Arts

This artist is paying tribute to Canada's hidden military history — by throwing his prints in a lake

The Avro Arrow has fascinated David Trautrimas since childhood, so he decided to honour its mythology and legacy.

The Avro Arrow has fascinated David Trautrimas since childhood, so he decided to honour its legacy

David Trautrimas. (Kristian Fourier)

As a kid, artist David Trautrimas would notice the odd little buildings around Point Petre. Small brick cubes, he remembers — a storey tall, maybe a tiny window in the door, not far from the campground in Prince Edward County where his family spent weekends every summer. The curious little bunkers were enclosed by high fences topped with razor wire. They sat in a field surrounded by radio antennae. He never saw anyone enter or exit. They became material for the mystery building inside his young mind.

He had heard tell of the county's secret military history. They had done bomb testing at Wellers Bay, people said. There was an abandoned air base nearby that his family had driven past a handful of times. Stranger still, the point itself made the western corner of the Marysburgh Vortex — a Bermuda Triangle of the North where, in another era, a great number of ships wrecked or went missing.

But the story that most captured his imagination at eight years old was that of the Avro Arrow. Rumour had it that in the 1950s, engineers had shot test models of the ill-fated Canadian interceptor jet off of Point Petre into Lake Ontario. Young David had discovered what he believed were the ruins of concrete launch pads left along the shore. The aircraft were supposedly still down there, sitting at the bottom of the lake.

For a recent project, the 41-year-old artist wanted to revisit the mythologies his younger self had constructed from top secret test facilities, tall tales, deserted barracks and the spectre of the Arrow. Through various methods and media, Trautrimas's art plays often with architecture — how it can be broken down into component parts and reassembled to make something new. The military history of Prince Edward County — both the factual and the fabled — seemed to him a rich scrapyard to build from.

David Trautrimas's "View Of The View." (David Trautrimas)

He was accepted for a residency at Spark Box Studio, located in the county, where he would make the body of work. Two weeks before he arrived there, in August 2018, a dedicated recovery group made national headlines when it pulled an 1/8 scale Avro Arrow-shaped object out of Lake Ontario.

What he long believed were rumours were now proven true.

Trautrimas began his research with the archives in Picton and Wellington libraries. He conducted interviews. His stepfather told him about a former co-worker who'd grown up in a house that was built as a bombing target. (Apparently, once training wrapped up, the military sold the unexploded homes, and purchasers had to have them moved off the bombing range at Bald Head Spit.) He visited the house. He scoured Google Maps in satellite view to scan for anomalies around Point Petre. A large circular paved path — a couple metres wide and 100 metres in diameter — set amongst the trees caught his attention. Deeper research revealed that some call it the "Orenda Ring." Local rumours say it was a test track for the Avro's Orenda turbojet engine. Supposedly, engineers would bolt the Orenda to a heavy cart on wheels chained to a post at the centre of the ring and observe as it whipped around the track like some ballistic tether ball. The post still exists.

David Trautrimas's "Above The Walk Out." (David Trautrimas)

At Spark Box, Trautrimas made a series of silkscreen prints, the colours and shapes drawn from his research. He recombined various visual elements — the form of the Avro Arrow, a cockpit from a training aircraft, the design of the barracks at the decommissioned air base, the tails fins of bombs tested in the areas, the landscape there: air, land, water. He limited his palette to six colours: white and black from the main paint scheme of the Arrow; yellow like the WW2 training planes; and blue, green and red for the Picton barracks. He describes the rearranged forms as "mechanical, architectural compositions." They are both unidentifiable and oddly familiar. The images do something to remember the war machines, military infrastructure and, by proxy, the war effort of the county, but, presented so completely reorganized, they seem to resist celebrating them. Instead they de-weaponize; they imagine other possibilities. The act, too, models how myths are built in the mind. Elements are abstracted: some move around, some become outsized, while others shrink and fall away. New elements are added.

To complete the project, Trautrimas returned to Spark Box in February. From his silkscreens, he produced a copper etching of each — eight plates in all. The studio residents hopped in his hatchback and the group drove out to Point Petre.

When the Arrow was raised the past summer, the artist couldn't help but feel that the county lost some of its mystique, like the childhood myths that coloured the place had paled some in his mind. He wanted to revive them.

David Trautrimas. (Kristian Fourier)

He hadn't anticipated that the lake would be so frozen — from the shore, he says, the ice stretched to the horizon. The group of four set out for open water. 400 feet or so off the point, the ice curled into a precipice, pushed up by strong winds and the actions of the waves against it. Beyond was open water. "Like skipping stones," Trautrimas stood atop the ice hill, backhanding the copper plates into the water below. He watched as all eight sank.

He imagines that someday they'll wash ashore. He hopes somebody finds one and it causes them even a small moment of wonder. It would make him so very happy, he says, to reproduce for someone else the magic he felt as a kid, searching for evidence of the Arrow.

He's created a spinoff myth: I heard there once was an artist who tossed a bunch of his work into this lake.

About the Author

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton