Visual arts are one of the many ways a destination can reveal itself to visitors and long-time residents, and Nova Scotia is lucky to have a resource like the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) to collect and share the history of visual art in Nova Scotia, while bringing in interesting exhibits from beyond our shores to stretch our brains around the question: “What is art?”

After watching the recent Halifax Pride parade and seeing the Gallery’s amazing live-action float, I knew I was long overdue for visit.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Halifax Pride 2012

In Nova Scotia, we have a lot of visual art traditions. From First Nations quillwork to Victorian-era oils to brightly coloured folk art to contemporary artists from NSCAD University pushing boundaries, our small province casts a wide net.

Located in downtown Halifax, the Gallery’s collection is spread across two buildings connected by an underground passage that is also an exhibit area. The current exhibits are a terrific sample of the province’s artistic tradition, and is the perfect stop for a couple of hours out of the summer heat, or, if it ever rains again, a great rainy day activity.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Halifax

Among the more remarkable stops during a visit to the Gallery is the Maud Lewis Gallery. Lewis, among the best-known Nova Scotia folk artists, was known for her simple, joyful paintings of country life – modest, simple, hardworking.

The showcase of the collection is her house. That’s right, after her and her husband’s death, their house was eventually moved to the Gallery to prevent further disintegration. It’s a piece of art in itself. A small,  simple building covered in plants and flowers, shutters with black swans.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Maud Lewis Gallery

Do not miss the opportunity to look inside, where Maud painted almost every surface available to her. There was a young family visiting while I was there, and it was fascinating to listen to the father explain how two people could live in such a small space.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Maud Lewis Gallery

A small sign hung outside of their house reading “Paintings for Sale” was how Maud advertised her work and she was famous for producing countless versions of some of her iconic images, over and over with slight variations depending on the paint colours available to her at the time.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Maud Lewis Gallery

Time in the Maud Lewis Gallery is a wonderful introduction to Nova Scotian folk art, and will prepare you for the remarkable exhibit that awaits visitors on an upper floor.

Half-jokingly, I tell people: “I like my art weird.” I can certainly appreciate the technique and beauty of some of history’s greatest masterpieces, but I could drink in the strangeness of a horse as a unicorn in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst for hours. [This is real: I saw it the amazing Pop Life: Art in  Material World exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada in 2010].

Needless to say, the Gallery’s current exhibition, SKIN: the seduction of surface, is right up my alley. Recently extended to October 1, it’s an unusual collection of mixed media exploring the concept of layers. Most pieces have detailed notes that explain the work from the artist’s perspective, which don’t necessarily demystify anything, but certainly make the pieces more approachable and accessible.

Widow Walking Install

Source Image by Steve Farmer

The rest of exhibit needs to be seen to be believed. There is a meat dress that has, effectively, been air curing over the course of the exhibit. Silicone forms, a human-sized beaded “suit,” and a lot more paintings, images and sculptures that challenge the idea of skin as protector and mediator. A second room, simply called Second Skin, is a touchable “education gallery” of dozens of different textures – natural, synthetic, smooth, rough, just plain weird. It is total sensory overload. Just go see all of it, if you can. See more images from SKIN and other Gallery collections on the AGNS Flickr site.

I spent a lot more time wandering in the rest of the Gallery’s collection than I expected. A fascinating collection of First Nations art from Northern communities on one floor, and a selection of early Nova Scotia woman painters in another. Selections from the Gallery’s collection fill other floor, including Atlantic art depicting early life in the settlement, another with contemporary art, and international rooms with some Picasso lithographs and a Catalan painter I remember from my time in Barcelona.

A pleasant surprise was the remarkable collection of Nova Scotia folk art called  A Show of Hands. A joyous floor full of brightly coloured pieces, sculptures and paintings – whirligigs, furniture, rugs, and mailboxes representing a simple decorative tradition of the province. My favourite piece was a fully-realized marsh with giant wooden blue herons, geese, and beavers surfacing in a pond. As visitors finish the loop, a surprise: a nearly full-sized wooden sculpture of the Obama family, including Bo the dog. It was whimsical and fun, exactly the kind of thing that could easily be seen in someone’s yard while driving the back roads of Nova Scotia.

Alas, my picture-taking permission did not extend to the collection due to copyright considerations, but I’ll probably go back spend some more time with them. Which is getting easier all of the time…

I am pleased to report AGNS is working to get Nova Scotians and visitors to our province through the doors more than ever. All summer and until (Canadian) Thanksgiving in October, the Gallery is open until 9pm, Monday to Saturday. Also, Thursday evenings are currently admission-free from 5pm to 9pm for BMO Free Access Thursdays. So with that, get out to your gallery, Nova Scotia!

The opinion presented within this post is my own, and I would like to thank the Donna Wellard of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for inviting me to visit and for providing a complimentary pass, as well as granting special permission to take photographs in the Maud Lewis Gallery. Any time I receive a discount or complimentary service in my capacity as a travel blogger, I disclose it.

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