Maria Valverde saw her city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a new and disturbing way during the pandemic. She saw hunger, poverty, panic, rising homelessness, increased development, and death from a disease no one initially understood. She did what she’s always done. She turned her insights and passion into art.

Celestial Hunger, at Zwicker’s Gallery, Halifax, to May 27, is a giant book with a bejeweled cover and a call to action. Valverde twins the ills of the Middles Ages with today’s social problems in four large paintings in the style of illuminated manuscripts. These brilliant, narrative paintings, full of gold leaf and the primary colours of the manuscripts, tell the story of a crumbling society in graphic images of tiny figures and familiar Halifax locations. The paintings also feature  Gothic-style texts of pandemic terms such as CERB, the New Normal and Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil’s famous phrase, “Stay the Blazes Home.” Valverde’s alter ego, a Spanish/Nova Scotian character called the Maritime Senorita, is in the marginalia helping the afflicted. Celestial Hunger grew out of Valverde’s experience as a housekeeper in the Q.E. II’s Halifax Infirmary emergency department. She was transferred there just before COVID-19 hit in March 2020. “I remember going into my first COVID room to clean it and I was afraid. I had to go into this room with all the gear on and clean it. Nobody knew what to do or how to handle it. We saw a lot of people die. I remember thinking this is like the plague and that led me to think of the Middle Ages.”

Celestial Hunger: The Famine (Spring, Sunset), 2023, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, Maria Valverde. (Photo: Eric Wynne)

She discovered more parallels beyond the Black Death, the 14th century bubonic plague pandemic in Europe and North Africa which killed millions. People in the Middles Ages also experienced the Little Ice Age, rapid expansion and development, warfare and famine. “Hunger was a real issue in the Middle Ages and we’re having a similar situation with that as well – unaffordable food. Prices have skyrocketed. I saw real poverty and real hunger at the hospital, and I thought this seems so bizarre.”

As she started work on this series, she experienced a plague of her own.  Valverde, now 56, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2021; she had to tell her daughter, who is in her early twenties, that she was terminally ill. Valverde was in crisis physically and psychologically and was not responding to chemotherapy. “I got a real wakeup call. If it wasn’t for art, I don’t know what I’d be doing with my head.”

Luckily, she was a candidate for Tagrisso, a drug used to treat non-small-cell lung carcinomas with specific genetic mutations. She was well enough last fall to travel to New York and go to The Cloisters medieval art museum. “It was amazing to see actual illuminated manuscripts,” she said.

Celestial Hunger: The Plague (Summer, 24 Hours), 2023, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, Maria Valverde. (Photo: Eric Wynne)

Each painting in Celestial Hunger is set in a different season and at a different time of day, except for The Plague which covers 24 hours representing back-to-back shifts at the hospital. Valverde paints herself in all her PPE, cleaning an emergency trauma room. In a lower section the Maritime Senorita holds a white body bag containing a person who died of COVID-19. She is  “embracing” the deceased and she, herself, is supported by two angels with scars where their breasts should be. They represent Tina and Caryn, two women with breast cancer whom Valverde met in a chat room and who supported and amazed her.  “I didn’t have breast cancer but our fears were similar.”

Celestial Hunger: The Fall of the Empire (Winter, Night), 2023, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, Maria Valverde. (Photo: Eric Wynne)

The Fall of the Empire is about the collapse of the middle class and is set on Halifax’s Robie Street on a snowy night with a bleak, cloud-studded sky, and a full moon. The street lamps, above tiny people at a bus stop, cast exaggerated masses of yellow light and blaze like Van Gogh sunflowers. She includes near-empty shelves of Robin Hood flour referring to Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor and to ongoing grain shortages caused by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An Esso station advertises gas for the outrageous price of  $2.17. In an arched segment a woman with a black eye, a victim of domestic abuse (which increased during the pandemic), sits alone in a bus shelter with her children. This painting shows, she says “what can happen to society when it crumbles.”

While her subject matter is heavy, “it’s not Goya,” Valverde laughs. Her paintings are intentionally colourful and playful. She paints in a folk-art narrative manner and a lush, painterly style full of swooping, organic lines. Valverde celebrates the natural world in images of the daffodils from Dartmouth’s Daffodil Garden for Cancer Survivors, the lupins in the hospital garden where she took her breaks and the trees at Point Pleasant Park in The Climate Change. This painting, which includes a container ship and floating containers, depicts sunrise after a violent storm and is meant to evoke “that state of calm and hope after a traumatic event such as a hurricane, or being told you qualify for a new cancer drug.”

Celestial Hunger: The Climate Change (Fall, Sunrise), 2023, mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, Maria Valverde. (Photo: Eric Wynne)

Each painting has an ornate gold frame; Valverde contrasts the wealth inherent in illuminated manuscripts with the poverty she displays in her imagery. She uses gold leaf and Dollar Store paint, which also refers to the pandemic trend of people making crafts at home. The book’s giant gleaming cover (“It protects the pages as we protect each other.”) is a mix of rusted metal, rugged wood, blood red paint and numerous faux jewels.

Valverde has been tenacious as an artist ever since she was a little girl, when she started drawing constantly.. Her parents, Doreen and the late Spanish-born painter Jose Valverde, encouraged their kids to be creative. The family moved often and, as a lonely child, Valverde found solace in art, which she eventually studied at Concordia University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. “Gerald Ferguson was my professor of painting at NSCAD; I can’t tell you how much he taught me. He really pushed me and encouraged me.”

The Maritime Senorita,  a character originally created for a children’s book, is her alter ego and dresses in joyful black and white polka dots and a Nova Scotia tartan, which is strikingly similar to Galicia’s blue tartan. “Creating the Maritime Senorita helped me feel a sense of belonging; it gave me the courage to speak my own truth.”

Celestial Hunger follows two major exhibitions. In The Merger Series (2012) she merged her face with those of heroic women as she explored migration, colonialism, identity and connection in paintings of Mary Queen of Scots, Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo. Much as Kahlo painted her own broken spine, in The Famine Valverde paints her lungs, framed by an arch of colourful homeless tents looking like stained glass.

The Polar Stillness (2018) series was a multi-media exploration in red, black and white of grief, loss and identity driven by the death of her brother by suicide, the death of her father, and the end of her marriage. “My work has always stayed the same; it’s about the fragility of life.”