When Sue Waddington started a particular rug-hooking project in 1977, she had no idea what lay ahead for her and her husband, Jim.
The tapestry was based on a pictorial image – a 1933 painting by A.Y. Jackson of a lake in Killarney Provincial Park, on the north shore of Georgian Bay.
Some time later, a family camping and canoeing trip took the Waddingtons and their two young children near a lake with the same name, Nellie Lake.
Armed with curiosity and a snapshot of the painting, they climbed a steep, blueberry-covered hill and suddenly found themselves looking down on the exact vista Jackson had painted 44 years earlier.
“That was the first one, the one that got this all started.”
Sue is referring to the quest she and Jim have been on ever since: to find and photograph the actual locations that inspired Jackson and the other members of the iconic Group of Seven.
“We’ve been doing this for fun for ages,” Jim says.
So far, they have identified and documented about 200 such sites. And they’re still going strong.
“When we go to a place, we usually look ahead of time to see if there was any artwork done in the area,” Jim explains.
“When we get to the place, we look around, and looking at maps, we try to find out where it might be. And we move around in the terrain until we find the place. If we find it.”
Being retired – Sue from nursing, Jim from teaching physics at McMaster University in Hamilton – affords the Waddingtons more time to indulge their passion for sleuthing.
It helps that their other hobbies are so well-suited to such a mission. They are fervent canoeists, campers, hikers and photographers.
Oh yes, they are also dedicated orienteers who know the value of a good topographical map and aren’t afraid to do their homework when few clues exist beyond the paintings themselves.
“They kept very poor records of where they actually were. There would be references to things like, ‘I think we’ll be going up to Algoma in the fall.’ Algoma is a huge area, and rarely did they actually specify even which lake they would be on,” Jim says.
“So the sleuthing takes in all sorts of things; old letters, sometimes the title in the painting, but most likely by looking at the features in the painting and looking at maps and trying to match the two of them together.”
Besides regular visits to the McMichael art gallery in Kleinberg, Ontario, with its vast collection of Group of Seven paintings and sketches, the search has taken the Waddingtons on numerous excursions in the rugged Canadian Shield country, especially to the park where they made that first discovery.
“We’ve since found out that this area was a favourite of Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson and, to a lesser extent, A.J. Casson and J.E.H. Macdonald,” Jim says.
“In this relatively small place we found, I guess, about 80 of their works within a few square kilometres of each other.”
One memorable find was the site of A.J. Casson’s painting, A Little Bay in La Cloche Channel.
It didn’t come easily. Jim spent two winters studying maps and other documents, taking clues from the white quartzite hills that characterize the Killarney area.
After two week-long camping trips trying to pinpoint the site, the couple had begun to despair. They knew they were close, but even long-time fishers in the area didn’t recognize the locale when Sue showed them a photo.
Perhaps the painting was a composite, with features from more than one location, much like a digital photograph enhanced with imported elements.
Suddenly, Sue looked across the bay and announced, “There it is!”
Jim was unconvinced.
“I couldn’t visualize what she was saying, and it was getting dark, but she insisted we take the canoe off the car. And we took it off and we paddled across the bay, and we went into that little bay, and there it was,” he recalls.
“She’d figured out that if you were in the bay looking back out, you’d see this. So it was within sight of where these people had been fishing.”
“The other thing he [Casson] does, is the little channel where the right-hand rock sticks out, he’s made it a lot narrower in his painting,” Sue explains.
“And then the hills in the background, he’s increased them in height a little bit to make them more dominant.”
Other finds have taken them both by surprise. A tiny painting by Frederick Carmichael called Twisted Pine, for example. It, too, was painted in Killarney Provincial Park.
“We were going on a canoe trip, and we talked to some of the people who lived near the park, and I said to them, ‘This is one painting we’ll never be able to find.’ And the man immediately said, ‘Do you want to go and see it?'” Jim recounts.
“And I said, ‘No, no. This painting was done 75 years ago.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to go and see it?’ Sure enough, he took us there and there’s this tiny little tree that’s about two metres tall, and it hasn’t grown in 75 years. It must be hundreds of years old.”
Area residents know it as the bonsai tree, Sue adds. The owner of the property calls it his grandmother’s tree.
“The background of the painting was added in later, because from that view of the tree, you can’t see another mountain range from there,” Sue says.
“Carmichael’s cabin was just across the hill on the other side, so I think he just added the other view to complete the picture.”
Last fall, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection surprised the Waddingtons by mounting an exhibition featuring their work. The related website is atwww.groupofseven.ca
The couple will give an illustrated talk about their discoveries on Thursday, July 21 at the High Country Inn, at 7:30. Admission is by donation to the Canadian Orienteering Federation.