Susan Tooke celebrates nature and the rural life she shared with her late husband in the exhibit, West of Paradise, at Secord Gallery, 6301 Quinpool Rd., Halifax, to Nov. 27.
“This work is really the whole idea of paradise, that we had come to this amazing place, this amazing property and it was everything we could ever dream of – everything was so beautiful and so inspirational,” says Tooke.
In April, 2018, she and artist Richard Rudnicki left their Elm Street home and studios in Halifax for a 1769 farmhouse and over 100 acres of land at the base of the North Mountain in Port Royal.
They lived and worked happily together with their two terriers, chickens and gardens until Rudnicki died on Nov. 4, 2019.
“To have his sudden death was a complete shock,” says Tooke, who drove to Halifax to greet friends and viewers. “This is all work I did before Richard’s death. In the past year I did a single painting based on his loss.”
That painting – not on exhibit — is a marsh landscape with a red figure representing Rudnicki. “From where our house is you have this long view over the marsh to South Mountain. I’d see him on his hikes in his red jacket and I still imagine him walking home.”
Red flickers like flame in most of Tooke’s paintings; it is an important colour to her emotionally and visually. “I like the way red expresses itself. It’s a nice contrast to the background and it really defines an energy.”
This wonderful, varied exhibit includes Tooke’s recognizable landscapes in hot blues and greens or dark storms of energy and her Groundscapes series of abstracted forest-floor views teeming with life forms that look primordial and microscopic but are essentially indefinable.
“I wanted to create symbols that represented life but were not recognizable as animals and things we know. I wanted something that could show movement and existence and the passage of time.
“I was thinking about time and how it layers life. If anything my experiences have pushed me more in that direction. You realize how transient our lives are, how finite they are.”
In Canopy II, a swirling painting in smoky blues, reds and oranges, Tooke takes the life forms off the ground and puts them in a massive tree trunk. The viewer looks up to see sky and leaves which also contain the life forms.
However, in the later painting, the pensive, muted landscape Marsh View Towards North Mountain, Tooke no longer draws highly detailed creatures; she suggests them.
A delicious, pale green cloud is outlined in energized lines to look like a spiny fish and the land is full of shapes that could be life forms.
“I’m trying to get away from the expected so when I’m working there are moments where I stop myself from doing what would seem to be pre-programmed in my brain to push myself in a different direction so I can discover things. I think it’s working.”
Tooke has included two paintings by Rudnicki that are vibrant landscapes in reds from a shared a painting trip to Five Islands. “His colour is incredible and the expressiveness is so beautiful. I look at them and I remember where we were. We were painting together on site.
“We influenced each other. When you see the work hanging together you see that. He was very much my sounding board. We would look at each other’s work and critique it and he was someone I could rely on to give a suggestion. Sometimes I would listen!”
She calls Rudnicki her best friend, her creative partner, her lover. “We were connected in every aspect of our lives.”
She has spent the last year working in his studio to complete his graphic novel on the Battle of the Atlantic and the HMCS Sackville, which is the last surviving corvette from the Second World War.
“Richard was working for four years on the project and I hate the idea of that not being completed.”
She is also working with Ted Lind, of the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council (ARCAC), on a comprehensive exhibit of Rudnicki’s art, from his daily sketches to his illustrations, set for ARTsPLACE in November, 2021.
When Tooke gets back to her own studio, “I will start where I left off and review my past year and the time spent on reflection and the loss and I’ll see what comes out of that. I’ve documented quite a bit of the experience – some writing but a lot of imagery. I’ve taken a lot of photographs of the landscape. I want to go back and see if there is a difference in what I’ve been choosing to look at.
“It’s been a strange year, the loss of Richard and the pandemic and the loss of the companionship of your friends, the physical companionship of friends, which has maybe not been as impactful in Annapolis County as in Halifax.
“That aloneness, in some ways, I needed that. I needed that time to recognize things and express the grief and live through grief.”
The memories held within this show give her joy. Her energized drawing Wood Near Beautiful Cove, in India ink on watercolour paper, has a red stick at its centre.
“There was a really intriguing branch and I moved it. Richard was hysterically laughing because I was moving a piece of wood I thought would be perfect to lead you into the imagery.”
She still feels Rudnicki’s presence on their land — land that once belonged to the Acadians. Rudnicki’s Quebecois ancestor, the apothecary Louis Hebert, and Samuel Champlain lived nearby centuries ago at the Habitation.
After Rudnicki’s death she built a memorial of standing stones with Annapolis Royal sculptor and blacksmith Brad Hall. “It is at the top of a hayfield where there is a vista to the river and the South Mountain and over the marshlands and Richard and I used to go up there just to marvel at the fact we’d ended up at this incredibly beautiful place.
“The other morning I was walking the dogs and I looked across the field to the installation and there was a lone deer grazing within 10 feet of the stones and it looked up at me and watched me for the longest time.
“That was very emotional for me. Another time it was our anniversary and I went for a walk on the trails we’d created. I was trying to follow this trail and I stopped and I was looking down and a beam of light lit this rock in the shape of a heart and I burst into tears.”
She picked up the stone and took it home. “There have been things like that – a lone goose landing nearby and calling and calling and calling as if it had lost its mate.”
She has never once considered leaving the land. “I’ve got great neighbours that teach me the ropes and have been very supportive and the arts community there is stellar,” says Tooke, an award-winning artist who is very active as an arts advocate and environmentalist.. “I’ve become good at bush hogging the hay field. I have a tractor that is really useful.
“The area where I’m living feels so pristine. There isn’t a single moment where I don’t marvel at the beauty of the landscape.”
West of Paradise is on view to Nov. 27, Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 to 5:30;
Saturday, 10 to 5; it may also be viewed online at https://www.secordgallery.com/art/index.php?/category/181