No man can roam or inhabit the Canadian North without it affecting him, and the artist, because of his constant habit of awareness and his discipline in expression, is perhaps more understanding of its moods and spirit than others are.
These are the words of Lawren Harris, one of the founding members of the iconic Group of Seven. This like-minded collection of Canadian landscape painters, internationally known and nationally treasured, initiated the first major Canadian national art movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. To commemorate their significance to our national heritage, and to pay homage to the natural world which they so revered, we at York Durham Headwaters invite you to get out into nature and cycle York Region’s Group of Seven Trails.
This trail route is extensive and intricately developed, with diverse points of interest to stop and explore, and a mix of trail surfaces to keep you challenged and engaged. We suggest you begin your ride at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, a starting point which offers you a unique opportunity to connect with your inner Group of Seven. This stunning gallery is the spiritual home of the legendary group of artists, and proudly displays thousands of paintings by Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven, aboriginal groups and contemporary Canadian artists.
(Truly… how much more spiritually connected to the Group of Seven can the McMichael be considering the fascinating fact that six of the group’s seven members, plus four of their wives, are buried on its grounds?!)
The outdoor walking trails surrounding the McMichael wind through the beautifully forested lands of the Humber River Valley, echoing a reverence for the Canadian landscape that the Group of Seven cherished. Today, those looking to get back to nature come here to hike, cycle, walk or simply enjoy their surroundings, and each year the McMichael hosts an en plein air competition, which encourages participating artists to tap into their inner Group of Seven and paint on the gallery’s grounds. The McMichael grounds are also home to the Tom Thomson shack, where the visionary artist who inspired the group’s formation lived and worked originally in the Rosedale Ravine in Toronto before the structure was relocated to Kleinburg.
Be sure to pause your cycling adventure, park your bike and wander through the Ivan Eyre Sculpture Garden, which is comprised of a rarely seen body of works by this Canadian artist of major accomplishment. And before you venture farther out onto the trails, take a leisurely spin around Historic Kleinburg to view the many beautifully maintained heritage buildings and the historic train station, which was built in 1869 and has been lovingly preserved as a heritage site of this once rural town. After all, by train was the Group of Seven’s preferred method of travelling around the province to take in the landscape which they would immortalize through their paintings.
It is easy to understand why the Group of Seven so revered nature and the Canadian landscape. After all, nature and all its wonders have been revered for centuries. From the prehistoric Polynesians to the First Nations tribes of North America to the Druids of the ancient Celts, nature has always been seen as profound in every aspect. Perhaps this is why the Group of Seven sought to capture the unique quality of the Canadian wilderness in their landscape paintings. So dedicated to this overwhelming panorama of the natural world were its members that they would travel the countryside of Ontario, especially the Muskoka and Algoma regions, to sketch the landscape and paint en plein air (which is the act of painting outdoors).
If you are not familiar with the Group of Seven, they are a collection of like-minded artists that operated as a group from 1920 to 1933. In addition to the aforementioned Mr. Harris, the group consisted originally of Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Later additions to the group would include A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LeMoine FitzGerald, with Thom Thompson and Emily Carr being recognized as unofficial members.
But the facts and pedigree do not do justice to the spirit of the Group of Seven. To say that they were landscape painters does not even begin to shine light on the reverence these artists held for the wild and untamed Canadian north. For capturing it on canvas with techniques that told a story and immortalized it. Astonishingly though, many of the Group of Seven’s contemporaries believed that the Canadian wilderness was not worthy of being painted! As a result of their efforts, the Group of Seven developed techniques to represent it in an artform which did not yet exist, and for this reason, they were recognized as pioneers of a new national school of art.
The tale is inspiring, to say the least, and this cycling trail in York Region pays homage to these renegade visionaries, to how they transformed the way the world saw Canadian landscape art and developed our country’s national artistic heritage. So let this insight into the Group of Seven, who they were and what they sought to accomplish together, inspire you as you cycle the Group of Seven Trails—especially through Kleinburg and the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Connect to the legacy that this iconic group established and nurtured for future generations of Canadians—a legacy that exists both on canvas and in the way we now cherish our natural Canadian surroundings.
Story by Katherine Ryalen