Discover One of the Most Vibrant Folk Art Scenes on the East Coast
Why the indomitable spirit—and down-to-earth attitude—of Nova Scotia make it a hotbed for painting, sculpture and more
Nova Scotia is a Brigadoon fabulously out of step with cities’ hectic encounters. It is a world apart: a province defined by its rural settlements rather than its metropolis, Halifax; a province in which the pleasures of the journey are marvelously aesthetic.
Astonishing displays of folk-art pieces appear along Nova Scotia’s already beautiful roads at regular intervals. Near Big Island, on the Northumberland Strait, four towering Easter Island–like statues carved out of the trunks of once-living trees loom like sentinels.
Between Necum Teuch and Ecum Secum on the Eastern Shore, a playfully painted pickup truck with colorful sculpted fish on its sidewall sits abandoned in a grassy field.
Further up the road, painted driftwood sculptures and bric-a-brac adorn Barry Colpitts’ modest white clapboard home, and a driveway with a decaying lobster fishing boat is marked by the oversized bust of a pipe-smoking fisher in a sou’wester.
In Nova Scotia, the ordinary is always picturesque
The truth of Nova Scotia is that its centuries-old folk art tradition, made famous by Maud Lewis, persists and thrives. There is a combination here of modest means but also love of place that explains why folk art—made by the people and frequently anonymous—still flourishes.
It is made with whatever materials are at hand: driftwood, sea-smoothed rocks, redundant metal parts, boat paint and a chainsaw. And the visitor with an assiduous eye can find it in a host of places, alongside scenes still demanding to be painted. For in Nova Scotia, the ordinary is always picturesque.
Glimpse Maud Lewis’s Nova Scotia
The Digby Neck, a 40-kilometre peninsula that slowly sinks into the Bay of Fundy, is where Maud Lewis lived and painted, in a cabin that is now on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax along with several of her works. She spent the better part of her life outside the town of Digby, first cleaning for, then marrying Everett Lewis (who is still remembered on the Neck as a bit gruff).
Even the toponyms are a kind of spoken art
She worked in a naïve style and primary colours, painting winter and summer scenes of Nova Scotian rural life: boats in safe harbour, oxen drawing plows, children playing. The works she sold for a few dollars apiece now sell for tens of thousands of dollars (though if you’re lucky, you might still find one in an antiques shop or local yard sale). And the 2016 film Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, attracted even wider audiences to her story.
Find inspiration close at hand in painterly landscapes and picturesque East Coast towns
Along the Lighthouse Route, east of Liverpool, the proprietor of Hopkins & Devine Fisheries dries haddock on racks in the sun. There’s a painting. On Dock Street in Shelburne, a cooper fashions spruce barrels in his centuries-old wooden shop by the water. There’s another. Further along the same road is a museum where a craftsman and his apprentice put the finishing touches to a yellow wooden dory.
Even the toponyms are a kind of spoken art. Ecum Secum comes from the Mi’kmaq for “red house,” and Necum Teuch from Noogoomkeak, meaning “beach of soft fine sand.” Other place names similarly recall lost times and vanished communities.
Drive past souvenirs from the province’s history on its winding roads
Everywhere there are relics of Nova Scotia’s better days, though also of a province that, reconciled to things as they are, is far from giving up. This was the province once home to prosperous mines and the world’s most munificent fishing grounds; once Canada’s shipbuilding capital and its commercial centre.
That province no longer exists, but along its roads and shores is the evocative detritus of these ended days. Boats that once trawled ocean beds now sit beached upon the dunes. Wooden fish plants stand empty along degraded piers, the painted emblems of their enterprise fading in the salt air.
See how locals are breathing new life into the landscape around Sandy Cove
If there is no story to tell, someone will make one up. The imagination is stirred to explain the mystery of ruins and find new purpose for the seemingly redundant.
“We don’t have artists round here, just people who make stuff”
Outside Sandy Cove on the Digby Neck, lobster traps that are no longer needed become the walls and arches of Graham’s Port, the folly of an out-of-work Digby Neck fisher. He also sells doormats made out of discarded rope, just as the “hookers” (that would be the rug-hooking women) of Nova Scotia, Maud Lewis included, made—and continue to make—rugs out of surplus strips of fabric. Leave your thirty dollars in the tin; it’s an honour system.
Discover homespun businesses that showcase Nova Scotian innovation
“Use what you have to get what you do not” is a maxim often attributed to the great and pioneering Nova Scotian Moses Coady, the socialist reverend who founded the co-operative Antigonish Movement in the 1920s. And so you’ll find a fish-smoker with a simple, almost imperceptible sign on his driveway. (You’ll need to get out of the car and talk to people to find it, but they’ll tell you.) Another local sells dulse (the dried seaweed used to flavour soups or to be chewed), and others still run an oyster hatchery, a lavender farm and that house by the highway (see below) with art for sale pinned to its white clapboard exterior.
Everywhere is the evidence of Nova Scotians leaving the mark of their adoration, of the decisions each has made to live on their own terms, and the art that proclaims their love of home. Says Kemp Stanton, a retired fisher on the Digby Neck, “Oh, we don’t have artists round here, just people who make stuff.”
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
A stunning log-built resort with a bar and restaurant, and a patio overlooking the water near the Northumberland Strait.
A historic hotel in Wolfville that transports the visitor a century back—though chef Nelson Penner’s excellent cooking is very much of the moment.
A sprawling former railway hotel that’s still a treat with a spa, restaurant, beautiful swimming pool and a golf course, too.
The Cooper’s Inn
A heritage property on the historic Shelburne waterfront.
Where to find local curiosities:
Barry Colpitts’ folk art
Barry Colpitts’ white clapboard house, adorned with his folk art, is impossible to miss on Marine Drive just south of East Ship Harbour on the Eastern Shore.
Stroll fragrant fields and browse the shop off Highway 6 in the town of Seafoam.
Watch for the rope mats when heading south on highway 217 just before you reach Sandy Cove (which, incidentally, has perhaps the best beach on the Digby Neck).
Heading out of province?
Make sure you’re covered with CAA Travel Insurance.
Image credit: Noah Richler