The Big Empty

To survive in an uninhabited land, you need community. The next crisis may be yours.

New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas, 8×10, oil on canvas.

There’s a vixen that sits on the shoulder of a road here, glorying in the sun. When I first saw her, I thought about calling animal control, because that’s unusual behavior for a fox. I’ve since learned that she took a wire to the muzzle. It became infected and a Good Samaritan fed her antibiotic-laced meat to save her life. Now, she’s a local pet of sorts. A certain person (whose name I won’t mention) gives her dog biscuits. Others feed her Timbits. Still others despair that she’s running with a bad crowd, and her new friends will rob her of the ability to live a normal fox life.

It’s no surprise that people feed her. She’s cute.

I’ve lived in my small town in Maine for four years, and I don’t know this much about anything that happens there. And I’m, as they say, plugged in.

Rural Canadians can talk a hind leg off a donkey (I like that). They’re outgoing compared to their New England cousins. It’s not just Nova Scotians, either. On Monday an Edmonton, Alberta man chatted with me as I loaded my car. I now know more about him than I do about either of my neighbors back in Maine.
If I took up all the invitations I’ve received, I’d never get home. A man showed me photos of his spectacular view. He’d moved here from Hamilton, Ontario. “That’s a six-million-dollar view back home,” I said. He nodded enthusiastically. He really wants artists to come paint it.
Pink sand, by Carol L. Douglas, 8×10, oil on canvas.
Almost one in four Canadians live in the so-called Golden Horseshoe that wraps around Toronto (which includes Hamilton). Four of five Canadians live in cities. The rest of Canada is essentially empty. Rural Canadians can’t afford to be stand-offish. To survive in what is essentially a wilderness, you need to cultivate community. The next disaster or crisis may be yours.
Parrsboro, with a population of 1,205, is a regional hub in Cumberland County. It has a small co-op and a Pharmasave, along with a smattering of other businesses. The town is a third the size it was a century ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s going “gentle into that good night.”
I disturbed Krista Wells at her workspace in Artlab yesterday. She was reading a consultant’s report for a proposed civic project. Her partner, Michael Fuller, wasn’t around, but I’d seen him earlier at a meeting about another project. This community built the Ship’s Company Theatre and the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. For them, nothing is impossible.
The Black House, by Carol L. Douglas. This was my attempt at chiller-thriller, but my boy model was so busy pounding his friend I never asked him if he found the black house scary.
On Monday I drove to Lunenburg, which is south of Halifax on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. This is the home of the Smith & Rhuland Shipyard, where Bluenose was built. My father had a pleasure craft built in Nova Scotia to a Roué design, so it was a pilgrimage for me. It’s also the home port for Bluenose II and Picton Castle, although both boats were, perversely, in Buffalo at the time.
It’s a lovely little town, with opportunities for great painting, but it reminded me powerfully of Camden. In other words, there are too many tourists milling around. I’ll be back during the shoulder season, but for now I prefer the ranginess of Parrsboro.
I’m not alone. On Saturday, I met an artist from Halifax, in Parrsboro for a workshop. “I love it here,” she said wistfully. “I could live here.” Perhaps someday, she will.

In Nova Scotia, the tide is turning

PIPAF is emerging quickly in the plein airmovement. But in terms of gender equality, it’s already a leader.
View From Back Street Oil on Panel, by Chantel Julien was the 2017 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival has emerged quickly as an important contender in the plein air scene. It attracts big-name artists, sales are increasing, and visitation is up. But there’s one way in which I hope it remains unchanged: gender equality.
Each year since its inception, the grand prize winner has been a woman artist: Chantel Julien, Nancy Tankersley, and Poppy Balser. (A hat tip to Becky McAndrewsfor noticing this.) And it didn’t stop with the top prizes, either. The lists have been remarkably fair-handed.
At most plein air competitions, top prizes are taken by male artists. Some sponsors have tried to address this by alternating between male and female jurors, but have found that the gender of the juror doesn’t make much difference. Painting is one of the last bastions in western culture where men’s work is perceived as more valuable than women’s work.
Nancy Tankersley was the 2018 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
This imbalance is unfortunately not just for dead artists. A data-mining exercise last year found that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection is only 11% women-made. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 18% of the artists are female.
A search of MoMA’s database reveals one painting by Lois Dodd, View through Elliot’s Shack Looking South, which they acquired a few years ago. Meanwhile, there are 86 works on their website for her contemporary and peer, Alex Katz.
Is gender in the eye of the beholder? Identifying cultural attitudes with art auction prices, by Adams, Kräussl, Navone and Verwijmeren, found that women’s art in the secondary market traded at a 47.6% discount. It was worse in misogynistic cultures, and better in western nations. However, the world’s new wealth is being minted in those misogynistic places. That doesn’t bode well for the future of women’s art.
The Romantic ideal of the Cult of Genius underlies much of the misogyny of the modern art world, because Genius was thought to be a male trait. “Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist—subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike—bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup, called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances,” wrote Linda Nochlin in a ground-breaking feminist essay in 1971.
Sunset Glow at the Weir, by Poppy Balser was the 2019 PIPAF Best in Show winner. (Photo courtesy Parrsboro Creative)
The great virtue of plein air painting is that it rejects the Cult of Genius in favor of craftsmanship and hard work. And despite its lack of recognition in the art establishment, it is the first new art movement in decades, and overall one of the greatest in art history.
Adams, et al sought to burst the idea—once and for all—that art prices reflected any difference in quality between male and female painters. They devised two experiments where paintings were assigned arbitrary genders. In both cases, knowledgeable buyers appreciated paintings less when they thought the artist was female. Ouch.
But in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, the tide is turning. I can’t credit Canadian culture for this: two of the three jurors have been American. Nor is it a case of women jurors crediting women painters, because two of the three jurors were male. However it happened, it’s wonderful to see prizes awarded to women painters.

Monday Morning Art School: taking risks

Painting is inherently exploratory, so there’s no sense revisiting what you already know.
Parrsboro basin, by Carol L. Douglas. This was my two-hour quick-draw.
I just came back from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival, where I painted with my pal Poppy Balser. Several times, we discussed the question of whether one should take risks in a competitive event, or save those paintings for times when one is under no pressure.
Risk-taking falls into three categories:
  1. Changing materials and tools;
  2. Compositional or technical changes;
  3. New subject matter.

Painting with Poppy at Parrsboro. Say that ten times fast. (Photo courtesy of Anne Wedler.)

The latter is the easiest to address. I heard several people say, “I’m not a boat painter” right before they attempted the devilishly-difficult fleet standing against the seawall at Advocate Harbor. I ama boat painter and the boats of Nova Scotia have defeated me many times. These are the highest tides in the world, and they move with heady speed. As they drop, they leave the short, squat trawlers standing upright on the shingle.
That doesn’t mean I don’t try; I am not in Nova Scotia fishing waters often enough to let the opportunity slide by. My error was in dragging a 16X20 canvas down onto the wet sand and trying to finish it before the tide and weather moved in. Devoting a day to painting something I didn’t know was no mistake.
Peek-a-Boo Island, by Carol L. Douglas
Changing up your method is a different question. There really is only one sure-fire way of applying oil paints in the field, but within that, there are many variations. Equally true, watercolor is almost universally applied light-to-dark, but there are variations within that, too. By the time an artist has gotten accepted into a major show, the process is usually solidly established. However, things happen to upset that. At Rye’s Painters on Location a few years ago, I lost my painting medium. Tarryl Gabel kindly shared some gel medium. It softened everything up, and I found myself painting in far greater detail than is my wont.
This time I used a new titanium white which was much oilier than my usual paint. And I painted on a new substrate, a clear birch board. The board was a fabulous success; the former not so much.
Poppy Balser with her two competition paintings. The one at left won Best in Show.
Poppy took more compositional risks than did I. Her two paintings entered for the competition were of the weir in dim light and another looking straight up a cliffside of sedimentary rock. In the weir painting, the subject is strongly foreshortened and dark on one side. In the hands of a less-adroit painter, it could have resulted in a balance issue, but it was far more interesting than the usual composition. Her risk-taking paid off handsomely. She won Best in Show.
However, behind that painting was three years of painting the weir from every angle and in every different lighting condition. The herring weir is Poppy’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. I’ve personally seen her do at least fifteen paintings of it. That deep familiarity means she can take risks with the shape and composition. She’s stared at it for so many hours that it’s become intimately familiar to her.
In the end, all our solemn pondering of risk-taking was so much hot air. Eventually, the risks always won out. Painting is inherently exploratory. There’s no sense revisiting what you already know; that always leads to boredom.

The working artist survives through cooperation

Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.
Parrsboro marshes, by Carol L. Douglas
I wish I could get the timing right on Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. Last year, I was a day late because I was teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle. This year I’m not quite so behind, but my husband has a medical procedure this morning. I’ll miss the opening reception where they stamp our boards.
I asked painter Stephan Giannini if he’d bring my boards up to Nova Scotia with him. He’ll hand them off to Poppy Balser, who’ll take them to the cottage we’re staying in. Neither Poppy nor Stephan hesitated when asked. “I’m going right by your house anyway,” said Stephan. I left my studio open so he could collect them while I was teaching elsewhere.
Parrsboro low tide, by Carol L. Douglas
I find myself asking for or offering help all the time. Bobbi Heath and I have shared driving, and I’ll be staying with her at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation next week. Poppy will stay at my house while I’m at my residency in July. Meanwhile, she finished a birch panel for me to use this week. Then there was the memorable and fun night Chrissy Pahuckiand I headed out into the mountains to rescue Crista Pisano, and then ended up with an almost-flat tire ourselves.
Cooperation among artists is born of necessity. Most circuit-riding plein air painters operate on very slim margins. The amenities found in other industries—hotels, travel upgrades, couriers, etc.—would eat away at our profitability. We’ve learned to travel austerely and rely on each other when we can.
Parrsboro below Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m always impressed that the same artists who are in direct competition with each other for prizes and sales can remain so collegial. Kvetching about the judging is a time-honored sport, but the artists who win prizes are usually people you know and like.
I see cooperation in my classes, too. Yesterday, I had my students paint lupines, which range from white to pink to blue-violet. I’d decided against bringing dioxazine purple to amp up their mixes. As I walked from easel to easel, I noticed that pigment appearing on more and more palettes. Those who had it were sharing it around, just as they shared different insect repellants in a vain attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Yesterday’s painting class on Beauchamp Point.
Long-term cooperation is not possible without trust. Trust is fragile, and to be “trusting” and “trustworthy” are not the same thing at all. As most parents eventually figure out, the best way to get others to be trustworthy is to trust them in the first place. We have a deeply-engrained need to reciprocate good for good and bad for bad—in short, to act like friends.
But we live in a society that is—frankly—wealthy enough to dispense with trust. We’re socialized into being great liars, hiding behind images of beauty, affluence, success, and invincibility. We have been told that this is what sells our product and, indeed, our very selves.
The working artist doesn’t have that luxury, at least not on the road. We’ve all seen each other in our old, paint-spattered cars, wearing our paint-spattered jeans. (“We’re taking up a collection to buy you some new clothes,” Captain John Foss told me last week.)
Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.

Jet lag from crossing back home

Time to ditch Daylight Savings Time, and move Maine to the Atlantic Time Zone
Marsh with running tide, Carol L. Douglas. These are my finished paintings from Parrsboro.
Crossing into New Brunswick, the Mainer goes from the Eastern Time Zone to the Atlantic. There’s one more time zone to the east on our continent, the little-known Newfoundland Time Zone, which is staggered on the half-hour. This is followed only on Newfoundland, its offshore islands, and the most southern parts of Labrador.
As weird as that is, it’s no weirder than the sprawling Eastern time zone, which starts somewhere around Grande-Rivière, Quebec, and runs to Ontonagon, Michigan. Sunrise in Grande-Rivière was at 4:17 AM this morning. It was at 6:03 AM in Ontonagon. That’s an unwieldy span.
Headlands, Carol L. Douglas
Our pre-clock ancestors marked the time of day by measuring with a sundial, making noon whatever time the sun was directly overhead. They weren’t worried that this was slightly different down the road. After all, if you walked from Winchester to Canterbury, any difference in the time would be lost along the way.
Greenwich Mean Time was established to aid navigators to determine longitude at sea. Nobody changed their clocks to match it; they just carried on with solar time right up to the 19th century.
Breaking Dawn, Carol L. Douglas
Enter the railroads. It was a bit difficult to set a schedule when towns fifteen minutes apart by train used different time systems. By the middle of the 19th century, British rail companies were using Greenwich Mean Time and portable chronometers to standardize time keeping in Britain, although it was a tough sell in places. British clocks from this period sometimes had two minute hands, one for railroad time, and one for local time. But by 1880, Greenwich Mean Time was the standard for Great Britain.
Low tide, Carol L. Douglas
Here, time was confused in a uniquely American way. Every railroad company had its own standard time, based on where it was headquartered. Its schedules were printed in its own system, leaving the stationmaster at an important junction with the unenviable task of translating several different train lines’ timetables into local time. The solution was multiple clocks, one for each railroad.
Standardization was reached on Sunday, November 18, 1883, known as “The Day of Two Noons,” when each railroad station clock was reset as it reached the standard-time noon. The western limit of Eastern Standard Time was my home town of Buffalo, NY. That’s more than 700 miles east of the current western boundary.
Fox River School, Carol L. Douglas.
Last fall, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued a report recommending that their state ditch Eastern Standard Time “under certain circumstances.” Effectively, it would get rid of Daylight Savings Time—hurrah—and put Massachusetts on Atlantic Time year round.
My quick-draw of Parrsboro and its mudflats.
I’m all for ditching Daylight Savings Time nationwide. It’s a meaningless exercise that throws our internal clocks off twice a year. I’m also in favor of switching Maine to Atlantic Time. The sun rises 25 minutes earlier in Halifax than it does here. That puts our internal rhythms more in tune with the Maritime provinces than with Michigan. 
The problems of such a switch are overstated. If we can do business with Californians and Australians, we can probably figure out the time difference with New York.
A kindly carpenter made teepees for Cathy LaChance and me. Only in Canada!
It gets dark mighty early here in the winter—Boston’s earliest nightfall is just 27 minutes later than in Anchorage. Since I live 185 miles north and east of Boston, it’s even worse here. Correspondingly, it gets light awfully early in the summer as well.
Have mercy on us, legislators, and let us get some rest.
Just one more workshop this calendar year, but it’s an awesome one! Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. Be there or be square.

Not the Kardashians, but working on it

Parrsboro, NS, is working its way into being a regional arts center.

Breaking Dawn, by Carol L. Douglas. Second runner up at Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
This weekend there were lots of well-known faces at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. Organizers snagged Richard Sneary to judge, and there were high-profile painters in the mix. It was a festival of luminaries, and the painting was first-rate. I’m hoping that translates into Parrsboro becoming an arts destination for tourists and city-slickers.
It’s not an impossible dream. Five miles down the road from my home is Rockland, ME. It started as a shipbuilding and fishing town, expanding to include canneries, grain mills, foundries, lumber mills, cooperies, tanneries, quarries, and other miscellany of coastal living. By the mid-twentieth century, its historic industries were moribund.
The Age of Sail workshop aboard American Eagle was scheduled to coincide with a gam, a rafting up of the historic vessels on Penobscot Bay.
Enter the Farnsworth Art Museum, established by Lucy Farnsworth in 1948. It’s now the nucleus of a gallery scene that now rivals any art scene anywhere, both in volume and in quality.  Roughly 36.7 million tourists visited Maine in 2017, and we’re on track to break 40 million this year or next. Art is a big part of that tourism, and an important part of Maine’s image. I wish that for Parrsboro. If anyone can do it, the folks at Parrsboro Creative can. They’re smart, focused people.
One of the nicest things about traveling is meeting new people who tell me, “I read your blog.” This weekend, many added that they subscribe to two art things, my blog and Poppy Balser’s newsletter. We’re both daughters of the Great White North and we both love boats. Poppy is a terrifically nice person, so I don’t mind at all being lumped in with her.
Hard at work about American Eagle, photo courtesy Ellen Trayer.
My blog is an example of that old maxim about genius being 99% perspiration. It works because I get up early every morning to write it, Monday to Friday. Other than holidays, the only time I don’t write is when I’m out of network range, which was the case during last week’s Age of Sailworkshop.
It’s such a pity that I couldn’t share it with you because it was downright magical. American Eagle should really be called the Kindness, because the crew is so good-hearted. Any doubts as to whether a painting workshop on a boat could work were laid to rest. All participants enthusiastically said they’d do it again next year.
Ellen demonstrates a paint-throwing technique to Lynn. We waited until we were off the boat before we did this.
Michael Fuller isn’t a plein air artist but he gamely tried the Quick Draw at Parrsboro anyway. “It makes you notice the transient things,” he told me. I think that’s what the boat workshop did as well. In a sketchbook done on the move, one takes away impressions, not finished pieces. The discipline will make you put away your cell phone and change how you work.
The discipline of getting up early is equally hard to break. I found myself restively trying to ‘sleep in’ on Saturday, so at 4:30 AM (Atlantic time) I quietly dressed and headed from my host billet near Fox River to the beach below Ottawa House. I stopped for coffee and a bagel at Tim Hortons and figured I was too late for the sunrise. I was wrong; the subtle pyrotechnics went on for some time.
This piece was the second runner-up, or third prize winner. I figured Richard Sneary gave it to me as a reward for being the only person nuts enough to get up that early.
Neither Parrsboro Creative nor American Eagle have set their calendar for next year, but I have every intention of doing both again. It was a wonderful week. I’m just sorry that you couldn’t be there with me.

The car cures itself

Summer for a professional plein air painter can involve as much driving as painting.

Cape Blomiden makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas, was painted during a rainstorm in the first annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival.
One of my students missed last weekend’s workshop due to a painful flareup of plantar fasciitis. Another student, himself a doctor, told me about taking the disease into his own hands. He simply stretched the offending tissue until it audibly tore. “The relief was instantaneous,” he told me as I stared at him aghast.
My little Prius has done something similar. It has, over the last year, developed a loud scream at high speeds. Turning up the radio was useless. I had the tires rotated to see if that helped. No luck. A front wheel bearing was replaced in March; I replaced its mate two weeks ago. The right rear brake locked up while my car was in Logan Airport long-term parking in April. That wasn’t the root of the noise either. Meanwhile, every month I’ve been spending more money on this car than the payment on a Ford F-150.

I appreciate AAA’s tow service, but I’ve seen too much of it recently.
But even the money hasn’t been the real problem. “It’s no longer reliable,” I lamented to my husband. Next week I drive alone to Parrsboro, NS, where I’m painting in the second annual Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. There are some lonely stretches up that way, and I don’t like the idea of getting stranded. I’ve started car shopping, but I don’t have the time to do proper research.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a busy spring. On the night of my daughter’s wedding rehearsal, I stopped for a light at a busy intersection. I woke up seconds later to find that I’d rolled right into the line of oncoming cars.
I have more than a million miles of accident-free driving under my belt and I’d like to keep it that way.  Yesterday when I found myself blinking away sleep on the New York State Thruway, I did something I never do: I relinquished the wheel to my co-pilot. Thus, it was he, not me, who was driving when a tire burst on the interstate.
Two Islands in the Rain, Carol L. Douglas, also from Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival
In the end, this turned out to be the Prius healing itself. A few hours later, we were back on the road. The sound that’s been plaguing me for months was gone. It was a defective tire after all.
We rolled into Rockport around the time that the fishermen are up rubbing the sleep from their eyes and checking the weather. The thermostat in my car read 43° F. and it was foggy and pouring.
I have a short tight week here in Maine. I leave to teach watercolor on the schooner American Eagle on Sunday evening. After we dock, I leave directly for Parrsboro, NS.
Teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle mercifully involves no driving. The dock is just minutes from my home.
I’ll be missing the opening reception for the latter, but Poppy Balser kindly stopped by on her way to Paint Annapolisto collect my boards for me. She’ll get them stamped so I don’t have to spend half of my first day there trying to find someone to stamp them for me. I’ll just have to find Poppy.
And the eco-warrior is back on the road, all healed.
This is nothing unusual; it’s the life of many of my friends each summer. We sort events into boxes. Sometimes we can stop at home, swap the boxes, and do our laundry. But often we stack our calendars up in the back of our vehicles: frames and supports for the different events share trunk space. If we’re crossing the border, we take a deep breath as we approach Customs. We’re not breaking the law, but a search of our cars will result in an awful mishmash of our supplies.

Fickle Mother Nature

Style is a transitory and inconsequential factor, if one can turn it on and off at will.
Lonely Lighthouse, by Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t painted in that much rain since a memorable weekend at Rye’s Painters on Location with Brad Marshall, where we labored in the tail end of a hurricane. All the best planning won’t save you from low light and rain that blows in sideways under your umbrella. One solution is to paint from your car, but my Prius is too small for one artist, let alone two.
Sometimes, projected rain and fog fails to materialize along the coast. It gets sidetracked by the myriad cliffs, points, headlands and capes. That didn’t happen this weekend. The light was low and flat, and the lovely headlands danced and disappeared into the fog.
Ed Buonvecchio and I were up with first light on Friday to be on our way to Advocate Harbour. A mackerel sky was forming over Cape D’or. That’s a better sign of incipient rain than my arthritis.
They wrested their living from the sea (Advocate Harbour), by Carol L. Douglas
This small fishing village by the sea is characteristic of the old North Atlantic coast. We set up in the cemetery. The nearest tombstone to my easel memorialized two members of the same family, lost at sea in 1966. Going to the ocean to work is probably less dangerous today with modern navigation and communication tools, but the North Atlantic is a powerful and fickle mistress.
Later, I chatted for a few minutes with the owner of the herring weir at Partridge Island. He and his crew still tend the nets and harvest the fish with dipping nets. It’s pretty much a lost technology: there are some weirs at Grand Manan and Digby, but most of them are gone. Call me a Luddite if you want, but what value is there in automating work so that some men labor in solitude and others can’t find jobs?
Cape Blomidon makes its own cloud, by Carol L. Douglas
By mid-day Friday, we had lost our light. Poppy Balser, Ed and I trekked out to Cape D’or and did the “money shot,” but it didn’t move me. There was no sparkle in the water, and no light on the cliffs. I wish I’d painted the rhubarb growing by the lighthouse instead. Neither Poppy nor I submitted our paintings of the cliffs.
The next morning, we tried the overlook at Two Islands. I got a passible painting from it, even though my paint was emulsifying in the blowing rain. Eventually I squelched over to where Ed was set up. “I’m only here because of you,” he told me.
“That’s funny. I’m only here because of you,” I answered. Despite my rain gear, I was soaked down to my step-ins.
We removed to town and the porch of Ottawa House to finish the day. The volunteers offered us tea and cookies and the opportunity to paint indoors.
This hospitality has been true all over Parrsboro. Canadians are, in general, nice and helpful people. Since their dollar is weak compared to ours, you might think about vacationing there this summer.
Two Islands in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas
I’d had my eye on Cape Blomidon for hours, watching a standing hammer-shaped cloud forming off its tip. Volunteer Ed Gilbert told me that this cloud often forms above the cape in bad weather. “Blomiden” is a corruption of Blow-Me-Down, so named because the hot and cold air masses meet there and turn on hapless navigators.
The Quick Draw started in mist and fog, although true rain never really materialized on Sunday. I’d decided to paint with nothing smaller than an #12 round, since it was clear the juror liked that look. That paid off with a second-place ribbon.
We always feel badly if we don’t win prizes at these events, but often the awards have nothing to do with ability or insight and everything to do with style. I like “bold brush” painting as much as the next guy, but it’s not always conducive to describing the world, which is my primary objective. That I could switch it up to win a ribbon is an indication of just how transitory and inconsequential “style” is as a concept.
“I wish I could stay another day,” Ed texted me last night. The sky was clearing, and Cape Blomidon danced in the blue, shimmering light. But Maine is calling us back.

And we’re off

The locals were eager to share their million-dollar views and, by the way, did we need a washroom?

Ed and I did multiple value studies trying to sort out our painting sites for today.
The Canadian Maritimes shipbuilding industry dates to 1606, when two small boats were built at Port Royal. The availability of timber and proximity to the sea meant that by the nineteenth century, Nova Scotia’s shipyards were recognized worldwide.
There’s no sign of this boatbuilding industry left today, but Parrsboro built 10 barks, 2 barkentines, 11 brigs, 187 schooners, 1 full-rigged ship, and 41 brigantines. How do I know? At four in the afternoon, while I was sorting photos on my computer, Ed Buonvecchio was reading Parrsboro history.
Meanwhile, Poppy Balser was sitting on a stoop Instagramming and Mary Sheehan Winn was drafting a lobster boat. We were scattered along the harbor but linked by our cell phones.
Ed and I spent the morning doing value studies of possible locations. Because we’re in one car, we needed to agree on our final locations, without a lot of last-minute discussion. We listed the possibilities and then each listed them in order of priority. Our lists ended up being very nearly identical. In the end only one question remained: should we choose the Two Island overlook with the blue roof or the red roof?
Nova Scotians are very friendly. Several stopped to chat as we worked. Inevitably, they suggested that they, in fact, had a better view from their back deck. And, by the way, did we need a washroom?
At one point, I tossed my keys to Ed and took off with a stranger in his Ford F-150, which is the official truck of Canada. I wasn’t overly worried. He’d mentioned that he’d met his hero, George Herbert Walker Bush, several times. A man with such taste had to be trustworthy. He turned out to be charming and witty, and I returned to his property several times, to show it to Poppy and Ed in succession.
Thanks to Mary and her local connections, I’ve learned a lot about Parrsboro in two short days. In addition to her living relatives, she’s related to someone in every cemetery in town. “Aw, hello, Uncle Remus!” she would exclaim as we passed an old burying ground. “Hello, Cousin Louise!” At one point, she jumped from the car and tore crosslots looking for a grave. She caught up with me at the bottom of the hill, breathless. “That was easier than I expected,” she puffed.
That insider information made me smug. “Poppy,” I said when she arrived, “I know absolutely everything.”
“Do you know where the weir is?” she challenged. Fishing weirs are an ancient technology for catching tidal fish, dating back to prehistory. They’re dying out now, but Poppy is a master at painting them. And Parrsboro has one, just across the water from Parrsboro’s hypermodern tidal turbine, which unfortunately failed under the enormous hydraulic pressures of the Bay of Fundy and is being rebuilt this spring.
After we visited the weir, we took off at breakneck speed. I had less than three hours to show her all the sights before we were expected for the opening festivities. We were so short of time that I changed my shirt in the parking lot of the Cape D’or Lighthouse. It was so desolate that I could have had a sponge bath with nobody noticing.
We arrived back in Parrsboro with enough time to wash our faces and hands and scurry in to our appointment. By the time you read this, we’ll be out in Port Greville painting. Can you tell I’m excited?

Reconnoitering

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.