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The Group of Seven

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Reader Wanda requested a post on the Group of Seven, a group of Canadian painters who are most well-known for their landscapes.

The group members often painted together, both in their Studio Building and on excursions into the wilderness. They didn't call themselves the Group of Seven until 1919, and they didn't hold their first exhibition until 1920, but they got their inspiration in January 1913. After seeing an exhibition of Scandinavian art, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald were impressed with the depictions of northern light and landscapes, and thought, "This is what we want to do to Canada." Although the group originally had seven members, it later grew to nine, with the loss of one member (Frank Johnston) and the addition of three more (A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LeMoine Fitzgerald).

A brief run-down on the original members:

1. Lawren Harris (1885-1970)

Lawren Harris was perhaps one of the most independent members of the group, in large part because he was financially stable. He was a co-financer of the group's Studio Building, and he never needed to work as a teacher to help support himself. He was also the only member to turn to abstract painting. During the 1920s, he stopped signing and dating his work, as he wanted it judged on artistic merit, not by the artist or the date. In 1934, Harris caused a scandal when he left his wife of 24 years to marry Bess Housser, the wife of his friend, a fellow artist.
Shown is Harris' "Lighthouse, Father Point" (1930). To see more of Harris' work, check out his galleries at Art in the Picture and Museum Syndicate.

2. J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932)

2-MacDonald.jpg While the whole Group of Seven was often targeted by critics and Canadian art academics (they were derided as the "Hot Mush School"), J.E.H. MacDonald was frequently singled out for criticism. His painting "The Tangled Garden" is similar to some works by Vincent van Gogh, yet one reviewer trashed it as "an incoherent mass of color." Like the other members of the group, MacDonald travelled to Algoma to paint, but unlike the others, MacDonald went in a specially outfitted train car that functioned as a mobile studio.
Shown is MacDonald's "The Tangled Garden" (1916). To see more of MacDonald's work, check out his galleries on Art in the Picture and Museum Syndicate, as well as this book he decorated.

3. A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974)

3-Jackson.jpg Trips to Europe are common for artists, especially landscape artists, but A.Y. Jackson made his European trip in a slightly different manner than most: he worked his way there and back on a cattle boat. Jackson began working for a living at the young age of 12, with a job at a lithography company. About 10 years after his trip to Europe, Jackson enlisted in the Canadian Army. Unfortunately, he was wounded shortly after reaching the front. He was transferred to the Canadian War Records branch to work as an artist; he also worked for the Canadian War Memorials.
Shown is Jackson's "Lake" (1913). For more of Jackson's work, check out his collection in the National Gallery of Canada.

4. Arthur Lismer (1885-1969)

4-Lismer.jpg Arthur Lismer is the man behind the incredibly brilliant name of the group. Apparently, they hadn't come up with any other suitable name, so Lismer just counted them up and named them the Group of Seven. Lismer, who was apprenticed to a photo-engraving company at age 13, was a strong believer in the importance of a child's imaginative growth and self-expression. In 1933, he founded the Children's Art Centre at the Art Gallery of Toronto; he founded one at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1946.
Shown is Lismer's "Georgian Bay, Spring" (1917). For more of Lismer's work, check out his galleries on Art in the Picture and Museum Syndicate.

5. Frederick Varley (1881-1969)

5-Varley.jpg Serving in World War I, Frederick Varley was deeply disturbed by the scenes he witnessed. He later stated, "We'd be healthier to forget [the war], and that we never can. We are forever tainted with its abortiveness and its cruel drama." Varley was later one of the artists to travel to the Soviet Union in 1954 in "the first cultural exchange of the Cold War." As an instructor, he encouraged his students to "think for themselves without fear."
Shown is Varley's "Staithes, Yorkshire" (1901). For more of Varley's work, check out his collection at the National Gallery of Canada and this video on Varley.

6. Frank "Franz" Johnston (1888-1949)

6-Johnston.jpg Frank Johnston worked at Grip Ltd. Along with J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer, and Franklin Carmichael. As a member of the Group of Seven, Johnston exhibited just once, at their very first show in May 1920. Johnston was an extremely productive artist, and he achieved considerable financial success during his lifetime. He announced his official resignation from the group in 1924. Three years later, in 1927, he changed his name from "Frank" to "Franz" (though no source seems to know why).
Shown is Johnston's "The Magic Pool" (1917). For more of Johnston's work, check out his galleries from Art in the Picture, the National Gallery of Canada, and Museum Syndicate.

7. Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945)

7-Carmichael.jpg Franklin Carmichael held the distinction of being the youngest original member of the Group of Seven. As a result of the age difference, though, Carmichael was "on the fringe of the group" and associated more with the later additions to the group. Carmichael had shared space in the Studio Building with Tom Thomson, who probably would have been a founding member if not for his untimely death. Carmichael stated his artistic philosophy thusly: "It is imperative that the artist reveal through the medium in which he is happiest, what he sees, thinks and feels about his surroundings."
Shown is Carmichael's "Mirror Lake" (1929). For more of Carmichael's work, check out his galleries from Art in the Picture and Museum Syndicate.

BONUS: Tom Thomson (1877-1917)

8-Thomson.jpg As stated above, Tom Thomson would have been a founding member of the Group of Seven had he not died just two years before their official formation. In 1917, Thomson died while canoeing in Algonquin Park (a popular Group of Seven location). He appeared to have suffered a blow to the head, but showed no signs of drowning; an exact cause of death has not been determined. The circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious to this day, creating an aura of mystery around the young painter.
Shown is Thomson's "Northern River" (1915). For more of Thomson's work, check out his collections at Art in the Picture and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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