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Water Sign: Echoes of Lake Ontario

E. May Martin (Canadian, 1865 - 1957), Breakers - Ocean or Lake, n.d., watercolour on paper. Donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Lande.

Water Sign: Echoes of Lake Ontario 

Curated by Valérie Frappier

My fascination with Lake Ontario took hold during the winter of 2019—the first season I spent living in walking distance of the lake. As a white settler who grew up in the Oak Ridges Moraine, I certainly was aware of the lake but, up until that winter, had largely taken for granted its vitality as a life source to the region. Though it occupies the smallest surface area of all the Great Lakes, approximately one quarter of Canada’s population inhabits its watershed. The lake provides drinking water to over nine million people, and is home to countless wildlife and plant species. Over the course of that winter, I began reflecting on how those of us who live in this watershed relate to this body of water, and what shifts when we take time to listen to it. 

When presented with the opportunity to curate a selection of works from both the RMG’s Permanent Collection and Thomas Bouckley Collection, I wondered what stories of the lake I might find, and how artists’ perspectives of the lake had shifted over time. What would artists’ past and contemporary perceptions of Lake Ontario reveal about our present relationship with it? This question is considered throughout the exhibition’s 29 works—ranging across painting, photography and printmaking—which emerge from both collections and span the last 150 years. It is important to note that early to mid-20th century works by European-descendant settler artists make up a significant amount of the portrayals of the lake in the collections and in this exhibition. I find it critical to bring attention to whose lived realities with the lake are largely missing from these portrayals; namely, the profound relationships Indigenous nations have had with this waterbody for millennia. I have intentionally bookended the exhibition with two works by contemporary Indigenous artists from the Great Lakes region, which are featured in the Permanent Collection. Beginning and concluding the exhibition with these works aims to impart a reminder of Indigenous nations’  relationships with the Great Lakes, and their ongoing stewardship of the region. 

This exhibition attempts to construct a snapshot of how the lake has been viewed during the last century of settlement and industrialization, from the vantage point of the lake’s north shore in Durham Region. The title Water Sign: Echoes of Lake Ontario surfaced from the strategy I implemented in selecting the artworks, which involved foregrounding representations of the lake where the waterbody seemed to be telling its own version of this history. In looking and listening for signs of life from the lake in the archives, I endeavoured to highlight it as a living force. The works have been grouped by theme as well as medium to bring into focus the lake’s different geographies, and are presented in the following sequence: “Beginnings,” “The lake in front of the lens,” “Reflections in colour throughout the 20th century,” “Oshawa Creek,” “Expansive geographies of the Great Lakes,” and “The lake’s present and future ecologies.” Together, these themes narrate this recent history of representation in the collections, and provide reflection on the historical contexts that shape how we sense the lake today. 




This theme considers different beginnings in relation to the lake. The first work, Nanabush and the Giant Pike (n.d.) by Blake Debassige, an Ojibwe artist from M’Chigeeng First Nation on the Georgian Bay, anchors the Great Lakes as vital to Anishinaabe culture. Here, Debassige vividly portrays Nanabush travelling across water, a protagonist in Ojibwe storytelling who is both a culture hero and trickster figure. Although it is unclear which lake this is situated on, Debassige’s work points to how the Great Lakes have sustained and been home to Indigenous cultures and ways of understanding the world for millennia. Juxtaposed with this self-representation of Indigenous culture is British-born settler artist Frederic Waistell Jopling’s idealization of French voyageur Étienne Brûlé’s travels of the Great Lakes thanks to the guidance of Indigenous tribes in Etienne Brule’s Last Lap of the Portage to Lake Ontario, 1615 (n.d). Brûlé was likely the first European to arrive to Lake Ontario four centuries ago. Lotti Thomas’s Prima Terra Nova (1984) narrates the ensuing colonization of Canada by European settlers arriving via waterways and the beginning of mass European settlement. Finally, two maps from the mid-1800s are the earliest representations of the lake in the collections, which both depict the lake as a void, negative space. These maps exemplify a settler-colonial way of seeing water and land from an elevated bird’s-eye view, as something to be controlled.


The lake in front of the lens


Taken in the early 1900s, these photographs from the Thomas Bouckley Collection reveal some of the earliest imprints of the lake itself in the gallery’s collections. Presented in black-and-white, with humans largely omitted from view, the lake is foregrounded as a living force. For instance, in Oshawa On The Lake In Winter (1919), a light leak on the photograph’s film can be interpreted as the lake transgressing the image frame; in Ice Formation, Lake Ontario (n.d.), a wave has monumentally crystalized in mid-break. Meanwhile, in Shipwreck (1921), a suspended wave occupies the bottom frame of the image, almost as if, only moments later, it overtook the photographer’s lens. Showing the wreckage of a wooden vessel in the middle ground—likely from a coal barge—the image attests to the power of the lake.


Reflections in colour throughout the 20th century


Here, an array of paintings from the Permanent Collection depict bodies of water during various seasons and times of day. Although not every painting is directly representative of Lake Ontario, these works by Southern Ontario-based artists provide reflections on the nature of water as always being in flux. The sun is dazzlingly reflected in the seascape of William Blair Bruce’s Lake Ontario (n.d.), while Florence H. McGillivray’s Moon Magic (1933) highlights the lunar influence on water’s movements. Season of Frost (1962) by Gustav Weisman uncovers a lake’s icy depths in the cold of winter. Emma May Martin’s Breakers  Ocean or Lake (n.d.) speaks to how easily Lake Ontario could be mistaken for an ocean when looking out at its wide expanse. 


Oshawa Creek


This selection of photographs spans a 100-year history of Oshawa Creek, Oshawa’s main watercourse into Lake Ontario. These images of the creek provide glimpses of the broader history of the city’s relationship with the lake and its waterways: as the backbone of industry, as a site of recreation and, at times, an infrastructural hazard. During the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the Oshawa Creek Valley was home to booming industryMany of the industries made use of the creek’s waters for its production and, like in the Don River westward, unleashed high levels of pollution back into the stream, which eventually flowed out into the lake. The creek endured throughout these different periods of the city’s economic activity and today, as we see in Fred Sewell’s photograph Oshawa Creek at William Street (2011), the creek continues to flow south, sustaining the plants and beings that rely on its watershed. 


Expansive geographies of the Great Lakes


Lake Ontario is critically connected to the wider Great Lakes’ network. Several works in the collections speak to this interconnection through the movement of water, as well as people and goods, across the lakesIn Jopling’s Whirlpool Rapids Illuminated  New York Side (1916), we get a sense of the sheer force of the Niagara River’s enlivened motion, which cascades between Lake Erie and Lake OntarioIn Ed Bartram’s Island Forms (1973) depicting the Georgian Bay, and Valerie Palmer’s Perpetua (1993) set by Lake Superior, we are shown suspended moments of transition set against the rocky terrain of the Canadian Shield, which envelops both northern shores of Lake Huron and Lake SuperiorConcerning the industrialization of the basin over the last century, large steam vessels and cargo ships—as pictured in Steam Vessel Leaving Harbour (1910) and Robert Bourdeau’s Ontario, Canada (1985)—have travelled to and from Lake Ontario’s ports throughout the decades to exchange goods across this network, on both sides of the Canada-US border. 


The lake’s present and future ecologies


Ecological awareness around the importance of the lake and its integral role in sustaining a complex ecosystem has only increased in recent decades. Eric Nasmith’s Whimbrel Moving West on Lake Ontario (1976) and Barry Smylie’s Communication should come this naturally to everyone (1991) portray examples of the many species who rely on this ecosystem. Don Wotton’s Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (2011) documents the authority’s headquarters near the Oshawa Creek, established in 1958 to redress the environmental impacts of industrial activity in the region. Today, the organization continues to ensure the health of Durham Region’s watersheds. The photograph The Delegate Visits the McLaughlin Gallery (2007) by Jeff Thomas, an Iroquois artist from Six Nations Reserve and Buffalo, NY, speaks back to the stereotyped representations of Indigenous peoples and their erasure from contemporary urban spaces. Taken on the front lawn of the RMG, Thomas presents his protagonist Chief Red Robe standing next to the beavers of Mary Anne Barkhouse’s public sculpture Grace (2007) as a testament to ongoing Indigenous presence. Finally, the most recent depiction of the lake in the gallery’s collections is Morris Lum’s Diptych 3 (2017). Lum leaves us with a bisected conclusion with which to consider the future of the lake, its evolving industries and changing climate.