A gallery is not the traditional setting for viewing comics. Though more and more work by cartoonists has graced the white walls of museums worldwide in recent years, comics as an artform are typically meant to be read at a smaller scale, within the confines of a book. But Eltuek Arts Centre, located in Sydney, is not a typical gallery space. With its opening dampened by the arrival of Covid, Eltuek has had a quiet entry into the east-coast arts scene but has already proven to be a welcome addition. Under the umbrella of New Dawn Enterprises (the oldest Community Development Corporation in the country), Eltuek appears to be as much a social enterprise as an artistic one. An advisory committee made up of Mi’kmaq elders, a cafe, meals on wheels, a radio station, artist studios, and a public gallery are some of the many components of Eltuek, which presents a thoughtful and progressive approach to what an urban artist’s center can look like when art and community are one and the same.
The gallery’s recent exhibition, Backwater, showcases the work of five Nova Scotian cartoonists, displaying comics pages from Alexander Forbes, JJ Steeves, Alison Uhma, Sig Burwash, and Donald Calabrese. Almost all of the pieces are displayed unframed on the gallery walls, like they have been slipped from the spine of a sketchbook, allowing the viewer an intimate look at an art form that is often inhaled rather than savoured. “That is one of the things about graphic novels,” says Alison Uhma as we walk through the narrow, bright gallery, “a person will spend ten years writing one and you’ll read it in three hours!” That’s not possible in this exhibition, as all of these comics on display are excerpts of larger bodies of work by the artists. Some, like Alexander Forbes’ spooky seaside caper, don’t include the speech bubbles and dialogue that would assist our reading (these being added later in the digital editing process unseen to us in the hard copies). Others, like Uhma’s pages on her mother’s early onset Alzheimer’s (where both she and her mother are drawn as cats), are out of order, and with no descriptive didactic paneling in the gallery there is not always much we can garner from “reading” these comics in the traditional sense. This is the job of the graphic novels that these pages will build, and in the quiet of the gallery we have space to consider them for their artistic merits and what comics as art objects can do in a gallery environment.
One such artist whose merits are on full display is Alexander Forbes. His pages, taken from his work on “Hobtown Mysteries” (written by Kris Bertin), show beautifully rendered scenes of students encountering a faceless woman in the dark woods, a motorcycle ride to a salty cave, and a conversation in a crowded stadium. The pages are inked exquisitely, with Forbes’ artful and articulate pen strokes giving shape to rock faces and atmospheric nightscapes that bring to mind 18th century etchings. Donald Calabrese shares an appreciation for this line work and made the curatorial decision to blow up an image of Forbes’ in black vinyl, placing it above the tall window at the end of the corridor-style gallery. The scene is of young people walking through a spruce-lined forest (a typical scene of growing up in rural Nova Scotia, says Calabrese) with their backs to the viewer as we appear to be looking at them through the double barrel of binoculars. But the vinyl is like the printed pages of the graphic novel: clean, pristine, and high in contrast, while the hard copies of the comics themselves are as charmingly blemished as they are beautifully drawn. The dark black of the printed pages is revealed to be patchy brushwork in person, graphite residue and notes can be seen in the margins, and even the occasional coffee stain appears, giving the viewer a look at these pages as functional, working objects, charmingly activated as these beautiful objects reveal the tricks (and trip ups) of the trade.
Alison Uhma leans into this idea in the work she selected for the exhibition. “I chose a couple of the messiest pages that I had,” she says, taking this as an opportunity to demystify the process of comic-making. Uhma showcases pages from her latest project, a graphic novel about her childhood as a tennis prodigy. As her father yells at her on a tennis court, caged in by chain link fences, young Uhma retreats to a more desirable internal world. Realities blend in Uhma’s pages as her father’s coarse words, represented by jagged, black lightning bolt shaped speech bubbles, creep ever closer into her reveries. Next to these printed pages Uhma has displayed the hand-drawn thumbnails (drawings cartoonists use to plan out compositions of individual panels) on index cards, displaying the process that goes into constructing and arranging these scenes. Below these are two hand-drawn pages from a project called “From the Other One,” a sad and darkly humorous comic about her mother’s early onset Alzheimer’s. Parts of these two pages are thick with white-out, while others have windows sliced from the page, mistakes surgically removed like tumors, and replaced with fresh paper fixed to the underside. There is a vulnerability to this presentation (which Uhma’s sensitive work is already rich with), a willingness to show scars that beholds us to the artist and demonstrates the process of constructing a comic page in a genre where we do not often get to see the artwork in its raw, physical form.
Presenting work from an upcoming graphic novel, Sig Burwash is the only artist exhibiting who chose to frame their work. The lumpy, pale blue frame has an industrious, tongue-in cheek DIY sensibility that reminds me of good-natured nose-thumbing attitudes so well placed in comics (and arguably in Nova Scotians). Burwash’s panels show a figure attempting to start a chainsaw, their face getting redder as they struggle (annoyed at off-stage offers of assistance). But soon the machine roars to life, appearing in the hands of a cowboy on a bucking bronco. Inspired by the artist’s move to northern Cape Breton, the cowboy character is Burwash’s alter-ego, as she chronicles her struggles in a chainsaw class. Though new to comics, the style is identifiably Burwash’s, an artist whose delicate watercolours are made up of the machines of rural living (chainsaws, dirt bikes, pickup trucks), while dogs and horses often run loose and underfoot. The characters that rip through Burwash’s landscapes are cool, gritty, and playful, and this chap-wearing chainsaw wielding cowboy feels right at home in their oeuvre, slicing through the borders of the comics panels to ride off into the smoky orange sunset.
Another cowboy figure that appears in the exhibition is Moses Coady, the subject of Donald Calabrese’s biographical comic. In Calabrese’s depiction of Coady, the actor-handsome catholic priest who helped found the cooperative movement in Nova Scotia can be seen being photographed by Yousuf Karsh while grappling with ideas of fame, as well as decked out in ten-gallon-esque hat on a night-time trip through a treacherous winter landscape. Like Uhma, Calabrese blends fact and fiction, with selections of Coady’s life story paired with the story of a reporter who writes about him. Calabrese has a style that is so effective in comics, where the characters and their expressions are more stylized in their design (we trust characters that look like this, we can project more onto them, or so says the granddaddy of Comics theory Scott McLeod), with more detailed and architectural backgrounds that give specificity of place. Streetscapes of Ottawa introduce us to the elder Coady, while exterior views of a bar in wordless sequence show the hours passing before our reporter wakes up, presumably hungover, in the front seat of her car.
A cozier domestic setting is visible in J.J. Steeves’ diary comics, standing out in glorious day-glo under Forbes’ careful black and white pages. Steeves’ highlighter-bright watercolours and densely layered coloured pencil markings bring a neon sensibility to the Nova Scotian landscape, recognizable in both urban and rural depictions. Under their hand, fire and brick become pylon-orange, as they shift from geometric cartoon faces (round heads and triangle noses) to the naturalism of a rabbit in the hedges or the indomitable Nova Scotia cliff scene (lest we forget that we are at the edge of the earth). Steeves’ comics leave us to ponder: what anxieties can be understood as particular to this place, and what is there here to quell them? A summer walk through the city calms nerves rattled by the pandemic, childhood memories blossom like the Queen Anne’s Lace in a nearby abandoned lot, and joy in domestic comforts is found in times when we have no choice but to stay at home. Steeves muses on her place in Nova Scotia and in the universe in these 2020 pandemic diaries. “The sky is big here,” she writes, though whether this is a comfort, or an ominous observation remains unclear.
This specificity of place is present in all of the works by these Nova Scotian cartoonists: Whether a tell-tale cliff shape, the sense of urgency to return “Back East” to care for an aging relative, or the labour of love that is embarking on a decade-long biography of a hometown hero, the landscape and dynamics of this province seem to inevitably touch the comics in Backwater. Calabrese identifies both Nova Scotians and cartoonists as similarly operating on the fringes (one being geographically remote, the other on the outskirts of artistic and literary genres).There is a generosity in all storytelling, but perhaps where these cartoonists give the most to the viewer/reader is their willingness to show us both their studio and story within the artwork. In sharing with us the nuts and bolts of their practice, we can appreciate these artworks and crave more of the stories we have sampled. These artists confirm what the legacies of cartoonists like Hal Foster and Kate Beaton have shown, that Nova Scotia is fertile ground for cartooning, where comics artists can make timely and sometimes irreverent work, here at the edge of the world.