Blind visual artist paints audience while exploring mystery of Tom Thomson's death

He's a blind visual artist and performer raised in Calgary and he's now answering the question a friend once asked, 'How do you see?'

Bruce Horak was asked ‘How do you see?’ and this is his answer

Bruce Horak, left, paints a portrait of the audience attending Assassinating Thomson at Lunchbox Theatre. On Tuesday, 'old friend and supporter' John Leansie won the painting auction. (Submitted by Bruce Horak)

He's a blind visual artist and performer raised in Calgary and he's now answering the question a friend once asked, "How do you see?"

Bruce Horak's Assassinating Thomson has a lot going on.

Horak tells a story of iconic Canadian artist Tom Thomson, whose accidental drowning at age 39 in 1917 has always been a question mark to many.

"He's a legend in Canadian art … my high school art teacher had this great Tom Thomson print, The Jack Pine," Horak told The Homestretch.

It was the painting, The Jack Pine, by Canadian artist Tom Thomson, that put the icon on Bruce Horak's radar in high school. (National Gallery of Canada/Library and Archives Canada)

"She told us about the mysterious death, and the Canoe Lake haunting. Years later, I was commissioned by the Glenbow Museum to write a complete history of Canadian art in 45 minutes for Grades 4 to 6. I started to research Thomson's story and found these bizarre parallels."

Among them? A shared birthday of Aug. 5. That put Thomson on Horak's radar for a future show.

It was an interaction with a friend a few years ago that brought things into focus.

"I am legally blind, I have nine per cent vision and have been blind ever since I was very young," he said.

Horak sat with that friend and painted his portrait. The friend asked, "How do you see?"

"This show developed over a number of years of painting individual portraits. It's like sitting and having your portrait painted and being told a good story."

Bruce Horak is legally blind, with only 9 per cent vision. In his Assassinating Thomson show at Lunchbox Theatre, he paints a portrait of the audience, in part, to answer the question, 'How do you see?' (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Horak says Assassinating Thomson covers a lot of ground, from the fact-intensive ideas, to theories to more colourful possibilities.

"It's a murder-mystery, a ghost story, there's political intrigue, you get it all," the artist said with a laugh.

And he tells the story, all while painting a portrait of the entire audience.

"It's an art class, in a way. I paint a portrait of the whole audience. I give insight to how I am creating the painting on stage," Horak said.

Depends on the crowd

And each show is a fluid experience for him and the audience.

"They are very different. It depends on who is in the crowd, what they are wearing, the arrangement of the audience," he said.

"A lot of it is feel and intuition."

Assassinating Thomson runs at the Lunchbox Theatre until March 2.

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.


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