Sometimes you set out to paint one thing, only to realize it’s something else that’s caught your interest.
Landslide, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
Had you asked me on Wednesday what I planned to paint, I’d have looked at you squiggle-eyed. I was too tired to see beauty in anything. I drove out a long dirt road to Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE). There is a lovely view off its back deck (and a restroom) but it didn’t move me. I returned to Partridge Island and hiked up to its observation deck. There’s a flowerpot rock on the beach below, but it seemed like too much work to drag my kit back up.
I tried instead to tackle the running tide for a third time. None of them, in my opinion, captures the powerful delicacy of the tides here.
Tides manifest as horizontal as they run back and forth along the slanting sea bed. Here the shore is flat and sandy and the tides high. The streaming water runs for hundreds of feet in a six-hour cycle. It moves shockingly fast. Still, it’s gentle. There’s no white crashing surf.
Harbor Mouth, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
On the surface, the Minas Basin is placid. However, it contains vast, uncontrolled kinetic energy. For example, the Dory Rips, off Cape d’Or, are a collision of three opposed tidal currents that slam into an underwater reef, forcing the water up into house-high standing waves. You can’t capture that on canvas when you’re looking down from cliffs ranging up to 600 feet in height.
I walked the beach at Partridge Island early in the morning, as it neared high tide. There was roiling on the otherwise-placid surface. That was a rip current. Hours later, children would play and search for fossils in the same spot, oblivious to the powerful forces that had just departed.
Partridge Island is connected to the mainland by a sandbar. It was created during the infamous Saxby Gale of 1869. This October hurricane overlapped an unusually high tide to create the perfect storm along the Maine coast and Bay of Fundy. Low-lying farms were inundated, harbors were wrecked, and breakwaters washed away. It cost at least 37 lives, and created the highest tide ever recorded, 70.9 ft, at Burntcoat Head.
Salt water meadows (East Bay from Partridge Island), oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
Exactly 150 years later, there are structures on the Partridge Island isthmus, including a herring weir and some cottages. It’s a popular picnic and camping spot. But that’s a blink of the eye in geological time, and it’s wise to remember that the sea giveth and taketh away.
In the afternoon, I painted in Diligent River. My instructions were to turn onto a private drive that snakes three kilometers down to the sea, running first through blueberries, then meadows, and then a spruce forest. There’s a freshwater pond of about 15 acres. It’s high because of our endless rain this spring. The dock is several feet offshore. Half of it has loosed its moorings and sailed away.
Parrsboro had a parade this week, and I could have been in it had I answered my phone. This float commemorates the forced landing of a Handley Page V/1500 named Atlantic here, on July 5, 1919.
It was lovely, but the coastline compelled me. A break has been created in the trees by a spring mudslide. I’d intended to paint Cape Split, but the glorious tumult of rocks and upended tree trunks caught my imagination. Through it, ferns slid to a new destination unharmed. Spruce saplings grew on, unheeding.
The cliffs here are an unstable amalgam of sediment and basalt. They’re always in motion, slipping down to be milled into new sand beaches. Since these are some of the most important paleontological areas in Nova Scotia, new fossils are always being exposed. Inevitably, that interested me more than the view, and I found myself painting something I’d not intended.
I was invigorated. Three large paintings in two days when I thought there was no gas left in the tank.
This farm is down on its luck, but it’s been in the family for five generations. How much longer can it survive?
Hill farm with logging truck, by Carol L. Douglas. 16×20, oil on canvas. The black flies will go as soon as it dries.
On Wednesday I found an old hill farm to draw in East Fraserville, Nova Scotia. I found a place I could safely pull off the road, so I set up my safety cone and got to work.
I’ve been assessing my reaction to painting locations and including that in the painting. On Tuesdayand Wednesday, I was aware of a low-level anxiety, coming from the hilly, narrow roads and the steep shoulders I was working from. This is an 80-kmh provincial highway, which translates to a 55-mph state road.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more uncomfortable, I saw a logging truck snake down the long hill toward me. To be fair, these were very careful drivers, but I have a healthy respect for their top-heavy loads.
It’s a narrow, fast road, and this is not what you want to see bearing down on you while painting.
My painting became less about looking down on the house and more about its relationship to the high road. It is a lovely old place, similar in age and style to my own, but it’s in bad repair. Still, they had hospitable, woofy dogs, gamboling cats, and an impeccable garden. I figured I’d like the owners.
I met the husband in the early evening. He was a tall, sturdy, upright fellow of about my age. He told me that blueberries are depressed right now. They’re paying $.20 Canadian per pound, which is $.15 our money. Worse than that, the big growers had warehouses full last year and refused to take any from smaller growers. His crop rotted in the field.
He has hundreds of acres of land earning no revenue, so he’s taken an outside job. He kept apologizing for the condition of his house. Since he and his wife raised five daughters and sent them to university from that farm, it began to look downright heroic.
“People ask me why my house is down in a hole, but the road used to be where my driveway is now,” he told me. The high road was built in the 1950s.
The house in 1888, before it had a porch. (Tinted photo courtesy of the owner.)
He showed me a tinted photo of the house taken in 1888. What follows is my best recollection. The man on the far right is his great-great-grandfather. His great-great-great grandmother is the older lady, and the other woman is his great-great-grandmother. The two gentlemen to the left were named Crossman; there’s a nearby hill named after that family. There’s also a dog, if you look carefully.
His great-great-great grandfather died when his son was 14. He was climbing a fence while hunting and accidentally shot himself under the arm. He walked to a neighbor’s house, sat down on a stump and bled to death. Two days later, one of those Crossman fellows brought the widow to East Fraserville. In a hardscrabble world, necessity wins out over sentiment. But who are we to criticize? Today we marry for love and half our marriages end in divorce.
This is an underpainting I started yesterday. Hopefully I’ll finish it today.
The house has been in the family ever since, although its glory days are now long gone. Farming’s never been an easy road, but it’s worse when small producers are being squeezed out, as is happening in Nova Scotia right now. I wonder how my new friend feels about being unable to farm his family homestead. I wonder if any of his daughters are interested in it, or whether it will pass out of the family when this generation passes on.
For many, it was the worst battlefield carnage they would see in the whole war, and it was here on the home front.
A view of Halifax two days after the explosion. Imo is visible aground on the far side of the harbor.
Shipbuilding in Nova Scotia dates to 1606. By the eighteenth century, the Canadian Maritimes were a global boatbuilding center. Their importance increased when Britain banned the United States from the West Indies trade after the American Revolution.
By December, 1917, Halifax was a bustling Canadian port of 60,000 people, with a recently renovated harbor. On December 6, it was destroyed in a spectacular military disaster. About 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 others were injured, including a Mi’kmaq village that was destroyed by the resulting tsunami. Until Hiroshima, this was the largest explosion humankind ever created.
St. Joseph’s Convent, located on the southeast corner of Göttingen and Kaye streets. The last body from the Halifax explosion wasn’t recovered until 1919.
Halifax and Dartmouth lie on opposite sides of a deep natural harbor. To get into its protected basin, boats traverse a narrow glacial channel that separates the two cities. Halifax Harbour is on the fastest sea route between Europe and North America. The success of German U-boat attacks had led the Allies to institute the convoy system. Halifax was a major western staging point. As the war raged, the port bustled with troop ships, relief supplies, and munitions ships forming up to cross the Atlantic.
The harbor was protected by two sets of submarine nets. These were raised and lowered each night.
On the night of December 5, the French freighter Mont Blanc arrived too late to clear the submarine nets. She would enter the harbor the following morning under the command of an experienced harbor pilot, Francis Mackey. The freighter was carrying a highly-volatile cargo of 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of benzole, and 10 tons of gun cotton. Mackey asked for special protections during her transit of the narrows. He didn’t get them.
Halifax boatyard after the explosion.
As soon as the nets were lowered, Mont Blanc started up channel. Meanwhile, the Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring, bound for New York. She was hustling, trying to make up for lost time, and was on the wrong side of the channel. The two ships had what we might describe as a fender-bender. Unfortunately, the barrels of benzole toppled and flooded Mont Blanc’s hold. Sparks from Imo’s engines lit the mess into an uncontrolled conflagration.
SS Imo aground after the explosion.
Mont Blanc’s crew quickly abandoned ship. People gathered on the waterfront to watch the burning boat drifting onto the docks. As the fire department arrived, Mont Blancexploded in a blinding flash of raw energy.
In addition to the terrible loss of life, Halifax’s waterfront was leveled. Over 12,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of people were blinded by flying glass. Overturned stoves and lamps sparked fires across the city. People were killed by the explosion, the resulting fires, or by flying debris.
Kathleen Malloy, victim of the Halifax Explosion, sits up in a hospital bed, likely at Pine Hill Convalescent Hospital where injured babies were treated. (City of Toronto Archives)
Help came from many sources. Thousands of Canadian, British and American sailors and soldiers immediately sprang into action to create an emergency relief team. For many of them, this would be the worst battlefield carnage they would see. Doctors and nurses arrived by train. Among these was a large contingent from Boston, MA.
In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks. That tradition was revived in 1971. The tree is lit on Boston Commons each year and is the official Christmas tree of the city.
Research is not a luxury in a plein air event. Planning and preparation are key to success.
The back tracks of Nova Scotia can be a bit rough for an elderly Prius.
Yesterday, Mary Sheehan Winn and I spent more than ten hours tracking back and forth over the same 79 km-mile strip of land between Advocate Harbor and Five Islands. I used to consider this kind of reconnoitering a luxury, because it involved an extra day on the road. I’ve come to realize it’s a necessity. What am I looking for?
Subject: I’m interested in boats, tides, cliffs, rocks, clouds, water, and the small fishing villages that cling to the edges of the sea. That drives me to the outermost points, along the cliffs and the small dirt tracks that run along them. In this part of Nova Scotia, the waterfront is still occupied by people of modest means. Mobile homes share the coastline with old farmhouses.
I wrote earlier that we couldn’t find the fishing fleet at Parrsboro. That is because they tie up on the outside of the public landing, and the tide was down when I was here. With Mary’s help, I found them, but they’ll still be hard to paint. They’re across a wide basin from the closest vantage point.
Near Port Greville, Nova Scotia.
Weather forecast:Unfortunately, the forecast gets wetter and cooler as we approach the weekend. I’ll plan for things which need sparkle for tomorrow, and do things which can tolerate less light on Saturday.
Tide: The tide affects every seascape. This is most true here on the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest range in the world. At low tide, channels cut sinuously through the mud across Parrsboro harbour. At high tide, the town comes sharply into focus across shimmering water. Every possible painting has several permutations.
Angle of Light: Cape Blomidon curls into the Minas Basin like Big Boy’s giant lock of hair. It looms across every vantage point. Its color and clarity depend on the hour. The light can make a mediocre composition shine. For example, Five Islands are too widely spaced to make a good painting from the shoreline. But at the witching hour of dusk, they are lit up by the setting sun.
A lonely lobster boat on a rising tide.
Composition: If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make an empty painting of the sea. I’m searching relentlessly for a composition that has foreground interest without sacrificing the sense of place.
Moon phase: We’re in a waning gibbous moon, and the sky is going to cloud over as we move forward in the week. If I’m going to do a nocturne, it will be tonight.
Character: Yesterday I was asked if I thought the Minas Basin looked just like Maine. Actually I think it looks more like the Great Lakes. Those red cliffs are the same sandstone that underlies Niagara. Because it’s soft, the scree at water’s edge is worn into flat cobblestones. Part of my examination is to put into words how I know this is the Bay of Fundy, rather than Cape Cod or Wisconsin.
Granite and basalt on much of the North Atlantic coast, but sandstone here.
Permission: I use this prep time to ask people if I can paint on their property. Yesterday, when I did so, a woman told me about a problem in their neighborhood with a rogue black bear. That’s very handy to know.
All the planning in the world won’t make a ‘great’ painting, however, and somewhere I need to build in a few hours to rest before our canvases are stamped and we’re set loose on an unsuspecting public.
There is no shortage of painting subject matter in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.
Levitating Lobster Boats of Alma, NB, by Carol L. Douglas
Where other rural places have spare cars, here in coastal Maine you’re likely to find spare boats on jackstands. Boats are so ubiquitous that they blend into the landscape. Last winter Howard Gallagher found one wrecked along the roadside. I think he bought it.
Nova Scotia has a storied boat-building history. Parrsboro was once a port and shipbuilding region; old photos show a waterfront littered with boats. The famous ghost ship Mary Celeste was built near here, at Spencer’s Island. Bluenose was built on the Atlantic side, in the boatbuilding yards at Lunenberg.
In any new town, I usually start reconnoitering at the harbor. Parrsboro’s is silted in, with a sinuous rose-colored channel and mud flats, but no wharves or fishing fleet. This area is famous for its beaches, and I suppose Mother Nature gets wild when it starts flinging sand.
There are also dramatic headlands, lighthouses, and blueberry barrens. You could throw paint in any direction and create a masterpiece.
There’s no shortage of painting subjects.
The plein air painter’s second favorite task is searching out new places to paint. After stopping to meet Parrsboro Creative’s Executive Director, Robert More, we started the serious business of shunpiking. Maine painter Mary Sheehan Winn summers in Parrsboro. She texted us directions.
There were no boats until we reached Advocate Harbour. This tiny hamlet is so isolated that in the clear summer light it looks and feels like Newfoundland or the Scottish Hebrides. Its small fishing fleet is cross-tied to a seawall so that the boats are grounded on their keels in the mud as the water drops. They can only come or leave at the mercy of the tide. That must make for long work days.
Since Canada’s national parks are free for their national sesquicentennial, I suggested to Bobbi that we head home through Fundy National Park. She was interested in seeing Hopewell Rocks.
The last time I was here was at high tide. Mary and I had gotten lost looking for the Cape Enrage lighthouse during our Trans-Canada Painting Adventure. Here I was, once again, trying to find my way while the tide inexorably covered the things for which I was searching. Coming across a causeway, Bobbi and I both stopped short.
“Boats!” cried Bobbi.
“I’ve painted here before!” I shouted.
The beautiful fleet at Alma, NB.
We were in Alma, NB, where I painted my last painting in Canada last fall: a terrific, tired fail of levitating lobster boats. Alma is a wonderful working harbor, the home port of North America’s first female sea-captain, Molly Kool.
We even managed to make Hopewell Rocks before they were swamped. Alas, it was evening, time to head south to the border and home. I leave again this evening, heading west to New York. It’s summer, and that’s how we roll. Postscript: this morning we realized that Baby Wipes take dead bugs off windshields. I wish I’d realized that last night when I was rolling sightless through moose country.
After class, we went touring and saw several Maud Lewis homesteads and a slew of Frenchys.
Ben Loman Harbour, c. 1952, by Maud Lewis
Poppy Balser is doing exactly what she should be doing in this workshop, spending hours putting us through technical exercises with big fat brushes. They’re very informative but not particularly photogenic.
After class, she offered to show us the sights. This is a beautiful area of mists and moors and glowering headlands, so we jumped at the chance. We started our tour at the Point Prim lighthouse. There’s been a light at this location since 1804, but this is a spare, uncompromising iteration built in 1964. Still, it’s very beautiful. It’s located on a wild, rocky headland at the mouth of Digby Gut and is surrounded by weathered, stunted trees and massive basalt and granite shelves.
One of many exercises I painted in yesterday’s class.
Around Digby, the buzz is all about a movie depicting the life and marriage of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. It was just released in Canada and is to open in the US in a few days.
Lewis was born in Yarmouth, NS in 1903. She suffered a severe form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that caused her to be unusually small and almost chinless. Today, with her physical deformities, she would have been cared for by the state, but that wasn’t so in 1937. She moved to Digby to live with her aunt. In 1938, she married forty-year-old bachelor fish peddler Everett Lewis.
According to her husband, Maud answered an ad he had posted for a “live-in or keep house” housekeeper. They married a few weeks later and moved into his tiny one-room cabin a few miles west of Digby.
Provincial memorial at the site, more or less, of Maud Lewis’ home.
Lewis accompanied her husband on his daily rounds peddling fish, bringing Christmas cards that she had drawn. Emboldened by her success, she started to paint on beaverboard, old cookie sheets and Masonite. Her worsening arthritis meant she was unable to do housework, so Everett did the housework and Maud sold paintings for very small sums of money.
Her original house is now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The province has thoughtfully erected a steel memorial model close to its original location. Driving toward Digby Neck on a parallel road, we came across a sign pointing us toward another replica of her house. We squelched down a dirt lane to find it. It was built in 1990 by retired fisherman Murray Ross, and is complete with Everett’s shop and their mailbox.
Murray Ross’ iteration of Maud Lewis’ home.
We’ve been baffled by signs for something called Frenchys. It turns out that a Frenchy is a used clothing store. These were pioneered by Edwin Therialult. In the 1970s, he started imported used clothing from the United States to make cleaning cloths he called “wipers.” Some of the clothes were too good to shred, so he opened an outlet to resell them. Fortunately, he didn’t trademark the name, so a “Frenchy” is now a used clothing store. They’re big business around here. Guy’s Frenchys has seventeen stores and is just one of the chains using that name.
Headlands in the gathering dusk.
According to the cognoscenti, if you buy someone a gift item at a Frenchy, you should tell them it “had tags.”
Heading to Nova Scotia to study watercolors with Poppy Balser, I found a good reference for choosing easels in my email.
Replacing a plank on the Stephen Taber, by Carol L. Douglas
I had time for a quick sketch of the Stephen Taber between returning from Northampton, MA and departing for Digby, Nova Scotia. At the shipyard, Captain John Foss suggested I look up a local specialty called a Digby Chick, which he said is a particularly potent kind of smoked herring. On the boat a Digby native told us there is no such thing. Who to believe? The Captain, of course.
We were queuing for the ferry, which crosses the Bay of Fundy to the Digby Gut and from there to the Annapolis Basin. I was driving Bobbi Heath’s new SUV, which has Massachusetts plates. That gave me carte blanche to drive very, very fast (or so I said). The open road, my paint kit, and new places along the hard, cold North Atlantic surf—this is an idyll.
The ferry dock at Digby, Nova Scotia
We’re in Digby to take a workshop from the superlative Canadian watercolorist Poppy Balser. From there, we’ll head north and around the Bay via Truro and Parrsboro. I haven’t been in this neck of the woods since my trans-Canada trip last October. It’s warmer now, and I’m rested. This area has the highest tides in the world, and I have the time and energy to paint them in each phase.
I am moderately competent at watercolor, but Poppy has a loose, lyrical style that I admire and want to understand. This is, of course, the end result of a highly accomplished technique. There are lots of things I want to learn from her, including how she paints her lively, moving water.
Angelique at the Dock, 2016, Poppy Balser. She did the sketch for this at Castine, on the day we shared a Scotch Egg on the landing. I left, and she bagged the boat.
From the instructor side, I try to discourage buying stuff just for my class. I don’t like making people spend money. It’s been fun experiencing this from the student side, however. The impulse to have something new for the first day of school is strong.
So I invested in some beautiful, new, elegant Rosemary & Co. brushes. I justify this by telling myself that, unlike oil brushes, it’s hard to destroy watercolor brushes. Beyond that, my watercolor kit was pretty good, actually.
Everything I own for watercolor fits in a plastic laundry basket, in contrast to my oil painting supplies, which spill out of my studio into every corner of my house. At plein airevents, I envy the watercolorists their efficiency. When it comes time to frame, however, they get their comeuppance, as they have to fiddle with glass, mats and tape.
We had time to race around St. John’slovely old streets to seek out the commercial harbor. Our goal of finding a greasy takeout for the ferry, however, was foiled. “Opening maybe May 16,” the sign read. Just like home.
As soon as Bobbi saw the commercial fleet at Digby she started wondering about property prices. It’s beautiful.
We’re carrying four easels with us. One is a predecessor of the Mabef M32, and one is a Guerrilla Painter Flex Easel mounted on a Slik tripod. These are for our watercolors, because they have heads that can be set horizontal. If space had been a problem, we could have used either of them for oils as well. It was easier to just toss our regular kits in the car. In Bobbi’s case, that is an Open Box M; in mine it’s a pochade box I made.
I was contacted by a reader of my blog, Olivier Jennes, founder of WonderStreet. He asked me to look at an article they’d just published about easels. They’re in no way connected with the brands involved; they’re just passionate about art and design.
I’ve read their review, and think it’s worth passing along. If you’re thinking about buying a new easel, you can find the link here.
One of my friends was a co-driver in the 2010 Targa Newfoundland. This is an annual rally race covering 1400 miles over a seven-day period. They were driving a Porsche; I’m driving a 16-year-old Suzuki Grand Vitari with crates on the luggage rack. Otherwise it’s starting to feel similar, albeit with the addition of painting: paint, drive, paint, drive, sleep, repeat.
If you don’t have a cabin on the overnight ferry, you sleep in your seat. The first passage was quiet, if not terribly comfortable. The return boat was full of people whose trips had been disrupted by Hurricane Matthew. We were kept aware by small irritants: the hiss and rattle of a CPAP machine, a toddler’s cries, and the oversized screens that were never turned off. In the early morning hours, there were pleas for a doctor to report to deck seven. (“Is that person OK?” I asked someone later. She shook her head sadly.)
Another “one that got away.”
By the time we disembarked both of us were stiff and bleary. We raced toward to the Cape Breton Highlands. This was the only part of Nova Scotia I hadn’t been to before. Out west, the thrill of discovery fueled my painting; here, in a race to finish, visiting an unknown place was a dumb choice.
I don’t know if it was because I was fussy from exhaustion, but I was unmoved. The Highlands were smaller, more ordinary, and less breathtaking than Gros Morne. Well, of course. They aren’t trying to be Newfoundland, and they weren’t put there merely for my amusement.
“Cobequid Bay farm,” by Carol L. Douglas
I was worn out by nature; I wanted to paint a harbor. But this part of the Cabot Trail isn’t a working coast. It is full of restaurants, tea rooms, and gift shops, and even this late in the season, tourists.
“But you live in a tourist area,” Mary reminded me. That’s not entirely true. Undergirding mid-coast Maine’s tourism is its fisheries industry. A coast without working boats is a bland dish indeed.
Mary was surprised by a cow. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
I settled on a single lobster boat at anchor, never settling into a groove, painting anxiously until I was absolutely out of time.
And then I turned around. The dropping tide had left a cobbled beach curving toward me. It had everything one needs: foreground interest, color, structure, a headland in the distance.
Too late for that, I mused, as I reloaded my kit into the SUV. Stepping slightly off the road, I plunged into a ditch full of sticky muck, sinking instantly to mid-calf. It wasn’t quicksand, though, and Mary kindly pulled me out. Now I was both cranky and filthy.
Solitary farmhouse at Cobequid Bay. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
We raced like fools toward Cobequid Bay. “I’m not going to have time to paint a second painting,” I whined. But I did, and it was a lovely sunset across a farmer’s field: gentle and sweet like Nova Scotia itself.
Meanwhile, Mary raced down to the bay to take photos before the light disappeared. Access was blocked by a sign reading “Private Lane.” She parked and walked down to the water. Where does she learn this stuff?
Last light at Cobequid Bay. (Photo by Mary Perot.)
I start this morning from Moncton. It is 5.5 hours from my home in Rockport. If all goes well, I’ll be home late tonight. Spare a passing prayer for safe and easy travels. It’s been a long trip, and I want to get home.