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Author spotlight: Gloria Ann Wesley

Gloria Ann Wesley is an award-winning writer and a retired teacher. She is the author of several books of poetry, children’s literature, and young adult fiction, including Chasing Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2011), which was listed as a Grade Nine and African Canadian Studies resource by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and was shortlisted for the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012 (Atlantic Book Awards), and If This Is Freedom (Fernwood Publishing, 2013), which was selected for One Book Nova Scotia in 2017. Her latest book is called For King and Country,to be published by Formac.

Read on to learn more about Wesley’s writing, the inspiration behind her historical fiction and her life during the pandemic. 

I see you have a new book coming out this August – For King and Country. It looks interesting, a combination of fiction and non-fiction. What is it about? 

For King and Country is about a young man, Wilbur (Will) Wesley, who wants to fight in the First World War. Though he attempts to enlist, he is turned away because of rampant prejudice, but he remains hopeful that attitudes will change. When Will is finally accepted, it is not to fight, but to be part of a construction company, eroding his dreams of valour and pride as discrimination continues to plague his service.

What is it about this particular battalion that is significant?

The No.2 Black Battalion was Canada’s first and only all-Black military regiment.

Many of your books deal with the black experience in the past. Why do you gravitate to this theme in your writing?

Literature can be a powerful force for enlightenment, create discussions and act as a bridge to address the racism that continues to restrict inclusiveness, justice, and respect.  Because Black novels, relevant to and about the daily lives of African Nova Scotians did not exist, I decided to take on the work of filling the gap.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

My advice is that if you have a special interest or something you really want to say—write about it. Aspire to please yourself first and then others may follow.

What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?

In Nova Scotia, there are so many untold stories waiting to be discovered.  

What’s your guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure is Lay’s plain potato chips with a Snickers bar and a Pepsi or peanut butter and strawberry jam on crackers.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

When my brain freezes, I go to bed early, then wake up at one a.m. and write for an hour or two, then sleep in. It’s great to be retired. 

A lot of artists have been creatively stymied during the pandemic. Have you found that?  Has your writing been affected?

The pandemic seems like just another day to me. My writing routine has not changed. I am a recluse by nature and continue to write at all hours of the day and night. The one thing I miss is public engagements. 

What are you working on now?

I’m editing a book about a young woman who is coming to terms with the repression of sexual assaults she experienced as a child. A total 360 from historical fiction.

What are you most looking forward to when restrictions are eased?

I’m really looking forward to leaving the province to visit family members and hug my grandchildren.

– This Author’s Spotlight with Gloria Wesley updates an earlier spotlight posted in July 2018. Additional questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Ray Cronin

Ray Cronin is a writer, editor, and curator. Between 2001 and 2015 he worked at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as both curator and director, and he is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award. Cronin has been writing about visual arts for magazines and newspapers for almost thirty years. As well as writing a series of “field guides” on Atlantic Canadian artists published by Gaspereau Press, he is the author of Our Maud: The Art, Life and Legacy of Maud Lewis, and the Arts Canada Institute e-books Alex Colville: Life & Work and Mary Pratt: Life & Work. His book Nova Scotia Folk Art: An Illustrated Guide, is forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing in 2021. He lives in Elmsdale.

These field guides published by Gaspereau are really wonderful. The essays are beautifully written, and of course when you’re reading about art, it’s nice to have the colour plates to refer to. How did the series come about?

It all started with the best rejection ever. I proposed a book to Gaspereau Press of twelve essays about Atlantic Canadian artists, a kind of “greatest hits,” I suppose, which would have had a combination of previously-published work and new essays (much writing about visual art is pretty ephemeral, often for magazines or newspapers, or for exhibition publications that are little distributed and out of print quickly). Anyway, Gaspereau’s publisher, Andrew Steeves, responded quickly with, “No, I don’t want to publish that.” Basically, he didn’t think he could sell it, and that he didn’t find the idea interesting (anyone who knows Andrew, knows that there is no BS with him). But then he asked if I was interested in writing 12 books on individual artists. You can see why I call it the best rejection ever.

Why are they called “field guides”?

Gaspereau’s motto or tag line is: “Literary Outfitters and Cultural Wilderness Guides.” In coming up with a name for the series I wanted to play off of that, and to telegraph to prospective readers that the books would be both interesting and useful. Art writing has a well-earned bad reputation for being impenetrable and I wanted to signal that these books would introduce interested readers to interesting artists, and would do so in an informative and engaging manner (I hope!). I was thinking of bird books, or mushroom guides, those sorts of things. More and more in the arts we talk about the community as an ‘ecosystem.’ A set of “field guides” to some of that ecosystem’s more prominent members seemed like a fun approach.

I wonder if you can tell me briefly about the subtitles for these books, for example, Gerald Ferguson: Thinking of Painting and Alex Colville: A Rebellious Mind.

I want the subtitle to give a potential reader information about how I am positioning each book’s subject. Ferguson was a conceptual artist who struggled with the very idea of painting for his entire career: painting for him was first and foremost an idea. Colville saw the world as chaotic and sought order amidst that chaos. I argue in the book that he was an exemplar of what the French existentialist and novelist Albert Camus (how timely is his book The Plague today?) calls a rebel, one who demands “order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral.” I hope each subtitle conveys some of the atmosphere of the book. 

The new addition to the series is Maud Lewis: Creating an Icon. What do you think will surprise the reader about Maud Lewis?

Maud died in 1970, long before her paintings became as well known as they are today. Her work wasn’t even included in an art gallery exhibition until 1976. What I hope will surprise readers is how much Maud is both an active creator of a certain vision of Nova Scotia, and a product herself of that vision. In her lifetime she created an iconic vision of Nova Scotia, a vision that has, since her death, turned her into an icon.

What’s the challenge of writing about art and artists for a general audience?  

I suppose that goes back to the reputation arts writing has for impenetrability. I started writing reviews when I was still an art student at NSCAD, mainly because I was so frustrated by what I was reading in magazines in the late 1980s. It was so theory-laden and obscure. Why write something that people can’t read?

I grew up listening to my father reprise his philosophy lectures to my mother when he got home from work. She had been a nurse, but with seven children she was a very busy stay-at-home mum. When my father got home, she had been with us kids all day and was desperate for adult conversation (I stayed quiet in the background and soaked it all up).

When I first went to university I lived at home, and when I got back from my classes I would do the same thing – sit and talk with my mother about what I was learning, what I was thinking, and I got used to explaining my ideas to her. When I started to write about art, I thought about who my ideal reader would be. And my mother, who read every word I wrote in her lifetime, was that ideal reader. As a young artist and aspiring writer I was discovering things every day that I wanted to share with as wide an audience as possible. I still am, and I still do.

Are there other books planned in the series? On whom?

There are. Things are pretty up in the air these days of course, but I am working towards a fall release in the series, a book on Brian Jungen, subtitled “New Understanding.” Jungen is famous for his Nike Air Jordan sculptures that mimic Northwest Cost masks (“Prototype for a New Understanding”), and for his whale skeleton sculptures made from plastic lawn chairs. I first met him when he won the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002, and have followed his career closely ever since. After that I plan to do a book on Nova Scotian artist Colleen Wolstenholme, another great sculptor.

What is it like to release a new book during a pandemic?

It’s anticlimactic, certainly. No launch, no readings, bookstores mostly closed and struggling. The new book on Maud Lewis would have had a broader market because of tourism, but that too has been derailed by the pandemic. But it’s not like there’s ever been a huge market for books on Canadian art, so I’m not discouraged. People manage to find the books. I’m doing more social media than I ever have, writing a blog for my website (raycronin.ca), posting excerpts of my writing, just trying to get things out there.

What do you see as the positives about this time? What have you found to be the most difficult?

Well, I have certainly noted the generosity of artists – the musicians doing online concerts, the authors doing readings, the actors presenting plays, the visual artists posting images of their work, and so much more. That evidence of how resilient artists are despite the closed theaters, cancelled concerts, and shuttered galleries, that’s the most positive.

Professionally, what has been difficult is the way that the pandemic has shut down the arts scene. Exhibitions and their catalogues are getting cancelled or delayed, magazines are suffering terribly from lack of advertising revenue, so freelancers are getting less and less work (my blog for Halifax Magazine has been suspended, for instance, and understandably so). I had a book’s publication delayed into next year as a result of the pandemic, and another that is stalled because I can’t do the research I need with libraries and archives closed (old files on the visual arts in Halifax are not on the top of anyone’s list for digitization, unfortunately).

Say the field guide series on Canadian artists continues 30 years from now … and you’re still writing them. Name three artists under the age of 30 whom you expect will be worthy of a field guide essay in 2050.

The thing about artists under 30 is that most of them won’t still be making art when they’re 40. I look back at my peers from my 20s and that’s as true for us as it will be for the current 20-year-olds. Making art is hard and too often unrewarding. Luck plays an outsize role as well, because everyone starts with talent.

Artists in their 30s are a much better bet for prognostication, but you asked for artists in their 20s, so here goes. I think that Letitia Fraser, whose show at Mount Saint Vincent I wrote about last winter for my Halifax Magazine blog, and who paints her friends and family from East Preston, has a lot of interesting things to say in paint. I think Laura Jean Forrester, a ceramicist who makes public commissions and floral sculpture out of clay will have a strong career. And Darcie Bernhardt, an Inuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk and recent NSCAD graduate, who is living in Halifax now is someone with a big career ahead. All three of them are artists I expect to be still relevant in 30 years.

I know that you are a graduate of NSCAD … what made you decide to work as a curator and writer instead of making art yourself?

That decision was sort of made for me. I made art until I was in my late 30s. Writing and making sculpture were parallel activities for me until 2001. But, when I was hired as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, I knew that the job would be so demanding that I could never be more than a hobby artist. On top of that, I would have a role and position that would give me outsize impact on the careers of artists who were working at it full-time. Being an artist is too hard to have gatekeepers competing with you. As a curator I had tons of new opportunities to write, so it really wasn’t a difficult decision.

Whose art do you have on your walls at home? What’s the favorite artwork that you own?

So many great things are on our walls (and floors, shelves, ledges, and mantles). A partial list includes work by my wife Sarah Maloney, our daughter Mollie Cronin, Mary Pratt, John Greer, Gerald Ferguson, Lucie Chan, Cora Cluett, Greg Forrest, Colleen Wolstenholme, Gerard Collins, Cliff Eyland, Cal Lane, Mark Bovey, Mitch Mitchell, and David Askevold.

In terms of my favourite, I’ll instead name the most recent: a puppet by Graeme Patterson from an exhibition he had in Calgary in 2010 called The Puppet Collective 2. The idea was that he would do 52 puppets (one a week) based on observations of random people. Those were offered for sale in an exhibition in 2009. Everyone who bought a puppet was required to send Graeme photographs of themselves, which were used to make a second series of puppets. I bought his portrait of a bike courier in 2009, and Graeme made a portrait of me called Man in a Black Hat in Wire-rimmed Glassesfor the 2010 show. It didn’t find a home until a few weeks ago when it arrived in the mail. It’s hanging in my office right now.

Author spotlight: Emma FitzGerald

Author/illustrator Emma FitzGerald was born in Southern Africa to Irish parents, and did most of her growing up in Vancouver, BC. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art in Visual Art at UBC, she moved to Halifax, NS where she completed a Masters in Architecture at Dalhousie University.

It was in summer of 2013 that she started documenting her North End neighbourhood through drawings and stories. This became the beginnings of her first book, Hand Drawn Halifax (Formac Publishing, 2015), which has sold 10,000 copies to date. The drawings and words speak to the importance of community, and shared oral history, and extends beyond her own neighbourhood to include places like North Preston, Cherrybrook, St. Margarats Bay and Lower Sackville, showing her interest in not only ‘the centre’ but also the edges of the city. She has also illustrated children’s books, including A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop  by Rita Wilson (Nimbus Publishing, 2019). It was nominated for IBBY Canada’s Elizabeth Mrazik Cleaver award for Excellence in Canadian illustration. Emma’s many years of researching Elizabeth Bishop, including artist residencies in Great Village and Rio de Janeiro, allowed for the project’s full realization, and also to a collaboration with film maker John Scott, creating animation sequences for The Art of Loosing, a forthcoming documentary film about Nova Scotia’s most famous poet. 

Emma continues to document places and people, in Hand Drawn Vancouver (Appetite of Penguin Random House, 2020), and has started work on Hand Drawn Victoria.

I note in your bio that Halifax is your “chosen” home. What is it about Halifax that captured your heart?

I think the people, who are community minded, and the general feeling that people work together to “make things happen.”

Did your house portraits come first or your study of architecture?

I liked to draw houses as a little girl, based on reading Anne of Green Gables and other L.M. Montgomery books where the protagonists had a strong attachment to a particular house/home. This sparked my interest in architecture, and was the beginning of my motivation to pursue it as a career. However, the house portraits came out of economic necessity, when I was laid off and not able to find architectural office work.

Why did you switch to illustration?

I always would illustrate things for my mother, whether it was menus or place cards for dinner parties. When I worked as an architect, I kept an art studio practice, focused on installation and art that had its basis in relational art practices, with community as its focus. Alongside this, I would make posters for music events, cd covers etc, always saying yes to opportunities to draw. From this came a desire to make books, and I submitted an illustration portfolio to a publisher at around this time (2010), but it took several years before it became clear what direction I would take in publishing.

Tell me about Hand Drawn Halifax. What was your goal in creating that book?

The book emerged, as opposed to being something I set out to do. I had always sketched when traveling, but never taken the time to draw on location when at home in Halifax. Then came the economic necessity of making a living, so I went about completing a drawing every day in my neighbourhood for one month, to test drive my ‘style’ and attract attention to my house portrait business. From the beginning I posted the drawings online on social media, accompanied by short stories that were told to me as I was drawing/snippets of conversation I overheard. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and people started sharing their own stories with me. This experience formed the basis of my “Pitch to the Publisher” at Word on the Street in 2013, which resulted in a contract with Formac Publishing. At that point the book pivoted from just being about my North-end neighbourhood to all of HRM, including neighbourhoods that are typically under represented. I wanted to celebrate the moments of connection that can happen anywhere; whether at a Tim Hortons, in a parking lot, on a sports field, or at an after-school program. There was a real sense of adventure and discovery, as I went to places I had never been before, drawing and ‘seeing’ what would happen. So the book acts as an invitation to the reader to similarly discover new places on their own. I also tried my best to be aware of my own position, often as an outsider, and be respectful in how I represented people.

You’ve also illustrated books written by other people, including EveryBody’s Different on EveryBody Street by Sheree Fitch and A Pocket of Time by Rita Wilson. What is that process like? Do you work collaboratively or quite separately?

The author and illustrator work separately, with the publisher, mainly the editor, acting as a liaison, and of course the designer also has a voice in the process.  However, I had met both Sheree and Rita before getting started, which is fairly unusual, but helped in connecting with their work, and motivated me to do the very best work I could. In both cases I got a small amount of feedback after the initial sketches, but that was communicated via the editor, Whitney Moran.

I know that A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop is very special to you. Why is that?

The project had a feeling of being ‘fated’. Both the author, Rita Wilson, and I, have spent many years separately researching Bishop, including both staying at Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, as artists in residence. On my part, I had also travelled to several of her homes in Brazil, during a six-week artist residency in Rio. I have also been working on a film project with John Scott, creating images for his forthcoming feature length documentary film about her life. So I feel very invested in Bishop, in a really lovely way. To happen upon Rita’s book project and get to just ask if I could illustrate it was like a dream come true. I think I love Bishop so much because of the clear love for Nova Scotia expressed in her work, alongside her obvious need for travel. I think I can relate to that!

Do you see yourself writing your own children’s books? Why or why not?

I have a few ideas, kicking around. I am trusting that when the time is right, that might happen. For now, I have been too busy with other projects. I do enjoy how the Hand Drawn books are words and pictures together, for adults as much as for children. I think we all have an innate need to look at art and ‘listen’ to stories though pictures…. 

What picture books captured your imagination as a child? What picture books do you recommend today?

I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with illustrations by Graham Rust, Roahld Dahl’s books illustrated by Quentin Blake, books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, John Bergman, Beatrix Potter, Rosy’s Garden by Satomi Ichikawa,  and Winnie the Pooh illustrated by EH Shepard.

I have to say I still have a soft spot for the old favourites, but I also am inspired by how dynamic the picture book world is today. The most recent children’s book I bought and enjoyed is My Best Friendby Julie Fogliano, with illustrations by Jillian Tamaki, and I am excited for Jillian’s forthcoming book Our Little Kitchen.

How has life been like for you during the pandemic? What aspects of quarantine and staying home do you like? What are some of the first things you’ll do when stay-at-home orders are lifted?

It was quite dramatic in that I moved across the country on March 27th. My initial plan was to move to Victoria on April 2nd, but I sped up my decision as it was seeming like interprovincial travel might be stopped. I completed a 14-day quarantine on arrival, which was made easier because I had some friends drop over groceries and basic kitchen supplies. Since getting through the quarantine, I have mostly been self isolating, and just treating each day as a new day, trying to be gentle on my expectations of myself. Luckily there have been no restrictions on visiting city parks, and there is so much nature to enjoy here in Victoria. During my daily walks I will see owls, otters, sea lions, eagles and more! Also lots of lush plants and blossoms. I am returning to my love of ballet, doing online dance classes, and keeping connected with family and friends via phone and Zoom. As we look towards some of the restrictions I look forward to visiting my parents and siblings in Vancouver.

What project are you engaged in right now?

The intention was to be fully engaged in promoting the launch of Hand Drawn Vancouver this month, with many events planned in Vancouver by my publisher, Appetite of Penguin Random House Canada. However, due to the pandemic, the release date is now June 23rd, and so far the only event still planned is an online exhibition of drawings via the West Van Memorial Library, coming up on June 10th. I do have plenty to work on in the meantime, including getting started on Hand Drawn Victoria, which will also be published by Appetite. It will be interesting to see how much of the ‘new normal’ will influence the book.

– Questions by Marilyn Smulders

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