A report by Tim Arsenault for The Chronicle-Herald.
It’s a mind-hand thing.
That’s how Clara Gough of East Preston describes her basket making, a traditional practical skill that she’s turned into art. Her basketry sculpture Woman, an homage to her late mother, the highly regarded basket maker Edith Clayton, was featured Monday at an exhibition on the Halifax Common.
As part of the fifth annual Caribbean Diaspora Cultural Festival, the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia presented The Art of Preston, a display of work from and about the African-Nova Scotian communities of East Preston, North Preston, Cherry Brook and Lake Loon.
Gough, 79, depicted a female figure holding a baby. The piece stands more than a metre high and is a companion to one inspired by her father.
“I made the man first, in 1998, resembling my dad. My dad used to get my mom’s maple, the red maple this is made from,” she said during an interview at the park.
About 10 years later, she completed the matching piece to honour her mother.
“I took over after she passed away in 1989,” said Gough.
“She just sort of made regular baskets. She didn’t do a whole lot of design. I decided I wanted to make a woman and a man, in the image of my mom and dad, and a baby, the image of me. That’s how I got started doing different types of work.”
The skill for basket making can be traced back generations. Gough went with her mother and grandmother to the Halifax market on Saturdays starting when she was eight.
“I’m trying to continue the art on. It’s been passed down from mother to daughter over 200 years. Some of my ancestors came up by the Underground Railroad, and some of them came from the Congo and different places. And some of them brought the art here.”
Conveniently, her family was able to take advantage of the particular trees on their land in East Preston.
“My dad used to go on our property and get the maple for my mom. After he got older, then my brothers took over and then from there my sons get my wood,” Gough said.
“I asked my mother and my grandmother, and it’s always red maple.”
The fact that The Art of Preston was being exhibited in a Caribbean cultural celebration was not coincidental. Several artists in the show are Caribbean-born but have longstanding links with the community, which also has historical connections to the Caribbean.
“It’s not unusual, in a sense, that it’s part of a Caribbean festival because unbeknownst to a lot of folk, there is a strong Caribbean connection to the history of Preston that goes back into the 18th century,” said exhibition curator and participating artist David Woods.
The Jamaica Maroons, who lived in Halifax from 1796 to 1800, established a residence, Maroon Hall, in nearby Cole Harbour and provided workers to then-governor John Wentworth’s farm in East Preston.
Nine artists from a range of backgrounds were collected for the show.
“We’ve collected artwork both from artists from Preston as well as art that has been inspired by the community of Preston,” Woods said.
The Art of Preston was on display in the celebration’s educational tent, which also featured information panels about Caribbean-born and -descended Nova Scotia achievers. Gough is one of them.
She’s taken her pieces and done workshops in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Savannah, Georgia. She met the Queen and spoke to her about her family’s work in 1994, she said.
Gough used to do workshops in schools and, for a time, they attracted younger people to the craft.
“It’s sort of fading away now. The younger people are getting into other stuff. There’s a few that want to take it, and I still offer classes,” she said.
“It’s a good art, but you have to be patient.”