You could count the number of serious commercial galleries in New Brunswick on the fingers of one hand. This number, and requirement of another hand, has just been increased by one with the addition of the Gallery on Queen in Fredericton that opened this May on, you guessed it, Queen Street just a short walk up the street from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Their second exhibition is an ambitious one and features the work of five New Brunswick Acadian artists: Marie Hélène Allain, Herménégilde Chiasson, Eveline Gallant-Fournier, Claude Roussel and Romeo Savoie. These are certainly among the cream of the crop in the Acadian art world. Senior is the word that comes to mind where four of the artists, Allain, Chiasson, Roussel and Savoie range in age from seventy to eighty-eight while Fournier is not far behind, closing in on sixty. They are the pioneers of Acadian art in the province.
As important as these artists are to the history of art in New Brunswick they remain relatively unknown to the province’s Anglophone community. Certainly, their art has been shown by the province’s public art gallery, the Beaverbrook, from time to time but rarely in a commercial setting. While we are Canada’s officially bilingual province much of our culture is still divided into the two ‘solitudes’ that is the nature of our nation. The situation is not helped in that there are no public or commercial art galleries in Moncton, the de-facto capital of French culture in New Brunswick, outside of the University of Moncton gallery and the artists’ run Gallery Sans Nom. This is why these artists showing as a group in New Brunswick’s Anglophone art capital, Fredricton, is an important event as it brings their work to the attention of a new group of viewers.
English New Brunswick art is best known for Maritime Realism with such artists as Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall, Chris and Mary Pratt; Stephen May and Stephen Scott; all products of the province’s Mount Allison University in Sackville. Acadian art has followed a different route, with the exception of Chiasson who is a Mount Allison graduate, with early education roots in Montreal and in the ideas of Automatism. Roussel returned to the province and founded the University of Moncton’s fine arts department in 1963, which remains the only French language art department in the Maritimes. He taught there for nearly three decades and is certainly a father of present day Acadian art.
A common factor in Acadian art, and in this exhibition, is abstraction. Three of the artists in the exhibition are represented by painting: Chiasson, Roussel and Savoie, while Allain is a sculptor and Fournier is showing ceramic wall pieces. Roussel is also known as a sculptor and Chiasson is a bit of a renaissance man equally known as a writer, poet and playwright. Chiasson also served as New Brunswick’s Lieutenant governor so he is better known in Fredericton than his compatriots in the exhibition, but more in his vice-regal role than as a visual artist.
Romeo Savoie, the most senior artist of this group, is, as I put it in a feature article in Vie des Arts’s spring edition of this year, the dean of abstract painting in the Maritimes. At eighty-eight years old he continues to turn out challenging work. Sister Marie Hélène Allain, a Catholic nun, is a prolific sculptor and educator who taught both education and Visual arts at the University of Moncton. Now, in her mid-seventies, she devotes her time solely to sculpture. Éveline Gallant Fournier is the only non-Moncton based artist in the exhibition. She is based and works in Edmundston, a Francophone community next to the Quebec boarder. She is best known as a ceramic sculptor although she works with other media as well.
What these artists have in common is their dedication to the development of Acadian culture. The artistic culture they share, however, is not based on overt nationalism even though traits of Acadiana are sometime evident in their work. Their creativity has its roots not only in the region, but nationally and internationally as well. The Maritimes, because of its small population, is often not kind to its visual artists. There are few venues both commercial and non-commercial for artists to exhibit their work and it’s very difficult to make a living in the region and even more so if the market is further divided by language and province: New Brunswick versus Nova Scotia; English versus French. The best way for maritime artists to build their reputations is to be recognized in the larger markets of Quebec, Ontario and beyond, but it remains important for commercial galleries like the new Gallery on Queen to try and showcase the region’s art.
It is a gamble for a commercial gallery to exhibit work that is unknown to local audiences. It is equally chancy for commercial galleries to try and model exhibitions along the lines of those shown in civic galleries, such as the Five Acadian Artists exhibition. It is a civic gallery’s mandate to educate, as well as possibly entertain, its audience while a commercial gallery, in order to survive, must attempt to market its art. In the case of Five Acadian Artists, I would hope that the exhibition’s sheer quality would be enough to win over Fredericton audiences.
Five Acadian Artists
Gallery on Queen, Fredericton
August 10 – September 10, 2016