In Nova Scotia, Atlantic Canada’s not-quite-an-island province, folk art and its makers are aptly described as quirky, whimsical, spirited, and resourceful. Born of farming and seafaring traditions, folk art surfs the tide between functional and fanciful. The best works are playful, yet provocative; naïve, yet sophisticated; familiar, yet fresh. They share a common heritage, but differ in interpretation, with one underlying similarity.” It’s happy art,” says Patti Durkee, owner of From the Heart Folk Art gallery. “With Nova Scotia folk art, you smile.”
Defining Nova Scotia folk art is as elusive as catching a wave in your hands. “It either has a life of its own, or it doesn’t,” says Chris Huntington, an American who began encouraging, collecting, and promoting it in the mid 1970s. “It’s like jazz, you either hear it, or you don’t; you either see it, or you don’t.”
Bernard Riordin saw it. While Huntington’s enthusiasm and blue-chip reputation as an art and antiques dealer fostered the resurgence of Nova Scotia folk art, Riordin gave it prominence as he built a significant collection during his 30 years as director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
“Folk art is very extraordinary art by very ordinary people. It comes from the heart and soul of our country,” says Riordan, now director and CEO of Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It was born out of utilitarian needs, when ordinary people took mundane objects and gave them personality, character, and charm.
Making the ordinary extraordinary
No Nova Scotia folk artist exemplified that ordinary/extraordinary dichotomy better than Maud Lewis, Canada’s Grandma Moses. Physically deformed, dirt poor, and living as a recluse in a one-room hovel without water or electricity; art was her passion, and her home became her canvas. Lewis painted every conceivable open space or object within and outside it–cupboards, shutters, cooking pans, doors–with bright, cheerful, childlike images, turning the house itself into a folk art masterpiece. Riordin acquired, restored, and installed it in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
“Nova Scotia is a seafaring province, and the traditions of shipbuilding and ship carving are prominent, so most folk artists are carving more than painting,” Riordin says. Among the best living carvers are the Naugler brothers: Ransford, Bradford, and Leo. “Ransford’s works are more whimsical. Bradford’s are more soulful; he can be quite dark in what he creates,” says Black Sheep Gallery owner Audrey Hingley. Leo has retired.
Ransford began carving by accident. “I was sawing firewood, and a piece fell off that looked like a beaver, so I took my jackknife and carved it out, and it became a beaver.” Leo took it up next, applying techniques he used in auto-body work. When Bradford saw his brothers’s successes, he too picked up a knife.
“I’m kinda partial to my boats,” Ransford says. No ordinary boats, Ransford augments them with fish and mermaids, seamen and sea creatures. “I dream. Whatever pops in my mind, I make,” he says. “Sometimes things don’t go as they should, that’s really fun. I often don’t know what it’s going to be until it comes out.” He paints his fanciful works using bright, often primary colors. “It makes me feel cheery when I come round the corner in the morning and feeling right drabby.”
Serendipity also influences Bradford’s figures, birds, animals, and three-dimensional paintings, many with checkerboard frames. “Ideas just come to me. Sometimes I wake up in the night with one, and I can’t wait to get at it,” he says.
“After the Nauglers, Ian Fancey, is next most followed,” says Inge Hatton, owner of The Spotted Frog folk art gallery. “He has a very distinctive style. His pieces are more refined, almost decorative, and he has a wonderful way of working with color.”
Traditional and contemporary inspirations
Hatton believes one of the most talented young folk artists is Mark Robichaud. “He’s quite special in conceptualization and completion of his fish and cats, but his carved paintings have the most promise.” Robichaud’s works are more than first meets the eye. Most, he says, have hidden, often erotic meanings.
Other living artists favored by collectors are Garfield Campbell, who draws upon childhood farm memories to carve little people, which he sets in scenes, such as a wedding party, a dance, or horse-drawn wagon, and Laurie Hutton, a fisherman from Pubnico Cove, who works with driftwood and found objects. “Campbell does very, very fine work,” Hatton says. “Hutton’s creativity is simple, yet profound.”
As Nova Scotia’s social conditions evolve, folk art inspirations have expanded from utilitarian to include contemporary culture, Riordin says. That’s evident in Doug Dorkin’s work. “The stuff I do is stuff I did,” says the former soldier, whose passions for fishing, golf, diving, and hockey show in his colorful and wickedly humorous relief carvings, such as a dentist removing a hockey puck from a player’s mouth.
Still tradition endures, and Durkee and Hingley point to Barry Colpitts as a classic folk artist. Like Maud Lewis, he’s turned his house into a work of art, and he’s carved, augmented, and painted ordinary objects, turning them into extraordinary, whimsical pieces rooted in farm life, the Bible, and community.
“I get ideas all the time,” he says. “The longer I do it, the quicker they come.” One idea that recently flew into his mind is a bird chair, a boldly colored piece accented by more than 100 carved birds. “The idea just came to me, and I’m doing it for me,” he says.
That sentiment is the bedrock of folk art. “It’s a tangible part of the lives and experiences of the artist,” Riordin says; it comes from within. Or as Bradford Naugler, whose carved figures include Oprah and Paris Hilton in a prison uniform, says: “If people weren’t buying, I’d still make art.”
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