Steve Martin gets serious about new Lawren Harris exhibit

Steve Martin made his name and fortune in comedy. But he's very serious about art, and now he has turned his love of Canadian painter Lawren Harris into a mission: to expose Americans to one of this country's artistic treasures.

'America has never heard of him,' actor-comedian-musician says of Group of Seven artist

Steve Martin gets serious about new Lawren Harris exhibit

6 years ago
Duration 9:40
Steve Martin made his name and fortune in comedy. But he's very serious about art, and now he has turned his love of Canadian painter Lawren Harris into a mission. 9:40

Steve Martin first encountered the paintings of Lawren Harris 25 years ago and it was love at first sight. But the actor-comedian-musician quickly discovered that he wasn't alone in his love for the founding Group of Seven member.

"I thought I discovered him," Martin confessed with a grin to The National's Wendy Mesley. "Then I realized Canada knows all about him. So I felt a little foolish."

"I was in America, just kind of peering into Canada and Canada's heart." 

Steve Martin: "I thought I'd discovered (Lawren Harris)."

6 years ago
Duration 0:43
Steve Martin admits he was behind the curve in discovering Canadian painter Lawren Harris. 0:43

That insight put Martin on a mission: to expose Americans to the iconic paintings of Harris. The result is the exhibit "The Idea of North," which he helped curate and orchestrate. The 30-painting exhibit has already had showings in Los Angeles and Boston. The exhibit opens on Canada Day at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for a 10-week run.

It doesn't feel lonely or depressing. It feels exalting.- Steve Martin on the paintings of Lawren Harris

Martin may have built his celebrity in warm, sunny, Hollywood. But it's the cold and quiet of Harris's paintings that speak to him. "[The art] doesn't feel lonely or depressing. It feels exalting," he said.

Steve Martin: Lawren Harris "doesn't feel lonely"

6 years ago
Duration 0:47
Steve Martin compares the "isolation" of Lawren Harris paintings to American counterparts. 0:47

That, and the man likes icebergs.

"I've always been fascinated by the subject," Martin said before eyeing a cameraman hovering a little too close to a painting. "Be careful," he pleads, one of many times he pauses to fret that someone might topple backwards and put a hole in a beloved painting.

One thing's for sure: Martin knows his art. A collector since the age of 20, Martin didn't dial in this exhibit. He travelled across Canada to view the pieces that have come to make up this exhibit. He once wrote to the late billionaire Ken Thomson, who offered Martin the chance to view his personal art collection as it sat in storage. Martin also paid a trip to a Saskatoon museum to view another Harris piece that was in its basement. 

Capturing the idea of Canada

Those trips, plus time spent in Canada for movie shoots and to visit friend Martin Short's home on Ontario's Lake Rosseau, have convinced Martin that Harris captured the idea of Canada perfectly.

"Oftentimes, a painter will paint a landscape and you think, that's not really what it looks like," said Martin. "He actually did paint it exactly like it is."

Martin's so serious in discussing Harris, that you'd barely guess he initially rose to fame as a comedian. Still, his quick wit and good timing do surface when asked if the tall, erect contours of the painting North Shore, Lake Superior might elicit less-than-esoteric interpretations.

"What?" he says his eyebrows rising in surprise at the question. "Well," he deadpans to Mesley. "Maybe that's just you."

Steve Martin, Wendy Mesley interpret Lawren Harris

6 years ago
Duration 0:35
Steve Martin talks about Lawren Harris painting "North Shore, Lake Superior" 0:35

One thing's for sure, this is a project that's near and dear to Martin's heart. Curating an exhibit isn't something he would do again for another artist.

"They don't need me for that," he explains. "But I felt like here is a full-blown artist ready to go and America has never heard of him. It's like, who else is there like that?"

With files from Wendy Mesley