By Belle Hatfield
For The Vanguard
Brilliant, tormented, driven, reclusive – all these words were used when Kingsley Brown spoke about the life and work of the late Nelson Surette at the Argyle Municipality Historical & Genealogical Society annual general meeting held recently at the archives in Tusket.
Brown was one of Surette’s closest friends, and he has spent years collecting material with a goal of eventually writing a biography of the man that he sees as one of the most important Nova Scotia artists of his time.
“He was a painter. He wasn’t a folk artist. He was a natural, a real artist,” he said.
Now eight years after his death, Brown is supporting a movement to renew interest in this local artist and his works, which are rooted in Surette’s Acadian culture. He called upon members of the Argyle historical group to rally behind efforts to organize a major retrospective exhibit of Surette’s works and suggested the Yarmouth branch of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was a natural choice to host the show.
“I think it is a disgrace that this man who has contributed so much is not highlighted in the (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s) permanent collection, or at least that there hasn’t been a big show mounted here,” said Brown. “There’s been talk for years and years about having a Nelson Surette show at the art gallery, but these things don’t just happen. It needs a concerted effort.”
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia says Nelson Surette's work is reflected in its permanent collection. The gallery says a painting of his Blacksmith and Horse is on view in the Folk Art of Nova Scotia and can currently be viewed at the western branch of the art gallery.
In trying to impress upon his audience just how Surette’s work has been viewed, Brown recollected a scene he walked in on years ago, during one of the artist’s exhibits at a gallery in Yorkville.
“I went down [to the Toronto gallery] and found the Dupont and Imperial Oil art buyers almost coming to blows over who was going to put the little red dots on Nelson Surette’s paintings. That’s how good he was.”
Surette was born in Yarmouth to Acadian parents. The year was 1920. The pull towards assimilation into the dominant English culture was a constant conflict throughout his life, as was his troubled relationship with his religion. He began painting as a child and, without formal training, developed a uniquely identifiable style. Brown’s own relationship with Surette began with the paintings – viewed first at an exhibit in Antigonish nearly 50 years ago.
“As a country boy from Jeddore … it struck me that these were the only paintings that I had ever seen I could relate to,” he said referring to Surette’s choice of subject matter. Surette painted the world he knew.
Struck by the power of the imagery, Brown wrote a review for a local newspaper. Not long afterward he was presented with the gift of a painting as thanks. Not for the review, he remembers Surette telling him years later, but for finding something of value in his work.
“He changed. He stopped drinking and it turned out that I became something of a guru,” he said.
It wasn’t until Surette turned 50 that he began exhibiting his work. Until then, he was as likely to exchange a painting for a bottle of liquor. Many of the paintings in collections throughout Yarmouth first changed hands in that way.
But his marriage to Julia Emin, and the encouragement of friends, whose opinions he valued, set Surette on a path to sobriety and with that came the confidence to begin exhibiting his work. Surette died in 2004, but through his paintings he continues to share the experiences that shaped his world.
(Belle Hatfield wrote a major piece on Nelson Surette for The Yarmouth Vanguard in 1990 after several exhaustive interviews with the reclusive painter.)