The burning reds of fall blueberry fields, the pinks and purples of lupins in front of a white clapboard house, the blues and greens of a wave at Martinique Beach.
Joy Snihur Wyatt Laking invites people to experience beauty in her new book, The Painted Province: Nova Scotia Through an Artist’s Eyes (Pottersfield Press). The tablet-sized paperback, designed to fit a glove compartment, features over 200 oil, acrylic and watercolour paintings with GPS coordinates. Texts are Laking’s poetic word pictures, tales of outdoor painting adventures and insights into her process.
Seeing beauty is “fundamental to living a happy life,” says the landscape and still life painter. It gives people “an appreciation of life and a time of peace.” For this book she travelled from Meteghan in the Southwest to Neil’s Harbour in Cape Breton painting on site to create loose and lively pictures about colour, light and love of place. Several of the images are inspired by the landscape she sees from her kitchen window in Portaupique on the road from Bass River to Advocate Harbour. (To honour the village’s Acadian settlers Laking uses the French spelling.)
The Bay of Fundy terrain of marshland, mud flats, ever-changing skies and the highest tides in the world did not appeal to her when she first came in 1978. Raised in Owen Sound she preferred the rocks and open waters of Georgian Bay.
“I found the landscape very flat, no rocks – pastoral – and it gradually grew on me the more I painted it and sat and looked at it. It’s a huge challenge to paint tides; it’s always changing. It took at least 10 years before I could say I loved it.”
When Laking paints outdoors she sits with her imagery for a long time, up to five days this summer to study the subtle changes in sunflowers in Great Village. Once in Prince Edward Island she asked to sit on a couple’s lawn early in the morning to get the exact view she wanted.
“They went to Moncton for the day and when they came back at six they were astounded. There I was. Everyone has the idea painting is something you do for a few minutes for fun. The work is enjoyable, but it takes many, many hours.”
Laking grew up surrounded by art. Her mother was a professional artist, her father a hobby painter. Her British ancestors were jet carvers.
“I was in high school before I realized every house didn’t have art drawers in every room. My mother always said be anything but don’t be an artist!”
Laking majored in fine art at Guelph University but taught herself watercolour painting. Instead of laying in light washes first, she prefers to paint the dark pigments. “It’s kind of magic; you put a hint of colour here and there and suddenly the paper turns into a flower.”
As a multimedia artist she transfers ideas from one medium to another. On a two-month trip to Alaska with her husband Jim at the wheel she hooked her first rug, Full and Starry Night over Five Islands, inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She encircled the moon and stars in rings of light and colour for a glorious, fairytale effect that she repeats in paintings like Starry Night in River John. For this oil painting, completed in her studio, she drove in her pajamas at 3 a.m. to downtown River John to do a preliminary sketch in watercolour and take photos. It was “eerily quiet.”
Just when The Painted Province was ready for print two things happened: the COVID-19 pandemic in March and the “horrendous” Nova Scotia shootings that began in Portaupique the night of April 18. Laking lives across the river from where three of her friends, Joanne Thomas and her husband John Zahl, and teacher Lisa McCully, were killed. She knew two other victims as well as the shooter. “I couldn’t go painting no matter what; I couldn’t see beauty.”
Instead, she spent three weeks in her studio selecting images and designing the book herself using Photoshop. “It gave me a fabulous, interesting, safe project that I could do at my computer.” By the time she finished “I felt like going painting again and I painted by my pond.”
She hopes The Painted Province, now in its third printing and available in bookstores and online (joylakinggallery.com), will inspire people to experience the beauty around them. “Seeing beauty is a really wonderful free gift that everybody should be able to appreciate.”