Saturday, September 20, 2014
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N.S. Artist seeks new home for collection of Aboriginal art

CTV Atlantic

A Nova Scotia artist who has dedicated his life to collecting Canadian Aboriginal art is now amassing one of the largest collections in the country.

Hal Jones says his love of Native art began with Norval Morrisseau – a man known as the Picasso of the North.

The contemporary artist once walked into a small gallery Jones owned in Alberta and then walked back out, unimpressed by what he saw.

“About a week later, he shows up with a painting wrapped up in a blanket under his arm and he says ‘oh good, you're here.’ He unwrapped the blanket and showed me the piece and said ‘now that's good art.’ I looked at the piece and I was just blown away. It was just one of those change-of-life moments, a real epiphany,” says Jones.

Now, 35 years later, Jones owns thousands of pieces worth millions of dollars. His collection is vast, varied and balanced and includes paintings, traditional clothing, carvings, masks, and hand-woven baskets.

“I wasn't after just the great Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier and Leonard Paul, but I was also after some of things that would be incidental to English and French, but may be very important culturally to the First Nations,” says Jones.

The tapestry of cultures is so large the walls and shelves in Jones’ home don’t provide nearly enough space to display it all. Most of the art is kept elsewhere and everything is categorized into one of five books, divided by region.

“West Coast, Plains Indians, Woodlands Indian of Ontario and Quebec, Eastern Woodlands of the Maritimes and the Arctic,” says Jones.

Jones doesn’t want to keep his collection private anymore, saying he wants to share what he loves with others. His dream is to have all his art displayed in a gallery or museum in his home province of Nova Scotia. He's worked for years to make it happen to no avail.

“It is the largest private collection in Atlantic Canada, it may be among, if not the largest ones in the country,” says Jones.

The Nova Scotia Art Gallery is aware of Jones’ intentions.

“First Nations' art is an incredibly important part of the whole visual culture of this country,” says Ray Cronin, director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Art Gallery. “Our whole national story is that we have three founding peoples and the first nations deserve this kind of attention.”

However, the gallery recently expanded its modest Aboriginal art exhibit and says it just doesn’t have the money or space to acquire Jones’ collection.

New Brunswick-born artist Arlene Dozay paints out of her home in Cape Breton. Her work tells stories of the past.

“Our spiritual traditions, our family traditions, a lot of it is really lost, a lot of it hasn't come back,” says Dozay.

Jones has several of her pieces and Dozay would love to see her work displayed for the public.

“Our culture is really a stepping stone for people who come to Canada to know Canada. I think they should know who was here first and their culture,” says Dozay.

Jones says he knows his house is not a home for a collection that has become a portrait of decades of First Nations art and heritage. He wants to share it with others, so they too can appreciate the art, the culture, and the people behind it.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Kelland Sundahl

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