Tuesday, 21 March 2023

The Ballad (Curse) of Betsy Publicover


 Years ago, or in one of those 'time out of mind' nights, on the furthest most easterly point of mainland Nova Scotia , Canso poet and dear friend, June N. Jarvis, told me of a tragic, painful, and sad poem she wrote. It's a poem with vengeance and a curse that starts when a young woman is as they say - led astray by a young man. It's about the days of yore, the sea and all the allegory it represents. It's about a woman's decent into supernatural darkness and the August gales that accompanied her.

 This is a familiar story in the sense that it is tied to the very nature of folklore, yet like all memorable folklore, it still has a powerful resonance to contemporary times. It entails, a young woman and sex, the passage of time, fishing commerce, a Canso ship in distress, the loss of Betsy's seventeen year old daughter to the sea, and the inability to console, where reparations are like gulls uselessly screeching in a tempest. It is a tale that is dark and only gets darker as Betsy Publicover reacts to the hopelessness of the situation and the man that brought it all down on her.

   Portraiture has been said to provide the viewer with an encounter - not just a record of human features. Portraits feed our insatiable need for narrative and our experiences, however light or dark the story may be. In this series of paintings I introduce the two main characters. There is a portrait of the protagonist Betsy  Publicover pregnant, seventeen years before the August gales. And another of (Proud) Whitman, a member of the Whitman merchant class that resided in the once great sea port of Canso, Nova Scotia. Who were they really? What did they look like? What were their circumstances? How was Betsy led astray by (Proud) Whitman? The beauty of the poem is in the way it conjures up such questions for the reader as it effortlessly rolls us through the darkness of the tale. It's what June leaves out as much as what she puts in that engages us. It suggests and infers using a traditional poetic approach of rhyme with fourteen stanzas each comprised with four line quatrains throughout the entire poem. There is a haunting witchery to stanza nine where the curse takes us into uncharted psychological waters and we question the transformation of reality through this tragic event.

 There's no doubt this poem and the accompanying paintings are rooted in the historical tradition of Romanticism.* However, June's poem asserts that even though something took place in the distant past, it remains to be about, and of the world today.

 I am most grateful that June has inspired me with her poem and allowed me to reproduce it here for you dear reader.

 - Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS  


*Simone Labuschagne, my wife, graciously modeled and assumed a studio persona of Betsy Publicover as we discussed which elements of June's poem to focus on in order to create a compatible visual portrait of her ballad. Archival photos from our youth thirty five years ago also assisted me with the portraits of Betsy Publicover and (Proud) Whitman. 



The Ballad of Betsy Publicover

       (The Whitman Curse)

Along a curving gravel - bar

Bellow a lofty hill,

The Publicover wharves and sheds

Stood high, and dark, and still.

But as the tide and tempest rose

They soon were all alight;

And filled with fearful Canso folk,

Who waited there all night.


                              Betsy Publicover (The Wait), oil on masonite, Dyptich, 24" x 50", Steven Rhude


Of all who vainly waited there

Throughout the August gale

None suffered more than Betsy did;

And this is her sad tale.


From blushing youth and innocence

She had been led astray,

And borne a bonnie daughter -

who was seventeen that day.


                             Betsy Publicover Pregnant, oil on masonite, 24" x 30", Steven Rhude


And Whitman's ship, from Halifax

That girl, returning home,

Was, with her shipmates, one and all,

To perish in the foam.


                               (Proud) Whitman, oil on masonite, 24" x 30", Steven Rhude


Before the early dawn arose

Those waiting on the shore

Had watched the fruitless flares go up

Until there rose no more.


                                               Tempest, oil on masonite, 24" x 18", Steven Rhude


Proud Whitman spoke to Betsy then;

and her response was wild:

"How dare you try to comfort me?

You, father of my child,

My blessed only daughter

who is in the ocean now:"

He blanched, as with mild laughter

She spoke this awful vow:


                                   Betsy Publicover (The Loss), oil on masonite, 24" x 18", Steven Rhude


"I swear that every Whitman child

Shall die while in its youth!

Your seed shall vanish from the earth."

Her fey voice rang with truth.


                                        Betsy Publicover (The Curse), oil on masonite, 24" x 48", Steven Rhude



Now, you who listen to my tale

May laugh, but as you do,

Be well assured, whatever the cause-

Poor Betsy's words came true.

The Whitman line of men and ships

And commerce died away;

The broken lines of earth and stone

Scarce mark their place today.

On any night of wind and storm

That may in august blow,

Beware of what you may behold

If to that place you go:

                                    Betsy Publicover, (Vain Vigil), oil on masonite, 24" x 40", Steven Rhude

For some have seen her pacing there

Her dark hair tumbled free;

And streaming out behind her 

As she gazes out to sea.

Along a curving gravel - bar

Below a lofty hill,

Betsy keeps vain vigil there...

And curses the Whitmans' still.

June N. Jarvis, copyright 2023


                                                                                         June N. Jarvis, Canso, Nova Scotia










Saturday, 18 March 2023

Recent Flower Still Lifes - Crossroads

  Crossroads have always intrigued me, both literally and figuratively. If I were to follow the idea that I’m living in a strange twilight between the tangible world I belong to and the painted world I create, I could metaphorically refer to this as some sort of "crossroads". I don't meditate, probably should, but I still on occasion murmer a prayer. However while doing these flower still life paintings I believe the elements that comprise them - light, the sea, atmosphere, wood, lead, cloth, plant and petals - are in their own way meditations on some of the things I find mysterious and yet calming, beautiful but indifferent.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville 


                                Orchid with Three Buoys, oil on canvas, 40" x 30", Steven Rhude



Iris and Adam, oil on canvas, 28" x 38", Steven Rhude 

Magnolia (Trio at Dusk), oil on canvas, 19" x 19", Steven Rhude


                                            Yellow Roses, Quartet, oil on canvas, 19" x 19", Steven Rhude

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Thoughts on Happiness from the Newfoundland Quarterly

Water Taxi, oil on masonite, 24" x 24", Emma Butler Gallery

 What makes me happy? Well it’s typical of me to look up the etymology of the word “Happy” first. What I found was the old English approach - lucky, favoured by fortune, greatly pleased and content. Happy medium, happy ending, oh happy days…one of my favourites is “happy hour”. I’ve always believed that a painter operates at a particular crossroads. It’s a problematic location, but assuming that I’m living in that strange twilight between the tangible world I belong to and the painted world I create, well that is one aspect of living that makes me happy. 

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Port de Grave Peddler


Port de Grave Peddler, oil on canvas, 38" x 41", Steven Rhude

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." 

Henry David Thoreau

Making subject matter is a preoccupation with painters that value narrative. However, narrative is not always so willing or apparent a partner to the painter until well after the fact; that is, well after a visual encounter may have taken place and time has lapsed. The painter relies on memory, notes, drawings, etc., to re kindle the experience, but eventually it is the unpacking of a scene by the subconscious and the recurrence of its characteristics that evolve to the point where a commitment to canvas is made, and a painting is eventually executed. 

I'm particularly fond of the fishing community of Port de Grave, Newfoundland. It's one of those places that seems to transport me to a particular crossroads where I tend to operate. It's that strange twilight between the tangible world I belong to and that painted world of creation. The peddler, or cyclist, has reoccurred  in my paintings over the years and Port de Grave is the latest installment. 

 My dreams from childhood to adulthood have been traversed with images of a cyclist, and it is fair to say it is no stranger to art. Cycling was also a subject that mattered greatly to Canadian artist Greg Curnoe who painted his ten speed several times and even made self portraits in his cycling gear. They are some of the most unique images in Canadian art. Mainstream cinema has over the years certainly used the bicycle as a potent symbol of opportunity and exploration as well. And in class driven Britain, the very first episode (1960) of Coronation Street ends with Ken Barlow snobbishly pondering his working class father and brother as they patch a bicycle tire in front of the living room fireplace with Susan his date assisting. 

The world has changed since 1960 and the cultural explosion of cycling is now in top gear, and is a powerful icon of community and independence. I'm not finished with bicycles and I doubt they're finished with me. My "peddler" or cyclist, is not only a subject - but something in which the bike is both a literal and metaphorical means of exploration. 

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS


Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Cathedral of Ice

You have to wonder how many times "They stand at the ships railings in woolen coats to watch cathedrals of ice moving south..."

Hard Light, Michael Crummy

Cathedral of Ice, oil on canvas, 17" x 23", Steven Rhude


You read books about the rock, you go there, you picture this and that, imagine the worst and the best, you observe water and ice, barrens and cities. You interview, draw, debate, discuss, ruminate, and in the end go back to the people that initiated your passion. You do not know it from the inside, yet you know the measure of it from the outside, it's all you have. He looks at you beneath brows like straw. He asks you... no, he tells you one day, 'to make sure you never let it become a hobby'. You make a promise you will keep.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

Saturday, 5 November 2022

Study of a Fish Plant Worker


Study of a Fish Plant Worker, oil on canvas, 20" x 23", Steven Rhude, at www.emmabutler.com

Her job duty was evident and simple, to cut, clean and trim fish or seafood prior to marketing or further processing. Specifically, she was to cut fish, separate fillets, and remove scrap parts using a knife. Also, there was the issue of checking fillets to determine optimal size of fillet sections, cut those sections according to specifications and place in a container to be weighed. Her wages range from thirteen to eighteen dollars per hour.

He had seen fish plant workers from Canso to Newfoundland, their shift work day and night. He recalled his routine trips to the Co-op for groceries. He could see the fish plant from the parking lot - see the workers in their rubber boots out on break getting some sun or a smoke - see the life on their aprons and facial expressions - but that was a long time ago when National Sea Products employed around six hundred people at the plant, before it was closed and demolished, reduced to memories in photographic form. Another chapter in small town coastal life.

His fish plant worker is from both another time and today. He's taken her from the plant to the wharf - she's intelligent and knows it's not a wharf, but the wharf. She holds a box of frozen cod fillets to bring home for supper.


Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS    

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Dory at Madrocks


Dory at Madrocks, oil on canvas, 38" x 41", Steven Rhude  www.secordgallery.com

"Being able to hold the thread of a painting tightly is the mark of a good artist. Such textural elements must be stretched tight if the friction of the elements is to be effective. Lesser artists may attempt to work with these ideas of texture, but something usually gives, the line falls slack, the suspension sags and the works don't have that captured energy that we see here.

For Rhude, there's tension in the almost surreal contrast of his subjects which are often placed in paradoxical situations.You can feel the slight rub of confusion - why is the buoy on the overturned boat? How can the shed be in the surf? In that moment of disjointed comprehension, behind the smooth, enjoyable surface of the painting, Rhude's texture opens up a culture of inquiry - the political meaning of an unemployed fisherman for example - a visual expression of our society's pressing questions. Rhude makes his ideas into texture." 

- Leopold Kowolik, from the catalogue Making Things Matter, Gallery 78

Return to Happenstance Cove, oil on canvas, 38" x 41", www.secordgallery.com