Because NSCAD had such a small student population, there was a strong sense of community and a good deal of cross over between the disciplines. One of my favorite events at the art college, was Tuesday, Lunch in the Gallery. Every Tuesday, whatever visiting artist happened to be at the school at the time, would make a public presentation in Anna Leonowens Gallery. There was an extra incentive of free donuts and coffee, which helped pull in a crowd. The donuts particularly, were big fist sized donuts from the Cake Box on Blowers Street and if you ate nothing else all day, one of these would do. In this way, by chance, I saw and heard most of the great artists of the day and struggled to absorb their take on contemporary, conceptual art practice. Later with a better grounding in art history I attended their talks in the Bell Auditorium and Garry Kennedy’s Art Now Class, but back then I was a moron and blissfully unaware of the implications of all that talk.
Also in 1976, I attended my first art opening. I don’t remember whose show, but it was in Anna Leonowens Gallery and it must have been a first class show because they were giving away free wine, beer and cheese and crackers. I recall I had my fist taste of decent white wine in 1976 at Anna Leonowens Gallery, a glass of Mouton Cadet, just an ordinary table Bordeaux, but to me it was like a whole new world had opened up.
At the same time, I started to hang out at Eye Level Gallery and took in the parallel gallery scene. I remember the gallery was two small rooms and an office in a building on the west side of Barrington Street and Marina Stewart ran the gallery. Michael Fernandes was around too, but I don’t recall much more except the place was pretty cool. Eye Level was an artist run center, in the real sense, not like the top down Artist Run Centers of today. In 1976 a parallel gallery was supposed to show the work of local artists, particularly the artists who ran the gallery, with the intention of promoting their work locally and regionally. Very much in contrast to today, where Artist Run Centers generally circulate the work of artists acknowledged to be of national significance. In fairness to the Artist Run Centers, it must be said that this evolution came about because of pressure from the Canada Council to professionalize the Canadian art environment and by extension the National Gallery’s abandoning its responsibility to show the work of contemporary Canadian artists in any meaningful way, back in the 1980’s.
But that is a digression. I was talking about NSCAD and the Halifax art scene in 1976. Beyond Eye Level, Dalhousie University Art Gallery was pretty happening. Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery was soft and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, was getting established on Coburg Road in the old, “new” Art College building, which was a modern building constructed as the main NSCAD campus attached to the old church hall structure in the late 60’s, but abandoned when NSCAD moved to Historic Properties. Bernie Riordan had come a long way since the old powder magazine in Citadel Hill and AGNS now did shows in the old NSCAD Anna Leonowens Gallery. The old “new” art college building was demolished along with the church hall structure in 2009. It was a beautiful modernist building that hardly had a life at all.
In 1976 the art college had no cafeteria. There was a small café run by a hippy guy who’s name I forget with long hair and his wife(?) in a room somewhere in the honeycomb on Granville Street where you could buy vegetarian tomato and barley soup and two kinds of sandwiches, tomato/lettuce or tuna/sprouts. This setup lasted only a few years until the large cafeteria run by Steve Lerner opened.
The college book store was similarly a small affair located in the space the Studio Department offices later moved into, near the east door of the patio. The shop was run by Marjorie Lavers and her assistant, who’s name I forget. Marjorie Lavers had been at the art college since the 1950’s. She worked for Hughes Owens on Granville Street before that and was a well know figure in the Halifax art scene during and after the war. Marjorie really loved the students, but could at times be gruff. As every student had a line of credit at the book store Marjorie knew offhand who was well provided for and who was struggling. She was the kind of woman, who would do instant mark downs and price slashes if she thought you really needed the material and you were just a little over your credit limit. Marjorie was a great lady and I remember she saved pencil boxes for me. Old fashioned pencil boxes, some made of wood, like cigar boxes and large cardboard boxes with fabulous graphics, like a Dixon Eldorado box I recall, with an image of a conquistador with his Incan guide surveying a mountain of gold.
Sometimes during the day we would go to the Ocean Beverage Room for a draught. It was just a block down Duke Street and a favorite hang out for the students, faculty and staff. I recall seeing Ernie the janitor and his staff there on more than one occasion. It was a peculiar small place. Not quiet a tavern, not quite a beverage room. It had a juke box and was decorated with fish nets, buoys, dried star fish and the like. It was a friendly place. I don’t remember if it sold hot food or the usual Halifax tavern fare of potato chips, pickled eggs and pickled hot pepperoni. The Lord Nelson Tavern, being one cut above places like the Ocean and the Hollis Street Tavern, sold cheese and crackers and Mexican chili as well. The Lighthouse was further into the Southend and too rough for the art college crowd. All these places, with the exception of the Seahorse, were knocked down in the 80’s and 90’s. The last of them, the Midtown was demolished in 2010.
If you had a little time on your hands you could take the ferry over to Dartmouth and go to People’s Lunch, a fish and Chip shop on Portland Street. It was a lunch counter type place and sold enormous five piece servings of fish and chips for two dollars and fifty cents. It was a great place to go when your bursary cheque came in, with the added attraction of a very good Salvation Army clothes shop just across the street. People’s Lunch had counter top jukebox selectors with a scratchy old copy of Desmond Dekker’s, Israelites in the collection. Nothing could be finer than enjoying fish and chips at a lunch counter in Dartmouth with the smell of the harbour in your nose, listening to reggae music.
That takes me back to art college dances at Simon’s Warehouse and the start. Reggae and ska were coming in, along with punk and the scene was changing. In 1976 I wore a beard, checked shirts, down vests, blue jeans and converse sneakers, like any west end Halifax boy. By 1978 I had totally absorbed the New York look; shaved my face, cut my hair short, dressed in black and started to move to the art college beat. I don’t recall any particular college house band in the late 70’s. The NSCAD crowd were not particularly musically gifted. It wasn’t until later that the Permutters and Pinkertones got going, but who were they compared to Roland Blinn and the Jellyfish Babies? In my time Heather Ferguson and Rita Mckeough were probably the hottest musicians to come out of NSCAD.
When I think back to NSCAD as it was 34 years ago and remember who I was back then and who I am now and all the people I met there, the living and the dead. Some long dead. What stands out for me is the innocence, not just of the kids, but also of the institution. We were all aware at the time that we were part of an experiment. Nothing about NSCAD was traditional. Even as art college students and teachers of our generation, we were finding our way. We had unprecedented freedom and opportunity for creative expression. Some were able to learn and grow in this atmosphere, but mostly kids got lost in the lack of structure and dropped out. I was lost at NSCAD for a long time, but gradually found my way out. It was for me a kind of ordeal. In the end I was one of the lucky ones who went on to have a career as a studio artist and in some way justify the NSCAD mission as it was conceived in 1976.