Lawren Harris on Creativity and Despair

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change” — Mary Shelley

Fewer things are harder than to change one’s self, one’s mind. Neuroscientists would blame it on the loss of brain plasticity that comes with aging. Behaviorists blame the habits themselves, ingrained in our everyday actions and thought patterns. Biologists point to our limbic system and our overpowering instincts. Is there such a thing as willpower, anymore? 

When change doesn’t come willfully, it comes with force, tearing up doors and smashing through windows like an uninvited, drunken midnight guest. You recoil, maybe call the police, sleep sleepless nights and yell, shout, kick. But the guest is there to stay, evermore stubborn and obnoxious the more you oppose him. If only you could accept that, maybe by next morning, or next week, or next year, you will clean up the shards, replace the windows, the locks, and pour a cup of coffee for your new friend.

Wise minds welcome change. They’ve always had. There is a story, recounted by Canadian ethnographer Richard Kool in a 1986 letter to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, about one such people, an Indian tribe of British Columbia:

“The Shuswap region was and is considered by the Indian people to be a rich place: rich in salmon and game, rich in below-ground food resources such as tubers and roots – a plentiful land. In this region, the people would live in permanent village sites and exploit the environs for needed resources. They had elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources of the environment, and perceived their lives as being good and rich. Yet, the elders said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.

So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 to 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shuswap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsamroot would be plentiful. Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and healthy. Incidentally, it also allowed exploited resources in one area to recover after years of harvesting.”

Change is vital for all of us to annihilate the old patterns that run their course and stymie our growth, our curiosity, our zest for life.  But change is all the more important for artists, akin to a fulltime job. Embracing change alongside its uncertainty and pain is the mountain that every creative person must climb — not just once every 30 years like the Shuswap Indian tribe, but day in and day out.

Frustration, anxiety and despair are the familiar faces that keep company to artists during these climbs, yet in the public’s mind the feelings either get swept under the rug or they become romanticized. There is little understanding about how ordinary and gruesome these emotions are.  There’s even less understanding about how essential they are to the creative process, since breakthroughs require rupture and discomfort. Change is often painful and painstakingly slow.

Lawren Harris, one of the best and most influential artists in Canadian art history, championed this attitude in word and action alike. In one of his letters to artist Emily Carr, with whom he had kindled a warm mentorship and friendship, and who was, at the time, overcome with frustration in trying to outgrow her painting, Harris exposes his creed with a sagacity whose sweetness can only be tasted after hard-fought suffering: 

 “In despair again? Now that is too bad. Let us be as philosophical as we can about it”, he recommends to Carr like a gentle father figure. “Despair is part and parcel of every creative individual. Some succumb to it and are swamped for this life. It can’t be conquered, one rises out of it. Creative rhythm plunges us into it, then lifts us till we are driven to extricate. None of it is bad. We cannot stop the rhythm but we can detach ourselves from it — we need not be completely immersed… we have to learn not to be! How? By not resisting. Resistance is only an aggravation! — one I think that we should escape from if we learned that all things must be faced, then they lose their potency.”

“It is no good to tell you that your work does not warrant despair”, he goes on. “Every creative individual despairs, always has since the beginning of time. No matter how fine the things are, there are always finer things to be done and still finer ad infinitum… We have to be intense about what we are doing but think what intensity does, what it draws into itself — then, do you wonder that, if things do not go as well as we anticipate, the reaction from intensity is despair? Keep on working, change your approach, perhaps, but don’t change your attitude.”

Harris wasn’t just offering empty words to Carr — he was the embodiment of his advice, writing this letter at a time of great personal turmoil when he was producing very little art at all. Nor was this his first encounter with despair.

More than a decade earlier, in the spring of 1918, Harris had suffered a nervous breakdown after the deaths of his brother Howard, killed during World War I, and the drowning of fellow artist and close friend Tom Thomson. At the suggestion of his doctor he sought refuge in nature, retreating to his summer house on Lake Simcoe and taking a momentous trip to the Algoma region, in northeastern Ontario.  It was the Algoma woods with their “wild richness and clarity of color” — as Harris would later describe the area — that pulled him out of the depths of his misery and set him off on a new creative path.   

He was in good company, too. The artist returned to Algoma alongside his fellow Group of Seven colleagues, traveling in a converted boxcar. In total he visited the region eight times — fruitful and rewarding occasions for sketching en plein air.

Lawren Harris – Algoma (Beaver Swamp), 1920. Oil on wood. Private collection

“The nights were frosty, but in the box car, with the fire in the stove, we were snug and warm”, artist A.Y. Jackson reminisces in his autobiography about one such trip in 1919. “Discussions and arguments would last until late in the night, ranging from Plato to Picasso, to Madame Blavatsky and Mary Baker Eddy. Harris, a Baptist who later became a theosophist, and MacDonald, a Presbyterian who was interested in Christian Science, inspired many of the arguments.”

Lawren Harris – Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior (1924). Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The discussions about spirituality had become central to Harris’s artistic life. His 1918 breakdown had prompted intense soul-searching and led him, like many others in the wake of World War I, to the quasi-religious teachings proposed by the Theosophical Society, under the leadership of Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy (“wisdom of the gods”) was a movement that believed in the unity of all religious beliefs. It encouraged the study of Buddhist and Eastern thought and aimed to bridge the differences between East and West. But there was a lot of esotericism and DYI mentality involved. You could say that theosophy was the precursor to what today we call New Age spirituality — though with fewer Mercury retrogrades and more séances.

Lawren Harris – Pic Island Lake Superior (c. 1926). Oil on beaverboard. Private collection

Harris grew convinced that painting could be used a gateway to access higher dimensions, and saw art as the junction point between the material — his beloved landscapes — and the spiritual. His paintings on the north shore of Lake Superior, where he returned every fall for seven years between 1921 and 1928 inspired by the barrenness of the landscape, are some of his best, most memorable works, charged with an unmistakable spirituality.

Lawren Harris – North Shore, Lake Superior (1926). Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The simplified, sculptural forms of the natural elements carry a monolithic quality which speaks to the universality of life, while the light washing over them alludes to epiphanies and breakthroughs, visual parallels to Harris’s quest for enlightenment and self-discovery.

Lawren Harris – Lake and Mountains (1928). Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

 In 1924, after a trip to Jasper Park, Alberta, Harris found a new, forceful metaphor for his yearnings in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. “If we view a great mountain soaring into the sky, it may excite us, evoke an uplifted feeling within us”, he writes. “There is an interplay of something we see outside of us with our inner response. The artist takes that response and its feelings and shapes it canvas with paint so that when finished it contains the experience.”

Lawren Harris – Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountains Paintings VII (c. 1929). Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Harris felt a correspondence between the snow-capped boundlessness of nature and what he intuited to be the vast territories of his interior landscape. The virginal whiteness of snow had a purifying effect on him, writing in 1928 that Canadians lived on “the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms.”    

Lawren Harris – Mt. Lefroy (1930). Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

In August 1930, the same quest for purity that had led Harris to the Canadian North drew him to the Arctic, alongside fellow painter and Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson. The two artists spent two months visiting Baffin Island, Greenland, the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Harris completed thirty sketches and six paintings there, some of his most abstract up until that point.

Lawren Harris – Baffin Island Mountains (c. 1931). Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Yet the next few years proved to be challenging, testing again Harris’s beliefs and artistic creed. Caught in the turmoil of great change — the death of his friend and colleague J.E.H. MacDonald, the dissolution of the Group of Seven, the separation from his wife and children in order to marry his friend Bess Housser against strong social disapproval — Harris produced very little between 1930 and 1934. The drought came to an end once he finally settled with Housser in Hanover, New Hampshire. Almost immediately, Harris started painting again. But this time, his art had turned towards the abstract.

Lawren Harris – Sun, Fog and Ice, Smith Sound (Arctic Painting IV), 1931. Oil on canvas. Private collection

“As for me, there is for the present no other way,” he writes in a letter to Emily Carr about this new direction. “I had, as you know, come to a complete full stop, the end, both in painting and in life. The new opportunity means new life and a new way of life and a new outlook and new adventure.”

Lawren Harris  – Abstraction 30 (1955). Oil on canvas. Private collection

If creativity is the corollary to life, then despair is the equivalent of death, like two sides of the same coin, Harris’s “full stop” would suggest. Yet art always leaves generous room for rebirth, for growth, for concocting possibilities out of the unthinkable. The Canadian artist knew — in life, as well as in his painting — that despair is as much part of the creative process as death is part of life.  It is through this open attitude to change that Harris managed to repeatedly reinvent himself as an artist and as a human being.   

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Gabriela, thanks for this beautiful and soul-searching critique of the work of Lawren Harris. His early works, before going totally abstract, are composed of simple, solid, reflective, majestic forms. They reflect his enlightened perception of the natural world and connection with the divine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Rosaliene! I’m glad you appreciated Harris’s works.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Eric Wayne says:

    Harris has a whole lotta’ Rockwell Kent going on, though Lawren is more stylized and seems to like to keep trees and foliage, as well as any people or animals, out of the picture. [See Kent:

    I was wondering if Kent had the same spiritual sorts of underpinnings in his landscapes, and according to Wikipedia, I guess he did, “A transcendentalist and mystic in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson, whose works he read, Kent found inspiration in the austerity and stark beauty of wilderness.”

    I looked up more of Harris’s paintings in a Google image search. Now I see more how he’s different from Kent. Very interesting stuff. Some strike me as more spiritual than others, in which case I can get what he’s going for and apply it to all of them to a degree. It really seems about the spiritual forces of nature irrespective of humans, and on a grand scale (hence the general avoidance of more transitory animals and plants).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      That’s a great parallel to Kent! Maybe there’s something in the arctic air that suspends the notion of time. It’s akin to looking to our world from outer space. I’m thinking of Harald Sohlberg too.

      I’ve also been spending a lot of time looking at Hilma af Klint’s works. I like how she uses primeval symbols that mirror both the micro and the macrocosm, how she ties in everything together with very basic shapes.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Leslie K says:

    My favorite of your articles thus far! It speaks to me on so many levels – your words and Harris’ art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thanks so much, Leslie! It’s so exhilarating when my readers relate to the art and story and see them as I do.


  4. Leslie K says:

    Reblogged this on shared visions art and commented:
    So much of this speaks to me. The need for change,despair, communion with nature.


  5. David says:

    I am very late in responding to this post because it generated so many thoughts that went rumbling through my head. Trying to grab each one individually and organize them into a coherent paragraph or two was like trying to heard cats. Compounding this is the fact that lately I have all but mastered the art of procrastination. I have always excelled in this, but for some reason I have lately taken it to a new level that represents my personal best.

    When I saw Harris’ second photo in your post, I checked the date and went backed and checked that date of the first painting. I thought he had changed his style to something more abstract but there was only four years difference. Each subsequent painting was looking more abstract to me and then you came out and said that he had changed his style. Proof enough for me that I wasn’t imagining things.

    There were two other things in his paintings that struck me. First, despite its abstract quality, the stump in the fourth painting immediately reminded me of the stump in the second painting. Maybe not identical twins but certainly brothers with the same DNA.

    I have two other observations to share. If I were an art critic looking at the first painting, I would somehow expand on the fact that the two trees in the center of the painting, which obviously represent Christian crosses, are heavily influenced by his Baptist upbringing. I’m sure a critic could get two or three paragraphs out of this.

    Also, as an art critic I would be sure to point out that although his abstract landscapes have a very rounded, soft fullness to them, they still have peaks reaching upward as if searching for enlightenment from above. No doubt this reflects his journey from his Baptist geginings to Theosophy. This could probably elicit three or four good paragraphs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m glad the post elicited so many thoughts, David! Don’t worry about being late – I am the master of procrastination.

      Oh wow, I hadn’t even noticed the crosses in the far distance in Algoma (Beaver Swamp), if that’s the one you were referring to. I love the texture of that painting and how the tree branches seem alight in the evening sun.

      See, that’s the problem with “abstract” or “spiritual” artists. They use imagery that is laden with personal symbols, but there’s also this tendency from us, the viewers, to add meaning where there isn’t any, to project ourselves onto the canvas. (Which can be fun, I agree! It’s why I write here.)

      Maybe I’ve read too much art criticism but the peaks, stumps and mountains, coupled with the overwhelming blueness, to me signal phalli and overwhelming masculinity. I didn’t mention that in the post because I think that this is a bias of art criticism, to sexualize and psychoanalyze everything. Oftentimes a tall glass or pillar or tree in a painting are deemed to symbolize a penis by art critics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s