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BACK ROADS BILL: Cobalt artists and the environment

This week Bill looks at environmental impact through the eyes of past artists

Cobalt: A Mining Town and the Canadian Imagination is the title of a new art gallery exhibit and a book. It is an introspective look at an early northern Ontario town in transition through an environmental lens. And you can stand and view where they created their works of art.

As a back road storyline, it would be most likely themed as the man versus nature conflict. This is when the protagonist, either alone or together with other characters, is in direct opposition to the forces of nature.

The silver rush started in and around 1904-05 and at its peak provided approximately one-eighth of the world’s silver. It was like the Klondike Gold Rush it attracted miners, scientists, scholars, and artists. The natural landscape was changed immediately and drastically.


“Before this exhibit and publication there has been no in-depth account of artists’ activities in Cobalt a century ago - where they were creating works that spoke of an ideal of Canada as an industrial modern nation,” said Sarah Milroy, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Kleinburg. “These paintings reflect a key aspect of an evolving national identity— one rooted in resource extraction and notions of mastery over the land.

“Looking back on these paintings with the benefit of historic hindsight we can more clearly perceive the environmental damage underway, and imagine the adverse impact on Indigenous communities in that moment in time — remembering that these are issues that continue to persist in Canadian society today. Catherine takes us on a fascinating voyage back in time, one that allows us to better understand our present.” Catherine is Dr. Catharine Mastin, guest curator for the exhibit and author of the book. Her grandfather was Franklin Carmichael from the Group of Seven painters.


Sam Cheung, the Media Relations & Communications Coordinator for the gallery said, “This exhibition showcases the work of the artists who visited and documented Cobalt and its silver mines between the First and Second World Wars after much of the natural resource deposits were depleted. Among them was a rising generation of Canadian modern painters which included Yvonne McKague Housser, Bess Larkin Housser Harris, Isabel McLaughlin, Frederick Banting, A.Y. Jackson, and Franklin Carmichael.

“These artists created works that depicted Canada as a new, modern industrial nation in step with the future—a contrast to the better-known works from this period that picture Canada as untouched wilderness. While some artists conjured Cobalt as a heroic bastion of industry and enterprise, others focused on the town’s grit and dishevelment.”

The curator

Dr. Catharine Mastin is a specialist in modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on gender and women's art practices. Have a listen to the YouTube curatorial talk of the exhibit. Back Roads Bill is cited for his research within the presentation at the 16-minute mark. It is a sneak peek at the forthcoming book.

“What makes the Cobalt story engaging is the sustained interest in the place from about 1916 through to 1940, and how many artists came to see and interpret it, and what an enduring force it was in the early modern decades of the 20th century.”

I asked about the importance of women artists at the time. “The Cobalt story revolves around Yvonne McKague Housser who first went to Cobalt in 1917. After that, she organized more trips for her circle of women friends including Isabel McLaughlin, Rody Kenny Courtice, Bess Larkin Housser-Harris, and Audrey A. Taylor. There were subsequent trips I’ve documented in 1918, 1929, 1931, and 1934.

And of the impact of the eco-artists of the day? “A.Y. Jackson advocated for preservation of key Ontario lakes in the 1930s, including what eventually became named OSA Lake, after the Ontario Society of Artists. Casson also advocated for the naming of Jackson and Carmichael lakes in 1976 in Killarney Park. So yes, I think in many cases the artists were saddened by the devastation and wanted to try to address it as best they could through their interpretive eyes as artists.”


Dr. Mastin received a great deal of help from Maggie Wilson, President of Cobalt Historical Society.

“Maggie worked closely with me to locate the sites of most all the paintings and drawings and prints in the show. She is credited throughout my manuscript for her invaluable assistance in this regard, one artwork at a time. It was easier to identify the mines and unique geological formations rather than domestic architecture, roads etc. as the former were better documented in period photographs than the townscape, even so they were almost impossible to fully separate because of the close proximity of mines and residences.”

Maggie Wilson stated, “I devoted dozens and dozens of hours to this project, assisting Catharine Mastin in her research, so, yes, I can comment on the identity of the subjects in the artwork.”

One of the joys of the exhibit is that you can georeference some of the locations where the various artists stood. For example, the oil canvas Old Mine Shaft (1930), (SSW of Heritage Silver Trail Stop 5) by Beth Harris, is the former Seneca Superior Mine on Cart Lake, viewed from the eastern shore of Cart Lake.

Another is A.Y. Jackson’s Ontario Mining Town, Cobalt, 1933.

“A good candidate for this painting subject is the Nipissing Mine property (Heritage Silver Trail - near Stop 12) that was located behind the arena,” said Maggie. One of the early photographs is Isabel McLaughlin’s shots of the Right of Way Mine, (near Stop Five – Silver Heritage Tour) along the railway track.

“These are two views of the Chambers Ferland Mine that was located at the north end of town. Most of that rock pile remains today.” See the map for the artists’ point of view.

Charlie Angus

An artist in his own right Charlie Angus has been the MP for Timmins-James Bay since 2004 and is a Cobalt resident. He has authored a number of heritage books including Cobalt: Cradle of Demon Metal - Birth of a Mining Superpower. He examines the history of Cobalt within a broader international frame — “from the conquistadores to the Western gold rush to the struggles in the Democratic Republic of Congo today.” He demonstrates how Cobalt set Canada on its path to becoming the world’s dominant mining superpower.

He has been following the progress of the exhibit.

“This has been a long time coming and is another example of Cobalt’s tumultuous but rich heritage from boom to bust. Artists have been attracted to Cobalt for many reasons and it has always had an artistic community.”

Angus referenced another artist at the time, George Cassidy was a painter who was born in Chicago, moved to Cobalt in 1932 and spent the rest of his life in the North, employed as a teacher, principal and art instructor. He died in 1987.

There was a 1934 excursion with Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson and Dr. Banting of Insulin fame on a painting excursion in which they went painting together on a snowy March day in Cobalt.

“His work is comparable to the Group of Seven. He really had a vision of Northern Ontario that was on par with what they did."

Artists impact

The Nipissing Region Curatorial Collective is an arts collective that creates events, festivals and exhibitions across Northeastern Ontario and across Canada.

Dermot Wilson is an artist within the collective and is the Executive Director. “We are mandated to: grow curators, to professionalize and nurture contemporary artists in the region and to create outdoor contemporary art project.

“I think that the Group of Seven could be considered Eco-Artists, in part, but they were mostly commercial fine artists and gallery artists, making landscape paintings to sell in galleries. The novels of Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) could be considered to be Eco-Art. His work with the beaver, lectures and films, were very effective in raising awareness of the destruction of a species due to capitalism.”

“We are making art that focuses public attention on these 'hidden from public view' places."

He identified a contemporary Ontario example. “It was the Broken Forests Eco-Artists Group (a worldwide group of which he is a member) who intervened in the Blue Mountains and created eight installations to focus local and provincial attention upon the environmental impacts upon forests on the Niagara Escarpment of the Green Belt development legislation.”


The exhibit runs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until April 21, 2024. The 200-page book has the same title as the exhibit and will be available this spring.

To get a feel for the exhibit take a trip to Cobalt, it has so many back roads. The Heritage Silver Trail takes you around this national historic site. Cobalt is special it hangs on to its past.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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