The great hunt: J.E.H. MacDonald exhibition grew out of couple's 20-year search for painting sites at Lake O'Hara

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It was in 2007 when Patricia Cucman and Stanley Munn first found the paint scrapings. They were little flakes of colour found on twigs in the Alberta wilderness near Lake O’Hara. By that point, the Calgary couple – both retired geologists – had spent four years of what would become a nearly 20-year obsession and labour of love to track down the sites where iconic Canadian painter J.E.H. MacDonald created dozens of sketches and paintings during his annual summer trips to Yoho National Park.

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It’s believed that the paint scrapings come from MacDonald, although they could potentially be from contemporaries such as Peter Whyte or others who accompanied MacDonald on the trips. But they were analyzed in a lab and were confirmed to be from that period: 1924 to 1932.

What is certain is that MacDonald, a co-founder of the Group of Seven, sat in that spot and soaked up his surroundings while painting dozens of works.

“We found the paint and that … just made us feel crazy,” says Cucman with a laugh. “You sit on a rock he sat on and the painting pops up in front of you. He was so literal to the landscape in front of him. He very rarely added anything. There were only a couple of sketches where he added something to the composition in the panel. So you sit there and the painting is in front of you and the paint is right beside you. It was analyzed as paint of the day and it’s just hard to imagine that it’s not his paint.”

“We would jokingly say we were getting to know him by the seat of our pants. Because some of these sites, when you sat there it was remote enough that you knew the last person who sat there was MacDonald.”

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It was probably what drove the couple to spend nearly two decades engaged in detective work that not only had them travelling to remote and rugged regions near Lake O’Hara using old photographs and GPS, but also scouring old auction catalogues, some dating back to the 1980s, to find sketches and paintings from MacDonald, some of which had rarely been exhibited publicly.

“We would print these images on cardstock and put them in weather-proof sleeves and I had a rig on the front of my pack and carried them,” says Cucman. “We would decide where we were going to hike depending on what images we wanted to find. We would then take notes and Stan took GPS readings and photographs. It just got so big that we didn’t know what to do with it. People would say ‘It could be a book.’”

It did eventually become the foundation of not only the couple’s impressive tome, To See What He Saw: J.E.H. MacDonald and the O’Hara Years 1924-1932, but also an exhibition, J.E.H. MacDonald: The O’Hara Era, which opens June 15 at The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It will be among the most extensive exhibits of MacDonald’s work to date. Taking Cucman and Munn’s lead, the museum began conducting its own detective work to track down MacDonald’s iconic paintings. The exhibit will feature 95 original paintings sourced from private and public collections across Canada. The exhibit will also feature Munn’s photographs, the paint scrapings, MacDonald’s diaries, letters, books, billycans and even fragments of teacups unearthed by Cucman and Munn during their many trips and matched to those seen in photographs of MacDonald at the same sites. 

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J.E.H. MacDonald
Peter Whyte, Adeline Link, J.E.H. MacDonald and Catharine Whyte sitting at the base of a large boulder. Group at Oesa, 1929-1930. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. cal

“It will be a huge exhibition,” says Anne Ewen, director and chief curator of art and heritage of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. “The thing that is most intriguing of all is that never before has an artist’s work in a specific area been recorded to the detail that Stan and Patty have done for this exhibition. It’s quite remarkable.”

In 2020, Ewen was introduced to Cucman and Munn and shown some of the research.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I said we have to do an exhibit, we have to do a book. That was four years ago.”

The Whyte Museum partnered with Masters Gallery for the exhibit, which proved handy in contacting owners of some of the more obscure works that had been sold through the Calgary gallery. Amie Lalonde, an assistant curator at the Whyte Museum, also began tracking down paintings from public and private collections. Word of mouth began to spread.

J.E.H. MacDonald
Cathedral Mountain from Opabin Pass, 1929. Oil on board. Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., BanT, 1979 cal

“One collector would say ‘Well have you contacted such and such … ‘ ” says Ewen. “It’s been a national project. These people from all over the country have been incredibly helpful and resourceful.”

Cucman and Munn’s book, which was released earlier this month and is available at the Whyte Museum, is 360 pages and features 216 painting images, 235 present-day photographs, 66 historic photographs and more than 150,000 words.

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The couple began writing in 2020 and were racing against the clock. In April 2021, Munn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour. He died last June.

“We knew he would get to a point where he wouldn’t be able to read or speak,” Cucman says. “Most normal people I’m sure would have said ‘OK, we can’t do this’ but (in the fall of 2021) we doubled down. We just worked at it harder and we spent days and days and weeks and weeks and hours every day in front of a single computer, going through the text, collating everything and editing, editing, editing. As the time wore on, it became more and more difficult for Stan to do anything that was verbal. Visually, he was absolutely spot on, but he was really challenged verbally. So our objective then was not the 2024 objective. The objective was to get it as edit-ready as possible so he could see it while he was still able. We did that in April of 2023. We handed off an edit-ready version in March of last year. He saw it and was really happy with it.”

J.E.H. MacDonald: The O’Hara Era opens June 15 at The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and runs until Oct. 20.

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