BY LINDA MONDOUX
A recent study concluded that a day at the art gallery can do wonders to relieve stress and chase away the blues. And thanks to a little town in British Columbia, the art gallery is always close to home, even if we live in the suburbs or a quiet, rural village. All we need is a pair of eyes and directions to the nearest wall.
Drive to most towns and cities and chances are you’ll find art on more than a few buildings. It seems everyone has jumped on the mural bandwagon, following in the footsteps of Chemainus, B.C., the town that lost its only industry in the 1980s, but survived near-disaster by transforming itself into a world-famous tourist site “through the hands of artists.”
When it comes to murals in Ontario, no one does it better than Huntsville, where Canada’s most famous artists are celebrated throughout the town in the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery. Rather than the historical themes that run through the vast majority of murals in other communities, the emphasis here is on art. In Huntsville, that has meant re-creating the works of Group of Seven artists and their friends, such as Tom Thomson and his iconic Jack Pine
painting, and inviting the community to join the fun.
“Since that first mural in 1997, it’s changed my life completely,” says Gerry Lantaigne, creator and artistic director of the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery and the artist behind many of the collection’s mural installations. “I’ve since met Robin, a wonderful woman — we’ll be getting married soon — and I moved to Huntsville from Scarborough, so I live here now. And we’ve expanded the gallery from Huntsville to the Lake of Bays. There are over 80 Group of Seven murals now, starting in downtown Huntsville. The project has really snowballed.”
And there's more to come.
Lantaigne, 46, has teamed up with business partner David Robitaille to form Outdoor Galleries, with a resource coming soon online that will showcase the Group of Seven project in Huntsville and Lake of Bays, and help other communities develop similar mural galleries, which would be added to the website (www.outdoorgalleries.ca).
Outdoor Galleries aims to put mural artists to work
The idea is to create a travelogue of mural art festivals in Ontario, with a variety of art themes. “I’d like to keep the Group of Seven as unique to Muskoka,” Lantaigne says.
Communities working with Outdoor Galleries would have the option of developing a unique regional collection of world-class murals from the ground up, adapting existing mural programs or adding a community mural component that could be spun out into a festival similar to the annual events in Huntsville that have drawn such critical praise. "Our goal is to expand the (Huntsville) festival's scope and reach, broaden the collection's artistic and cultural themes and engage more communities in the development of what will soon become a major provincial festival and attraction," Lantaigne tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
Steve Campbell, chairman of the Downtown Huntsville BIA’s mural committee, is a believer in public art. He thinks the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery helps galvanize the community. And it has also helped to strengthen an already-vibrant downtown, giving it an added feature. “The reason the BIA got involved with the project was because we wanted people to walk around the town. That’s been happening — they’re out exploring. And that’s good for business.”
The BIA foots the bill for the majority of the murals you’ll find in Huntsville, with the exception of the Sketch Gallery just outside the core, which contains almost two dozen mini-murals painted by Huntsville High School students under Lantaigne’s direction. The mini murals re-create sketches by Tom Thomson and Group of Seven members during trips to Algonquin Park and the surrounding area.
While a tourist draw, the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery, painted on special all-weather board rather than directly onto walls, is much more.
Both Campbell and Lantaigne agree that Huntsville’s community mural — everyone living in or visiting Huntsville during what has become an annual two-week mural festival is invited to pick up a brush and add their own strokes to the latest Group of Seven re-creation — is the star of the show.
“It’s been very, very, successful,” Campbell tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s a great leveller — you can do it no matter what your age or income. It’s open to everybody. It’s free, it’s got the connection to Canadian art and it crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries. We’ve had people from Germany and China coming through and joining in. It’s been wonderful.”
Campbell says the communal mural project, which is both fun and educational, encourages people to get involved in the community. “When they see the mural they worked on, they feel an extra bit of warmth toward Huntsville.”
Lantaigne agrees, adding that the mural painting party “gives the community a sense of ownership and pride.”
“We’ve received very positive comments from participants,” says Lantaigne. “We average about 1,000 participants over two weeks. It’s a winning thing.”
G8 leaders join the fun
An extra community mural session was held in 2010, in advance of the G8 summit of world leaders in Huntsville in June. During the March Break, Lantaigne got staff and guests at Deerhurst Resort, site of the summit, started on a re-creation of Thomson’s famous painting The West Wind
, with a pine at its centre. “We left space across the horizon that the world leaders could paint, even though we weren’t certain at that time if they would agree to do it,” he recalls.
But the BIA pulled off some organizational magic, convincing the summit organizers the leaders should stop talking about world affairs for a few minutes and paint instead. “The leaders stopped by and had a really good time,” Lantaigne says. “It was supposed to be for five minutes, but it was about 12 minutes. They really filled in the rest of the painting — it was awesome. They completed it.”
U.S. President Barack Obama was among foreign leaders to unleash their inner Tom Thomson. But some leaders showed more talent than others. “Angela Merkel was really good,” Lantaigne says of the German chancellor.
You can check their handiwork at the Canadian Summit Centre, behind the high school, where the mural has been installed indoors. “We want to protect it,” Lantaigne says.
(For more information on all that Huntsville has to offer, please see our community profile.)
If you had told Lantaigne 15 years ago that one day he would be helping world leaders re-create a Tom Thomson masterpiece in Huntsville, he would have thought you were dreaming. And for good reason.
When Lantaigne drove to Huntsville in 1996 with a mural proposal for town council, he had marketing, not the Group of Seven, on his mind. His pitch to turn the town’s walls into advertising murals (he had just left a job in Toronto with a mural ad company) was quickly turned down. In fact, he says some councillors were downright rude.
When he left that meeting, downtown businessman Paul Myers, a Group of Seven enthusiast, followed him out. Could you do a Tom Thomson mural on the wall of my store, he asked. “Twenty minutes later, I had my whole proposal revamped as a mural tourist attraction,” Lantaigne recalls.
With the commissioned mural completed in 1997 (Lantaigne and Myers collaborated on the intallation), Lantaigne approached council again, this time with a 72-page report that proposed a series of 10 to 14 art murals and a one-off community mural festival, all at a cost of about $114,000. Council rejected the plan again.
About three years later, says Lantaigne, another BIA member came across the proposal “and she thought it was great.” Slowly, the tide was turning. By 2006, with half a dozen murals now attracting interest downtown, 10 other business owners stepped forward and said they, too, wanted murals. “So the BIA came up with the money for a festival with a community mural.”
That was in 2007.
Today, there are 71 murals in Huntsville, including the mini artwork pieces at the high school. Is Hunstville running out of walls? The BIA’s Campbell says no, though the number of murals created each year might be cut from the current half-dozen or so.
Huntsville's Group of Seven theme expands to Lake of Bays
“It’s also Gerry’s idea that you want the art collection to be a living collection,” says Campbell, adding that one painting was recently auctioned off and replaced with something new. The auctioned painting remains in Huntsville, however, after a small family-run resort came away with the winning bid.
Lantaigne has expanded the Group of Seven theme to the neighbouring Lake of Bays communities, with one mural in Dwight, two in Dorset and eight in Baysville. Lantaigne, who says he “learned to paint large” while training as a set designer at the Ontario College of Art campus in New York, painted some of the Lake of Bays collection as well. There are also two murals in Algonquin Park.
Lantaigne is working on marketing a Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery driving tour, and wants to get the mural tour promoted as part of the Huntsville Bike Train, which stops in downtown Huntsville.
And next summer, Lantaigne expects to be “somewhere in southern Ontario” overseeing the first of what he hopes will be many Outdoor Gallery art projects.
Back in Huntsville, Lantaigne says he is proud of what has been created from one single mural. “We’re opening doors here,” he says. “We’re informing people about the Group of Seven, and sending them out to the galleries to explore. Our mandate is art and in that we are unique and stand out.”
Until you get out to Huntsville to explore in person, you can check out the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010