Her life and work exemplify a region of artists who succeed despite what we lack
Atlantic Canada is a very tough place to be an artist. Its market is small, its many galleries and museums woefully underfunded. The centres of art-world energy and activity are far away from our shores.
Despite those realties, this region continues to produce artists of national and international calibre. In the arts, as in so many other areas of activity, Atlantic Canadians prove to be stubborn and resilient. We keep at it despite lack of attention, lack of respect, lack of funding – in fact, a lack of just about everything that is taken for granted in places with more established and valued art scenes. Artists keep going, keep making, and keep persevering in the face of all the “despites.”
Where we may be getting better is in acknowledging the careers of some of these artists, in looking at how they fit into the regional cultural ecosystem, not as art stars manqué, but as vital and vibrant parts of local cultures, as builders of communities as much as makers of objects. Every community in our region has such people, who with varying degrees of public recognition have made careers and furthered the arts in places that may have had little or no exposure to creative endeavours without their labour. One such builder was Lucy Jarvis, whose life and career is celebrated in Fredericton author and curator Roslyn Rosenfeld’s fine new book, Lucy Jarvis: Even Stones Have Life.
It’s been 30 years since Lucy Jarvis died in Yarmouth at the age of 85, and a look at her life and career is long overdue. It’s not that Lucy Jarvis was an artist who was head and shoulders above everyone else, a Maritime Emily Carr who was ignored by the art establishment until the intrinsic merits of her work were recognized (though, interestingly, Jarvis and Carr do share much of the same history, of being ignored by the establishment, of being considered eccentric, of seeking, not always successfully, artistic peers – it is, sadly, a history endemic to many women in the arts in Canada between the war years). No, as Rosenfeld’s meticulously detailed book makes clear, Jarvis was a good artist, and an important one, but she made decisions throughout her life that sent her career in certain directions, and usually away from any chance of traditional success. Perhaps her most important such decision, and certainly the most influential on both her own life as a painter and the artistic community of Atlantic Canada, was to start, with Pegi Nicol McLeod, an art centre at the University of New Brunswick in 1941.
Rosenfeld relates the history of what is now the UNB Art Centre with thoroughness and objectivity, bringing to light many aspects of the way that this centre, which was the first art gallery in Fredericton (predating the Beaverbrook Art Gallery by almost two decades), became a central hub for artists across New Brunswick and the region. Jarvis’s boundless energy, generosity of spirit and persistence in the face of adversity (then, as now, the arts are never first in line for institutional funding or support), comes off the pages in Rosenfeld’s book, augmented by many interviews with former students and colleagues, as well as Jarvis’s own letters. The letters – to other artists, to her nephews, to friends, and, most of all, to her life-long friend and companion, fellow artist Helen Weld – positively sing with enthusiasm and grace, and their judicious use by Rosenfeld is one of the highpoints of the book.
Lucy Jarvis ran the Observatory Art Centre, soon to be renamed the UNB Art Centre, for 20 years, retiring at 64 to return to a full-time pursuit of painting. It is these last twenty years of her life that come across the strongest in the book, no doubt a result of the vast amount of research Rosenfeld did on the exhibitions that accompanied this publication, in particular a show of Jarvis’s late paintings and drawings, also called Even Stones Have Life.
Jarvis spent the majority of her summers from the 1930s on in Yarmouth County, eventually settling full-time in a small studio in Pembroke Bar, south of the town of Yarmouth. Her friend Helen Weld eventually joined her there and the two artists became well-regarded pillars of the small Yarmouth-area arts community. Rosenfeld ably details the community life of “the Bar,” and the vibrant arts scene that grew up with and around Jarvis.
One area that remains somewhat opaque, however, is the relationship between Jarvis and Weld, who lived together at the studio in Pembroke Dyke from 1970, after decades of spending summers and trips together. There has often been speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two artists, who are still often referred to in Yarmouth as “the girls,” but as Rosenfeld is careful to point out, no evidence suggests anything other than a friendship, though one of deep mutual love and respect. In the end, whatever their relationship, it remains their own.
Rosenfeld’s analysis of Jarvis’s paintings is neatly balanced with the biographical details of the artist’s life. The particular context of the art world in the Maritimes, such as it was in each decade from the 1940s and 1950s, is fascinating and provides a useful picture of the challenges, drawbacks and rewards of pursuing an art career in a remote region. The portrayal of Jarvis’s life in “retirement” is rich and layered, ably depicting the struggles of any artist to remain true to their vision, to grow and push their skills, their ideas and their comfort-level with their art.
Jarvis’s willingness to push her art, to seek out new experiences and challenges even well into her 80s, is inspirational. Her full-hearted embrace of life, and of its often stony paths, is perhaps the thing one takes away most clearly. Getting to know Lucy Jarvis is getting to know Atlantic Canada, and is well worth the journey.