works by John Hartman, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1993, p.32) It is interesting to note that when Hartman attended McMaster University, his intention was to become a lawyer, studying economics and history. Instead he switched paths and graduated in 1973 with a BA., having studied Fine Arts and art history. The subject of his early work was the landscape, reflecting the land as he saw it, rather than the prominent trend of the seventies, Post-Painterly Abstraction. Hartman drew his influences from the likes of Goodridge Roberts, David Milne, and the outdoor sketching traditions of the Group of Seven.
After graduating he worked at a marina at Twelve Mile Bay, near Midland. Continuing a Canadian tradition of painting the landscape, he hiked and canoed this area of Georgian Bay to record what he saw in sketches and paintings. In the years between 1976 and 1981, he and his wife, Trish, lived in several Northern Ontario towns. Trish held teaching positions, allowing them to live in Collins, a small native community 200 miles north of Thunder Bay, North Bay and Heron Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior. Hartman’s painting style transformed as he experienced northern life and the often eccentric characters in these small and rather remote communities. It was the experiences with the natives and their belief of a persons connection to the land, and vice versa, that impressed Hartman. He still had no desire to incorporate his memory of stories or characters into his paintings, preferring to continue painting the land.
In 1981, he and Trish bought a farm in Lafontaine, a primarily French speaking community west of Midland. The area has been familiar to Hartman from the time of his childhood. There is a long and auspicious Canadian history connected with this area where once stood a strategic French fort and Hudson Bay post. No settlement west of Montreal was larger or more important in the 17th century. The Hudson Bay voyagers used this as the last stop before heading by canoe laden with trade supplies for the northern outpost of Fort William (present day Thunder Bay). The regional history is rich with accounts of the 17th century Jesuit and Native life events. The Martyr’s Shrine, a large Catholic church attended by the Pope during his last Canadian visit, and the reconstructed fortified village of Ste. Marie among the Hurons are just some of the local points of historical note.
Settling down in Lafontaine, Hartman’s work began showing a more experimental flavour, coupled with extraordinary productivity. He built a studio beside his house, and, in 1985, he borrowed an etching press and started to produce colour drypoint prints in small editions . The inclusion of a narrative within the work was a result of a fortuitous encounter with Canadian poet Douglas Lepan. Every year, Lepan visited the sites of the Jesuit missions in and around the Midland area every year to absorb the history, which he incorporated into his writing. Hartman began to concentrate upon the image rather than on technical virtuosity. He now engaged his experiences gleaned from the times spent in Northern Ontario as well as the vibrant history of his community and surrounding area. He saw that the people were inextricably linked with place; place helped to create the person. In turn, the person, in some part, created the place. With a leap of artistic faith, Hartman used selective images from history, mixed with his personal experiences and recollections of a place, and combined them within his landscapes. Initially the figures and events were depicted with scant marks and representations in and above his landscapes. Then as time past, the characters and objects would be pervasive as they are in the 1993 paintings and prints in this exhibition.
The central figures in Hartman’s paintings and prints are some of the more eccentric characters, those that stand out in his recollection of the land. Gilbert Desrochers is one such person. He was born and lived his life all within a four or five mile radius of his home village of Perkinsfield, south of Georgian Bay. Desrochers was a folk artist who created hand carved depictions of the people, animals and events from Christian bible stories. He produced the works at a manic pace and would often harden the high gloss paint, used to colour and give the necessary details to his sculptures, by heating his workshop, located in the same trailer that he slept, to 120 F to harden the surface. Desrochers is like many of the other characters Hartman uses as central figures in his work. Hartman explains it; “I see them as redemptive figures, as Christ like, because through the example of how they have lived their lives they’re suggesting a way of living a life which is very much outside of the normal bourgeois existence, which is a good life. I am not saying that everything Gilbert Desrochers did was good, he was a pretty wild guy and was in trouble with the law, but just something about the nature in which he approached other people and the world around him was redemptive”. (taken from an interview in the artist’s Lafontaine studio, April, 1996).
The inclusion of the history of Jesuits and Huron Indians in his paintings and prints makes the use of Christian symbolism unavoidable, it is essential and a matter of historic fact in the Midland area. Hartman does have a fascination with people who do have a religious faith. “It is not something that can be manufactured, it seems to arrive or it doesn’t arrive, and it’s never particularly arrived for me.” (Ibid.).
In Hartman’s work each landscape has its own special people, places and objects that represent a personal account. Knowing the stories that accompany the work is one vantage point, another is to enter the works creating a personal version of the images. Both are effective.
– Doug Scholes