The outstretched arms of a mother in mourning, layered with words of sorrow and the textures of a storied past, reached out and grabbed Dana Strength as she ambled through the gallery at Bracebridge Hall.
The arms, painted on a canvas, couldn’t touch her skin, but they tugged at her heart and stirred something inside her. The painting picked her, and there were many reasons why.
The 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. Bracebridge resident Dana Strength has always been a huge fan of the Hip and attended their shows at the Kee to Bala and other venues whenever possible. For her, their songbook is the experience of growing up in Canada put into poetry. When she heard the exhibition was coming to town, she thought there was no better band to put into art, so she made her way over to the exhibition where she found the painting.
“As soon as I saw it, I had to have it in my house,” Strength said. “I can’t see another painting that puts so many layers of that experience for me into one place.”
The painting is based on the song “Fiddler’s Green”, which was written about Gord Downie’s nephew who died from a heart condition. Strength had seen the painting online, and though she was intrigued, she didn’t expect the reaction she had when she saw it in person.
“That song always had a lot of meaning to me too because my son died,” she said. “It was the day after he was born and he was born, just like the line says, with a tiny knotted heart.”
Strength’s son was born in Orillia in 1994. Shortly after, he was airlifted to SickKids and put on life support. He died soon after. Strength had to say goodbye to her son, but she thinks of him often, especially when “Fiddler’s Green” played.
As an Indigenous woman whose son was Mohawk, she also connected to the painting because of the Mohawk words running up and down the piece. The lyrics that mean so much to her are in the painting figuratively and literally, and along with the woman’s longing and the other multi-layered connections, it all came together to create a “visceral” experience for her.
“It was not only the loss and kind of bringing up the sorrow of my son, but then also the meaning that the artist Michael Barber has put into it, of the crow being a messenger for the children lost at residential schools,” Strength said. “I felt the different layers of the grief in the painting and all because of the outstretched arms of it.”
The painting is like a portal, she said. She was transported mentally and emotionally when she saw it. It brought her to a place of grief and sorrow but also to a place of comfort.
That’s a place in art she often seeks out. Where meaning and spirituality and history come together to bring a person somewhere new. Good art, music and poetry has the ability to do that, she said, and the “Fiddler’s Green” painting exemplifies that feeling for her.
“It reaches out and says, ‘I’m going to take you somewhere. You’re going with me,’” she said. “It’s kind of like a space in between the music or the space in between two lines of written poetry that holds all the meaning without saying anything. Whatever that space is, is where that painting takes you.”
A day after buying the piece, Strength was out for a walk, thinking about it. She went over the layers of the painting in her head, from Gord Downie and his sister to the artist’s interpretation to her own shared experience.
To help process the thoughts swirling around in her mind, she wrote a poem. She sent it to the artist Michael Barber and thanked him for creating the painting.
“I just wanted to put down in words some of the pieces of those layers,” she said. “Gord Downie and the Hip, and the artist about the crow [being] the messenger, and then my own story. I wanted to kind of tie all the layers together and that’s what the poem was.”
Artist Michael Barber said hearing her story and reading the poem took the air out of his lungs. He immediately showed the poem to his family and they shared in his excitement. With the work and emotion that went into both the artwork and song, it was a “a beautiful turn of events” to see the painting sold to Strength.
“I couldn’t think of a better home for that piece,” Barber said. “Dana reached out to me and explained her story to me and I thought, ‘Wow, some things are meant to be and this is certainly one of those cases.’”
Barber had some concerns about creating a visual for such a beloved song. It was important to him to do justice to the lyrics and band, so he spent a great deal of time listening to the song and working on the piece. It was a relief for him to hear that Strength had such an instant connection to it.
He didn’t get into art to sell work and make money. He started as a way to start the healing process after his father died by suicide. He said that when he sits down to create a piece, he’s telling thoughts and stories and dreams that he’s had. The biggest difference this time was weaving his own life and his family’s trauma from residential schools to the existing story in the song. Strength’s connection to the piece made it that much more special to him.
“I was trying to show that struggle of how difficult it would be to lose a child and Dana is that person,” he said. “She’s gone through that grief and carries that weight and has suffered through unimaginable darkness, and so when she sees this piece and she recognizes it and she connects with it, as an artist, there’s no more I could hope for.”
He’s glad to see that Strength has found something, perhaps a kind of peace, in the painting that she can keep with her forever. The whole experience of being in the Echoes of the Flame exhibition has been fantastic for him, so he hopes lovers of art and the Hip will take the trip to see his painting and the 17 other pieces in the exhibition before they leave Bracebridge Hall at the end of next month.
“I encourage anybody that hasn’t been to the show or the exhibition yet to make the trip and see the work because it’s really such a broad spectrum of artists, different styles, different content, different songs,” Barber said. “When you look at what people have done with the songs and with their own creative abilities, it’s an incredible exhibition.”
It’s been an amazing experience for the creators of the exhibition as well, and connections like the one between Strength, Barber and the painting are a big reason why. Joe Woolf, co-founder of Song-Word Art House and one of the minds behind the exhibition, said Strength’s story brought them to tears.
“For Liz and I, this reminded us of why we do what we do,” he said. “It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day challenges of running an art business and lose sight of our purpose. Thankfully, interactions like these, which do happen from time to time, remind us of the power of art to change and improve people’s lives, which is why we got into this business in the first place.”