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Victoria artist's lake swim pays tribute to Tom Thomson

A Victoria artist will swim across Ontario’s Canoe Lake as a tribute to Canadian painter Tom Thomson, who drowned there a century ago. Paul Walde won’t be alone.


A Victoria artist will swim across Ontario’s Canoe Lake as a tribute to Canadian painter Tom Thomson, who drowned there a century ago.

Paul Walde won’t be alone. He’ll cross the lake, in Algonquin Provincial Park, accompanied by a synchronized swim team, a canoe flotilla and a brass band.

The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim — a performance art project — will take place on July 8. Thomson went missing on that date 100 years ago after setting out on a canoe trip on Canoe Lake. His body was found in the lake eight days later.

A legendary figure in Canadian art, Thomson is often associated with the Group of Seven, although he was never a member of the group, which formed after his death. Thomson’s paintings, typically portraying the Ontario wilderness, drew international attention after his death.

Walde, 49, has trained for the 2.71-kilometre lake swim since September. He swims 128 laps (or three kilometres) two or three times weekly at a pool at the University of Victoria, where he chairs the visual arts department.

“I’m in better shape than I’ve been in for a long time,” Walde said. The artist, a former competitive swimmer, grew up swimming in Ontario lakes near Sault Ste. Marie, where he was raised. Each summer he swims the lakes while visiting his parents’ cottage.

Walde believes he’s physically prepared for the Canoe Lake swim, which should take about one hour. However, he is aware that crossing an open lake will be more challenging than his pool training, given factors such as water temperature and wind.

The swimmers accompanying him will do three synchronized routines during the swim. The routines will represent the “passage of time.” The first routine, for example, will be done in a counter-clockwise motion to suggest going back in time.

There will be at least a dozen canoes. They’ll carry a five-piece band with trumpeters and trombonists, who will play music composed by Walde. The canoes will also transport a film crew, which will document the project.

The performance will include a minute of silence using audio captured at the bottom of Canoe Lake. This audio will be pre-recorded using a hydrophone, a microphone that detects sound waves under water.

Walde received funding for the project from the Canada Council and the British Columbia Arts Council.

In part, The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim is Walde’s artistic response to Thomson’s style of depicting Canada’s landscape.

“Through my work, I’ve been trying to find other ways of engaging with the landscape, especially around the issues of the environment and colonialism,” Walde said in a statement.

In a phone interview, he added: “I’m trying to give people a sense of what [the landscape] sounds like, what it looks like below the surface, to try to create . . . a different understanding.”

Walde has achieved national prominence as an artist who investigates the connections between landscape, identity and technology.

His previously environmentally themed works include Requiem for a Glacier in 2013, for which 50 musicians journeyed to Farnham Glacier in the Kootenays.

Requiem for a Glacier was intended to raise awareness of glaciers melting due to climate change. The text, in Latin, was a translation of a provincial government news release announcing the approval of Jumbo Glacier Resort.

Over the years there has been controversy over Thomson’s death. Some believe it might have been murder rather than an accidental drowning.

The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim is “in a way confronting . . . some of that mythology,” Walde said. “What I find swimming the [Great] Lakes, there is something a little foreboding about it. For me, there is a certain amount of fear that I have to overcome when I’m doing these swims.”