She canoed to Thunder Bay in a big Victorian dress — and the trip's not over, yet

Why is Naomi Harris 'paddling in the footsteps' of a 19th century painter? After last summer's 70-day canoe adventure, the artist is prepping an upcoming show.

Why is Naomi Harris 'paddling in the footsteps' of a 19th century painter?

Naomi Harris and her trusty canoe, "The Franny Anne." (Courtesy of the artist)

This time last summer, Naomi Harris was scared for her life — over and over and over again.

There's the story of how she landed in hospital with a leg infection, which was a nasty prologue to a whole other misadventure on the French River. (She was bucked into the rapids, slicing her shin on the rocks.) Before that, she'd survived the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers, plus the muddy, 11 km slog of the LaVase Portages. Then came a crossing at Lake Superior, where she paddled way out into the greatest of the Great Lakes ... just as the weather turned murderous. She and her guide survived. Barely. Same goes for the the squall that rocked her campsite soon after — an episode that nearly drowned her on dry land.

But Harris made it, completing a 70-day canoe journey from Lachine, Que., to Thunder Bay, Ont. And she did it all in a damned floor-length dress.

From I, Franny Anne by Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)

As for why anyone in 2018 (or any year) would do such a thing, that's the big question. Because first off, Harris doesn't exactly consider herself as an athlete. "It's not like I'm a canoeist," she says, calling from a hammock. "And I tell you, I did literally no training for this trip."

But she is an artist, one especially known for her documentary photography. Past projects have taken her all over Canada and the United States — usually by car, not boat. "I had initially wanted to do a kind of road trip minus the road," she explains, an impulse that led her to researching that quintessentially Canadian vehicle, the canoe. That's when she discovered something that inspired the whole bug-bitten, tailbone-bruising adventure.

It was while she was digging up imagery from the fur trade. Says Harris: "I would come across these paintings done by 'F.A.H.'"

Harris had never seen them before: realistically rendered scenes of voyageurs cutting through the water. And she also didn't know that the artist was a woman.

Who was the woman who accompanied these men, and what did it feel like for her to do the trip?- Naomi Harris, artist

F.A.H., or Frances Anne Hopkins, was a British painter from a wealthy artistic family. (Her grandfather was a Royal Academy of Arts member, to give you an idea.) And she's responsible for most, if not all, known images of Canada's fur-trading routes.

In 1858, Hopkins arrived in Quebec as a newlywed. Her (much older) husband was a senior Hudson's Bay Company staffer, and it wasn't long before the 20-year-old was tagging along on the occasional backwoods business trip, a habit she continued until their return to England. A rich white lady travelling by voyageur-powered canoe was weird enough, but Hopkins also produced oil paintings based on their travels. And like a Where's Waldo in petticoats, she'd drop herself into the pictures.

Frances Anne Hopkins. Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall. 1869. (That's Hopkins at the dead centre of the image, staring at a white lily, an oh-so-Victorian symbol of ladylike purity. If you squint, the way she's holding her hand makes it look like she's sketching in a notebook.) (Supplied)

"I just became fascinated by the art," says Harris. "Who was the woman who accompanied these men, and what did it feel like for her to do the trip?" But also — and this is the bit that wound up being important — what was it like to be a female painter way back when?

Hopkins was no hobbyist. She was the first woman to mount a major solo exhibition in Montreal (1870). Between 1860-1891, the Royal Academy in London exhibited her work 11 times — which might explain her gender-neutral signature. By 1860, the RA had admitted its first female student, but that particular painter (Laura Herford) crashed the gate by signing her stuff the same way. (Patriarchy, man. Hell, the RA didn't elect their first female professors until 2011.)

Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)

And while reading up on Hopkins's career, Harris says she was thinking about how things have changed, but not necessarily improved, for women in art.

"Sure, I can use my name in my artwork, but when you look at the number of men who get solo exhibitions at major museums and are collected heavily, versus women. And even the pay scale! There's a huge gender disparity in the arts, and that was more where the project took me. I wanted to walk — or paddle, ha ha ha — in her footsteps."

That's what the project's ultimately about, says Harris: the life of a female artist, now and then. "It's not about Canada, it's not about the canoe. It's about Frances Anne Hopkins." And inspired by Hopkins, she made several self-portraits along the trip.

For the journey, which was supported by a Canada Council grant, Harris followed an HBC route the painter would have travelled (albeit in reverse). As a first-class passenger, Hopkins probably never lifted a paddle. But Harris wasn't aiming for historical re-enactment — which, frankly, would be a political minefield considering the circumstances of race and class and Red Ensign-waving imperialism that got Hopkins there in the first place.

"A lot of it was trying to empathize and put myself in her place," says Harris, talking about the performance. "I wasn't pretending to be Frances Anne," she explains. "I wasn't walking around speaking with an old English accent or anything. I was pretty much me, but dressed like I was out of the 1860s."

The Franny Anne Dress. (Courtesy of Naomi Harris)

Harris packed one costume for 70 days: a cotton dress and hat, specially made to be authentic. Despite appearances, she says it was more practical than workout gear. ("We look at pictures of people from the olden days and we wonder, 'How did they do it?!' But you're better off when your skin isn't exposed.") It also, miraculously, survived the trip intact.

It's not about Canada, it's not about the canoe. It's about Frances Anne Hopkins.- Naomi Harris, artist

Documenting the experience was a challenge, though. "The hard part about being out on the water is that you can't just photograph. You can't just stop and take pictures." She did, however, capture a selection of portraits and landscapes. She also kept journals — unlike the real-life Hopkins.

And she collaborated with artists along the way. The oval portrait above, for example, is a daguerreotype by Mike Robinson. Photographers from Toronto's Tintype Studio met up with her canoe along the French River, where they got some appropriately old-timey pictures. (The technology would have been popular in Hopkins's day.) And inspired by the studio portraits people in the 1800s would have purchased before a trip, Harris sat for "before and after" shots.

But her journey is so not over.

A selection of tintype photographs taken for Naomi Harris's project I, Franny Anne. (Courtesy of the artist)

Next spring, Harris brings the project to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, so in the coming weeks, she'll be getting back in Franny Anne's head. She's planning a repeat journey, though not by canoe this time. At a few key locations, she'll take photos and collect audio (she's planning a sound piece for the show). She'll also probably forage for organic bits and bobs, stuff that can be made into ink for a printmaking project. But the first stop is Thunder Bay, where she'll drop her old canoe at the museum, so it's ready for installation next year. 

Planning such a multi-disciplinary show is a whole new experience for Harris, an artist who's focused on photography for roughly 20 years." This is my opportunity to do something very different, and I want to do something very different," she says.

"What was the motivation? I guess with all the work I do, people are like, 'You're so brave!' But I don't know that I'm brave. I think I'm naïve," she laughs. "And I don't do my research enough to be scared."

More selections from I, Franny Anne.

From I, Franny Anne by Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)
Naomi Harris. From I, Franny Anne. (Courtesy of the artist)
From I, Franny Anne by Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)
From I, Franny Anne by Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)
From I, Franny Anne by Naomi Harris. (Courtesy of the artist)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.