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Connecting the dots between Bermuda and Canada

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John Hartman with his painting, View from Gibbs Hill, part of Looking Out: Canadian Artists in Bermuda, which is now on exhibit at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art until September (Photograph by Blair Raughley Masters)

John Hartman is often described as one of Canada’s “pre-eminent painters”.

His landscapes can be found in major art galleries there, he has also exhibited extensively in New York and New Orleans in the US, and in London, England.

In Bermuda his paintings are part of Looking Out: Canadian Artists in Bermuda, which is now on exhibit at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art until September.

It’s a reintroduction to the island for the artist, who was last here in 2005 at the invitation of Tom Butterfield, the founder of the Paget gallery.

“[He] wanted to discuss a residency programme that was ongoing at the time,” Mr Hartman said. “He wanted to expand it to get more Canadian artists. I made some watercolours.

“I made two very large oil paintings when I got home to my studio and this is my first return visit. Not because the island isn’t beautiful – it's incredibly beautiful, it’s a great spot to paint because of the light – but both Masterworks and I got busy with other things in the interim.”

Mr Hartman was studying law at McMaster University when he decided to switch to the fine arts programme offered by the Hamilton, Ontario, school.

“And then immediately when I left I started making art full-time, so I think it's almost 50 years,” he said.

As stated on his website, Mr Hartman first gained public attention with Painting the Bay, his 1993 exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario.

On show he put large-scale paintings of Georgian Bay, a massive bay within Lake Huron, that offered “aerial views of the landscape painted with thick, juicy paint. In the skies Hartman painted stories about the places depicted”.

In 2003 he began painting aerial views “of cities as living organisms”. Cities, an exhibition and book, toured Canada and elsewhere from 2007 to 2009.

Although landscapes continue to feature in his art the 74-year-old will now always “try to sort of include a human presence”. He’s enjoyed doing that with his work here.

“I paint from an imagined high viewing point,” he said. “It's actually interesting because of the shape of the island and all of the inlets on the one side – complex, small harbours.

“It makes for strong compositions – and then the change in the colour of the water, from shallow water to deeper waters.

“When you're looking at something that’s viewed from above is something that works well with landscape paintings.”

Last Saturday, Mr Hartman gave a talk at Masterworks about “his historic and continuing response to Bermuda's unique colours, forms and landscape” concentrating on his four paintings that are in the gallery’s collection.

He structured the talk with artists in mind, describing his journey from inspiration to completion of a painting.

“[In 2005] I was looking for high view viewpoints. I’d seen a reproduction of a drawing made by a British military officer in the mid-19th century that was a view from Gibbs Hill.

“So I went to Gibbs Hill. I walked up the lighthouse and I got this quite incredible view all the way up to Hamilton and across to the Naval Dockyard,” Mr Hartman said.

“I took photographs from the top of the lighthouse and I made a small watercolour study from there as well. And then I also spent time out at the Naval Dockyard and did a watercolour study from the Commissioner's House looking back over land – not across to Hamilton, back down the peninsula.”

Once he’d returned home he transformed the two views into larger oil paintings.

“But there was an intermediate stage where I did a 30 by 36 inch watercolour of the views. And then I made larger oil paintings, like 60 by 66 inches, based on the information I had in photographs, my sketches, preliminary studies … just the initial impact of what I saw,” he said.

“When I look at the paintings now, which I haven't seen in 20 years, it looks like I had lots of fun painting.”

Spreading the knowledge: John Hartman teaching at a workshop at Masterworks (Photograph supplied)

Looking Out: Canadian Artists in Bermuda was curated by Sara Thom, curatorial researcher at Masterworks.

“People love seeing them,” she said of Mr Hartman’s pieces. “They're really breathtaking.”

With three oil paintings and one watercolour in Masterworks’ collection, the difficulty was in choosing which to include in the current exhibit.

“I think it's just a process of showing what represents the variety in his work,” Dr Thom said. “So I picked his two large oil paintings. One is very representative of what we've been talking about with the aerial view in the landscape.

“The other one is quite interesting because it's a bit different. It has figures in the sky, it’s a bit more metaphorical in a way. It is still about placing the figure in the landscape but it tells a bit of a different story.”

Different view: John Hartman with his painting, Paradise Lost and Regained part of Looking Out: Canadian Artists in Bermuda, which is now on exhibit at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art until September (Photograph by Blair Raughley Masters)

Called Paradise Lost and Regained it offers an imagined view of Bermuda from “way up, maybe 1000 feet”, Mr Hartman said.

“It's looking from the St George's end towards the other end and so you see the island and kind of teal-coloured water in the shallow areas and the darker waters into deeper water. And Adam and Eve are in the sky.

“So it's a kind of different interpretation of the Biblical story of the expulsion from paradise which sort of says, we were in paradise and then we messed up and we got expelled and we'll be there for ever.”

His idea behind the work was that “paradise is actually here on earth as we live, if we can understand it and see it”.

“The exhibition is really about perspectives on Bermuda. So there's the kind of larger Canadian perspective and people can learn a bit more about Canadian art history and what are some themes that maybe unite these artists, but also each artist has such a wonderful individual approach, and sometimes that varies depending on the work,” said Dr Thom.

“So it's really about all the different perspectives and just trying to capture all of those perspectives in the work that's on display.”

Although his work is held by many museums it’s not always on exhibit.

“Most major museums have my work in their collections, but typically it's in storage because 90 per cent of every museum's collection is in storage,” Mr Hartman said.

“I show with three galleries in Canada. What people do when they get curious about my work these days is just Google my name and in my case, put ‘artist’ afterwards and all sorts of websites, social media connections pop up there.”

• Looking Out: Canadian Artists in Bermuda runs until September 7 in the Butterfield Gallery at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art. For more information: www.johnhartman.ca; www.masterworksbermuda.org

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Published May 03, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 04, 2024 at 8:04 am)

Connecting the dots between Bermuda and Canada

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