By Fran Zell
Joy Snihur Wyatt Laking is wearing her studio clothes —blue jeans speckled with paint and a sturdy sweater —when I arrive at her gallery, a large gracious space adjacent to her royal blue frame home in the rural community of Portapique, Nova Scotia. The nearly 20-acre property is a plein air artist’s dream, replete with pond, salt marsh, woods and majestic views of the Bay of Fundy with its ever surging, highest tides in the world.
Laking is one of Nova Scotia’s most prolific and acclaimed artists. She has painted and exhibited all over the province and the world, won prestigious awards, including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Coquebid Arts Council. Pre -Covid, she says, 6,000 people visited her gallery each year.
I am there to talk about her book, The Painted Province, (Pottersfield Press, 2020) which showcases 200 of her paintings from 40 different locations around Nova Scotia, an especially timely topic in that it makes a perfect holiday gift.
Tea and elegant munchies await on a glass top coffee table, surrounded by comfortable sofas and chairs, and beyond that, walls filled with just some of the paintings—acrylics, oils, and above all watercolors —in which Laking has captured the beauty and light of the province she adores. A native of Owen Sound, Ontario, she moved to Nova Scotia 50 years ago, right out of fine art school at Guelph University.
“I do fabric art too, but just for fun,” she says and invites me across the hall into her living room to see some. It hangs alongside work by her artist mother, two artist daughters, and hobbyist artist father, and I realize that by “for fun” she means playful but also having special meaning to her and therefore not for sale. One of her fabric pieces, Clothesline, appears in the book, four woven garments blowing in the wind against a big Nova Scotia sky, each garment telling a personal story about the artist and the worries and sorrows she hopes to shed.
Back in the gallery she pours tea and chats about her work, two upcoming exhibits, the book, now in its fourth printing, and a memoir-in-progress that she hopes to publish soon. She is a friendly, spirited woman with a deep vibrant laugh that lights up the room as much as her paintings.
“I didn’t want it to be a coffee table book, “ she says. “So I made it so it would fit in a glove compartment and included GPS coordinates for each location. I thought, if families kept it in their glove compartment, they could say to their kids, ‘Joy painted here. Let’s go see the spot.’
“And kids could say, ‘Well she moved something or she left something out. And they might notice that it’s a different season now, the whole idea being to help people notice the beauty around them that they might not otherwise have seen.” Or not seen in that particular way: Nova Scotia Through an Artist’s Eyes, as the subtitle puts it.
The Painted Province is also intended for people who have never been to Nova Scotia, or who might read it and decide to go.
Laking’s art is driven by her need to encapsulate the beauty of Nova Scotia—its huge, ever changing skies and tides, coastal cliffs, rocky shores, rolling hills, picturesque fishing villages and much more.
She says the book grew out of her long-standing practice of spending at least a week each year painting in a different part of the province. “I started doing that more than twenty-five years ago,” she says, “and about twenty years ago I got the idea it would make a good book.”
And so began a project which took twenty years to complete. In the end she selected from a week’s worth of paintings from each location, and added original poetry and commentary about experiences related to the work.
There was, for instance, the time she lowered herself down a cliff by a rope to rescue a palette full of paint the wind carried away while she was focusing on a “flower pot” sandstone formation along the Bay of Fundy. And the time three years ago she painted (indoors without power) through Hurricane Dorian rather than miss a scheduled week of painting in Arisaig (a small north coast village) with her artist friend from Halifax, Susan Paterson. “On the first day it wasn’t raining, we were painting outside,” she writes in a section of the book that displays four watercolors of cliff, rocks and shore from one vantage point on Ballantynes Cove Beach.
Laking often travels and paints around the world, most recently in India, Ghana, Italy and Portugal. She says painting in other countries ultimately serves the larger purpose of giving her a new perspective on painting in Nova Scotia.
She explains that she has her studio clothes on today because she’d been working on two acrylics set in Great Village, a nearby rural community famous for being the childhood home of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop and the fictionalized setting for many of her short stories.
An historic white Gothic Revival church, whose steeple was destroyed in September by Hurricane Fiona is central to the paintings, which she started on about a year ago.
“I don’t usually go back to paintings I haven’t finished. I move away from them in my head or something. I’m not sure why I went back to these, maybe because of the steeple. But I took another look and thought, well I’ll never finish them unless I do them now.”
As for oils what she likes most is the forgivingness and flexibility: “You can paint over anything and try stuff different ways.” She recounts in the book how once during a painting week in River John, she drove downtown in her pajamas at three in the morning to do a preliminary watercolor sketch and take photos. This resulted in an underpainting for Starry Night in River John that contained a sky full of colorful circles. A year later she changed them to sparkling stars.
Laking is perhaps best known as a watercolorist, and it’s a skill she taught herself, after university when she was living in Nova Scotia apart from other artists. As a result she developed her own style, moving from dark details to light rather than the traditional other way around. She loves painting on location with watercolors, loves the “exhilarating challenge” of finding a subject and completing a painting in four to seven hours. The results, she says are “loose and spontaneous, depicting the tides, the lighting and the moment.”
Case in point: She waves at two of her newest paintings on the wall across the room. They depict different views of the tidal inlet in Parrsboro, captured during the town’s plein air festival last October, at the height of fall color.
“When I go out to paint I have to figure out whether I’m going to turn right or left and then I just drive along and if anything says ‘Oomph!’ I stop and look at it and take a picture. Usually I keep driving. If it looks like a real possibility then I do a sketch, just five by seven inches to see if there’s enough there to interest me.”
But those two spots in Parrsboro jumped out at her immediately, she says.
“After I did the first one (across the road from Art Lab) I thought I would go to the Ottawa House (seaside museum), which is one of my favorite spots. But I never even got out of town before I saw that view looking back at the town,” she says, referring to the second painting. “And that view you couldn’t ever see it before because of the trees.” She’s referring to a small formerly wooded clifftop just above the J Hollywood Seaside Shanty on Whitehall Road. Hurricane Fiona took down the trees, and when property owner Johnny Winters cleaned it up and graveled it over, it became a new scenic lookout.
There is one question I don’t want to ask Joy Laking, especially not now in the warmth of this beautiful gallery as we chat and laugh and drink tea and I devour more than my share of an exquisite British cheddar cheese and the beautiful rural landscape we see through the windows envelopes us with a sense of reassuring calm.
But I ask the question anyway. How was she able to continue to look for beauty? I want to know. How, after the mass murder in the Spring of 2020 that left 22 people (plus the shooter) dead in tiny Portapique, how was she able to continue to look at life in such a positive way?
“Well, it wasn’t easy,” she replies. “I went through a really big depression, and I had never had depression before. I had three friends who were killed and I knew the shooter and his girlfriend—not well, but I knew them because they were really good friends with my cleaning lady.” She takes in a quick, emotional breath and for a moment is unable to speak. “Yeah,” she says. “So for a long time I couldn’t see anything beautiful.
“And so what I did and it was great…I laid out the book. The book was all finished and it would have been a designer that would have chosen the images and laid it out. But I chose the images and laid it out. It took me about a month and a half and I enjoyed it. And the book is exactly the way I wanted it, which it never would have been if someone else had designed it. Because all I had were files with maybe, you know, ten images to choose from for each two-page spread. And I got to choose which ones I wanted And I got to choose if I wanted to crop them. All that sort of stuff that sounds very boring, but when you can’t see anything beautiful it was good work to do.
“The shooting was in April and I finished it (the design) the first of June. By then I started to go out painting again. But no, it hasn’t been easy.
“Anyways,” she continues, “I’m determined that it’s not going to be the only…it can’t be the legacy for this area.”
The Beauty of Portapique in August displays the kind of legacy she wants for her community and herself. It’s a wide-open view of the salt marsh on her land in full summer bloom, purple vetch and pink morning glories in the foreground, golden hawkweed trailing down to the sea in a whirl of grasses, forest and welcoming sky.
She painted it in the summer of 2021 and it was part of a healing process for her. “I sat there in the marsh for four days and took Fen with me,” she says, referring to her frisky Golden Retriever then still a puppy. “He kept rooting around and getting sticks and every so often he’d scrape up dirt that would fly onto my palette.” She laughs deeply at the memory of it.
She felt compelled to include the painting in the Colchester County Art Exhibition in Truro this November, a show highlighting the region’s history and beauty.
That’s what it’s always about for Joy Snihur Wyatt Laking: history and beauty and her never ending quest to paint and write about it.
“My husband keeps asking, ‘Joy, when are you going to retire?’ And I tell him, ‘I am retired. I’m doing exactly what I want—painting and writing— and I’m never going to stop.’”
Photos of her paintings by Joy Snihur Wyatt Laking
Paintings by Joy Laking and Halifax artist Susan Paterson, are currently on exhibit through December at the Colchester-East Hants Public Library in Truro, Nova Scotia, open Monday through Saturday, hours vary.
The Painted Province: Nova Scotia Through an Artist’s Eyes and Colours in Winter, a children’s book by Laking, are available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo and local book stores. Both are published by Pottersfield Press, Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia.
Autographed copies may be ordered directly from Laking, by credit card or etransfer. Contact her at jo*@jo**************.com or call 902 890 8730.
The Painted Province: $32 CA including tax and mailing anywhere in Canada. Or mailed anywhere in the U.S. for $36 CA (approximately $27 U.S.)
Colours in Winter: $19 CA, including tax and mailing anywhere in Canada. Or mailed anywhere in the U.S. for $20.50 CA (approximately $16 U.S.)