When Toronto painter Joanne Tod began “Oh Canada - A Lament,” in 2007, it was a body of work she hoped would be short-lived. Four years later, her project to paint every Canadian serviceman and woman killed in the country’s mission in Afghanistan is still incomplete because Canada’s involvement in the conflict is ongoing. “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started and then I couldn’t stop; it just became a force unto itself.”
The project was generated out of her own family history. In 1944, only two months before the end of the Second World War, her uncle was killed in Sicily. The loss to the family was so deep that he was never spoken about. It was only when she inherited a collection of his photographs and letters that Private James Tod took on an identity. “He was an unknown soldier to me, and it’s the same thing with the people I’m painting now. I’ve never met them, but when I see their photographs, I feel as if I’ve known them a little bit.” To date, she has come to know 155 soldiers and one diplomat.
Tod initially used newspaper photographs as her source but as the project continued, she found better quality images found on the web. As a result, the style of the portraits has changed. The later images are more precisely rendered, while the early ones are casual, “a little bit more brushy.” She paints them uninterruptedly in groups of ten, a process she calls an “intense investigation.” Each portrait is painted on a 6 x 5 inch birch panel, a choice of wood that has symbolic associations. “It’s such a Canadian wood,” she says, “for me the birch resonates almost as a casket.”
The overall piece is organized as a modular, fractured flag, with the portraits interspersed among red and white fragments. To facilitate an easy re-installation, each is numbered on the back, where the name, rank, and date of death is also recorded. In the installation at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto (where it remains until June 12 of this year), Tod positioned the flag “sinking into the corner, as if it’s being sucked into the vortex.”
The portraits themselves are a topography of lost innocence. Some of the soldiers in combat gear squint in the sun; others look out with bright, hopeful eyes. A number are so casually dressed, with sunglasses and open-necked shirts, that they could be snapshots from a vacation. There are three women among the portraits, including Karine Blais, a 21-year-old killed by a roadside bomb. She has startling blue eyes and delicate wisps of black hair hanging below her ears, which have small, diamond studs. “She’s a little glamorous–she has a nose stud as well. But it’s so pathetic. These soldiers are trained in marksmanship and the ability to actually engage with the enemy, and most of them die from IEDs, improvised explosive devices. All that training and you get blown up. It’s horrible.”
Tod’s is a double lament: for the lost lives and for the war that puts them in harm’s way in the first place. “The project has made me even more adamantly opposed to the mission in Afghanistan,” she says, “but it has to end.” She has put a stop date on “Oh Canada.” “The government is supposedly honouring its promise to be out of there by July, and I intend to honour my commitment right up until that time.”
Above images: Joanne Tod, “Oh, Canada–A Lament,” 2007-2011. All works, oil on birch panel, 6 x 5”. Photographs: Michael Cullen, Trent Photographers. Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
(Left) Corporal Brendan Anthony Downey; Age: 36; Home Town: Toronto, Ontario; Unit: Military Police Detachment in Dundurn, Saskatchewan; Deceased: July 4, 2008. (Centre) Corporal Karine Blais; Age: 21; Home Town: Les Méchins, Québec; Unit: 12th Régiment Blindé du Canada, 2nd Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment Battle Group; Deceased: April 13, 2009. (Right) Private William Jonathan James Cushley; Age 21; Home Town: Port Lambton, Ontario; Unit: 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (Petawawa, Ontario); Deceased: September 3, 2006.