Harold Cromwell, one of Canada’s top folk artists, drew images from memory of a Depression-era childhood spent in Weymouth Falls, a rural Nova Scotia community founded by Black Loyalists in 1783. His exquisite, densely detailed drawings in black ink on paper, wood and Royal Chinet paper plates, depict everyday life in farmyards, on roadsides and in Weymouth with its long-gone sawmills, trains and bridges. The pictures in Back in The Old Days: The Art of Harold Cromwell, exhibited this fall by ARTSPLACE, Annapolis Royal, are laced with humour and have titles referring to “The Good Old Days” or “The Hungry Days.”
“His family was dirt poor. Both parents died very, very young,” says Cromwell’s daughter Natasha Cromwell, “but growing up he probably did what we did as kids, swimming, going back through the woods. When he talks of the good old days, he’s talking of how communities behaved—dance halls, church picnics and men standing by the road talking. He was a great storyteller; he was incredibly funny. All you have to do is look at his work because he’s telling stories.”
Storytelling and the monochromatic nature of his work set Cromwell apart from better-known Nova Scotia folk artists like Joe Norris and Maud Lewis, who lived just a half-hour drive away from Weymouth though it’s unlikely the two ever met. His images differ from Nova Scotia’s recognized folk art style of bright colours, a joyful mood, simplified imagery and nostalgia. Cromwell is telling “real” stories about his life, writer/curator Ray Cronin said at a community panel. “He wanted to remember how life was without making it romantic. “They are simple stories; they’re not stories about some great event in the history of Weymouth, they are about finding an old sawmill, so you don’t have to sleep outside at night or … about the hunting trip you were on.”
Cronin calls Cromwell “a giant of Nova Scotia folk art” who deserves greater, national attention. His family wants to see a cross-Canada tour of his work, to restore his house as a museum and to find more of his artworks. “I think there are thousands,” says Natasha. “The opening was overwhelming with the stories people had of Dad and some had bags with the artwork in it. This is something that’s long overdue.”
Born in 1919 and a direct descendant of the Black Loyalists, Cromwell didn’t start drawing until he was injured as a soldier in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. As he recovered at the military hospital in Debert nurses gave him drawing materials to help him pass the time. A lifelong passion was born though he wasn’t able to fully embrace art until he retired. Cromwell was a miner in Sudbury, Ont., for five years then worked several jobs as he raised his family in Weymouth Falls.
As a school custodian, he was known as the “funny janitor,” says Natasha. He would draw pictures on classroom blackboards for the kids. At Christmas time he filled them with Santa Clauses. “My dad loved Christmas.” He was always a maker, she remembers. “He used to make whistles out of alders, and he made a bench swing for the yard out of boards and two old tires. He built a dance hall, he built a barn, he built the parlour.”
The exhibit, with an accompanying 44-page catalogue (Moose House Publications), features about 100 images from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Cromwell drew Christmas trees for sale for 40 to 50 cents “back in 1936” and people at work apple picking, clam digging, gathering wood or farming. He pays tribute to famous Nova Scotia boxer Sam Langford, whose house still stands on the Weymouth Falls Road, and to servicemen thronging towards canteens or engaging in drills and battles in two images from wartime England.
Cromwell’s work ranges from beautiful, richly rendered landscapes that could be 19th century etchings but also include some colour, to social scenes full of people with comic details like a cougar approaching the day’s game as hunters play cards indoors. Men seek shelter for the night in 1938 but are told: “First you have to pick two barls of apples.” Cromwell had a grade two education and taught himself to read and write. He wrote words as they sounded to him.
Cromwell sold his work at the Annapolis Royal Farmers’ and Traders’ Market; for many years he was artist-in-residence at Upper Clements Park. He also sold work from his home and painted on the walls. Natasha recalls a scene in oil over an interior doorway. “It was quite marvelous. A particular gentleman years later talked him into cutting out the biggest part of it and selling it. A big chunk is missing.”
Cromwell used the cheapest materials at hand, and he preferred black ball point pen. Natasha recalls that when a woman offered him finer pens, he turned her down saying they were too fancy.
“He would use a Bic pen as long as it had black ink. It was just a tap, tap, tap, each stroke that would take hours to create a scene— these little tiny taps and strokes. He had the patience of Job to do that. After he died, among the remaining works we found two white cupboard doors that he used as a canvas. He drew on anything he could get his hands on. The famous Chinet paper plates—they are scattered from one end of the country to the other. They were affordable,” she said. While Cromwell sold his larger pictures which included oils on canvas for $300 to $500, Natasha’s sister Clara remembers he sold the plates for under $10.
Cromwell, who died in 2008, is the most widely known African Nova Scotian folk artist in Canada; however, that’s not a title he sought. He was very clear about that, Natasha says. “He didn’t want to be known as the black folk artist. He wanted to be known as an artist or folk artist who happened to be black. “He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He was depicting what he saw from memory.”