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Reviewed by:
  • Robin Bates
For Folk's Sake: Art and Economy in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. Erin Morton. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 405, $120.00 cloth, $44.96 paper

This intellectually exhilarating and sumptuously illustrated book approaches folk art as a cultural category projected onto Nova Scotia in response to a regional conjuncture of capitalist (under)development. Although produced in the present day of the late twentieth century, the folk art panoply of woodcarvings, panel board paintings, and Maud Lewis's painted house was interpreted as the precious remnant of a fading past when work and life had holistically coincided, offering a consoling refuge from the disjunctive effects of the very economic processes that created a market for it. A postwar Nova Scotia whose resource extraction industries were declining even as tourism and consumerism burgeoned saw the emergence of artists such as Collins Eisenhauer and Ralph Boutilier, semi-retired manual workers who used hand skills from the woods, fisheries, and fields to make inexpensive art intended to catch the fancy of passing motorists. Art dealers, professorial commentators, and cultural administrators of the 1970s, believing that the nobly roughhewn art of the self-taught working-man could revitalize a province in a deindustrializing malaise by renewing its bonds to a retrospectively idealized era of true craftsmanship, projected the schema of folk art onto the practices of such men, whom they persuaded to create more elaborate, unique, and expensive pieces fit for gallery display and collection. However, the original champions of folk art could afford less and less of it as their successful promotion attracted deeper-pocketed, out-of-province buyers. The 1970s, experienced at the time as drably deskilled and deracinated, were, by the 1990s, remembered as the golden age when folk art remained within the community that made it.

Erin Morton observes that this notional folk art community was white, ostensibly preserving a relationship to the land and sea descended from pioneering settlers. Folk art did not include Indigenous art. In fact, as reconstructed in this book, the "folk art" category appears to have applied rather unevenly to white Nova Scotians as well, though this is not a point on which Morton dwells. Of the major artists treated here, virtually none are francophone or, with the exception of wood-carver Sydney Howard, from northern Nova Scotia or Cape Breton Island. Why not? One possible explanation may grow from Morton's observation that folk art discourse de-emphasized ethnic particularizations of whiteness (canonically codified in the tourism-cum-heritage iconography, ubiquitous between the 1930s and 1960s, of the five white [End Page 840] races of Nova Scotia: English, French, Scottish, Irish, and Hanoverian) in favour of a white identity that communes directly with its environment, bracketing overseas origins. Thus, "folk art" might have been a less compelling category for communities deeply invested in French (Acadian) or Scottish (Gaelic) identities since these have remained culturally salient to the present day, perhaps helping to explaining why Morton's artists tend to hail from Lunenburg, Digby, and Yarmouth rather than Pictou, Clare, or Cape Breton.

The book's second half focuses on Maud Lewis, who sold paintings out of her tiny house even before "folk art" was spoken of. She died in 1970, just as her vivid, flattened images were winning acclaim for summoning "A World without Shadows" that aesthetically transcended her grinding poverty and physical disability. Morton exposes this romantic exaltation of Lewis as an alibi for the province's failure to help its poorest residents. In an astonishing interpretation of films, television programs, and exhibition catalogues, Morton shows that following the death of Lewis and her husband Everett, who by all accounts could be a difficult man, a black legend of Everett arose to explain away her poverty as the result of his spiteful miserliness–not their material deprivation –and to inculpate him for commercializing her art, which was their chief source of income. Even as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia assumed Lewis's copyrights, trademarked a Maud Lewis Collection, and used her relocated house to attract corporate sponsorship in the 1990s, it was long-dead Everett who was scape-goated for improperly viewing...


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