Art is a conversation, articulated in works and can span generations. This summer at AGNS the results of a fascinating conversation are on view, a rich and vibrant discussion between three painters, about painting, but also about Nova Scotia. Specifically, about Blue Rocks and neighbouring Eastern Point Island in Lunenburg County.

In the autumn of 1935, the American painter Marsden Hartley came to Nova Scotia’s Lunenburg County to stay for a few months. He was seeking respite and reinvigoration and found inspiration.

Hartley, who had spent decades in Europe, first in France and then Berlin, where he worked in the expressionist, new realist milieu around Kandinsky and Klee. Often referred to as the most important American modernist of the first half of the 20th century, Hartley was a rare bird in 1930s Lunenburg County: urbane, educated, artistic, and gay.

He lived with a fishing family in their home on Eastern Point Island, just off shore from Blue Rocks. He came to Nova Scotia twice, each time staying for a few months before returning to New York. In 1936 the two sons of the Mason family were drowned returning to the island from the mainland, along with a cousin. Hartley was devastated, writing to a friend in New York, “Never have I known anyone like them. Never a mean thought or act, drunk or sober, and their only fault was drinking now and then. They were fond of me, and I loved them.”

Ultimately Hartley made a series of paintings based on the tragedy, which have become amongst his most acclaimed works. Several years ago, while I was still at AGNS, we managed to raise the funds to acquire a painting from this series: Stormy Sea #2, which depicts the little boat that carried the boys, being driven before the storm, with clouds like a giant fist poised to crush it. A stark, poignant work, it is one of the few examples of Marsden Hartley’s work in any Canadian collection.

The conversation continues with an American painter who came to Nova Scotia, this one to stay. Gerald Ferguson, a noted conceptual artist and important teacher at NSCAD, was also a devoted student of history, and the history of a painter of such importance as Hartley in Nova Scotia was a natural subject for him.

His research and advocacy led to the 1987 book, Marsden Hartley in Nova Scotia, which he edited, and the exhibition of the same name at the MSVU Art Gallery that he curated. In the late 2000s, just before his death in 2009, Ferguson created two series of works based on Hartley’s paintings from Blue Rocks and Eastern Point Island. Based on both Hartley’s paintings and observation of the landscape, these works reference the early history of both Canadian and American modernism and highlight Nova Scotia’s often obscured place in that history.

Finally, a third artist entered the conversation, and was the impetus for this exhibition. Ontario painter John Hartman is well-known for his landscapes of Ontario, Newfoundland, Northern Quebec. He often presents the landscape in an aerial view, with figures and objects sketched into the sky, evoking stories (historical and legendary) about the place pictured.

Inspired by Ferguson’s book on Hartley, Hartman came to Blue Rocks and made a series of works based in the story of Hartley’s sojourn in Nova Scotia. He painted the places Hartman lived and worked, and in many of his works one can find images from Hartley’s famous paintings of the Mason family.

Blue Rocks: Gerald Ferguson, Marsden Hartley, and John Hartman is primarily built around the works of Ferguson and Hartman, though there are two lovely works by Hartley borrowed from a private collection that complement the AGNS painting.

The exhibition provides a forum for viewers to eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation, and to see how artists respond to the work of their predecessors, building on past efforts to keep the talk going. It is exactly the sort of exhibition we should expect from our public institutions, and it is well worth repeat visits.

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