Picturing Dartmouth’s new optimism

Wendy Bissett Beaver’s City By The Sea paintings foreshadow a bright arts-based future for dowtown Dartmouth.

Dart Gallery owner Jane MacDougald, left, with Wendy Besset Beaver. - THE DART GALLERY
The Dart Gallery
Dart Gallery owner Jane MacDougald, left, with Wendy Besset Beaver.

It's Saturday morning and downtown Dartmouth is bustling as customers flit between cafes, brunch spots and the Alderney Landing market. Inside The Dart Gallery on Portland Street, a couple picks up a painting before leaving for vacation, and Huxley the rabbit, named after the author of Brave New World, naps in his cage behind the counter.

Gallery and bunny owner Jane MacDougald has been curating accessible contemporary works mostly by Dartmouth artists since she opened last November. Her business is one of the area's many new additions drawing crowds to downtown Dartmouth. For instance, at the opening night of a recent video game-themed exhibit, she says the gallery "was jam-packed and there were people out on the sidewalk."

Today, two new paintings lean against the navy blue wall, ready for their debut Friday in a 10-piece collection dubbed City By The Sea. Created by neighbourhood artist Wendy Bissett Beaver, the whimsical Dartmouth streetscapes depict a vibrant neighbourhood with exaggerated shapes and curved lines. "I don't like to make things straight if I can help it," the painter says.

After years of neglect following suburban exodus in the 1970s, some believe downtown Dartmouth isn't the prettiest place, but the artist and gallery owner don't see it that way. Beaver twists the city's meaner streets into a positive light, filling cracks in the sidewalks and colouring the sky blue. The gazebo on the Dartmouth Commons, newly restored thanks to a community effort, wasn't difficult for Beaver to portray in a cheerful way, but the artist deserves kudos for managing to beautify the notorious oil refinery in another of her paintings. Her street scenes may not be realistic, but she says they capture the optimistic spirit of the neighbourhood.

"You can't help but feel great about your city when you look at them," MacDougald says of the Dartmouth portraits.

In a way, they're a prediction of what the future holds. As preference grows for the urban lifestyle over the suburban, Portland Street and the surrounding area continues to fill with new residents, visitors and business owners. It was a bit of a secret, MacDougald says, but now it's out.

Increasingly the area is becoming a place for artists to flourish. Last fall, graffiti artists transformed Dartmouth Cove with spray paint as part of the HopScotch festival. Lately art groups on the peninsula have buzzed about cheaper rents across the harbour, and Platform X (formerly known as Platform Halifax, currently looking for a different name altogether) briefly considered leasing a building on Canal Street to form an art hub. Platform X wasn't able to secure enough tenancy upfront to confidently sign a lease, says organizer Melanie Colosimo. She hasn't stopped looking for potential spaces in Dartmouth and Halifax, however, and wants the conversation about affordable studios to continue.

MacDougald understands the struggle to find space. "Artists tend to live in places with low rent so they can afford their studios, which is not always the greatest pattern, because the artists move in, clean it up, add a new flavour to the area and then get priced out," she says. The gallery owner believes in long-term lease models other cities have employed to encourage artists to stay in urban centres where rents are climbing.

As for the Dart Gallery, MacDougald hopes to support Dartmouth artists and residents by keeping the art on her walls affordable and accessible. "I'm not joking—every day someone will come in and say, 'I'm so happy you're here. This is great for Dartmouth.'"

City By The Sea
Friday, May 30 through Sunday, June 15
The Dart Gallery, 127A Portland Street

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