Canoeing is among the most popular activities in the Bow Valley.
When it’s a weather appropriate day it’s hard to go too far without seeing people grabbing a lifejacket, stepping into the canoe, enjoying a paddle among the rivers, creeks and lakes in the region.
For those hoping to get a deeper understanding of the watercraft, The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies will launch a new summer exhibit on Friday (June 17) called Canoe.
The exhibit will feature a rare private collection that highlights the centuries of history it has such as paintings and two- and three-dimensional pieces.
“The collection now is close to 90 works. It’s probably one of the great collections in Canadian art,” said Rod Green, a board member with the Whyte Museum. “It’s not just canoes, but historical and contemporary art. It probably represents about 50 artists. The collection is really specialized. They have fantastic work by Canadian artists.”
The collection itself has been put together over the past two decades by collectors and Calgary residents Grit and Scott McCreath. The artworks depicts Indigenous and settler populations, the history and usage of canoeing in Canada and its role in the growth of the country.
Among the featured paintings is work from Frances Anne Hopkins, Cornelius Krieghoff, David Milne, Lucius O’Brien and artist-explorers who were contracted by Sir William Van Horne in the 19th century to show the construction of the CPR railway and expansion into western Canada.
The earliest piece on display will be a water colour painted by John Halkett from 1820 and the most modern is a canvas painting from David Thauberger in 2018.
Green said he worked with the McCreath’s when he ran the Master’s Gallery for close to 40 years until 2018. The collection began when Grit bought a 19th Century water colour by Lucius O’Brien – who was then president of the Royal Canadian Academy – and it spurred a greater interest in growing the collection.
Scott, a lifelong canoeist who spent time in Saskatchewan with his father enjoying the activity, loved the gift and the collection has grown in the last 20 years, Green said.
“I don’t think an exhibit of this scale focusing on canoe art has ever been done. There’s been shows of the Group of Seven, Krieghoff, (Tom) Thomson and they all had occasional canoes in a painting,” Green said. “In this case, it’s about 50 artists showcasing roughly 90 works and all illustrating the canoe in some form of exploration, fur trade or recreational paddlers today.
“There’s work in the collection from all three coasts of Canada and every province and territory except the Yukon.”
Among the collection is also some local flavour in a 14-foot canoe made from a continuous piece of birch bark in 2017 that was crafted by Canmore local Don Gardener.
Talk of the exhibit coming to the Whyte began years ago between Green and chief curator Anne Ewan, who is also friends with the McCreaths. Grit McCreath is also a former board member for the Whyte.
“It was a natural fit and they agreed. … It’ll take the whole main floor at the Whyte. It’s not just two dimensional, there’s glasswork, pottery, prints, real canoes,” Green said. “There are some fantastic canoes and it’s a remarkable canoe related to Canadian art and Canadian history.”
Roughly half the collection was previously at the Remai Modern public art gallery in Saskatoon, which led to its largest admission and attendance for any show at the popular gallery, Green said.
“They wanted to share it and let people see it. … It’s a lot of fun working with them,” he said. “It’s quite a marvelous exhibit.”