Since the earliest cave drawings, artists have been moved by the natural environment and their work has helped define geography: Leonardo’s grottos and whirlpools, the landscapes of the Impressionists and the Hudson River School.
The early days of creative places have a fresh energy that is often missing from the established versions. The Florida Keys, haunted by a young Ernest Hemingway; the garrets of Paris, inhabited by the Impressionists; Silicon Valley when it was more apple orchards than high tech.
I had never been to the Parrsboro Shore of Nova Scotia until my future wife Donna took me to her family’s place in Five Islands, the village named for the volcanic islands offshore. It’s a wild shoreline, whose sheer cliffs and ripping tides reflect millions of years of exposed geology.
For 200 years, the economy was based on forestry, farming, fishing and shipbuilding. The Age of Sail enriched local merchants and sea captains. Now, it’s culture and tourism that hold promise for the future.
Walking to the Ship’s Company Theatre on Parrsboro’s Main Street, we stop in at the Art Lab, a combined studio, workshop space and gallery. Artists Michael Fuller and Krista Wells own the building and rent space to an insurance company and a café.
The couple were key players in founding the original theatre, based in the old Kipawo ferry. They have also helped launch Parrsboro Creative, an organization designed to support artists.
“We found some like-minded folks and took the bull by the horns,” says Fuller. “After 15 years of trying, we now have a vibrant arts community. The goal is to help with the renewal of Parrsboro through the cultural economy.”
There’s a lot of talent here. Next door, art lines the walls of the Black Rock Bistro, owned by David Beattie who sits on the board of Parrsboro Creative. One of his staff, Timi Levy, is a Hungarian violinist who stars in the annual Music by the Bay festival.
Parrsboro Creative got a boost when the province provided funding for administration. Its Cultural Campus includes workshops in art and music. There are partnerships with the Hall, a community centre for events like music and film, and the Fundy Geological Museum and the Age of Sail Museum.
The Parrsboro International Plein Air festival has helped put the town on the map. It accepted 35 artists from across North America this summer. They paint landscapes in real time for prizes awarded by a jury.
“Some of the artists are major forces in the ‘plein air’ world,” said Fuller. “This exposed Parrsboro to the rest of the continent as a mecca for creativity. The genie is out of the bottle.”
Taylor Redmond and her husband understand. They were visiting from the Yukon when they “drove into town by accident and fell in love with a gallery building,” she says. They bought it and turned it into the Destination Gallery. Now Redmond works for Cumberland County, helping develop new projects.
“The bottom line is that we are trying to boost the economy and the population by reaching out to artists,” she says. “People are impressed by the landscape, the creative energy and the community itself. Some people spend a day on Main Street and then start looking at properties to buy. Visitors say, wow, there is something special here. But it’s the people who close the deal.”
“Our natural wealth is not resources anymore,” says Fuller. “It’s visual – beauty and beaches. We are looking for investors to take up the challenge of developing Parrsboro from an artist-centred perspective.”
The place has a natural power that the indigenous people understood, he says. “In Mi'kmaq legend, the Creator Glooscap lived here.”
We take in the play. It is a murder mystery set locally. The main character is a nun with a talent for sleuthing. Between acts, the man beside me and I discuss two Nova Scotia geniuses who walked to the United States: scientist Simon Newcomb and boxer Sam Langford. “Creator” is the opening word in the play.
Every summer, runners in the “Not Since Moses” race skid along the mud flats off Five Islands Provincial Park. People come for all over the world to race on the seafloor exposed by the world’s highest tides.
Angie Fuoco of Atlanta, Ga., read about the Moses race online. In 2013 she ran the 10k with no preparation. “I’m originally from Pittsburgh so I knew about the Bay of Fundy,” she says. “I like to do crazy things. I come back to volunteer. It was hard in 2017 because it was raining. I became the chief encourager for the bedraggled folks coming in. This place will always be special for me.”
She met summer residents Elizabeth and Bill Nye through the race. This year they invited her to stay with them. “The most amazing thing in life is to connect people,” says Fuoco. “I will be back.”