Much like the Muskoka region itself, the music of The Tragically Hip is iconic and uniquely Canadian, and an art exhibition inspired by their lyrics is spending the summer in Bracebridge.
The Echoes of the Flame exhibition at Bracebridge Hall will run from July 8 until August 28. It’s the creation of Song-Word Art House, an art curation and production company that focuses on art inspired by music. Co-founder Joe Woolf said the idea came from a desire to combine the energy and “flame” of songwriters with that of fine artists to create something special and new. They often try to pair their exhibitions with current cultural movements, whether it be a blues-based show to highlight the emotions of the pandemic or a grunge-focused gallery to reflect rebellion in times of political unrest. Working with The Tragically Hip is a longtime goal come to life for Woolf.
“Their lyrics defined the country for so many people in so many different ways, whether it’s politically or socially, so at some point, we were going to tackle The Tragically Hip because we knew that we were going to have something super powerful to work with,” Woolf said. “The song lyrics of Gord Downie are legendary, and they’re still very much a part of the fabric of people’s identity in Canada, so working with them was always at the top of our list.”
Bringing the Hip to Muskoka
The creation of the exhibition has been personal to Woolf in several ways. He grew up in Toronto and spent many summers at camp in Algonquin Park. He spent canoe trips and days off as a counsellor exploring Gravenhurst, Huntsville and other parts of the region. He also visited cottages, did tree planting and took fishing trips across Muskoka, all backed by a soundtrack of The Tragically Hip.
When it came to choosing a location for the exhibition, the team at the Los Angeles-based art house discussed their usual approach of holding an upscale gallery in a big city, but it didn’t feel like the right fit for the band, Woolf said. To him, Muskoka encapsulated the magic and the memories of listening to The Tragically Hip and co-founder Liz Cruz agreed.
“What makes our company different is that we like to give an experience to people, and so part of that experience has to be authentic to whatever band we’re representing,” Cruz said. “Muskoka was a perfect fit for The Tragically Hip.”
Cruz said it’s also important to them that the exhibition is accessible and allows as many people as possible to see the art. Having this type of grassroots approach to the show gives people who love the band a chance to experience the art over the course of the summer, she said, and admission is free as well.
Woolf said they toured around Muskoka to scope out the best place for the exhibition. His initial instinct was to go somewhere like Port Carling or Gravenhurst, but after seeing Bracebridge Hall, they knew their search was over.
“We knew right off the bat that that was a home run,” he said. “Not only are they a cool vibey bar that has craft cocktails and craft beers and whatnot, but they’re also a live venue for music and they’re an art gallery. The combination of all those things was a complete match 100 per cent, and sometimes when the stars align like that and it’s a good fit, you just go with it.”
Canadian icons showcasing Canadian artists
The exhibition features work from a diverse group of 18 artists. Members of The Tragically Hip oversaw the artist selection process and it was important to them that the majority of the artists be Canadian. About 75 per cent of the work in the show is done by Canadians, including Indigenous and French Canadian artists, while the other artists come from places like Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Because the band’s music is so personal for so many people, Woolf wanted to make sure he was doing right by them. To that end, he was honoured to work on this exhibition alongside guitarist Rob Baker and other members of the band. In addition to artist selection, they also chose the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre, located on a Mohawk reservation in Tyendinaga, as the beneficiary for a portion of the artwork proceeds.
“We are so pleased and gratified to see the music we created, transformed into new artistic expressions… like seeds we scattered that have taken root and are now in bloom,” said The Tragically Hip in a statement. “We are also pleased to be able to donate proceeds from this show to help build a language and cultural centre on the Mohawk reserve at Tyendinaga.”
Woolf said members of the band are likely to visit the exhibition at some point in the summer. He hopes their fans will also take the opportunity to view the different artists’ interpretations of “songs from the earliest days of ‘Road Apples’ all the way through to the most recent stuff that they were producing.” It’s a chance to see the artists’ various points of view while connecting with other fans and hopefully thinking back on fond memories.
“A lot of people have the same experience that I had growing up, listening to The Tragically Hip,” Woolf said. “It’s like the soundtrack of their life, sitting by a lake or a campfire, and especially during the late 80s and 90s through the 2000s, you couldn’t really have a radio station on and not have The Tragically Hip playing.”
Connections of loss and love in the lyrics
Artist Michael Barber knows the feeling. When the art house approached him about participating in the exhibition, he jumped at the opportunity and it’s been unbelievable to incorporate The Tragically Hip into his art, he said.
“Since they started, I’ve been listening to their music and it seems like throughout your life, you have memories of being certain places, at parties or weddings or whatever, and there’s always a Tragically Hip song that takes you back to that spot,” Barber said. “They just define Canada.”
Barber also works in graphic design, and while he uses text all the time in that area of his work, he never thought much about including words in his fine art pieces. His painting for the exhibition includes four lines of text, two in Mohawk and two in English, from his song of inspiration “Fiddler’s Green”.
It’s an emotional and “painfully beautiful” song about the death of late singer Gord Downie’s nephew and it tells a story of tragedy that Barber resonated with as an Indigenous person. His grandmother went to the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, where she was punished for speaking her native language. She never spoke about her experiences, and about 25 years ago when she was on her deathbed, she spoke to Barber in Mohawk for the first time.
“The loss of a young child is unimaginable yet they’ve created a masterpiece from that, so the connection for me through this whole project was that my family are residential school survivors,” he said.
The loss, both of life and culture, in residential schools runs parallel to the loss of a child in the song, Barber said. He had already been working on a series of pieces related to residential schools, so the exhibition allowed him to continue that common tie while also contributing to the discovery and preservation of Indigenous cultures at the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre.
Based in Port Dover, Barber hasn’t spent much time in Muskoka, but he’s looking forward to attending the opening night gala at Bracebridge Hall on July 8. He wanted his piece to look like it had survived something because it’s a representation of stories, so he hopes that will resonate with viewers. He encourages locals to take the opportunity to visit the exhibition, see the different interpretations and find out what speaks to them.
“The music means so much to so many different people and everybody connects differently with it,” Barber said. “The Indigenous connection with the Mohawk language school that some of the proceeds are going to is the perfect alignment for me, so I’m really excited to be part of it.”
To learn more about the exhibition, visit Song-Word Art House’s website. For more information on the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na Language and Cultural Centre, click here.
[…] piece came from the Echoes of the Flame art exhibition inspired by the Tragically Hip, which is free to the public and runs from July 8 until August 28. […]