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Stay Awhile: Halifax, Nova Scotia

Stay Awhile: Halifax, Nova Scotia

This maritime city attracts makers with its affordability – and keeps them with its vibrant arts scene.

Stay Awhile: Halifax, Nova Scotia

This maritime city attracts makers with its affordability – and keeps them with its vibrant arts scene.
February/March 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Halifax Harbor

Set on one of the world’s deepest harbors, Halifax offers a balance of urban conveniences and outdoor activities.

Len Wagg

Heather Wilkinson greets me with a big, cheery smile before turning to show a teenager how to clamp a dowel he wants to notch. “Tighten it on each side, and then you can take really small strokes,” she tells him. By the time he’s made his first cut, Wilkinson is already across the room, helping a young boy feed paper into an electric typewriter and explaining how the carriage return works.

It’s a bright September day and the first open studio of the season at Wonder’neath, the North End Halifax workspace founded by Wilkinson and Melissa Marr, both interdisciplinary artists. It provides studio space for 12 professionals, along with space open to the public for free, twice a week, almost year-round. This afternoon, there are two dozen people here – many of them kids – sewing costumes and pillows, painting, handbuilding.

Wilkinson says it’s all about building relationships between professional artists and members of the broader community. “It’s kind of a delicate ecology that we manage. With spaces like this, we’re building up a level of support in the community for the work that we’re doing,” she says, before trailing off to go thread a bobbin.

In Nova Scotia, a province that juts out into the Atlantic, mutual support has long been a survival tactic – whether in fisheries, the nascent wine and craft beer industries, or the arts. About half of the province’s 1 million people live in Halifax, which is built on one of the world’s deepest harbors. The walkable downtown rises steeply from the waterfront and is close to natural spaces such as Lawrencetown Beach – a popular spot for hard-core winter surfers – as well as a multitude of wilderness trails. Affordable housing, ocean views, and a thriving cultural scene have made the city attractive to many craft artists.

One is fashion designer Gary Markle, who came to Halifax from New York City in 1990 because he wanted to “do life a little differently” in a place “where you could get to the ocean in 20 minutes, hike in the woods, and find fresh vegetables from a farmer,” he says. Today, he is head of the craft division at NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which has offered an MFA in craft since 1973.

“The work produced here is pushing boundaries,” Markle says. “We’re not out ahead of people in terms of digital technology, but we are in terms of fresh ways of looking at things that might be traditional, like throwing vessels or creating hollowware.” Connections to rural life also have a powerful influence on many Halifax makers, and traditional arts such as quilting and rug hooking remain popular.

Markle points particularly to the exuberant crocheted playgrounds of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, who teaches at NSCAD. Working with her husband, Charles, MacAdam uses a traditionally domestic art form to create huge dyed-nylon installations that invite children to bounce and hang. (She first got the idea after watching kids clamber onto one of her textile sculptures in a gallery.) “Her work is breathtaking,” Markle says. “She’s at the top of her game; she is in her 70s, and she is unstoppable.”

The Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council – soon to become Craft Nova Scotia – has also been nurturing craft in the province since the early 1970s. Executive director Susan Hanrahan says the organization helps attract artists to Halifax; what keeps many here is the beauty and affordability of Nova Scotia. “You can get a house with an outbuilding you can use as your studio without breaking the bank,” she says. “It’s an inspirational place to live.”

Therese Bombardier, who makes ceramic jewelry and functional ware at her studio at Wonder’neath, notes that Nova Scotia “isn’t the most prosperous place – so we’ve got to be industrious.” One organization helping artists to “make stuff happen” is the Halifax Crafters Society (she’s on the board), which many credit with making the business of craft more fun. The Crafters hold two annual juried shows, with free admission and reasonable fees for vendors. The family-friendly winter show is always lively, with a DJ and snacks. Bombardier says the Crafters “keep it fresh” with new vendors and support for emerging makers.

Kiersten Holden-Ada is a regular at the Crafters markets. She moved to Halifax from western Canada 15 years ago to study at NSCAD, and, like many, wound up staying. The jeweler says she sees “a lot of younger up-and-coming artists and craftspeople here these days. There tends to be a climate of support for each other, as opposed to really teeth-gritted competition.” She credits shared studio spaces, like the one she works out of with five other jewelers, for fostering the community’s camaraderie. “Talents that are not shared are not talents” reads a piece of paper stuck to the door.

Back at Wonder’neath, the open-studio evening is winding down. At closing time, Wilkinson calls out, “Just pointing out it’s 7 o’clock!” A group of kids handbuilding with clay carry on, while across the room, a young woman keeps painting. Reluctantly, some of the other participants begin packing up and getting ready to go.

The teen who was notching the dowel when I arrived heads past Wilkinson, a completed stylized arrow in his hand. “That looks great!” she says.


If You Go

Halifax Seaport
The waterfront development offers a cluster of venues where you can look or buy. Visit the Nova Scotia Centre for Craft and Design’s Designer Craft Shop for everything from ethereal wood sculptures to intricate hats, jewelry, photography, and functional ceramics. Across the street, the NSCCD’s Mary E. Black Gallery is the only public gallery in the province dedicated to fine craft. Then drop into the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, grab a snack, and head to the second floor, devoted almost entirely to craft.

NSCAD University’s Anna Leonowens Gallery features work by students, faculty, and visiting artists. A few blocks southeast is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Halifax, where rotating exhibitions display a variety of craft and fine art. After visiting the galleries, walk up Citadel Hill to Inkwell Modern Handmade Boutique & Letterpress Studio, which specializes in paper products and is located just below Fort George, a star-shaped 19th-century British fort. Then head up Spring Garden Road, past the city’s architecturally stunning Central Library, and visit Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia, which has exclusively featured work by Atlantic Canadians for nearly 40 years.

North End
Agricola and Gottingen Streets and the historic Hydrostone district feature lots of small boutiques with distinctive handmade items. Try Lost & Found for vintage clothes and locally made wares. Plan B Merchants Co-op’s sprawl of rooms are chock-full of offbeat wares, including many handmade items by members. Made in the Maritimes and Lady Luck Boutique both offer work by dozens of artisans, many of them local. If you’re feeling creative, stop by Wonder’neath’s free open-studio events on Fridays and Saturdays to make your own crafts.

Peggys Cove
The traditional fishing village (population: 35) is under an hour’s drive from downtown and filled with seasonal shops. Beales’ Bailiwick was one of the first shops in the country to stake its reputation on Canadian crafts, and much of the inventory is made by Nova Scotia artists. Just up the hill is Peggy’s Cove Jewellery Studio, goldsmith Steven Mehle’s studio shop. Keep going to Hags on the Hill for leatherwork, jewelry, and ceramics made by local women artists.

Lunenburg County
A little more than an hour from Halifax, the towns of Lunenburg and Mahone Bay are home to a striking number of galleries, shops, and studios. Take the old Highway 3 hugging the coast and stop at the Hooked Rug Museum of North America, open from May through October, along the way.

Seasonal Fairs
The Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council (soon to be Craft Nova Scotia), Halifax Crafters Society, and the Dartmouth Makers each hold two juried shows a year (winter and spring or summer) that have their own distinctive flavors and are brimming with quality vendors. Check out their websites to plan your visit.