thestar article | published September 22nd 2012
Painting Canada, Starting at Schoolby Fiona Ellis
Not many artists consider kayaks, snowshoes, skis, hiking boots and backpacks essential tools of their trade. But then, not many artists travel by ship, school bus and canoe over 100,000 kilometres to try to capture the wild beauty of the Canadian landscape on canvas.
Unless they are the seven painters with the Canadian artists’ collective Drawnonward, who have spent almost 20 years exploring the length and breadth of Canada pursuing their dream: to paint Canada.
It was a dream whose genesis lay in the camaraderie and creativity of their days at Canada’s largest boys’ school, St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., where five of the seven members of the collective attended school in the late 1980s. There, Paul Mantrop, class of ’87, Christopher Roberts ’87, Gordon Kemp ’88, Steve McDonald ’88, and Robert Saley ’89 honed their artistic skills and bonded over shared projects. After graduation, the five stayed in touch, with Mantrop, Saley and McDonald going on to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design.
But it wasn’t until their first trip together, a two-week canoe trip along the Montreal River in 1994, that the idea for a collective was born. It was on this journey that everyone really clicked and realized the potential of working together, says Mantrop. Since then, the five SAC alumni, along with David Marshak and Jeremy Down, have travelled more than 100,000 kilometres together, to three of Canada’s coasts and explored much in between.
St. Andrew’s was instrumental in developing the collective’s strong bond, says founding member Mantrop, who is still active with the school, visiting and donating art at charity events.
“I had such a positive experience going to that school. More than anything it developed a strong sense of camaraderie within us, and a sense of exploration,” he says. “Also, it instilled a bit of overconfidence, to do something stupid, like trying to paint Canada.”
Their travels have taken Drawnonward (note the clever palindrome) to Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island in British Columbia. They hiked the northern stretches of the Yukon and the Dempster Highway, traversed the icy slopes of the Gaspé Peninsula, sketched in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and cruised on a Russian exploration vessel around Newfoundland and the far North — and they’re not finished yet.
“Having the opportunity to travel across this vast country you get this really nice mental map of the place and the people who live there, you become fervently nationalistic and often stand back and think: ‘Wow, what a country we live in,’ ” Mantrop says.
Fellow Drawnonward member McDonald shares Mantrop’s wanderlust.
“The most memorable trips have been the ones where we find ourselves in extreme far away places that we could not have gotten to on our own,” he says. “Those places are where the best art is created and where the best memories come from.”
St. Andrew’s College is proud of the collective and many of the artists’ paintings decorate the school walls. Tino Paolini, head of the school’s visual arts department and a faculty member for more than 30 years, taught all five former pupils.
“There were five wonderful kids and we have done our best to celebrate their achievements,” he says. “St. Andrew’s was one of the many stages for them to become successful artists. We are very lucky to have them as alumni and we are proud that they see our school as having played some sort of important role in their education,” he adds.
The collective shows no signs of slowing down or disbanding.
“I always thought most of us would be working together in some sort of way,” says McDonald. “The longevity of the formal collective has been a pleasant surprise. I think at this point it will always exist in some sort of form.”
Next summer the group will be off again, to the Northwest Territories for a trip down the Nahanni River.
“Each trip helps strengthen our friendships and our artistic abilities,” says Mantrop. “At this point in our lives we are thankful that high school chums are still working and playing together.”
Drawnonward will exhibit this fall at the Creemore Festival of the Arts from Sept. 21 to 23, and at the Evergreen Brickworks Sept. 27.