Art as documentary 

Squamish groups researching connections between famed artist and local environment

When we think of history, we generally think of books, some both dry and drab, others more dramatic. But that’s just one medium, one way to tell the story. There’s also film and photography — and, for Eric Andersen, there’s art.

“We can look back and see how our ideas of our place have changed over time,” he says, a series of prints spread out on the table in front of him.

Andersen sits on the board of directors with the Squamish Historical Society and Squamish Arts Council. In those roles, he’s been researching landscape portraits by artists dating back to the late 19th century — all of them with intimate connections to Squamish and the Howe Sound area. He calls it the Squamish Area Landscape Painting History Project, and it spans about 100 years, from 1880 onwards. As it turns out, the area’s mountains, rivers and inlets made an ideal laboratory for developing artists, and there were about 20 recognized artists rendering the area on canvas.

“A revolution in British Columbian landscape painting started in our local mountains,” Andersen says.

That revolution was spearheaded by people like Lucious Richard O’Brien, Josephine Crease, Thomas Fripp, Fred Varley, Emily Carr and others. Rendered in their works are iconic features from the Tantalus Range, Garibaldi Provincial Park and Howe Sound. Both the society and the council are gathering information and prints from public domain in the hopes of propelling the project to a larger end, perhaps a book. In the interim, Andersen is taking his research to schools, where, he teaches students about the connections between artistry, history and the local area.

Many of these artists were naturalists, botanists and mountaineers. Some, like Varley of the Group of Seven, were traumatized by 20th century warfare and sought solace in the Coast Mountains. In Carr’s case, she had a niece in Brackendale, and her visits produced images of those farmlands, as well as other giants of Squamish history — Woodfibre, for example. While Carr came in on a train and stuck close to her niece’s house, painters like Fripp rallied students and struck out on expeditions with the help of the Squamish Nation.

“These expeditions are important for the history of landscape painting, which ushered in modernism,” says Andersen.

With so many palettes come a good many footprints. Artists staying with locals would leave sketches behind as payment, while others, like Carr, would donate their works to local institutions like the school in Brackendale.

“These were all people exploring mountains,” says Andersen, “and we have a unique Canadian mountain landscape that these artists helped bring to national attention.”

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