When Canada’s premier Group of Seven gallery went looking for a contemporary artist who could pay homage to the nation’s century-old landscape painting tradition they chose Kim Dorland.
In some ways it was a peculiar choice.
Red Deer-raised Dorland was not steeped in the wilds of Ontario’s Algonquin Park — or any other iconic spot painted by Tom Thomson or the group of artists who followed him.
In fact, the nearest to nature Dorland remembers being in his childhood is close to park trails while attending Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School.
“I was not an avid nature buff, but there was always nature around me in Central Alberta,” he recalled in a phone interview from his studio in Toronto. “In Red Deer, you’re always within 10 minutes of nature.”
And maybe that was proximate enough.
For Dorland was able to be draw inspiration from Thomson, his favorite artist, as well as the diverse experiences of his own 39 years of life to create paintings of forests, lakes, hills and trees that now fill all five upper galleries of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont..
His solo show came about when McMichael’s chief curator, Katerina Atanassova, saw an exhibit of his works in New York. The artist was told his contemporary style, kindled by Group of Seven influences, could inject an exciting new “synergy” into Canadian landscape painting.
Atanassova asked Dorland to be the McMichael’s artist-in-residence for a year.
He was also invited to explore the gallery’s collection, visit Group of Seven locales and produce paintings that reference the past and present, thereby validating landscape as a fitting subject for modern painters.
In You Are Here: Kim Dorland and the Return to Painting exhibit, some of his works, which seek to understand nature and the human relationship to it, are juxtaposed with Thomson’s revered ones.
This initially caused the artist some anxiety because he didn’t want to ride on the legendary Thomson’s coattails. In fact, Dorland bristled at the idea of being seen as a “Thomson Jr.”
“I’ve established enough of an audience at this point in my career, I did not want to be seen as (derivative). And I also didn’t want people to think I was being disrespectful to the Group of Seven,” whose work has sometimes been parodied, he said.
Dorland said he actually adores the “voice and style” of the working painter, Thomson — so much so that he named his four-year-old son Thomson after the artist. (His older son is Seymour, 7, and according to their dad, both boys already excel at art).
“I thought, if my paintings can be seen as paying homage, then I’ll do it,” he recalled.
But completing 60 new pieces for the McMichael exhibit was a massive endeavour.
It started with Dorland heading off into the woods with his camera to take reference photos, and finished last fall with an eight-hour canoe trip/pilgrimage the artist took with his wife and sons (which involving some portaging) to the remote spot on Canoe Lake where Thomson mysteriously drowned in 1917.
“It was an amazing, beautiful sport. You almost feel like you walked into one of his paintings,” recalled Dorland.
“It was also kind of eerie to be there because I am now 39, the same age he was when he died.”
The show that resulted from all that woodland research has turned into a huge career move for the artist — and that’s saying something since Dorland has, in the past few years, had commercial gallery exhibits in Montreal, Milan, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, as well as New York.
In purely monetary terms, he has already achieved success: His larger paintings sell in the five figures to collectors across North America. Dorland’s works are in many private, as well as public collections, including Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, the Glenbow Museum and Berlin’s Sander Collection.
You Are Here also won his works more well-publicized critical success. The exhibit that goes to Jan. 5 has been covered by newspapers and art magazines across the country and has peaked the interest of viewers, including many school groups.
“Some of the feedback has really been humbling,” said Dorland.
“When I went into this, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this show definitely has some of my best work . . . and some of the response to it has been crazy — in a good way.”
Most of Dorland’s McMichael paintings are expansive — about two by three metres in size.
And most are bold, as one would expect from an artist who liberally uses both oil and acrylic paint and mixed-media effects, including spray-painted graffiti motifs.
His abstracted Heavy Beams, shows an X-shaped acid-yellow beam of light that’s contrasted with white and black and grey trees.
In his painting of Thomson’s ghost in a canoe (ghosts are a reoccurring theme in his work, he said, because they bridge the past and present), the out-of-body artist appears as a neon-green silhouette.
And in his six-metre wide French River tryptic, the natural greens are occasionally bordered by vivid splashes of bright orange.
Dorland explains these jarring jolts of colour by saying “it’s partly my approach . . . I’m not interested in making things beautiful. I wanted to create dynamic terrain in my work.”
The unexpected accents are also a way of injecting a contemporary sensibility that suggests nature isn’t necessarily pristine anymore. And “garish touches are a nice way to reference my white trash upbringing,” he said, with a chuckle.
The artist’s transitory childhood, which included being kicked out of the house at age 16 by his mother, has often been reported. So has the reformative influence of his high school girlfriend, Lori Seymour. She is now his wife, as well as a freelance writer and his career manager.
It was after moving in with Seymour’s family as a teenager and leafing through her parents’ coffee table books about art that Dorland first sensed he could be something more than what he was — which was an ineffectual student with no future plans.
“I fell in love with a girl, and began believing in myself and believing I had a future. From that point on . . . I wanted to do something with my life,” he recalled.
Dorland began exploring some of his little-used artistic skills after his grandmother, “who was a Sunday painter, but was really good,” gave him some of her oil paints.
While working as a porter at the North Hill Inn, he also met a former student at the Alberta College of Art and Design who got him interested in the idea of taking a post-secondary art program.
Dorland eventually moved to Toronto with Seymour and graduated with a Masters in Fine Art degree from York University.
The former Red Deer resident started out painting streetscapes of the Oriole Park home of his in-laws and other suburban scenes.
His subject matter gradually expanded to encompass abstracted portraits and landscapes, “because I wanted to see if I could do it,” said the artist. In the 2000s, he rose to the forefront of Canada’s contemporary art scene with his sculptural approach to painting that involves layering large amounts of paint onto canvases.
When asked what he wants to illicit in art viewers — whether a visceral, emotional or intellectual reaction, Dorland responded, “The short answer is yes” to all of the above.
“My art is now less rooted in a specific place — such as Red Deer — and is more about narrative style . . .
“I’ve been really lucky and have worked with good people,” added Dorland, who ideally aims for what Van Gogh, or for that matter, Thomson achieved — to give viewers a glimpse of who he is, as a person, through his works.
“Great paintings speak to you.”