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Closed gallery prepping for major Canadian war art show

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Cathy Dobson

Our public art gallery closed this week and will remain closed the rest of August to give staff and volunteers time to prepare for a big new exhibition generating fanfare.

Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War, has been touring the world for four years and comes to Sarnia from Paris.

The 75 paintings and sketches belong to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and reflect the Canadian experience during The Great War (1914 – 1918).

It’s an important and engaging exhibition, says Lisa Daniels, curator at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG) on Christina Street.

She describes it on par with 2015’s Beaverbrook Masterworks, which filled the JNAAG for nearly five months and attracted 21,000 visitors. The gallery was closed to the public for two months to prepare for that one.

There’s a link between the two shows that goes beyond the fact that they represent huge investments of time and money and reflect the JNAAG’s category “A” gallery status.

Several paintings in the exhibition were commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorial Fund.  A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley were hired by the Fund to document the war. They went on to become members of the Group of Seven.

Others, such as Frederick Clemesha, Thurston Topham and Vivian Cummings were ordinary soldiers who sent drawings home.

“Some of the sketches purchased after the war by the Fund were done by soldiers as they sat in the trenches on the front line,” said Daniels.

Lord Beaverbrook’s wartime collection formed the basis for the Canadian War Museum’s collection that now has select pieces on tour.

“We’re very lucky to have it this year when we’re celebrating Canada’s 150th and the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge,” Daniels said.

The exhibit change will see new walls built and the volunteer tour guides, or docents, trained.

Huge crates filled with the paintings are being hauled into the gallery, some as long as 13 feet and weighing hundreds of pounds.

The exhibit is so large that an installer from the Canadian War Museum is coming to oversee the work. It will fill every room, except for the Dr. Telford Biehn gallery, which will feature First World War artifacts from the Lambton Heritage Museum providing local context of the period.

On Sept. 1, which is a First Friday, Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War, will give the public its first glimpse of the second largest art exhibition at the JNAAG since it opened in 2012.

Daniels said she is particularly excited about the 40 to 60 volunteer guides who have worked the past eight months to learn about the war and the relevance of each painting in the show.

Some have even practiced wartime songs and poetry to add to their tours.

“This is the most incredible group of docents,” Daniels said.  “They are really getting into this and have done so much research and work on their own to ensure their tours really engage.”


WHAT: Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War

WHEN:  September 1 – January 7

WHERE: The JNAAG at Christina and Lochiel streets





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