Archive for the ‘Backstory’ Category

Great Women of NS Portraits Storm The Halifax Club
July 2, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s 2011 Art Exhibit honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

The Halifax Club

The Great Women of NS Art Exhibit has moved to that elegant business bastion, The Halifax Club.

Thanks to Jodi Bartlett, the Club’s wonderful General Manager, for the warm welcome.

Crowds were steady and reactions to the portraits were very, very strong at The Public Archives, where the show had its 2-month Summer “”run””. Jodi says the response to the portrait collection, at “”The Club”, is equally strong.


Ladies Don’t Run
May 31, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

How could you not fall in love with Aileen Meagher?

Back in the day when ‘a lady did not run’, she cut off her brother’s trousers, fashioned a pair of running shorts and tried out for the Dalhousie track team in 1928. The track coach mentioned the Olympics. Aileen had never heard of the Olympics. Soon, all that would change.

She quickly beame Canada’s record holder for the 100- and 220-yard events and, by 1932, was part of our nation’s Olympic contingent. (A charley horse kept  her out of competition.) By 1935 she was named both Most Outstanding Canadian Athlete and Most Outstanding Female Athlete.

She took home gold and silver medals at the 1934 and 1938 Empire Games and – the year Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin– Aileen arrived at the Halifaxairport with an Olympic Bronze Medal for the 400 relay.  

Meagher at 1936 Olympics, Photo Credit: NS Archives and Record Management

That’s her, at the front of the group, with her Canadian team, the, and British team prior to presentation with medals in Berlin.

She went on to become a talented artist who traveled the world – filling notebooks with watercolor sketches and captivating snippets.

Hugh Townsend interviewed Aileen for The Chronicle-Herald back in June 1976. In the interview, she recalled how she became a world-class athlete:

 “. . . I didn’t have a diet, no special conditioning, I didn’t know much about training. I just prepared myself to run as fast as I could.”

Later, as a teacher, she used her running medals as a paperweights on her school desk. When her Olympic medal went missing, she was unperturbed. “I know I did it – so, why worry?

The Power of Edith Jessie Archibald
May 24, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

So now I am back in the studio, “working away” on the soft, gentle face of Edith Jessie Archibald. Take a peek:…

I am using old hotel-room cards to carve away at the surface of Edith Jessie Archibald’s portrait, focusing today on the background surface – trying to create a sense of “sea”… her dress is so staid and proper, starched collar and puffed sleeves, I think the contrast will create some tension and a sense of the energy of a port city alive with rough-hewn possibilities…We’ll see what happens.

When I started researching the women who were ‘key’ to securing the vote for N.S. women, EJA always popped to the surface. She was in good company… Dr. Eliza Ritchie, Edith Murray. Agnes Dennis to name three…

But I chose Edith because she spoke to me, as all “”The Nova Scotia Nine”” did and do: Like Rita Joe, and Viola Desmond, Edith Jessie stood out in character and countenance, in action and impact. In Edith’s case, she wrote powerful essays. Made powerful speeches. And ultimately, she moved people to action, giving downtrodden female citizens a sense of self-worth – a feeling that something greater, for them, was possible.

Okay, back to the studio.

Wrestling With Amazing Anna
May 19, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

I am, literally, wrestling with Anna Leonowens.

Back in the 19th century, Anna (of The King and I fame) was one of the most amazing women of her time. A widowed mother of two young children – without any visible means of support – who completly re-created herself.

 She became a woman of adventure, an author, a vocal supporter of women’s rights and abolition. She created an amazingly successful and dramatic life for herself. She was hardworking and ambitious. And a great self-promoter. Anna lived for more than two decades in Halifax, and she left her mark on the city, the province – and, ultimately, the country.

“In 1862 she was recommended to King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) as a potential governess to the royal family, then composed of 67 offspring by the king’s numerous wives. Settling in Bangkok, Leonowens began a remarkable five-year career as “Mem Cha” (“M’am Dear”), which proved to be the pivotal event in a long and curious life.

In 1868, she left that posting and opened a school for training kindergarten teachers in (New York City.

Adept at self-promotion, Leonowens soon became known to the publisher of the prestigious Boston-based Atlantic Monthly.
Under his sponsorship, a series of articles portraying her Siamese experiences appeared in that magazine during 1870, followed immediately by his publication of
The English Governess at the Siamese Court.

“”Since castigated as little more than plagiarism and fraudulent misrepresentation, the book was an immediate success…” – (Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online)””

Think of it this way: Readers back then, were hungry for stories about the mysterious Far East. And Anna, who did have a legitimately amazing adventure there, knew how to take a great story and make it sellable .

By the time Anna landed in Halifax in 1876, she was quite famous – as a woman of adventure, an author, a rights activist.

Before she left – 20 years later – to move to Montreal (where she died, at 84 and is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery), she left her mark on the city: sparking the establishment of the Victorian School of Art and Design, now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) University. So: that’s who I’m wrestling in my studio with – a formidable woman!

A Granny Like No Other
May 9, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.


Working away on a portrait of Marie-Henriette LeJeune-Ross – aka “Granny Ross” (1762-1860). I don’t have a reliable image I can work from, so I’m creating my own image based on research about this woman that became known – and revered – as “Granny Ross”.

 Here’s her story:  basically, she was a trail-blazer in the world of women’s science in Canada. Born to Acadian parents who were deported to France fter the 1748 fall of Louisburg, she established her reputation as a nurse and midwife in the Little Bras d’Or area of Cape Breton during a community smallpox outbreak. She had a cabin built in the nearby woods and used it as an infirmary, where she cared for and saved the lives of many settlers during the epidemic.

It seems she was a small woman, with blue eyes and a dark complexion. Without a doubt, she used her knowledge of plant medicine to help others– right up until her end.(Since the opening of my show, relatives of Granny Ross have gotten in touch: it seems her grandmothers were French and Mi’kmaq, and she learned her healing skills from her Native grandmother.

 “Traveling on foot, by horseback, or on snow-shoes, with a pine torch to light the way at night, (LeJeune-Ross) worked unendingly in a locality where professional medical aid was non-existent. She was revered in the community,” notes Lois Kathleen Kernaghan, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Back around 1802, she and her family moved from Sydney, to the Northeast Margaree River valley, becoming the first settlers there….and when she moved, her medical skills and reputation traveled with her: As settlement in that area increased, so did the demand for her services.

She eventually went blind, but disability didn’t stop her: In summer, her family, apparently transported Granny Ross to her patients’ bedside in a type of wheelbarrow. And, in winter, she was taken on a sled.

Nova Scotia soil gave birth to this uniquely first Canadian woman of science. She’s gone, but her homestead in Cape Breton remains….


An Emotional Rock
April 26, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

Photo Courtesy of Parks Canada/Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada

The talented Canadian biographer Charlotte Gray – (author of Reluctant Genius about Mabel’s husband, Alexander Graham Bell, and their life together) –  shared with me recently some  insights about Mabel, based upon her research.

Specifically I asked Charlotte 3 questions and shared the first q/a in my prevous blog entry. Here’s the next question I asked her:

Question no. 2:  Charlotte, I think of Mabel as “chief strategic/financial/romantic partner” to Alec/Alexander Graham Bell. How would you describe her relationship with her husband (if you had to write it on the back of a business card or matchbook cover?

Charlotte emails back:

“…Yes, (Mabel) was his romantic partner, emotional anchor and practical helper. If it wasn’t for her chivvying (and her father’s professional help, as a lawyer), Bell would never have registered his patent. It is interesting that Alec’s father-in-law fades out of (Alec & Mabel’s) life once the telephone patent is secured: I think he found Alec simply too exasperating to deal with.

 “ …Alec was the centre of Mabel’s life, and her main link to the speaking world, so it is hard to think of one without the other. But her refusal to allow her disability to limit her in any way was extraordinary.”

Q to Charlotte: What did your learn about Mabel Bell that most impressed you?

“JoAnn …Once I had got over the fact that the man who invented the telephone could never speak to his wife on it, because she was deaf, I was fascinated by the way she provided emotional stability for Alec.” Charlotte says Mabel’s hearing disability was “irrelevant” to their relationship: “her good judgment and strength of character were everything. And that their mutual dependence was extraordinary. She was a woman who could be firm with her eccentric husband, and she had a wonderful sense of humour.”

Behind Every Great Man, An Inspiring Woman
April 5, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

Photo Courtesy of the Alexander Graham Bell Museum

I’m working on a portrait right now of Mabel Bell.

I’ve been researching her for a while, and reading Charlotte Gray’s wonderful book, Reluctant Genius  about Mabel’s husband, Alexander Graham Bell, and their life together.

I included Mabel among “the Nova Scotia Nine”” – the 9 women who’ll form the centerpiece for my show in June at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, in Halifax – because she was amazing – and she did amazing works during her time in Nova Scotia.

She started Nova Scotia’s first Montessori School. She was, essentially, her husband’s business manager. The partner who pushed him to patent, the one who pulled his creative team together; she ran a major home/estate, was a pioneering educator based in Baddeck, she was hearing-impaired…

An extraordinary woman and powerful example of what one person can accomplish when they refuse to let any thing dim their light.

Margaret Marshall Saunders and Beautiful Joe
March 23, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

The next woman I came across that really attracted me  – that moved me to paint her, large scale and lovingly – was Margaret Marshall Saunders.

Ever hear of her? Me neither. But turns out she was quite cool – independent, talented, a hard worker, a beautiful soul and a major animal lover. Right around the time when the book Black Beauty was published, MMS – who lived in Milton, N.S. – traveled to visit a relative in Ontario and encountered a dog who had been terribly abused. 

 It horrified her. It moved her. It moved her so much in fact, she wrote a book about the experience and  named it Beautiful Joe. And that book, about a damaged dog, was the first book by a Canadian author to sell more than a million copies.

I think it’s still in print today, and I’m going to check at my favorite bookstore to see if I can find a copy to include in the art show in June.

Here’s a photo of the author herself, with her dog. I don’t know the dog’s name, but something tells me by the end of this show, I will! (She, by the way, wrote under her second name – Marshall – because the times were such that she was pretty sure no one would buy a book written by a woman.)

The impact of Beautiful Joe was obvious: barrier-breaking sales. And not-so-obvious; Beautiful Joe was the catalyst for a shift in consciousness among Canadians.

It started them thinking about how animals should be treated. And it ended in what today is the SPCA, animal protection laws and an increasing respect for animals and debate over how we should relate to them.

Brave Viola
March 14, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s June 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

Viola Desmond is such an interesting story: forcibly removed from an N.S. movie theatre for refusing to give up her seat, Viola helped spark Canada’s civil rights movement – a good decade before Rosa Parks rose to prominence.

Viola Desmond - Canadian Hero

Viola Desmond 1914 - 1965

Viola’s sister Wanda tells me Viola acted – simply because it was the right thing to do, and because her inherent sense of self respect and dignity just wouldn’t allow her to be swept back by ignorance and stupidity.

A few details: she refused to give up a main-floor seat in a movie theatre and switch up for one in then so-called “nigger heaven” – ie the movie theatre’s balcony. (Since I first spoke with Wanda, Viola Desmond has since gained a lot of exposure – and an official apology from the Nova Scotia government – much thanks to Wanda’s efforts.)

“The photo you are using (to create Viola’s portrait),”” Wanda told me recently, “”was one she had done for her product labels”,”

“We don’t know who the photographer was, but we have copies of it and have given permission to someone else to use the photo. We see no problem in using it.”

Thanks Wanda. In case you’re interested, here’s a sneak peak, thus far, of “Brave Viola”!

Pop Portrait of Viola Desmond

Introducing Rita Joe
March 10, 2011

This blog tracks the origin & evolution of Jo Napier’s 2011 art exhibit/portrait series honoring “The Nova Scotia Nine- Great Women of N.S.

I’d like to introduce you to the first woman I decided to paint: Rita Joe.

Rita Joe captured and communicated the amazing and difficult threads of her life – thanks to an ability to write from her heart in unassuming yet compelling words. Her mother died when she was 5, she was orphaned by 10 and, at age 12, went to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School where, she later recalled, she was constantly told “you’re no good.” She countered by picking up the pen, and writing, to challenge those messages. Often referred to as the “poet laureate” of the Mi’kmaq people, she empowered people and said her s greatest wish: that “there will be more writing from my people, and that our children will read it. … Our history would be different if it had been expressed by us.”

As mentioned in the last blog entry, she was on that list of women that the reference librarians sent along to me – and was someone of whom I had no real knowledge, understanding, appreciation.

Why, after 10 years in a Halifax newsroom, and 20+ years as a journalist, did I not know her story? Her name rang a vague bell but that was it. So I started digging around and discovered why Rita Joe was not only respected and remembered but loved.

She was a woman in touch with her heart, her soul. A person with the ability to remember what it is like to be a child. And someone who was able to pull thoughts and emotions from her heart and mind, scratch them out on paper and make that writing an unbreakable thread between herself and her reader.

Dr. Rita Joe

Dr. Rita Joe 1932-2007

I missed the chance to know her but here was my opportunity to connect with her, and her writing and poetry. And…that face! I fell in love with it as soon as I saw this photo on Dr. Daniel Paul’s website.

I think it would be great if, at the June portrait show at the N.S. Archives, I could get it together and have one of Rita Joe’s books sitting, open for perusing, alongside her portrait. We’ll see.

Turns out there’s a lot to do to get things organized for an art show. But this seems like an important detail: to have something representing the works of each of the Nova Scotia Nine, sitting alongside their portraits. To give practical feeling to their artistic, portrait presence. If it’s still a good idea tomorrow, it’s likely worth pursuing. We’ll see.