Ray Cronin is a writer, editor, and curator. Between 2001 and 2015 he worked at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as both curator and director, and he is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award. Cronin has been writing about visual arts for magazines and newspapers for almost thirty years. As well as writing a series of “field guides” on Atlantic Canadian artists published by Gaspereau Press, he is the author of Our Maud: The Art, Life and Legacy of Maud Lewis, and the Arts Canada Institute e-books Alex Colville: Life & Work and Mary Pratt: Life & Work. His book Nova Scotia Folk Art: An Illustrated Guide, is forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing in 2021. He lives in Elmsdale.
These field guides published by Gaspereau are really wonderful. The essays are beautifully written, and of course when you’re reading about art, it’s nice to have the colour plates to refer to. How did the series come about?
It all started with the best rejection ever. I proposed a book to Gaspereau Press of twelve essays about Atlantic Canadian artists, a kind of “greatest hits,” I suppose, which would have had a combination of previously-published work and new essays (much writing about visual art is pretty ephemeral, often for magazines or newspapers, or for exhibition publications that are little distributed and out of print quickly). Anyway, Gaspereau’s publisher, Andrew Steeves, responded quickly with, “No, I don’t want to publish that.” Basically, he didn’t think he could sell it, and that he didn’t find the idea interesting (anyone who knows Andrew, knows that there is no BS with him). But then he asked if I was interested in writing 12 books on individual artists. You can see why I call it the best rejection ever.
Why are they called “field guides”?
Gaspereau’s motto or tag line is: “Literary Outfitters and Cultural Wilderness Guides.” In coming up with a name for the series I wanted to play off of that, and to telegraph to prospective readers that the books would be both interesting and useful. Art writing has a well-earned bad reputation for being impenetrable and I wanted to signal that these books would introduce interested readers to interesting artists, and would do so in an informative and engaging manner (I hope!). I was thinking of bird books, or mushroom guides, those sorts of things. More and more in the arts we talk about the community as an ‘ecosystem.’ A set of “field guides” to some of that ecosystem’s more prominent members seemed like a fun approach.
I wonder if you can tell me briefly about the subtitles for these books, for example, Gerald Ferguson: Thinking of Painting and Alex Colville: A Rebellious Mind.
I want the subtitle to give a potential reader information about how I am positioning each book’s subject. Ferguson was a conceptual artist who struggled with the very idea of painting for his entire career: painting for him was first and foremost an idea. Colville saw the world as chaotic and sought order amidst that chaos. I argue in the book that he was an exemplar of what the French existentialist and novelist Albert Camus (how timely is his book The Plague today?) calls a rebel, one who demands “order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral.” I hope each subtitle conveys some of the atmosphere of the book.
The new addition to the series is Maud Lewis: Creating an Icon. What do you think will surprise the reader about Maud Lewis?
Maud died in 1970, long before her paintings became as well known as they are today. Her work wasn’t even included in an art gallery exhibition until 1976. What I hope will surprise readers is how much Maud is both an active creator of a certain vision of Nova Scotia, and a product herself of that vision. In her lifetime she created an iconic vision of Nova Scotia, a vision that has, since her death, turned her into an icon.
What’s the challenge of writing about art and artists for a general audience?
I suppose that goes back to the reputation arts writing has for impenetrability. I started writing reviews when I was still an art student at NSCAD, mainly because I was so frustrated by what I was reading in magazines in the late 1980s. It was so theory-laden and obscure. Why write something that people can’t read?
I grew up listening to my father reprise his philosophy lectures to my mother when he got home from work. She had been a nurse, but with seven children she was a very busy stay-at-home mum. When my father got home, she had been with us kids all day and was desperate for adult conversation (I stayed quiet in the background and soaked it all up).
When I first went to university I lived at home, and when I got back from my classes I would do the same thing – sit and talk with my mother about what I was learning, what I was thinking, and I got used to explaining my ideas to her. When I started to write about art, I thought about who my ideal reader would be. And my mother, who read every word I wrote in her lifetime, was that ideal reader. As a young artist and aspiring writer I was discovering things every day that I wanted to share with as wide an audience as possible. I still am, and I still do.
Are there other books planned in the series? On whom?
There are. Things are pretty up in the air these days of course, but I am working towards a fall release in the series, a book on Brian Jungen, subtitled “New Understanding.” Jungen is famous for his Nike Air Jordan sculptures that mimic Northwest Cost masks (“Prototype for a New Understanding”), and for his whale skeleton sculptures made from plastic lawn chairs. I first met him when he won the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002, and have followed his career closely ever since. After that I plan to do a book on Nova Scotian artist Colleen Wolstenholme, another great sculptor.
What is it like to release a new book during a pandemic?
It’s anticlimactic, certainly. No launch, no readings, bookstores mostly closed and struggling. The new book on Maud Lewis would have had a broader market because of tourism, but that too has been derailed by the pandemic. But it’s not like there’s ever been a huge market for books on Canadian art, so I’m not discouraged. People manage to find the books. I’m doing more social media than I ever have, writing a blog for my website (raycronin.ca), posting excerpts of my writing, just trying to get things out there.
What do you see as the positives about this time? What have you found to be the most difficult?
Well, I have certainly noted the generosity of artists – the musicians doing online concerts, the authors doing readings, the actors presenting plays, the visual artists posting images of their work, and so much more. That evidence of how resilient artists are despite the closed theaters, cancelled concerts, and shuttered galleries, that’s the most positive.
Professionally, what has been difficult is the way that the pandemic has shut down the arts scene. Exhibitions and their catalogues are getting cancelled or delayed, magazines are suffering terribly from lack of advertising revenue, so freelancers are getting less and less work (my blog for Halifax Magazine has been suspended, for instance, and understandably so). I had a book’s publication delayed into next year as a result of the pandemic, and another that is stalled because I can’t do the research I need with libraries and archives closed (old files on the visual arts in Halifax are not on the top of anyone’s list for digitization, unfortunately).
Say the field guide series on Canadian artists continues 30 years from now … and you’re still writing them. Name three artists under the age of 30 whom you expect will be worthy of a field guide essay in 2050.
The thing about artists under 30 is that most of them won’t still be making art when they’re 40. I look back at my peers from my 20s and that’s as true for us as it will be for the current 20-year-olds. Making art is hard and too often unrewarding. Luck plays an outsize role as well, because everyone starts with talent.
Artists in their 30s are a much better bet for prognostication, but you asked for artists in their 20s, so here goes. I think that Letitia Fraser, whose show at Mount Saint Vincent I wrote about last winter for my Halifax Magazine blog, and who paints her friends and family from East Preston, has a lot of interesting things to say in paint. I think Laura Jean Forrester, a ceramicist who makes public commissions and floral sculpture out of clay will have a strong career. And Darcie Bernhardt, an Inuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk and recent NSCAD graduate, who is living in Halifax now is someone with a big career ahead. All three of them are artists I expect to be still relevant in 30 years.
I know that you are a graduate of NSCAD … what made you decide to work as a curator and writer instead of making art yourself?
That decision was sort of made for me. I made art until I was in my late 30s. Writing and making sculpture were parallel activities for me until 2001. But, when I was hired as Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, I knew that the job would be so demanding that I could never be more than a hobby artist. On top of that, I would have a role and position that would give me outsize impact on the careers of artists who were working at it full-time. Being an artist is too hard to have gatekeepers competing with you. As a curator I had tons of new opportunities to write, so it really wasn’t a difficult decision.
Whose art do you have on your walls at home? What’s the favorite artwork that you own?
So many great things are on our walls (and floors, shelves, ledges, and mantles). A partial list includes work by my wife Sarah Maloney, our daughter Mollie Cronin, Mary Pratt, John Greer, Gerald Ferguson, Lucie Chan, Cora Cluett, Greg Forrest, Colleen Wolstenholme, Gerard Collins, Cliff Eyland, Cal Lane, Mark Bovey, Mitch Mitchell, and David Askevold.
In terms of my favourite, I’ll instead name the most recent: a puppet by Graeme Patterson from an exhibition he had in Calgary in 2010 called The Puppet Collective 2. The idea was that he would do 52 puppets (one a week) based on observations of random people. Those were offered for sale in an exhibition in 2009. Everyone who bought a puppet was required to send Graeme photographs of themselves, which were used to make a second series of puppets. I bought his portrait of a bike courier in 2009, and Graeme made a portrait of me called Man in a Black Hat in Wire-rimmed Glasses for the 2010 show. It didn’t find a home until a few weeks ago when it arrived in the mail. It’s hanging in my office right now.