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Romancing the Canoe at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum

Paddlers, outdoor adventurers, artists, historians and really anyone who loves Canada will especially enjoy the current exhibition titled Romancing the Canoe, taking place at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary from June 17 – September 10, 2017.

The exhibit takes the visitor from the first exposure of the Europeans to the canoe (where they are basically wowed by its versatility, weight and usefulness in the wilderness) through to modern day where canoes are associated with holidays, relaxation and outdoor adventure. We are reminded however by the curator, Roger Boulet, as he quotes Pierre Berton in describing a piece of art titled Dragonfly by Cameron Douglas“You’re really not Canadian until you make love in a canoe.”  

Romancing the Canoe at Calgary's Glenbow Museum

The Silent Fjord by Belmore Browne

With Canada’s 150th anniversary this year it’s especially fitting to showcase the canoe, truly one of Canada’s iconic symbols. In the exhibit it’s described as “the hyphen between culture and nature serving a link to a wilderness that is synonymous with Canadian cultural history.”

Romancing the Canoe at Calgary's Glenbow Museum

Opening of Romancing the Canoe on June 17th

To me the canoe is also an approachable art form. A visit to the museum gets you thinking about what the canoe symbolizes. I’d been pretty linear in my thinking considering it as a way to access the wilderness and commune with nature. I hadn’t thought of the canoe as a symbol of colonization and a method to begin exploiting natural resources. But I’m happy to see that the canoe being rejuvenated especially on the West Coast of Canada by the indigenous people as a way of reviving their traditions. “It’s a spiritual and cultural reawakening as well as a personal journey of self-discovery.”

Beautiful birchbark canoe on display at the Glenbow

Beautiful birchbark canoe on display at the Glenbow

The show is divided into six parts starting with The Encounter and ending with The Canoe Today. The paintings, sculpture and art pieces are drawn from private lenders, the National Archives and Glenbow’s own collection covering the period from the early 19th century to the 21st century. One full size birchbark canoe is on display but most of the artwork is paintings.

Romancing the Canoe at Calgary's Glenbow Museum

It was a hard life for the early paddlers portaging heavy loads of 90 pounds

The fur trade is well documented with early drawings but the show also covers the dying days of the fur trade by artist Frances Anne Hopkins. She traveled with her husband, a Hudson’s Bay Company official and ended up being one of the last people to witness the great canoes on Lake Superior. Her paintings as such have great historical significance.

The show covers more than the traditional birchbark canoe. We learn about the dugout canoes built by the Haida on the west coast (75% of whom died in a smallpox epidemic in 1863) and the umiak, a kayak made of skin stretched over a wooden frame built by the Inuit.

Romancing the Canoe at Calgary's Glenbow Museum

Canoes come in different forms

The largest painting in the show by Janice Tanton called “Undercurrents” is a thought provoking piece that makes me contemplate what it means to be a Canadian. My personal favourite is called “Out of the Picture” by Jon McKee a mixed media piece with a folk art approach.

When was the last time you visited an art gallery? To me it’s like going to the symphony. I feel like I tap into my creativity – perhaps because it’s a quiet and thoughtful experience, at least if you turn off your phone and stay in the moment. Go see for yourself how canoes fit into the Canadian identity.

Romancing the Canoe at Calgary's Glenbow Museum

The Voyageur canoe

For more information visit the Glenbow Museum. There is free admission to the museum on the first Thursday of every month from 5 – 9 PM.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure – & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project – a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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