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The Art of JAMA
March 26, 2014

Cobalt: Yvonne McKague Housser

JAMA. 2014;311(12):1184-1185. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279404

Silver was discovered in 1903 on the shore of a lake about 500 km north of Toronto. By 1906 more than 40 mining sites had been cleared from the surrounding forest, and the town of Cobalt had sprung up around them. In just a few years Cobalt was one of the world’s most productive sources of silver ore. The ore was near the surface, so it could be mined without heavy equipment. Threadbare prospectors sought their fortunes with no more than a pick, a wheelbarrow, and a few sticks of dynamite, pitching tents on their claim sites and hauling gear and supplies up the muddy roads from the railway station. When the surface veins played out, the miners dug deeper. Shafts were sunk into the rock, and tall enclosures called headframes were built over them to house the elevators that shuttled men and equipment in and out of the mines. Cobalt thrived for several years, but then the price of silver fell, the deposits played out, and most of the mines were shut down. By 1931, when Canadian artist Yvonne McKague Housser (1897-1996) arrived to paint its portrait, Cobalt was past its prime. To Housser, the town’s hard luck was part of its charm, and the bones of the landscape were irresistible—the sagging foundations, rickety piers, and the commanding presence of the headframes on the ridge above the town. She liked the way the town was stacked upon itself; the dominant feature of this painting is its verticality, from the peaks of the headframes to the mineshafts plunging far below the surface.