This is the story of a waterfall, a famous painter, an unsolved art theft and an amateur artist who rediscovers her craft on the edge of a two billion-year old meteor crater. That description may read a bit like the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, but it’s all based on real places and real events. What may surprise you, however, is the location where this story takes place: Onaping Falls in Sudbury, Ontario.
Onaping Falls: The Tale of the Waterfall
The site of ‘Onaping Falls’ lies just 45 km northwest of Sudbury, but the name is a bit of a misnomer. The waterfall itself is called High Falls and is located on the Onaping River, but locals have been calling this place Onaping Falls for as long as I can remember. I know this because I grew up in Sudbury, but ironically, I had never visited the Falls until three decades after moving away from the city.
It was on my first visit to Onaping Falls in 2013 when I discovered that this place was famous for two reasons: the first was that the site sits on the lip of the Sudbury Basin, a crater formed about 1.85 billion years ago when a huge meteorite measuring 10-15 kilometres in diameter slammed into the planet. When that chunk of rock hit the earth, it created a massive hole that was 35 kilometres deep and about 250 kilometres across. And what that massive hole in the ground exposed were the copper, nickel and precious metal ores that make Sudbury one of the richest mining areas on earth.
Of course after 2 billion years, the landscape has softened a little here, and today’s Onaping Falls drops a mere 150 feet, not 35 kilometres, but that doesn’t take away from the waterfall’s rugged beauty.
The views here are definitely those you can only find in Northern Ontario, with the water tumbling over and between the contours of a Canadian Shield sluice, hemmed in on either side by rocky borders.
Since my first visit in 2013, I’ve been to Onaping Falls a number of times in different seasons to admire its beauty whether it is dressed in fall colours or the fresh green of spring. So I am not surprised that this location also caught the eye of the founder of Canada’s famous Group of Seven artists, A.Y. Jackson, and inspired one of his paintings. Which leads to the second reason why Onaping Falls is famous…
The Tale of a Famous Painter: A.Y. Jackson
Even if you didn’t study fine art, pretty much every Canadian has heard of the Group of Seven. The Group’s interpretation of Canadian landscapes in the early twentieth century offered a distinctly new, and at the time, controversial, style of post-impressionist art, and A.Y. Jackson was at the heart of this movement.
A native of Montreal, Jackson studied art in Montreal, Chicago and Paris, but it was when he returned to Canada in 1910 that he met Tom Thomson, a fellow artist and avid outdoorsman. Together they began travelling to Algonquin Park to paint the landscapes of Northern Ontario. Nine years later, Jackson was so enamoured with the region that he joined Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald and Franz Johnston on their great ‘boxcar adventure’ where they lived in a railway box car that they used as a mobile studio/apartment for painting rail access-only locations in the Algoma region.
TIP: You can actually take a one-day scenic train tour from Sault-Ste-Marie through the Agawa Canyon that takes you past some of these same locations where the Group of Seven artists painted.
In the two decades following his box car painting adventure, Jackson spent a lot of time in the Killarney area just south of Sudbury, painting the region’s iconic white quartzite La Cloche mountains, and windswept Georgian Bay shorelines. He was even instrumental in helping to establish Killarney as a Provincial Park, and there is a beautiful lake in the park that is named after him in recognition of these efforts.
Eventually, Jackson’s exploration of Northern Ontario brought him to Onaping Falls in Sudbury, and it was here in 1953 that he painted a piece entitled ‘Spring on the Onaping River’. And this is where the story gets interesting.
Two Schools, Two Paintings, and a Fierce Rivalry
After A.Y. Jackson completed his Spring on the Onaping River painting it was purchased not by collectors, but by students of Sheridan Technical School in Sudbury to honour their principal L.E.R. Stevens. The Technical School had a personal connection to this painting, because some of its students had taken an art class at Onaping Falls with their teacher Jack Smith and A.Y. Jackson himself. The group had spent the day on-site sketching the Falls ‘en plein air’, and Jackson later did a larger version of his sketch, which became Spring on the Onaping River. The painting was reportedly purchased for only $350 and proudly hung in the halls of the technical school.
A few years later in 1959, students at Sudbury High School (the neighbouring school and fierce rival of Sheridan Technical School) purchased their own A.Y. Jackson painting, titled ‘A Windy Day – Lake Superior’ to honour the memory of one of their teachers, Gerard Castonguay who had died two years earlier.
A MURDER, TOO: Castonguay’s death could have easily been plucked from the pages of a horror novel: in February of 1957, Castonguay had gone home from school to have lunch with his wife at the boarding house they both operated, when he was brutally attacked with a bayonet by one of their boarders and killed. His wife had been slain earlier that morning by the same man, who also wounded several police at the scene in what they described as a ‘commando style’ rampage. So you can add a murderous tangent to this story, too.
A.Y. Jackson Dies and the Plot Thickens
Fast forward to the year 1974.
Sheridan Technical School merges with Sudbury High School to become Sudbury Secondary School, much to the dismay of many students who protested the merger.
The same year, A.Y. Jackson, who was living in Kleinburg and working as an artist-in-residence at the McMichael Art Gallery, dies on April 5th at the ripe old age of 91.
Less than four months after Jackson’s death, on August 9, when the newly-amalgamated Sudbury Secondary School students are all out for the summer, both of Jackson’s paintings are stolen.
What’s interesting is that just prior to the theft, both Spring on the Onaping River and A Windy Day, Lake Superior had been moved to the administration office in the school, where they were being kept until a more suitable, more prominent place could be found for them to be displayed. So the question remains, who would have known that the paintings had been moved to the office in the first place…. And the timing certainly suggests it was someone who knew that these paintings would become much more valuable after the death of Jackson…smells like an inside job to me.
An Unsolved Art Theft to this Day
Today, almost 50 years later, the crime and the mystery surrounding it remains unsolved and neither of the two stolen paintings has ever surfaced. Even trying to find an image of Spring on the Onaping River is near-impossible, even with the omnipotent Google at our disposal. This photo below is the only one I’ve ever found – it is displayed in the pavilion/overlook at Onaping Falls, and although it credits Wikipedia for the image, I haven’t been able to find the source image anywhere there, either. As for Windy Day….well, you’ll just have to use your imagination for that one, as will I.
‘En Plein Air’ Painting at Onaping Falls
The good news is that even though A.Y. Jackson’s paintings are gone, High Falls and the Onaping River are still right where they’ve always been. Even better news is that for anyone who wants to follow in the footsteps of A.Y. Jackson, the Art Gallery of Sudbury offers an ‘en plein air’ painting workshop where people can create their own watercolour of the Falls right on site.
I signed up for just such an excursion to paint Onaping Falls when I was visiting Sudbury recently to attend a travel conference. I knew the whole history of Jackson’s painting by now, and the timing felt particularly appropriate, since my visit was in the spring and it would mean painting the Falls around the same time of year that A.Y. Jackson had. I was both excited and a little nervous to try my hand at painting: it had been years, maybe decades, since I’d last lifted a brush, even though I had studied Fine Art in university.
Luckily for me and everyone else, we were given a helping hand from some staff from the Art Gallery, who not only gave us some history about A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven artists, but also demonstrated a few painting techniques that we could practice with the watercolours they provided. They had also prepared little paint kits for each of us, and a piece of watercolour paper taped to masonite that would act as our easel.
Suitably prepared, we just needed to find a spot that would inspire us and let our creative juices – and the watercolours – flow.
The Destination IS the Inspiration
There is an easily-accessible lookout named after A.Y. Jackson that gives visitors a great view of Onaping Falls, and also makes for a great vantage point for painting. But our group chose to hike down the boulder-strewn slope just below this platform and follow the trail that leads to the bridge at the top of High Falls, to get a reverse view of the falls and explore more painting sites along the way.
TIP: The start of the Onaping Falls trail is basically a hill of boulders, so not suitable for anyone with mobility issues, but once you pick your way down through them, the rest of the hike isn’t that difficult.
I had a particular location in mind, one that I had spotted on previous visits to Onaping Falls, so it was there that I set up to paint.
More than an hour passed in what seemed like 15 minutes, and my tentative brush strokes began to get more confident. I remembered how much I loved bringing something to life on a blank sheet of paper, and rather than stressing about whether it was good enough, or if I had the right technique, I just tried to capture some of what was in front of me.
It was quiet and peaceful, and the entire group of us seemed to be enjoying the same sense of creative calm, listening to the birds and the water splashing beside us as we immersed ourselves in our work. Too soon it was time to leave, and looking at my progress, I knew I was nowhere near finished and that I would have to complete the painting at home. So I took a photo of the scene in front of me and packed up my paints, hoping I wouldn’t lose the inspiration to finish what I had started once I was back at home.
TIP: The Art Gallery of Sudbury offers ‘en plein air’ painting workshops at Onaping Falls on Fridays, running from May to September. They provide all of the materials, and even carry them down to the trail for you.
Three weeks later and back in Toronto, I dusted off some acrylic paints I had in the cupboard, and set out to complete the watercolour sketch I had started, much like Jackson himself had done with his painting (although he wouldn’t have had the benefit of an iPhone photo standing in for the actual Falls.)
Again, more than an hour passed, maybe two, until I decided I had done everything I wanted to with my painting.
It’s no A.Y. Jackson, and I’m no Group of Seven painter. And while my painting certainly doesn’t replicate a photograph, my little piece of art captured a moment of creative expression that no cellphone ever could: the sensory experience of being present at Onaping Falls and creating something with my own hands that was inspired by its beauty. Which is what painting en plein air is all about.
Years in the Making
It’s been a long time since I’ve been inspired to pick up a paintbrush. As it turns out, all it took to light that creative spark again was a story linked to a Group of Seven icon, a 50 year-old unsolved art heist and a beautiful waterfall location two billion years in the making.
And my en plein air experience at Onaping Falls in Sudbury? I think it’s the perfect epilogue to an intriguing tale worthy of a nod from Agatha Christie.
Special Thanks to the Art Gallery of Sudbury and their volunteers who coached us at the A.Y. Jackson lookout at Onaping Falls, and to Sudbury Tourism, who hosted me on my en plein air experience.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.