Inside Cambridge | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Inside Cambridge

John Devlin's architectural drawings of Cambridge University began as art therapy and became a book. Tara Thorne wanders the grounds.

Inside Cambridge
After breaking down in Cambridge, John Devlin began drawing the place.
I was studying the wrong discipline ---I should've been studying architecture, not theology," says John Devlin, standing before eight framed collages in Eyelevel Gallery, where he's part of the group show Outside Inside. In 1979, he moved to England to study theology at Cambridge University--- after completing a bachelor of environmental design studies at Dalhousie, then the Technical University of Nova Scotia---and was immediately taken with the city.

"I'd read about it---the Bloomsbury Group, Tennyson, people who had studied there and famous people who had been there---and it never seemed like I would actually go there," he says. "It was a dream come true, almost overwhelming in a way, because there's so much culture and so many famous people have lived there and studied there. What's little old me from Halifax, Nova Scotia doing in Cambridge?

"In the winter, the days were short---not like in Nova Scotia because the latitude is higher in Cambridge than it is in Halifax; I find it kind of depressing in winter," he says. "But then in the spring, you have wallflowers, you have daffodils, you have crocuses, snowdrops, all these bulbs. It's just like a garden of Eden of flowers."

Though he was enamoured with the city, Devlin had trouble with his work. "I'd just become a Catholic, and I'd only a few years beforehand decided to become a priest, so there were a lot of changes in my life, which was a lot to deal with all of a sudden," he says. At the end of his first year, he "kind of cracked. Flipped out." He returned home to recover, but it was decided by James Martin Hayes, the Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Halifax, who'd funded Devlin's studies, that it was a risk to send him back.

Several times, from 1984 to 1989, he stopped taking his medication, and then he turned to art. Often in the margins of books, he drew architectural elements inspired by Cambridge ---staircases, gates, buildings---in "Crayola crayon, markers and Laurentian coloured pencils." He assembled them into 8.5-inch by 11-inch collages, 365 of them. (Number 366 was recently completed and slotted into a binder called The Book of Leap Year.)

"I don't know what it means---like these staircases"---he points, tracing---"winding staircases, I was obsessed with staircases going to the centre of the earth. And what would happen when three, four staircases met at the centre of the earth? Bizarre, kind of chaotic, manic, psychotic ideas like that."

Last June, there was an exhibition of Devlin's collages in England. Two of its visitors, designer Dylan Spencer-Davidson and editor Lizzie Alice Robinson, have produced a book of 30 of Devlin's collages he's named Nova Cantabrigiensis (published by Island Editions, it can be purchased online at or for $20 at the launch, $22 afterwards at the Eyelevel bookshop)---"Latin for New Cambridge, and it's a combination of Nova Scotia and Cambridge"---which will be launched on Saturday at Eyelevel as part of Outside Inside, featuring work from 19 members of Creative Spirit East, an outsider artists' collective based at the Veith Street Gallery.

Devlin draws less these days, "because I'm not as sick as I used to be. It's a give and take---as you get better, the inspiration dries up. If you want to be sick you can produce this sort of stuff forever."

A show like Outside Inside, says Devlin, is above all a "testimony of the usefulness of art therapy, and helping people who are having difficulties, any kind of difficulties--- whether it's mental illness or physical illness or a crisis in their life---buy some paper and start drawing."

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