Betwixt & Between: An Untold Tom Thomson Story

Imagine, if you will, that two artists exploring a second-hand bookstore in downtown Toronto come upon a tattered copy of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They pick it up and while idly leafing through it discover a hand-drawn map of what looks like Algonquin Park. On the map there is a mysterious symbol with the initials “TT” drawn within it. Their curiosity is sparked and they purchase the book for a dollar.



Words :: Virginia Eichhorn

After discussing their new purchase and the map they decide to see if they can track down whatever the symbol indicates. Five years later, and after several trips to Algonquin Park, they discover a small cairn almost completely covered by overgrowth. They open up the cairn and within it find a tin box wrapped in a piece of burlap. Within that tin box is a leather journal with the initials G.N. embossed on its cover. The artists excitedly but carefully look through the journal and discover that it is about a previously unknown relationship between the journal’s author and Tom Thomson. This journal, if authenticated, would change forever what we know about Tom Thomson and his life. Imagine.

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George Nadjiwon (G.N.) inscription. WILLY WATERTON PHOTO.


And that is exactly what Owen Sound’s Tom Thomson Art Gallery is doing with the exhibition Betwixt & Between: An Untold Tom Thomson Story, where lead artists Joel Richardson, Germinio Pio Politi and Nyle Johnston build upon what we know about Tom, investigating the contradictions and mysteries. There are some facts about Tom Thomson which are incontrovertible. Yet many aspects of his life remain within the realm of conjecture and (sometimes contrarian) supposition. In fact, it has been said that if Tom Thomson had not existed, Canada would have had to invent him.


There are some facts about Tom Thomson which are incontrovertible. Yet many aspects of his life remain within the realm of conjecture and supposition.


The heart of the project lies in the (85 percent authentic) story of a friendship between Tom Thomson and George Nadjiwon, a young man from Cape Croker reserve. Betwixt & Between will be a multi-level platform project that will incorporate new technologies such as Augmented Reality and virtual experience through a dedicated website and app development. This project will be a prototype, providing an opportunity to engage with established audiences but also to engage in the modes most relevant to nontraditional gallery audiences.


Tom Thomson (1877-1917) April in Algonquin Park, 1917. Oil on wood panel. Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario. Gift of George Thomson, brother of Tom Thomson, 1967. MICHELLE WILSON PHOTO.


Opening May 28 at the TOM, the exhibition includes the creation of a game that can be played either online or physically, following the model set out through geocaching. The game is intended to be entertaining but also educational and the exhibition will connect aspects of it to education curriculum so that it can be used by schools. In the book Critical Play: Radical Game Design, author Mary Flanagan writes: “For many game players, games exist for entertainment, for passing the time, for fun. They are a diversionary activity, meant for relaxation or distraction… But what if certain games have become something more? What if some games not only provide outlets for entertainment but also function as a means for creative expression, as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine our work through social issues?”

Betwixt & Between aims to create that kind of platform and experience through a “game” and all the components of the project—virtual and physical—will tie into that.


Tom Thomson at Lake Scugog, 1910. T.H. MARTEN PHOTO. Gift of Margaret Murch.


The time period the exhibition covers includes key dates in Canadian history and looks at issues including treatment of First Nations, women’s rights, independence and ideas around nationhood while addressing constructed historical narratives that ignore or obscure different voices. A comprehensive educational curriculum has been developed to accompany the exhibition.

The historical events explored in this exhibition are still relevant, especially as it looks seriously and honestly at the injustices perpetuated against First Nations people. The development of this exhibition has been guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations and with ongoing dialogue and guidance from the participating First Nations artists and advisors. This project will provide an opportunity for different generations and communities to work together, and offer a unique experience for visitors of all ages to learn about the past and dream about the future. Imagine.

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