Saskatchewan artist Geoff Phillips mountain biked his way around the province’s southwest a few years ago looking for patches of wildflowers, native grasses and other plants he could paint in the body of work that would become Plantscapes of the Prairies. He soon learned he had to visit areas such as Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park to find plentiful displays of native plants: “I realized you’re not going to find interesting plants and things growing that aren’t in protected areas.”
The 12 large paintings Phillips created serve as a stern warning: Many plants native to the prairies are disappearing as a result of the relentless sprawl of agriculture. Consider the western red lily, the provincial floral emblem on the Saskatchewan flag. The flower used to be plentiful but now is a protected species. It is no longer just a symbol for Saskatchewan, but also a symbol for disappearing nature.
Across the country, many of Canada’s top contemporary landscape artists are warning about the dangers to nature from agriculture, industrialization and climate change. “Artists, after all, are the canaries in the coalmine that point us to look at things that society is not grappling with the way it should be,” says Sarah Milroy, chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the art gallery based in Kleinburg, Ont., that’s famous for its massive Group of Seven collection.
A century ago, Canada’s top artists were the emerging Group of Seven. They painted what were presented as newly discovered landscapes, unspoiled and uninhabited, although Indigenous peoples had lived in those areas for thousands of years. Today, the country’s artists are painting not newly discovered landscapes but instead the increasingly threatened landscapes of Canada.
The Group’s wilderness paintings have long been the gold standard of landscape art and remain so for many Canadians. But that standard is changing as artists forge a new path, using their art to galvanize contemporary viewers to act to protect the landscapes that so inspired the Group of Seven.
The Group can, perhaps inadvertently, take some of the blame for the threatened destruction of nature. These days, their paintings are critiqued as invitations to mining, logging and tourist companies to occupy the wilderness. “Lots of the Group of Seven paintings were portraits of our natural resources to exploit,” says Lindsey Sharman, a curator at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.