AGNS is a collection of words and drawings, a few of my favourites from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I spent a year living in Halifax and visiting the gallery to draw and think and learn to see the east coast like a local. This 17-page zine includes Emily Carr, Erica Rutherford, Frances Jones, Maud Lewis, Pablo Picasso, and the best marble boar you’ll ever meet. It’s about art, and making art, and making artists, and why the people out there love lobster.
When I moved from the west coast to the east coast, I found Emily Carr waiting there for me. She is one of Canada’s most famous painters, but she is British Columbia’s favourite daughter. She belongs to us because she painted us, our coastline, our trees.
The trees in Nova Scotia are different in ways I didn’t imagine. The forests are sparse and sprawling. Emily’s forests were deep and dark. They still are, in the places where forestry hasn’t stripped the mountains bare. There are still places in BC where one can go to hide, to paint, to find themselves, like Emily found herself among the tall trees and the totem poles, already leaning and abandoned.
Emily went to the edges of the BC coast to paint, at a time when women didn’t do things like that. Women didn’t paint like Emily Carr. Men didn’t, either. Going into those woods was a rebellion all on its own. Emily Carr brought her paintings back as proof.
Seeing her paintings of BC trees in a Halifax art gallery is the red string, the railroad tracks, the wireless connection that ties this country together.
People draw great works of art for all kinds of reasons. The best way to get good is to copy good things. The best place to find good things is your local art gallery. In Halifax, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was down the street from my apartment and, one day a week, admission was free after 6pm. A few weeks of regular visits after work, I thought I had seen everything. I started to draw everything. I stopped and sat and picked a piece off the wall. It was an excuse to slow down. It was another way to see this city I was only getting to know, but to which I had already committed a year.
Halifax was new and old and unfamiliar, but there were Emily Carr’s trees, standing tall above me. A piece of home from faraway.
I drew her wild swathes of green, brown, and blue in black pen on white. I drew Picasso, with not nearly the confidence he had in his line. I drew sculptures, though I could never get the curves like I saw them in my head. I drew what caught my eye, for practice and for keeps. When I went home–when I knew that I would–I wanted to take a piece of this city with me.
I had never heard of Maud Lewis until I came to Halifax. I found her, and her tiny house, in a big room of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia she has all to herself. She was a tiny woman who lived in this tiny house with her tall and rangy husband, Everett, in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. He was a fisherman who did odd jobs and sold her paintings on his regular route. She painted Christmas cards to sell, as well as larger works on boards. She used materials her husband scavenged for her, and she painted with house paints. She painted their house, too, and everything in it: the walls, the shelves, the broom and dustpan, the shutters, the front door.
She never made much money, but then, she never asked for much. Maud died in 1970, and after Everett was gone in 1979, their house was packed up and moved into the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The whole house. It’s really something to see, Maud Lewis’s life live surrounded by her art.
I don’t imagine she’d know what all the fuss was about, about her. She didn’t know she would be remembered as an artist. Maud painted to make life a little brighter.
I’m getting better at drawing people. I can draw things. I practiced drawing what I saw in front of me. I got good at things. But not so much with people.
The secret is to draw from life.
Erica Rutherford’s self-portrait looks simple: lines and colour blocks, like Mondrian in the shape of a woman, like post-modern stained glass. Bright, thick paint, and even the lines are blue, not black, like you might expect from a cartoon. Neon bright. Red hair. Yellow legs.
A self-portrait is an act of defiance, whether you paint it in oil or make it with the camera on your phone. It’s a refusal to be ignored, a dare to be remembered. You may not know my name, but you will know me.
But not her face. Erica Rutherford painted herself without a face. Without detail at all, except the colour of her hair and those yellow stockings. Rendered black and white in my sketchbook, she becomes only lines. No eyes, nose, or mouth, but her blank face is not so different from Mona Lisa’s. She makes you wonder what she’s thinking all the same. She looks sad to me, but maybe that’s me. Maybe she looks happy to you. Maybe that’s how you get good at people.
You can’t escape lobster in Halifax. I took myself out for an indulgent meal, one of my first days in the city, in a dark wood, stained glass building that used to be a school and is now a two-story seafood restaurant. It had to be lobster, and it had to be the whole thing, served up on a plate with nothing but lemon, butter, and something green for garnish. Potatoes and vegetables and bread came on the side.
Today, lobster is luxury. It’s much more recognisable as a metaphor than a living thing. When Frances Jones painted her “Still Life with Lobsters”, lobster was food. She painted it sitting in a bowl in her kitchen, with mussels, and welks, and everything good fished out of the sea. She painted lobster because it was there, but also because it is beautiful.
You can’t escape lobster, even in the art gallery, where it acts the part of Emily’s trees or Vincent’s sunflowers–such stuff still lifes are made on. You can buy lobsters on T-shirts and hats. You can buy lobster at McDonald’s. You can buy a live lobster at the airport and take it home on the plane, both a metaphor and a meal.
Picasso made a lot of art. There must be pieces all over the world, in museums, in galleries, in the homes of the rich and famous. There must be enough for everyone in the world to have a little piece of one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. So I shouldn’t be surprised to come upon a couple of prints hanging on the walls of the AGNS. And yet I didn’t expect to see his signature when I turned the corner.
The way my breath caught, it was a moment of recognition and disbelief at the same time. “It can’t be” and also, “it could be.” That possibility of discovery is what keeps me walking into art galleries, even the ones I think I know by heart.
When I knew I would be leaving Halifax, I went back to the AGNS one more time. I wanted to say goodbye to this guy. This white marble boar statue sits in a dark, dimly-lit corner on the permanent collection floor. The first time I stumbled upon him, he freaked me out. I didn’t like his eyes. The spotlight above didn’t help, creating shadows and movement that brought him to life as I walked closer.
But I went back every time. I read his card on the wall. I got to know “Wild Boar”, carved by Pietro Bazzanti in 1925. Bazzanti copied the form of a bronze poured in 1612 by Petro Tarca. Tarca’s “Porcellino” was itself a copy, made from a Roman marble statue, which was brought to Florence in 1556 by the Medici family. That marble was based on a Greek bronze from the Hellenistic Period.
In the permanent collection, works can feel removed from their context. Sometimes, a curator will pull a few pieces and put together an exhibit. But often we see a painting next to a photograph next to a sculpture, only because they look good together in a corner that needs filling. The story of “Wild Boar” is just bullet points on a note card, but it’s there for you to follow, if you really want to know.
He’s a remix. One of those artists in his timeline must have been a student, copying his favourite statue, trying to make his lines like those of the master before him. One of the other artists was probably a rebel, wondering aloud if you could make marble look like bronze.
And this curly-haired boar is a traveller. Like me. I imagine he crossed water and mountains, road over dirt and stone, lived in houses and halls, and now he’s here, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Maybe he doesn’t know how he ended up here, but I hope it feels like home.
I miss the city a lot, now that I’m back on the west coast. I loved living on the water. I loved how it was small enough to explore on foot. I loved making people wonder why I would come so far “just because”. Because I had never touched this ocean, and I had never heard these voices, and I had never seen this art.
I have a jar of rocks and shells on a shelf, and I keep their voices in my head. I brought the art home with me in the only way I know how: in a book.