Parker, Lewis Edgar Hyde - icons

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Lewis Parker - Historical Icons

Article printed in Cosmos Newspaper on Thursday, September 28 , 2006
The Barris Beat Column
by Ted Barris


One day last summer a news story stopped me in my tracks. The short radio report said that fire had damaged part of the historic site known as Sainte Marie Among the Hurons. This extraordinary location in the backwoods of Muskoka marked the spot where Roman Catholic missionaries - three priests lead by Jean de Brebeuf - established a retreat and Christian community in the mid-17,h century. On hearing about the fire, however, I didn't immediately think of the Ste Marie longhouse or even of the artifacts there. No, I remembered my elementary school history textbooks. On them and in them were icon-like depictions of Iroquois life at Ste Marie Among the Hurons. And I thought of the man who'd created those images - an Uxbridge-area artist.

Because of those historical and historic pictures - created by master painter Lewis Parker -generations of Canadians have learned about native life in colonial North America nearly 400 years ago. In the days before classroom DVDs, power-point and even big budget history documentaries, grade school students were able to learn about the clothing, stature, work and play experience of some of this country's first citizens. In other words, we could see our history, not just imagine it, thanks to Lewis Parker. This Saturday those iconic paintings, The Huron Collection', as well as a life's worth of painting, go on display at the Magic Door Art Gallery in Sunderland. Eighty-year old Lewis Parker (who has lived for many years on the shores of Wagner's Lake) began his artistic career as an illustrator in Toronto. Midway through the Second World War, like so many of his generation, he enlisted in the infantry. When he arrived overseas the Canadian Army newspaper, The Maple Leaf, needed a backup cartoonist. So while Canadian troops liberated Western Europe, Parker got his baptism of fire through dedicating his life to the fight for freedom, and by helping put out a daily newspaper for Canadian service men and women in Europe.

Back in civilian life, Lewis Parker found work doing political cartoons on the "yellow pages" that used to bookend Maclean's magazine in the late 1950s. In the 1960s the Toronto Star hired him to continue his cartooning, but he found his true love was depicting famous moments in Canadian history. He began creating illustrations for textbooks and for authors such as Farley Mowat, Pierre Burton and Scott Young. He even did the artwork for a Dell comic book series about a First World hero, called "Tommy Holmes.V.C." His illustrations have appeared in no fewer than 85 books.

"The Americans came knocking about 1975", Parker told me a few years ago. "They were doing four-minute movies about the bicentennial of the American Revolution ... and they found that illustrators were cheaper in Canada than the U.S."

As much as Lewis Parker loved painting images of soldiers, Indians and historic moments in the American war of Independence, he said the process was horribly dissatisfying. To ensure the images were authentic, he researched as much as he could, only to find "representatives from NBCC coming up from New York and taking away work that was only half done." And although the broadcaster paid him, Parker never felt that his telling of the history was really complete.

In the meantime Parker's reputation as a painter had spread. He was commissioned to do that series of paintings depicting Indian life at Ste. Marie among the Hurons, the ones in my school textbooks. A Canada Council grant took him to western Canada to do similar illustrating for the Stoney and Blackfoot bands. Then in 1980, the historic sites people needed artwork to display life at Fort Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. They wanted it to be an accurate depiction so that visitors - mostly school children - could visualize life at the fort. Parker spent two years creating huge murals that are still on display there today.

It is one thing for an artist to let the imagination direct his hand in painting. It is quite another to research the subject, learn the context and understand the look before putting brush to canvas. That's artistic passion with a conscience. When Lewis Parker captures historical scenes, he has always attempted to be as accurate as any archivist or historian. Painting history requires a different kind of inspiration - a dedication to truth as well as craft.

So, if a trip to the Magic Door Art Gallery (Sept. 30 to Dec. 31 2006) in Sunderland doesn't bring back memories of grade school history class, maybe it can help a new generation of history lovers and art lovers to know Lewis Parker, a great Canadian artist in our midst.

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