Victoria artist to honour iconic painter Tom Thomson with swim, floating brass band

Paul Walde will swim the length of Canoe Lake, where Thomson died 100 years ago.

Paul Walde will swim the length of Canoe Lake, where Thomson died 100 years ago.

Victoria artist Paul Walde will swim the length of Canoe Lake, the same spot where iconic Canadian artist Tom Thomson drowned 100 years ago. (UVic Photo Services)

By Jennifer Van Evra

When iconic Canadian painter Tom Thomson died on July 8, 1917, it was a mystery.

The 39-year-old artist, who was also a rugged woodsman and accomplished wilderness guide, set out in a canoe on an Algonquin Park lake, but failed to return. His body was found eight days later.

The sequence of events that led to his death will remain a mystery and a source of art world speculation — theories include marine accident, murder and suicide — but now a Victoria artist is taking to those same waters to mark the 100th anniversary of Thomson's death and his legacy with a performance work of his own.

On July 8, Victoria-based artist and University of Victoria visual arts chair Paul Walde plans to swim the length of Canoe Lake, nearly three kilometres — but he won't be doing it alone.

Known for his inventive and location-specific sound and video installations, Walde will be accompanied by a synchronized swim squad, a canoe flotilla and a brass band performing a work he created specifically for the event.

Paul Walde is the artist behind The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim, which includes synchronized swimmers, a canoe flotilla and a floating brass band. (UVic Photo Services)

"Tom Thomson is like Canada's van Gogh. He's someone who died very young, but he had a dramatic growth in his work toward the end of his life, and created some very memorable paintings like The West Wind and Northern River," says Walde, whose other projects include Requiem for a Glacier, which was filmed live on Farnham Glacier in B.C.'s Purcell Mountains and garnered international acclaim, and Alaska Variations, which USA Today named one of the top U.S. museum exhibits of the year in 2016.

"And then of course the influence that he had with the Group of Seven cemented his legacy in terms of Canadian art in the 20th century."

The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim will also be documented by a professional film and audio crew, and footage from the event — shot from various locations including via an underwater body camera — will be incorporated into an exhibition. The recordings will also include a minute of silence recorded at the bottom of the lake.

'Anything can happen in open water'

A former competitive swimmer who grew up in Northern Ontario, Walde says he has been training for the event since September, gradually increasing his swimming distances. But swimming in the U Vic pool is decidedly different from braving the open and chillier waters of Canoe Lake.

"This is definitely at the limit of what I'm able to do," says Walde. "And anything can happen in open water. That's part of the piece, too: me trying to confront my own fears and my own limitations of what I can do, physically."

The swim has been generating buzz both in B.C. and Northern Ontario, and Walde hopes people will come out to witness the event.

"It's at 6 o'clock in the morning so I have no idea what to expect," says Walde with a laugh. I'm perfectly happy to swim the lake with our little crew, but the more the merrier."

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