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Although he left the province in his early twenties, Nova Scotia remains the muse for painter Bob Brasset.
Now aged 83 and living in Victoria, BC, he vividly recalls east coast sunrises, sunsets, sailboats, and the happy days of childhood, spent playing street or pond hockey, coasting with friends on snow-covered hills or picnicking on a beach.
Brasset, who grew up in Antigonish, has always been attracted to painting beauty, preferring to leave darker scenes to other painters.
“I paint from memory and I find my memories of a Nova Scotia childhood are the most vivid of all. It doesn’t take much effort to picture an afternoon I spent with friends at the beach, even though it was many years ago," he says.
"I can see the lighting, the way the wind blows, the way the sand lies, the colours in the water. It is all there and I just have to paint the joy of it.”
Brasset’s interest in art was kindled as a young child when his father brought home some oil paints for his own use.
“I was very taken with the idea that you could create something beautiful from paint and canvas," he says. "I suppose it awoke a creative sense in me and I began trying to sketch and paint.”
During junior high school, he took art lessons at Mount St. Bernard College in Antigonish.
“The nuns definitely taught me how to paint," he says. "I was quite intimidated initially, but I was eager to learn, although sports still interested me more.”
Brasset grew up in a busy household with 11 children and, aside from those afterschool lessons, he does not remember any particular encouragement for his painting.
“I wasn’t discouraged from painting, but I don’t recall anyone thinking I was a great artist, either. In fact, I came home one day to find my poor, busy mother sweeping the kitchen floor and using one of my paintings as a dustpan. It was hard to take myself too seriously in that environment.”
'No money in art'
After graduating from St. Francis Xavier University, he attended a seminary in Milwaukee for several years.
“I enjoyed my time there, and coming from a family of 11, I relished the peace, quiet, and orderliness of the seminary. I think it improved in those years but I eventually discovered the isolation did not suit my personality,” he says.
From there, he studied social work at the University of British Columbia, going on to work as a counsellor with disturbed children.
“My interest in painting had grown but I certainly never considered it as a career. My businessman father had impressed on me that there was no money in art.”
With his counselling career, marriage, and the four children that followed, Brasset painted when he could, switching over the years from oils to acrylics.
“I might only get a couple of pieces done in a year but I never lost the enjoyment of it," he said.
Retirement has allowed him to become a more prolific painter.
“Since COVID hit, I’m often turning out three paintings a week, working on them at the same time," Brasset said.
"When one isn’t working as I hoped, I move on to another, and by the time I get back to the first one, I know how to fix what I didn’t like.”
Brasset paints for his own enjoyment, but his works have generated a lot of online interest over the past year, in particular.
“I was born and grew up in Antigonish and have maintained a strong connection so any news from Nova Scotia has my attention. Sadly, it has been a year of great tragedy for the people of Nova Scotia, who have always been so strong, so warm and welcoming,” he says.
Shortly after the mass shooting that began in Portapique last April, Brasset was surprised to see one of his paintings popping up frequently on social media sites.
“It was a piece I did maybe 10 years ago, a painting of a young girl holding the Nova Scotia flag against the sunset. I had done it for old family friends, but now people were connecting it to Portapique," he said.
"To suddenly have over 5,000 likes was a bit of a shock, especially for a non-tech person like me, who has never made much effort at promotion.”
Despite Brasset’s initial puzzlement, he came to realize it was the spirit of the photo people were connecting with.
“I’ve always painted scenes from Antigonish and Inverness counties and provincial landmarks, but I was inspired to create more paintings that I felt reflected the spirit of Nova Scotia," he says. "I hoped they would provide some degree of warmth, of consolation and perhaps encouragement.”
A number of them feature a young woman playing the violin - sometimes on the beach, sometimes on shoreline rocks.
“I have a granddaughter who is an accomplished fiddle and violin player, and my father played when I was a child, so there is a bit of nostalgia involved," he says. "Beyond that, the instrument is so intricately tied to Nova Scotia.”
It is up to the viewer to take what they feel from each painting, said Brasset.
“To me, in some of the paintings, the fiddler is responding to the tragedies, playing something long, slow and sad, a heartfelt lament for those lost. In other paintings, people may see the fiddler as triumphant, in the sense that the music has endured for generations and will continue to do so in spite of whatever has happened.”