Life on Canada's prairies was difficult during the Depression. A pitiless climate and stifled economic opportunities caused many people to look inward for consolation. Many farmers turned to their faith and prayed that things might be better. The townspeople added in social connections and community life as ways of getting by. Neither of these paths brought peace to Phillip Bentley. A minister in name only, he withdrew into the seclusion of his study where he sought solace in his art. Phillip's sketches were bleak, unrelenting and consistent in their portrayal of these times. Dominant among these were his many depictions of main streets that both revealed the true nature of prairie society and the evolving character of Phillip as he slowly groped his way through life.
It's clear, however, that Phillip's art did not always contain the bleak images that dominated his Horizon period. In the years just before and after his marriage, his art showed a man who felt he had a course of action thought out. The church would merely be a means to an end. It would "educate him, and in the summer, between college terms, give him a rural appointment where he could earn a little towards his next year's expenses" (Ross 41). While Phillip had no illusions about those "Main-Street-minded members" who deplored him for "his bastardy" (42), the practical side of his character saw this as an opportunity to attain a "university education (that was) difficult to obtain" (43). Certainly, he was a serious individual, often "lonely and embittered" (41-42), but the church was to be a temporary measure of "three or four years" on his way to the much better "world that lay beyond" (43). It was with a certain kind of optimism that he undertook his studies, eventually married and began his service to the church, and we can glimpse this Phillip in his pre-Horizon depictions of main streets. Instead of the bleakness that pervades them now, they used to be "warm and positive and forthright" (23). Therefore, Horizon shows us Phillip's transformation from an earlier man who could depict life with "feeling and humanity" to one lost in a depression where everything is seen as "distorted, intensified, alive with thin, cold, bitter life" (23).
Just as the art of the pre-Horizon period gave us indications of an earlier Phillip, the motifs of people during the first Horizon days are equally telling. Phillip comes to Horizon at a standstill in life, and these feelings are clear through his evolving depiction of human characters. Like Phillip, they never seem to be purposeful; rather they "loiter" in the scene as if awaiting some new opportunity (7). As he begins to assume his familiar ministerial duties, the figures, too, seem on the move. But they do not travel about the town with purpose; instead, like him they seem to be guarded, "single (figures), bent low" as if to ward off detection of their true nature (23).
This theme of falseness is most apparent in the constant...