Monday, September 11, 2017

Nova Scotia Plein Air Painting Retreat: Part 1

Peggy's Cove, Afternoon
9x12 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Most landscape painters in the eastern US and Canada have heard of Peggy’s Cove.  Much like Monhegan Island and Cape Ann, this little village is legendary among artists.  Tucked into a quiet corner of St Margaret’s Bay on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, it maintains the feeling of an old harbor town.  Imagine lobster boats, fish houses, crashing waves, even a lighthouse—all of it painted in tones of raw umber, burnt sienna and yellow ochre.

I’d never been to Peggy’s Cove, and as a painter, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  With that in mind, I organized a plein air painting retreat with a few others.  Our retreat was based in nearby McGrath’s Cove, where a short drive along Peggy’s Cove Road would take us to that famous destination.

Trina and I planned to arrive at the retreat by mid-afternoon Saturday.  Since we’d spent the night on the way from Campobello Island in Salisbury, New Brunswick, we had extra time, which allowed us to pick up groceries for the week and to make a preview stop at Peggy’s Cove.  But first, we visited the Swissair Flight 111 Memorial, just outside of town.  This little park, nestled among white boulders, memorializes the 229 people on the flight who died when the plane crashed into the bay, only five miles from Peggy’s Cove in 1998.

Next stop was Peggy’s Cove.  When I stepped out of the car, I felt like I’d entered a Hollywood studio backlot.  Little rickety shacks perched on rocks edging the cove, red lobster boats bobbed on their lines tied to little rickety docks, old-fashioned lath lobster traps (possibly rickety) were stacked chest-high—it all looked neatly staged by someone making a film about a long-gone era.

Not a Tourist

But of course, this wasn’t the case.  Peggy’s Cove really is a working harbor.  It’s curious, what with all the tearing down of historic waterfronts up and down the eastern seaboard over the last 50 years, that this place has been preserved.  No doubt this has to do with a forward-thinking populace that understands the value of tourism.

Saturday Afternoon at Peggy's Cove

Peggy's Point Lighthouse, with People

Tourism, however, does have its downside, especially for painters.  Granted, it was Labour Day Weekend, but I wasn’t prepared for the throngs milling through town.  I soon discovered the source.  Several motor coaches, including a couple of bright-pink accordion buses, idled in the parking lot of the Sou’wester, a gift shop/restaurant near the Peggy’s Point lighthouse.  Day tourists from Halifax, many of them would enjoy not only the shops and scenery but also the entertainment provided by us plein air painters.  (I am less bothered by this than some, but a couple in our small group found the requests for photographs and questions distracting.)

During this scouting mission, I determined that the town was definitely paintable.  I also figured that if we got there early enough, we would avoid the crowds.  There seemed to be enough room to spread out and enough public spots (as opposed to private property) upon which to set up.  As always, I’m a responsible retreat leader, and I’ve got a good eye for what is public.   (Or I think I do.  More on this later.)

After this, we headed on to our retreat.  The other participants, all previous students who hailed from Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire and New Brunswick, showed up not long after.  After unpacking, we went to dinner at Shaw’s Landing, a well-known local spot famous for seafood, to set the week’s agenda.  Bedtime came early since we were all weary from our travels.

Right after breakfast on Sunday, we drove to Peggy’s Cove.  It turned out to be a gorgeous September day in the Maritimes.  Sunshine, a gentle breeze, just warm enough so you could dispense with the fleece jacket—what more could you ask for?  We first went on a walk with eyes open for possible painting spots.  It wasn’t a long walk, just from the information center and the DeGarthe Art Gallery, down past Lobster Lane and the fish houses, and on up to the lighthouse, where the road ends and the tour buses begin.  I decided to retreat to Lobster Lane, right beside the old, boarded-up DeGarthe studio, and painted the same view that hundreds of painters have painted before me.  Did I feel that it was hackneyed, clich├ęd?  Not at all.  I was filled with the excitement of just standing in front of such an iconic view.  Even in retrospect, I find the painting exciting.

Lobster Lane
The throngs arrived about the time I finished.  Remember, this was a Sunday on a long Labour Day weekend.  The Peggy’s Dogs lady arrived around 10 to set up her hotdog cart several feet from us, and the tourists discovered Lobster Lane shortly thereafter.  Two of my painters were still in the early stages of their paintings when the questions began.  By then, I’d already packed up and wandered off to find my next spot.  The tide had gone out, and I discovered that the best place—”best” meaning “where no tourist would go"— was a little corner down below the high tide mark, deep in barnacles and seaweed and backed up against some timbers that shored up a fish house.  Indeed, I painted a little 6x6 undisturbed.

Fish Houses
6x6 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Lobster Lane

Me Painting at Peggy's Cove

Perched on the Edge, Painting

This was all before lunch.  Trina and I had made bag lunches, so we ate quickly and then headed off on an exploration for painting spots later in the week.  (As responsible hosts, we like to stay one step ahead of our participants.)  Our destination was Chester, a historic harbor along St Margaret’s Bay an hour west of our retreat house.  Chester proved to be a lovely town, and more upscale than the rustic buildings of Peggy’s Cove.

On Monday, we took the group to a place I’d scoped out last summer when I stayed in Lunenburg after my trip to Scotland.  (Lunenburg is about 90 minutes west of McGrath’s Cove.)  Blue Rocks, a tiny community with a scattering of fish houses and boats, is just east of Lunenburg.  Wild and scenic, it became even more so—the wind began to blow around 30 knots, and it would keep up this pace most of our week.  At the end of the road, we finally found ourselves on the lee side of the point, where we could paint in relative comfort.   There was plenty of parking for us, but it became rather crowded when the wedding party showed up with kayaks.

Blue Rocks
9x12 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Yes, there was a wedding that took place on a little island just across the water from Blue Rocks.  A dozen colorful kayaks were put in, followed by the wedding party and guests, all dressed up in a variety of clothing and footwear, some suitable for kayaking and some not.  By the time the floral arrangements were stowed into the kayaks, I had packed up and was ready for my next bit of exploration.  A few of the other painters, a little slower to get started perhaps, had to deal with all this activity blocking their view.  (If you don't like tourists asking questions, it pays to be a quick painter.)

The Europa in Lunenburg

Trina and I headed to Lunenburg.  I’d thought about painting there, but the town was busy enough and the waterfront complicated enough that I decided shopping would be a better idea than painting.  We visited some of the galleries (Laurie Swim has a fantastic art quilt gallery there, and we saw a few DeGarthe paintings discounted 50% at a shop filled with eclectic decorative art) and finally had a late lunch on the dock.  It was an exhausting day, so it was an early night.

[I'll continue with Tuesday and finish my retreat summary in my next post.]

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