With locations in downtown Halifax and Yarmouth, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is the largest art museum in Atlantic Canada. Since 1908, the Gallery has been a gateway for the visual arts in Atlantic Canada by engaging people with art. It is committed to this mission as an agency of the Province of Nova Scotia and one of the premier arts institutions in Canada.The gallery was founded in 1908 as the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts. It was renamed in 1975 as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In 1988, the gallery moved to the historic Dominion Building, built in 1865, designed by architects David Stirling and William Hay.
The gallery expanded in 1998 to include several floors of the Provincial Building located just to the south of Dominion Building (just to the right in the photo above). The two structures are separated by Ondaatje Court, a public space that besides being used for temporary exhibitions, contains several large permanent sculptures.
Underneath the courtyard is a large underground exhibition room which connects the two buildings.
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is an agency of the Province of Nova Scotia. Its mandate is to develop a collection, exhibition program, and public program that brings Nova Scotians and visitors in contact with contemporary and historic art that is associated with the province while also introducing art from across the region, the country, and other nations and cultures.
The entrance inside the museum is dramatically modern (and hard to photograph). This screw-shaped sculpture hangs over the street level atrium and stairs sweeping to the gallery levels below.
We worked our way down to the next level and discovered the work – and the story – of local folk artist Maud Lewis.
Maud Dowley Lewis (1903-1970) was born to John and Agnes Dowley on the Yarmouth and Acadian Shore of Nova Scotia. As a child, Maud spent most of her time alone, mostly because she felt uncomfortable about her differences around the other children. She had been born with almost no chin and was always much smaller than everyone else. However, Maud seemed to be a happy child who enjoyed the time she spent with her parents and brother. Her mother introduced her to watercolor; and she began her artistic career by selling hand-drawn and painted Christmas cards.
In 1935, Maud’s father died and in 1937, her mother followed. As was typical at the time, her brother inherited the family home. After living with her brother for a short while she moved to Digby to live with her aunt. There she met Everett Lewis, an itinerant fish peddler, and married him shortly after in 1938. They moved into Everett’s one-room house with a sleeping loft in Marshalltown, a few miles west of Digby. This house would operate as Maud’s studio, gradually become her most important work of art, and eventually be acquired by the Art Gallery for its permanent collection.
Her paintings and house murals both dealt with local scenes, birds and flowers.
There’s no question that the work has a similar spirit to that of Grandma Moses; but, in an honest way, the work also reflects the large differences in their circumstances as well.
The small house almost seems like a stage set; and it’s hard to focus on the idea that she lived nearly her entire life in this one room.
The art has a way of unifying everything so that, for example, the heavy cast iron stove, the tray that sits on top of it, and the pan that sits on the burner all contribute equally to the composition. The tea kettle by contrast feels out of context because it isn’t (yet) done.
Of course when she was working in the space it took on a more dynamic character,
almost like an inventor’s laboratory full of interesting experiments, out of which would appear these calm, direct records of what she saw.
The house seen in context really reveals its modesty;
but she was apparently very happy to be living and working there.
Framing her work in a way were some other pieces of folk art from the museum’s collection. In 1951 the Danish-Canadian designer Thor Hansen argued that the only way to develop a dynamic craft sector in Canada was in connection to the country’s folk arts. “A strong and vigorous folk movement embracing all the legitimate crafts, assures a healthy, continuous growth in the fine arts of a nation.” Hansen believed that there were two basic principles of folk art that were essential to the crafts, “one is the extensive use of symbolism and the a rhythmic repetition similar to that found in musical composition.” As the objects in Folk/Funk demonstrate, there are important similarities between these forms of art making.
Here are a few examples.
A third strong show at the museum was built around Canada’s native peoples and their cultural expressions, both traditional and contemporary.
A wonderfully wide-ranging collecting point of view exhibited in this show.
Finally, a TOTALLY different but equally dramatic show:
CENTURIES OF SILENCE: THE DISCOVERY OF THE SALZINNES ANTIPHONAL
Since this title was a mystery to us, and may be to you, here’s an introduction:
The Salzinnes Antiphonal is an illuminated choir book in the collection of the Patrick Power Library, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. Originating from the Cistercian Abbey of Salzinnes on the outskirts of Namur, present-day Belgium, it was made in 1554-1555 for the former cantrix and prioress, Dame Julienne de Glymes.
Hand-scribed on vellum using iron gall ink, the scale of the over-sized manuscript is breathtaking. A cultural artifact of international significance, the Salzinnes Antiphonal exhibits rare full-page illuminations; features multiple images of nuns and their corresponding inscriptions; records three separate religious orders; and illustrates patrons’ coats of arms. Unprecedented among antiphonal manuscripts, it serves as a hybrid record of commemoration, monastic kinship and communal devotion, and a dedicatory record to the de Glymes family as patrons.
No other manuscript to date includes all of these features together in one book. The text, musical notation and illuminations combine to make for an extraordinarily rich document of a time, place and a specific group of women.
The show includes an exposition of the steps involved in creating these books, first the vellum – which looks as if it must have been a very warm process.
Then, the tools of the trade
As you might intuit from the looks of some of these, the process was not necessarily simple nor gentle. There was a lot of punching, scraping, pulling and binding to go along with the lettering and painting. As you can see below, it took some training to sing from these scores because while the notes have positions on the scale, they are all the same note in time – yet clearly not the same when sung.
In one gallery, a recording played the sung version while an electronic display stepped from note to note.
For Antiphonals like these, conservation is a must in order to deal with the age of the materials; and in today’s museums showing the conservation is part of the display.
A final touch completes the story – a look at the sisters who did the singing.
There’s lots of other things to see at the Gallery; but for this trip it’s time to move on.
From what we hear, we don’t want to stay so long we get stuck in the ice.
Next stop – Halifax Harbor