Back in the Old Days, The Art of Harold Cromwell (Sep-Oct 2023)

For many years, Harold Cromwell was artist-in-residence at Upper Clements Park, and he sold his work at the Annapolis Royal Farmers’ & Traders’ Market. Much of his work is held in private collections, and to date, institutions have struggled securing the loans to mount exhibitions of his work, until now with the opening of Back in the Old Days: The Art of Harold Cromwell. ARTSPLACE worked closely with Cromwell’s daughters, Natasha and Clara, lending the works that will be in the exhibit. Harold’s grandson, Karlon DeZylva-Adhihetty assisted with selecting images for the exhibit.

Community Forum (Sep. 9, 2023 - Opening of Back in the Old Days exhibition at ARTSPLACE)

Following the opening reception, 40+ community members gathered to show art from their home collections and share memories of how they were affected by Harold’s art, personality, stories and adventures.

Notably, his children Clara, Natasha and, Bruce Cromwell, and Linda Bailey were all present to receive and share memories, too.  His grandsons Karlon DeZylva-Adhihetty and Phillip Bailey, both artists who were exhibited alongside the Harold exhibition, also took part.

Ray Cronin, former director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, offered opening remarks.

Essay: Back in the Old Days, by Ray Cronin

This exhibition of work by Harold Cromwell reintroduces the art world to a folk artist who has been somewhat eclipsed by his more famous peers, such as his near contemporary (and near neighbour), Maud Lewis, one of the few Canadian artists to become a household name. But Harold Cromwell, despite not receiving the sustained attention enjoyed by Lewis (and to a lesser extent by several artists who have received national and international attention from galleries and collectors alike, such as Joe Norris, Collins Eisenhauer, Ralph Boutilier, Joe Sleep, and Sidney Howard), is considered by professionals in the art world as one of the most important folk artists in the country. That recognition, however, has taken a longer time coming than the obvious quality of his work would suggest. Cromwell has a unique style and approach that sets him apart from other first wave folk artists, and it is only a matter of time before his reputation grows outside of professional circles.

Maud Lewis rose to prominence in the 1960s, and the other Nova Scotia folk artists in her peer group were first brought to national attention with the 1976 touring exhibition Folk Art of Nova Scotia, organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and curated by Bernard Riordon. From that point on, Nova Scotia Folk Art became a major part of Nova Scotias visual art legacy, with numerous group and solo exhibitions that have kept the genre in the forefront of the public eye. Harold Cromwell wasnt included in that first exhibition, or in other early touring shows of Nova Scotia Folk Art, but by the 1990s his work was regularly included in any survey of the genre and has been on view regularly at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia for three decades. There is no formula, of course, for why one artist achieves fame and another seemingly of equal talent, does not. Hard work plays a role, of course, but art is always hard work—no work, no art. There is a combination of factors that cannot be predicted. Luck, basically. 

Nor does fame always bring personal success or satisfaction: Maud Lewis, of course, lived in poverty and had been deceased for decades before becoming the household name that she is now. Whether fame is the result of luck or fate, its effects are often only visible afterwards. But perhaps fame is about to catch up with Harold Cromwell.

Photos of Harold in his Weymouth Falls home, circa 2006, submitted by JV Owens after visiting the exhibition.

Though he hasn’t been accorded the same level of recognition as Lewis and others, Weymouth’s Harold Cromwell is certainly one of the giants of Nova Scotia folk art. Cromwell had deep roots in Southwest Nova Scotia. He was born in Weymouth Falls in 1919 and was descended from Black Loyalists who settled in the area in 1783. Many of the Black Loyalists had been slaves in the United States and had earned both freedom and land grants by serving in the British Army. Cromwell, too served, as a soldier in the Canadian army during the Second World War (included in this exhibition is a drawing harking back to his time in the army).

Unlike Lewis, Norris or Eisenhauer, Cromwell was neither a painter nor a carver, working primarily with the humble materials of pencil and ball-point pen on plain white paper or wood. For over 50 years Cromwell, though his drawings, depicted memories, stories and anecdotes of daily life, especially in the African Nova Scotian community of Weymouth Falls and area. Occasionally he used colour, both in paintings and drawings (and there are examples in this exhibition), but, as one of his handmade signs attests, it was the pen that was his primary artistic tool, and nostalgia that was his primary theme: “pen drawings of back in the old days,” his sign reads.

Harold Cromwell sold his work at the Annapolis Royal Farmers & Traders Market, and for many years he was artist-in-residence at Upper Clements Park. He was extremely prolific, but his work was never the subject of a major exhibition (though it was the subject of a festival at Sissiboo Landing in Weymouth in 2017). David Woods, then-curator of African Nova Scotia Art at the AGNS, said upon Cromwell’s death in 2008: “He would have been a Canadian folk art icon had the public seen the scope of his works.” Unfortunately, the public has never had that chance. Until now, that is, with the exhibition Back in the Old Days: The Art of Harold Cromwell.

Cromwell was unique among the major Nova Scotia folk artists in two ways—he was African Nova Scotian (indeed, the most widely known African Nova Scotian folk artist in Canada), and his work consisted primarily of monochrome drawings (Joe Sleep also drew, but most of his work was done with coloured pens and inks). He would draw on any scrap of paper that came to hand—even paper plates (Royal Chinet, of course, made here in Nova Scotia). There is one paper plate drawing in this exhibition, and another in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History. Obviously, he would draw on almost anything when the spirit moved him.

Folk art is so popular because it seems more accessible, lacking the perceived seriousness of so-called “high art.” Like that of many of his peers, his art looked back to an idealized Nova Scotian past, one of close-knit community and family life. This vision may not have reflected what life was always like, but it certainly spoke to how Cromwell aspired for it to have been.

While Cromwell was in the military hospital at Debert recuperating from wounds received overseas during the Second World War, he was given drawing materials by the nurses to help him pass the time. He soon started drawing the doctors and nurses, as well as the landscape he saw out the window. Drawing became a defining part of his life, much more than a simple pastime.

After the war he worked as a miner in Sudbury, Ontario. After five years he returned to Weymouth where he worked several jobs, always drawing in his spare time. After his retirement he took up drawing more intensely. While the bulk of his work was monochromatic and modest in scale, in later years he also made larger works in which he used markers or coloured pencils to add splashes of colour to his drawings. He often included texts in his drawings—some purely descriptive and others humorous.  He even made drawings and paintings on the walls of his home.

Cromwell’s work depicts life in a rural community in the early twentieth century and is laced with humour and wry observation. While Cromwell’s work is included in the collections of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and The Canadian Museum of History, much of his work is held in private collections, and to date institutions have struggled securing the loans to mount exhibitions of this important artist’s work. With the opening of this exhibition of his work at ARTSPLACE, that long neglect is coming to an end, and it is likely that with this public exposure, renewed public and professional interest will propel Harold Cromwell’s art further into the spotlight, as is only fitting for such a major figure in the history of Nova Scotian, and indeed, Canadian, folk art.

– Ray Cronin (Elmsdale, Nova Scotia, 2023)

Cover of "Back in the Old Days - The Art of Harold Cromwell" catalogue from Moose House Publications

The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase through Moose House Publications:
www.moosehousepress.com

 

Read more about Harold, including quotes from daughter Natasha, in this recent article:
billiemag.ca/harold-cromwell-back-in-the-old-days

Artist Profile - Harold Cromwell

  • Harold Cromwell (1919-2008) is a giant of Nova Scotia folk art and considered one of the most important folk artists in Canada. Even though he hasn’t received the same level of recognition as others, a new exhibition of work by Harold Cromwell at ARTSPLACE reintroduces the art world to an artist who has been somewhat eclipsed by his more famous peers, such as his near contemporary (and near neighbour), Maud Lewis.

    Harold Cromwell was born in Weymouth Falls in 1919 and was descended from Black Loyalists who settled in the area in 1783. Born into a poor, hard-working family, Cromwell went to live and work with his uncle at a very young age. As a teenager, he worked at the Goodwin Hotel in Weymouth.

    During the Second World War, Cromwell joined the army and served in England, supporting soldiers who suffered from combat fatigue. While recuperating in the military hospital at Debert from wounds he received overseas, Cromwell was given drawing materials by the nurses to help him pass the time. Cromwell soon started drawing the doctors and nurses, as well as the landscape he saw out the window. Drawing became a defining part of his life, much more than a simple pastime.

    Working primarily with the humble materials of pencil and ball-point pen on plain white paper or wood, Cromwell was neither a painter nor a carver. For over 50 years, Cromwell, through his drawings, depicted memories, stories, and anecdotes of daily life, especially in the African Nova Scotian community of Weymouth Falls; his art looked back to an idealized Nova Scotian past, one of close-knit community and family life.

    “Cromwell has a unique style and approach that sets him apart from other first wave folk artists, and by the 1990s, his work was regularly included in any survey of the genre,” said Ray Cronin, former Director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

    “Cromwell’s work depicts life in a rural community in the early twentieth century and is laced with humour and wry observation,” adds Cronin.

Support for the project and associated programming provided by Arts Nova Scotia, Municipality of the County of Annapolis, Town of Annapolis Royal, The Parker Mountain Wind Turbine Society.