Local artist receives Order of Canada for body of work

·4 min read

Very few of us can say their dream has come true.

John Hartman is one of those people.

"When I was young, I had dreams of flying over a landscape I knew really well It would unfold in front of me like a movie," said the artist based in Tiny Township, talking about the time he was 11. "It felt quite wonderful. I had these dreams over and over again and then they stopped."

An older Hartman, who quit law school to return to study fine arts, would make the dreams come true. Four decades later, his vast body of work has earned him an Order of Canada.

His artwork deviated from the fine-arts trend most dominant when he graduated school: post-painterly abstractions (a trend that required abstract paintings to be created on a more pure abstract basis than before).

"It was a very very narrowly defined way of working," said Hartman. "And if you weren’t doing something that related to that, you weren’t taken seriously."

So he journeyed back into art history to find the painters he could use as a starting point.

"In Canadian paintings, it was the Group of Seven and in Europe it was the German expressionist painters," said Hartman. "I just looked at how they painted the world and figured out how I saw the world slightly differently and started the lifelong process of figuring out how to paint the world as I saw it."

And he saw it from above, hovering several hundred feet in the air, looking at the landscape below.

"I started off by just imagining it," said Hartman, who was born in Midland in 1950. "I know the whole Midland, Penetanguishene and Port Severn area so well from growing up here that I can construct what it looks like from the air very easily."

Later on, he said, for unfamiliar places, he started renting airplanes with a pilot to fly over the area for the view.

"I always was interested in the things that human beings made on the landscapes, the roads, buildings and docks," said Hartman. "I was always interested in how a city would have looked before it was a city. I would do works about Port Severn or Waubaushene and then it slowly changed to bigger places."

He has produced artwork based on landscapes all over North America, he said.

"Some cities like New York are endlessly interesting to paint," said Hartman, "others like Toronto are more difficult because it’s essentially a shoreline."

But the two places close to his heart are Georgian Bay and Newfoundland.

"I really love the eastern shore of Georgian Bay and Newfoundland," said Hartman, adding that the latter has very few trees along the coast. “No matter where you walk, you have a view. And no matter where you look, you have some kind of human activity happening."

During summer months, he said, he has traditionally painted the eastern shoreline of Georgian Bay, more at eye level than from an aerial view.

"I do that over and over again because I still find it fresh and interesting," said Hartman.

He still paints aerial views occasionally. The last project he did was a series of portraits of Canadian authors and the places that were important to them.

"I keep getting new ideas and I just keep following them," Hartman said. "I just follow what’s most compelling even if I don’t know what the paintings might look like. If something catches my interest and I can’t get rid of it as an idea, I keep following it to turn it into a painting. That’s why it’s so exciting to be working on a new body of work."

The latest idea driving his artwork are birds in flight, "so I can add them to my landscape paintings," he said.

The recent Order of Canada announcement on the Governor General's website cites Hartman among the 47 receiving members. The website also says that he was selected for "enriching Canadian contemporary art by bringing landscapes and cityscapes to life on printing plates, canvas and paper."

Hartman said, for him, it's difficult thing to say what his influence has been on Canadian art.

"It takes a bit longer to see the true nature of the influence," he said. "I do get feedback from the next couple of generations of painters after me that say they look to my work as an example of how somebody could still paint the Canadian landscape in an expressionist way and have it seem fresh."

However, receiving one of Canada's highest civilian honours is definitely exciting, said Hartman.

"I wasn’t sure whether some of my friend’s were playing a joke on me," he said with a laugh. "so I went out and shovelled snow for an hour until I got the follow-up email from the Governor General’s office.

"Then I felt great," added Hartman. "It’s a real honour. We live in a country full of really deserving recipients, so to be chosen from among all of those, it felt like a real honour."

Mehreen Shahid, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, OrilliaMatters.com