One of the most impressive examples of outsider art in Canada can be found in northern New Brunswick. Saint-Cécile Catholic Church is in the village of Petite-Rivière-de-l’Île, close to Caraquet on the Acadian Peninsula. The church hosts an annual Baroque music festival and is dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. Constructed in 1913, it was inspired by Romanesque architecture. The interior wood, the entirety of which was imported from Colombia, was originally painted in a linseed oil stain and finished in a faux woodgrain that was then popular. Over the years, the linseed stain turned a dark, unsightly black-brown. In the fall of 1968, the parish priest, Gerard d’Astous, decided to paint over the entire surface to brighten it up and invigorate the dreary interior. His choice of colour and imagery was unorthodox, and the finished work is in the outsider art tradition. The ceilings and walls are painted in a variety of candy-coloured motifs, including polka dots, stripes, zig-zags, crosses, bells, music symbols, and candles. From what I can gather, this was the first and only art piece he created. Assisted by Paul Gauvin of Petit Lemeque and Leonce Lanteigne of Pointe-Alexandre, the painting process took several months and was completed in the spring of 1969. Before visiting Saint-Cécile Church, also known as the “Candy Church,” I knew of and had visited two other interior spaces that had been painted in a significant way by a folk or outsider artist in Canada: the houses of Arthur Villeneuve and Maud Lewis. Arthur Villeneuve’s painted home is now placed in La Pulperie, a museum in Chicoutimi, Quebec. It is the centerpiece of a permanent exhibition dedicated to Villeneuve, one of Canada’s most prolific and accomplished self-taught artists. Villeneuve was a barber who, after listening to a church sermon about the importance of the faithful using their God-given talents, had a vision and revelation to become an artist. Villeneuve began painting his house in 1957 and worked for two years until much of the inside and outside was painted. In 1959, he and his wife Hélène opened the house to the public as a museum which acted as a promotional venue for his work.

The other painted interior by a self-taught Canadian artist is the famous Maud Lewis house located in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The small house was decorated on the inside for her personal enjoyment and the painted exterior most likely functioned to attract potential customers to purchase her paintings.

I found it odd that I had never seen images of Saint-Cécile Church prior to my Acadian-born friend telling me about it. I am well-versed in more obscure areas of Canadian art production through an ongoing art history research practice, I am a folk and outsider art dealer, and I live in New Brunswick. Moving back to New Brunswick last year after a few decades away, I noticed a tendency towards provincial boosterism in the arts, which unfortunately does not always extend beyond the province’s borders. However, for reasons unknown, this regional promotion did not apply to Saint-Cécile Church.

Exterior, Saint-Cécile Catholic Church (Photo: Jay Issac)

When first entering the church there is a feeling of overwhelming immersion. This feeling was recognizable to me as it was like walking into the Goya room of black paintings at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Goya’s black paintings were painted directly on the walls of the artist’s home and later removed. Once inside these two spaces, it is easy to start circling, noticing new things each time around. There was no one else at the church when my partner and I were there, allowing me to experience it without distraction.

What makes Reverend d’Astous’ painted interior compelling is the combination of colours and the way in which the painting is sectioned off according to the architecture, no different than frescos painted in other churches. Even though the entirety of the painted interior has a cohesiveness of colour and pattern, each section has a particular formal or conceptual theme that makes it unique from other sections. The painted pastel sections and how they are placed next to what is typically seen in a church interior—an altar, stained glass, and the stations of the cross—create a juxtaposition that resembles the best of contemporary art installation practice. Like a work where the objects painted upon and the paint itself are visually inseparable, the church’s painting becomes an entity that has the capacity to absorb all that resides close by.

Many sections were not painted with a brush but rather with spray paint. This fact alone generates the most intrigue: the reverend using cans of spray paint to decorate the inside of a church. The anomalous quality of seeing the aftermath of a priest spray painting his church is the same way I would feel if I saw a cop spray painting his patrol car. There is an anti-establishment sensibility at play here. Little information is available about Reverend d’Astous, so any notion regarding subversive tactics is speculative. From the upper balcony, there is a door that leads to a winding staircase going down. Here the walls and ceiling are half covered in experimental tests, where the reverend and his assistants practiced their skills of using a spray can and a brush. As a result, there is a haphazard assortment of half-finished gestures, marks, and compositions. One of the motifs repeated in the test area is a spray-painted star, which at a cursory glance, has similar qualities to spray-painted anarchy signs seen scattered around cities.

The experience of being in this church was unusual for its original use of pattern and colour but also because it made me feel something other than boredom or restlessness. I was brought up Catholic. I went to Catechism and to a Catholic junior high school and high school and am accustomed to the feelings produced while sitting in a Catholic place of worship. The times I have visited churches during travels I may have experienced a moment of awe looking up at the arches of a Gothic cathedral or fascination while taking in a bloodied Christ in Mexico whose skin was an indescribable shade of purple, but Saint-Cécile Church is different from other churches and the church of my youth. The way in which the interior is painted did something that may or may not have been intentional— it created accessibility to joy which is not common in the Catholic repertoire of experience. The aesthetics reflect humility and the humanistic, in place of the conventional attempt at mastery which makes people feel small. Painted in the late 60s during a period of experiments with psychedelics and non-judgemental love, this artwork effectively creates a feeling of welcoming and understanding. Paradoxically, the overall impression is one of atheistic expression rather than a religious one, grounded in human imagination and pragmatic necessity.

Interior detail, Saint-Cécile Catholic Church (Photo: Jay Isaac)

Many outsider and folk artists in Canada live in obscurity. There are dozens of accomplished self-taught artists working in Canada that are unknown to the mainstream. In many ways, the condition of obscurity is a condition of capitalism. There are artists and ideas that do not fit into current narratives of profit and therefore are relegated to obscurity. Outsider artists like Maud Lewis and Arthur Villeneuve are two examples of Canadian artists who are no longer obscure because they have been accepted commercially. Saint-Cécile Church, however, has no ability to be accepted into any commercial framework and has stayed in obscurity since its creation. From my perspective, this is not coincidental.

It could be said that the collective obscuring of unschooled artists is a manifestation of our desire to live in a meritocracy. Even though we believe ourselves to be progressive and inclusive, we may adhere to the neo-liberal status-quo equation of hard work and reward and have disdain for anyone who sidesteps the system. We are all so beholden to neo-liberal thinking that the idea of visibility and seeking it has become a very real and innate part of being human. In this day-to-day activity, the people who reside outside of contributions to the current modes of easy consumption are more likely to be disregarded.

Like the painted houses of Maud Lewis and Arthur Villeneuve, Reverend d’Astous’ painted church was created with private and spiritual motivations as well as commercial concerns (parishioners are customers). Oftentimes, outsider and folk art can be subjected to infantilization where there are expectations of naive purity and sentimentality, with entrepreneurship overlooked or frowned upon. The houses and church exist as symbols of contradictory intentions that coalesce as works of art. In an ideal world, the recognition of the inevitability and value of contradiction can be seen as a remarkable accomplishment if successfully amalgamated. These pieces of idiosyncratic art assist us to accept in ourselves contradiction as a force to be celebrated, whereas the need for a seamless thesis will remain the currency of the insider.

Interior detail, Saint-Cécile Catholic Church (Photo: Jay Isaac)