CANMORE – Collecting birch bark and roots from the forest may not seem necessary, but for local artist and canoe builder, Ken Birss, it’s essential to his artistic process.
Alongside his beautiful predominantly local landscape oil paintings, Birss also crafts canoes and does so authentically as Indigenous peoples once did.
“I do oil painting landscape and its very traditional kind of landscape, lot of local stuff,” said Birss, pointing to a painting of an area at the Nordic Centre. “I’m retired now … so I also build these canoes and models of voyager canoes."
Birss flew bush planes in northern Canada for more than 40 years followed by a period as a helicopter pilot in the Bow Valley before he retired. He said he spends a lot of his time painting and building these authentic canoes from historic blueprints.
“This is exactly what it would have looked like a couple hundred years ago,” he said.
“This is an Algonquin type canoe from eastern Canada, northwestern Ontario, actually. It would have been very common in the Ottawa area, like 1820, something like that. It’s a têtes de boule design and têtes de boule means the Roundheads – they were an Algonquin tribe that cut their hair. They were the only natives that cut their hair. They were renowned for their contribution to the fur trade for their canoe building.”
The canoe accommodates two people in its 15-foot frame and can carry up to one ton (2,000 pounds) of weight.
“I got the birch bark in Ontario and this is all northern white cedar inside – very straight grained wood that’s easily bent. It’s all done according to blue prints from that era, so it’s accurate,” he said.
“I’ve been fascinated with the traditional methods of building these things and it’s kind of a lost art these days, I mean a lot of the Indigenous groups in Canada have actually lost that knowledge of how to build the birch bark canoe – it’s coming back slowly. I’ve been interested, I’ve been canoeing my whole life and I have four canoes at home. That journey of canoeing my whole life has led me to this design – this is the real canoe.”
Birss pointed out that his canoe doesn’t have seats like the canoes we see today.
“The natives did not use seats because you’re supposed to kneel on the floor of a canoe and rest your butt against the boards and keep your centre of gravity low,” he said, adding that the seats higher up now may be the reason some individuals often tip canoes. His replica of the Algonquin first nations canoe took around three months to build, not including the time it took to collect the materials to build it.
“That doesn’t include all the prep work because there’s a lot of time spent in the bush digging up root and getting the bark and cutting the cedar and it all has to be split by hand,” he said. “So there’s a lot of prep work and by the time you finally start you’re about a month in.”
His artwork and craft fit in perfectly with the Canmore Art Guild’s (CAG) last show theme, Made in Canada, which was on at the Elevation Place gallery last weeks.
Catharine Finlay, CAG member and also a contributor to the show along with her 88-year-old sister, Georgine Strathy, said the show was meant to be timely for Canada Day (July 1).
“This is a group show, so anybody who’s a member of CAG can put pieces in,” she said.
“The theme is ‘Made in Canada’ because of July 1, so we ask members to have their pieces reflect something that they know of Canada.”
Finlay painted a piece of Mount Rundle while her sister, Strathy, created beautiful maple leaf sculpture-like pieces.
“It’s not curated so we have photographers, we have people like Ken who does the canoe, we have people who do cards, oil paints, acrylics, collage, anything – mixed media,” she said.
Birss’ canoe was hard to miss among the artwork hanging in the CAG gallery.
Displayed gloriously in the middle of the gallery floor, it was difficult not to admire the exacting and dedicated work that must have gone into it. In terms of what he learned while building the 65-pound water-craft, Birss said it only reaffirmed his love for canoes and how integral they were to Canada’s history.
“You learn the history of Canada by building one of these things, you begin to understand the depth of history and how it all happened and came together,” he said.
“None of Canada would have been explored without the birch bark canoe, so the whole fur trade was based on it … Canoes are amazing.”
While Birss’ canoe is no longer featured at the CAG, some of his paintings still adorn the walls. Visit www.canmoreartguild.org for more information.