John Hartman, painter, printmaker (born 13 April 1950 in Midland, ON). Raised on Georgian Bay’s southern and eastern shores, John Hartman possesses both a strong visual and narrative association with his native landscape. Physical geography and portraits are elements of his work, but it is their idiosyncratic juxtaposition that eludes their figurative nature. While his travels, like his subjects, reflect interests that are far from parochial, Hartman retains a spiritual and creative association with the part of Ontario in which he has lived and worked most of his life.
His drawings, watercolours, oils, and colour drypoint (a printmaking technique in which an image is etched into a plate) address his longtime ambition to create art about a place. But Hartman is drawn to a narrative impulse that overlays his places with stories, memories and history. Whether the cityscapes of Manhattan or London, the landscapes of the Hebrides or the glacier-smoothed rocks of Georgian Bay’s eastern shore, Hartman’s work is not so much geographic portraiture as it is a representation of how we see landscapes and how we remember them — both personally and collectively.
Early Life and Career
Hartman grew up in Midland, Ontario, only a few miles north of the town of Lafontaine, near where his studio is now, and where he lives with his wife, Patricia Hartman. Hartman’s father, Frank, was an accountant, and in partnership with his wife, Jean, operated a girls’ camp in the summer months near Waubaushene, Ontario. Hartman and his brother divided their boyhood and adolescence between their early education in Midland and summers on Georgian Bay.
Hartman took courses in fine art under George Wallace at McMaster University in Hamilton, but graduated in economics in 1971. Wallace was not in great awe of the landscape tradition of Canadian art — an unsettling and challenging position for a young artist who was as familiar as Hartman was with the landscapes that had inspired David Milne and the Group of Seven. Still, Hartman was, as he describes himself in those days, “a sponge,” and Wallace’s enthusiasm for the bold, unequivocal design of German Expressionism supported Hartman in his reluctance to engage with the merely picturesque. As well, Hartman’s friendship with the Newfoundland artist David Blackwood opened further narrative possibilities. Blackwood’s landscapes tended to be overlaid with story — most notably in the tales that attended the stark cliffs and ice floes of his Lost Party series, and Hartman began to imagine mapping his own observed landscapes with myth, history and memory. (Blackwood was the art instructor at Camp Hurontario, a boys’ camp run by the historian and educator Birnie Hodgetts. Hartman attended Hurontario as a camper and was eventually employed as art instructor.)
The poet Douglas LePan was also a friend and mentor. It was LePan who provided Hartman with a more literary and historical underpinning to the notion of a landscape layered with meaning. Hartman’s “home landscape” happens also to be near the site of Jesuit settlements and of the often-violent confrontation between Christian and First Nation systems of belief. Hartman often cites a conversation with LePan in which the poet talked about sitting in an open field near the site of Wendake and wondering what had happened there. It was a comment that had a profound impact on Hartman. “The penny dropped,” he told Rosemarie Tovell of the National Gallery of Canada. Even in Hartman’s early work it is apparent that, for him, the ghosts of time leave imprints on the landscapes they inhabited.
Following his graduation from McMaster, Hartman briefly entertained the possibility of becoming a lawyer before committing himself to a career as an artist.
Hartman’s early years were ones of experimentation and, as he puts it, a period in which he had not “found his voice.” When he shifted the point of view of his paintings to an elevated, almost aerial vantage, some critics interpreted this as an effort to free himself from the structures of traditional landscape. But Hartman maintains that his bird’s-eye perspective has more to do with his memories of ecstatic childhood dreams of flying and with his lifelong enthusiasm for the beauty of maps.
As well, Hartman’s respect and passion for the artists who have influenced him — J.M.W. Turner, David Milne, Albrecht Altdorfer, Chaim Soutine and Oskar Kokoschka among them — has remained a lifelong foundation to his work.
Hartman’s large-scale watercolours and oils were exhibited at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in 1993. Painting the Bay established his reputation, but he came to national prominence when his book Big North was published and the exhibition of the same name toured Canada between 1999 and 2001. In 2003, Hartman began work on a series of large-scale paintings of urban environments depicted as living organisms. The series, called Cities,toured Canada and international galleries between 2007 and 2009. Hartman’s most recent work, exhibited in the autumn of 2014 at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto, returns full circle to the rocks, sky and water of Georgian Bay, and to the personalities that animate Hartman’s numinous landscapes.