Fairbank, Wright and the Group of Seven works part of new art gallery exhibit


Lisa Daniels says art in the First World War was either eager and optimistic or brutally realistic.
The Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery is hosting the exhibit Witness, Canadian Art of the First World War. It comes from the Canadian War Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada’s participation in Vimy Ridge.
At the time, the government paid people to produce art for recruitment. And Daniels says on the battle ground, in the trenches, soldiers would sketch what they saw as a way of dealing with the horror of war.
Some, like future Group of Seven members A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, were official war artists commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund to document the conflict. Others, like Frederick Clemesha, Thurston Topham and Vivian Cummings, were ordinary soldiers who made small drawings to send home to loved ones, or whose works were acquired by the fund after the war.
Daniels says the artist brought a different perspective of the battlefield than journalists of the day did. “These works generated a lot of empathy,” she says. “It has the human touch.
The works will be coupled with local history. Part of the exhibition space has been turned over to a retooled exhibition called Lambton at War.
It will include an interactive map, where people can find the names and birthplaces of the members of the 149th Lambton Battalion.
There are also places for people to either write or record their family’s experiences with war.
And the exhibit also looks at the lifes of C.O. Fairbank of Petrolia and William Wright of Plympton-Wyoming, who both served in the First World War.
Fairbank was a prominent member of the business community in Petrolia and Wright’s story came to light when his original battlefield cross was found at the Wyoming Legion and his story was uncovered by volunteers from the Plympton-Wyoming museum.
Andrew Meyer, Lambton’s corporate cultural officer, is hopeful the exhibit will lead to more people telling their family’s war history.  He says the county can find the bare facts about those who served “but what’s missing is the personal photos…stories from their loved ones which really brings things to live, to help us relate to the experience these people went through.”
Witness runs at the JNAAG until Jan 7. The gallery has a number of lectures about the exhibit scheduled and has put together a school program hoping to attract more visitors to the gallery.