KEMPT SHORE, N.S. - Art dealer Herb Brown’s nomadic life story is somewhat of a stark contrast to the art from Newfoundland and Labrador he now shows and sells from Hants County, Nova Scotia, most of which is carved in stone, presenting stillness.
“I owned the only [Labrador] Inuit gallery in the province of Newfoundland until I moved here and now I own the only one here,” he told the Valley Harvester at an open house in early November at The Birches Gallery, located in Kempt Shore. The gallery features a mix of work by Labrador Inuit, Innu and Métis artists, which Brown amassed over decades from carvers, grass workers and doll makers and continues to sell locally and internationally.
Brown, originally from British Columbia, is retired from a career as an elementary school art educator, teaching in various remote, rural communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. His career took him and his family from Gunners Cove and Paradise River to Nain, eventually settling in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the hub of Labrador.
Brown has helped artists such as John Terriak, Mike Massie, Billy Gauthier and Gilbert Hay to find critical and commercial success, promoting their work and taking it to shows in Arizona, Montreal, Toronto, Halifax and St. John’s.
Soapstone, serpentine (also known as Labrador jade), caribou hair, whalebone, ivory and Labradorite that changes colour in light are their mediums.
“The uniqueness of their art and the fact that it was so little known — I wanted to put Labrador and their artists and craftspeople on the map. There has to be a market; you can’t just collect this stuff.”
“Initially, I started buying and selling a few carvings. From there, it snowballed,” he said. “I had time enough and space enough.”
Happy Valley-Goose Bay brought in people from all of the rural areas, including many artists who would bring their work to him to sell.
“I took some pieces on consignment, but that didn’t work out too well. The artists needed the money for their daily existence; that’s why they carved,” said Brown.
The gallery became a popular spot for Maritimers who found themselves in Labrador for fishing or to work as nurses, doctors or lawyers.
“The more I bought, the more I sold, so I bought more. Old guys were coming out of the woodwork and the young guys were selling for good prices,” he said.
Retirement and family circumstances brought Brown to Nova Scotia, where he chose a home in northern Hants County right on the Minas Basin.
“It’s my dream spot on the shore with amazing tides and trees,” he told the Valley Harvester. But what to do with more than 20 years’ worth of art he collected working among all the artists and craftspeople of Labrador became a challenge, so he renovated his garage to be a gallery open by appointment or invitation. He’s also shown some pieces around Hants County at other shows, such as the Great Little Art Show in Newport Landing.
“Yes, we’re out of the way, but it’s an adventure. It’s an excursion. People come for the experience,” said Brown, admitting his buyers are an aging demographic.
“The younger generation don’t seem as interested in buying them for themselves.”
Yet, Halifax software developer Jesse Saunders found the open house event on social media.
“I follow the gallery on Facebook,” said Saunders, who grew up in Goose Bay. “It reminds me of home and our home life. It’s really cool. There’s a small Inuit community in Halifax. There’s a few of us kicking around,” he said. “It’s interesting to know the people who made something. I know how much work this stuff is because I know people who do this.”
“The carvers and crafters are amazingly talented; it’s mind-blowing,” said Saunders’ wife, Kaitlin Perri. “The grass work is a tedious amount of work. You have to pick the grass in a certain area. It’s harvested at a certain time of year and left to dry out. People leave it out on the rocks because it needs to dry for a full year. So, the tradition is to go through and cut all the grasses and leave it out for the next artist to walk by for them to weave. It’s like a community thing,” said Perri. “I also really like the feminine influences in a lot of their art, like how much home life is portrayed, like the carvings of mother and child.”
Meeting guests gives Brown an opportunity to be nostalgic about his time in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I spent ... three of the best years of my life in Newfoundland, 37 years in Labrador and now I’m on the last chapter,” he mused. “I taught art everywhere I went.”
For more information, visit birchesgallery.com or call 902-789-7814.