By Crystal Murray
Last spring when delivering a series of paintings of the fire that engulfed Pictou Lighthouse to the community where it belonged, artist Steven Rhude and his son Sam stopped and took in the view of Abercrombie Point. They drove back to their home in Wolfville and Steven started a painting. He questioned himself as he waded into the controversy that has become part of the daily discourse of the people living along the shores of the Northumberland Strait. He contemplated, “Should I be doing this? I don’t live there, is it my responsibility?”
But wading into controversy is what Steven Rhude does. He is widely regarded in Atlantic Canada for his cultural and political perspective on the changing rural landscape and the tensions that exist between urbanism and the coast. His paintings are often viewed as absurd as it can be the case for social realism painters and their personal political commentary. A fishing dory perched on a giant Rubik’s Cube on the beach, a fish house straddling the double line on a coastal road, a burning lighthouse crashing down across a highway. In the case of Peggy’s World, it’s the smoking pulp mill on the point in Pictou Harbour, littered with fishing buoys and a female figure, Peggy, immobilized by the conflict that exists between industry and environment and all of the lives caught in the middle.
Like other resource-based stories in the media, Steven was following the saga as it unraveled along the North Shore. Until his visit to Pictou last spring, he says that he had never really studied it intently and realizes today in the wake of the rising tension and the legal action that the mill will take against the fisherman blocking the survey boats that will examine the route of the new effluent pipeline, that his painting has become an important way of encapsulating the story.
“I like paintings that historically touch on the many issues in a situation. In this case, the Mill is being stressed and the question is whether they can be sustainable or whether they are being influenced by outside environmental forces. What you have with Northern Pulp is a strong graphic line between the environment, their sustainability and the ripple effect of the people that work there and everyone else involved in the decisions that will be made,” says Rhude.
In his painting Peggy’s World, he pays homage to American artist Andrew Wyatt and his 1948 painting Christina’s World, that is imbued with the physical struggles of the young woman stricken with polio and the drama the artist creates by exaggerating the distance between Christina and her farm house as she pulls her way through the grass. Rhude says that he looks beyond that common perception of the famous painting that is part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and sees it as statement on rural agrarian culture coming to a close and being corporatized in the post-war era.
“When I looked at Northern Pulp I kept thinking of Christina’s World and what it represented and I thought if we had a Christina in Nova Scotia who would she be and the first person that you think of is Peggy, of Peggy’s Cove. In Wyatt’s painting Christina is in a very uncomfortable unorthodox pose. When I painted Peggy in Nova Scotia she is somewhat crippled by not being able to do anything about the pulp mill situation.”
Like the mid-century American painting, Rhude also dramatizes the landscape with the distance between Peggy and the Mill but he populates the meadow with fishing buoys that he says demonstrates the many different stakeholders in the process.
At the time of painting Peggy’s World and even more so in recent weeks, Rhude sees the issue both at a climax and stalemate. He says that he doesn’t want his painting to be viewed as totally pro-environmental at all costs. He believes that wouldn’t be a responsible message to make and in his realm of social realism painting he has a responsibility not to “screw up,” and not take any subject too far in one direction. In that vein of responsibility for his art he does want to create conversation where we understand there is a situation that whatever decision is made it will have significant ramifications on the mill workers, the people working in the woods, their families and the ramifications of the long-term sustainability of the local economy.
“From an artist’s perspective how do I find an image that puts that in a capsule with a sense of logic that people can open and say we have an image that will lead us to discussing this in a broader context,” says Rhude.
As the story about the battle between the Mill and the fisherman continues there appears to be very little grey in opinions that are predominately black or white. A community still licking its wounds over the divisive amalgamation question that ended with a no vote in 2016 is at odds again. The First Nations community, the mill workers, the fiber producers and other supporting industries and business are driven by their own agendas, history of mistruths and unfulfilled promises.
While Peggy’s World paints a protest, Rhude says that in his opinion he doesn’t think the mill should close but the different players need to come up with a technological solution that meets the requirements so all sides can be sustainable.
“If someone said to me that the mill must close for the future of our children then I would ask why should it close if we haven’t really attempted to solve the problem.”
Earlier in the fall when the first fishermen’s blockade started, Central Nova MP Sean Fraser described the issue as reaching a “fever pitch.” What Steve Rhude illustrates and hopes people will see in his painting is the absence of real solutions to the crisis.