Poppy Balser is a noted watercolorist from Digby, Nova Scotia. In addition to being a full-time artist, she’s a part-time pharmacist and a wife and mother of two kids. I admire her painting tremendously and looked forward to seeing her at Castine Plein Air again this year.
Yesterday we painted together and she told me a story. She dropped her kids at their grandparents’ house in St. Andrews, NB, and crossed the border at Calais, Maine. This crossing is routine for her.
Her interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection started in the ordinary way. She told the inspector that she was coming into the US for a few days to paint in a plein air event and see friends. A second agent joined the first one and her car was searched. They found—unsurprisingly—art supplies and frames.
“How much money do you anticipate making?” they asked. The answer, not surprisingly, was in the very low thousands, not the six figures a Canadian performing artist might expect to earn on tour. Nevertheless, they shut her down.
She was allowed to proceed with a serious warning. Yes, she can paint at Castine, but she cannot sell her artwork. Her passport has been flagged. If she sells here, either alone or through the non-profit organization, she will forfeit her ability to return to the United States.
I don’t think it was just Poppy’s earnest honesty that got her into hot water, because artists travel outside their home countries to paint, teach and study all the time. The biggest questions we normally face are about our materials, not our intentions. We understand that finished artwork is a commodity subject to tariff laws.
I painted in Canada last year and plan to do it again this fall. I hate the idea that I might be subject to the same hassles crossing our shared border.
Poppy’s newly-flagged passport is no small matter. It means that she will be routinely stopped by Border Control any time she crosses between Calais and St. Stephen and subjected to further interviews or denied access to the US altogether.
Earlier in the day, we discovered we’d both painted the lovely J. & E. Riggin as she left Castine. That’s the Bowdoin in the background.
For those readers who did not grow up along the Canadian-American border, it’s always been porous. My husband and I used to walk across the Peace Bridge into Ft. Erie, Ontario, on summer evenings. Canadians would, with equal casualness, cross the river to party or shop in Buffalo.
We didn’t need passports. Nobody was repeatedly harassed because they had a common name or had irritated an inspector at a different checkpoint.
If Poppy’s inspector was right and Canadians need work visas or special clearance to cross the border to paint, it’s a closely-held international secret. I could name several who are here in the US painting right now.
I suppose the government’s rationale is that they’re protecting American jobs. Yet millions of migrant workers have crossed our southern border to work illegally in this country. We lack either the will or the ability to stop them. But we somehow have the resources to prevent a mild-mannered pharmacist from bringing her brushes across from Canada.
Get a grip, Customs and Immigration. Protect us from Nickleback and Celine Dion, not the Poppy Balsers of this world.