Jack McLaren’s artwork showcased in Huron exhibit

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A museum in Goderich has gone off the wall, literally, to celebrate the life of a near-forgotten Southwestern Ontario artist, even getting area residents to pull paintings off their walls to add to the showcase.

The Huron County Museum exhibit, Reflections: The Life and Work of J.W. (Jack) McLaren, pays homage to a hidden figure in Canada’s history, whose unsung impact can be felt in comedy, business and art.

Most of the paintings on display were borrowed from homes in Goderich and the surrounding area, a place where McLaren, who was a close associate of the Group of Seven, became a well-known figure in the 1960s.

Southwestern Ontario artist Jack McLaren, who died in 1988, was an influential figure in Canadian art, comedy and business.

“In Huron County . . . everybody has a (McLaren) painting and a story of how they got that painting and how they knew Jack,” said Sinead Cox, the museum’s acting senior curator.

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“We have over 100 loans in this exhibit, which is quite extraordinary. The majority of them are paintings from the community — they’ve taken them right off the walls in their houses.”

The exhibit is salon-style, imitating McLaren’s old studio space at his home in Benmiller. This month, the museum is also launching an online speaker series to augment the in-person exhibit.

“Jack’s story is an amazing story. It touches so many aspects of art and business, and the local and the national,” Cox said. “Anybody who sees Jack’s work has the chance to be charmed by it.”

Shawn Henshall, who recently wrote The Forgotten Legend, a book chronicling McLaren’s life, said the multitalented artist was even asked to join the Group of Seven, but “respectfully declined.”

And yet venture much beyond Huron County and the name rings few bells.

“Jack McLaren in Goderich is as alive as he ever has been with the seniors who remember him and his involvement in the community there,” Henshall said. “Outside of the Goderich area, there is silence.”

Born in Scotland in 1895, McLaren emigrated to Canada as a teen on the eve of the First World War. He quickly enlisted and soon found himself in the trenches overseas.

There, McLaren formed a comedy troupe to entertain his fellow soldiers.

His group eventually merged with the well-known soldiers’ theatrical comedy team The Dumbells.

The troupe became so iconic among the troops that when they returned to Canada after the war, the Dumbells embarked on a cross-country tour. As their fame built, the troupe’s hit show Biff! Bing! Bang was picked up for a 12-week showcase on Broadway — the first Canadian musical revue to be performed there. The Dumbells’ dark humour is often credited with inspiring comedy greats like Monty Python.

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After the troupe disbanded, McLaren, who had been drawing since a young age, moved back to Toronto in 1922 and channelled his artistic skills into the marketing industry. He worked alongside greats like Tom Thomson, and in 1923, founded his own promotions and graphic arts company, while continuing to paint as an artist.

Long shadows back road, by Jack McLaren.Mike Hensen/Postmedia Network

Soon, McLaren was invited to join the famed Arts & Letters Club in Toronto, where he was re-acquainted with former artist friends, including the Group of Seven.

Years later, he was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists.

In 1933, McLaren mastered the technique of engraving on linoleum.

Through the 1920s and ’30s, McLaren continued to exhibit his work alongside the Group of Seven and abstract painting pioneer Bertram Brooker.

Henshall said despite Brooker and McLaren painting in a similar, abstract style — dubbed “crazy art” by critics at the time — only Brooker is credited as pioneering the movement in Canada. Today, some of Brooker’s pieces can fetch $100,000 at auctions.

“The biggest injustice to the art community is that we know Jack McLaren and Bertram Brooker, at exactly the same time, had the same ideas and did the same paintings,” Henshall said. “McLaren was an equal contributor to this movement.”

In the 1960s, McLaren settled in Benmiller, a small community just east of Goderich. He became president of the Huron County Historical Society and drafted its logo, which is used to this day.

He was actively involved in the community and continued to paint until he died in 1988.

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“McLaren didn’t want to be in the limelight,” Henshall said. “He just sort of faded away. It’s truly sad.”

Henshall hopes his book and the museum exhibit help get McLaren the recognition he deserves.

“I think it’s truly a matter of national pride,” Henshall said. “McLaren deserves so much more credit.”

The Huron County Museum’s McLaren exhibit opened in the fall and runs until mid-April. COVID-19 safety protocols are in effect.

A virtual speaker series complementing the exhibit launches Dec. 17, with Henshall as the first guest speaker.

“This man’s life really does deserve a broader audience,” said Susan Glousher, director of the Huron County Historical Society, which partnered with the museum on the exhibit.

Glousher said the exhibit started to come together as historical society members were looking through boxes of McLaren reference files that had been kept at the local high school.

When the community was asked to contribute paintings, they came in “like dominos.”

One painting was even rescued from a local garage sale. “Even some people who owned (McLaren’s) paintings didn’t know what his accomplishments were,” Glousher said.

She said the exhibit helps preserve a hidden gem in the region’s history.

“It’s about understanding the people that loved Huron County for us and contributed to Huron County and leave that lasting legacy,” Glousher said. “All those paintings that are living on in our county and farther, they’re little gifts to people.”

Dana Lumby, technician assistant at the Huron County Museum in Goderich, shows part of the exhibit celebrating the works of the late Benmiller artist Jack McLaren, who had a great influence on the Canadian arts scene. Mike Hensen/Postmedia Network
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