Nova Scotia

Online portraits of notable N.S. women launched for International Women's Day

The online gallery of paintings includes women from early N.S. history to contemporary times.

Paintings includes women from early N.S. history to contemporary times

Peace activist Muriel Duckworth is included in the gallery of portraits, the Nova Scotia Nine. (Submitted by Jo Napier)

Viola Desmond. Rita Joe. Muriel Duckworth. Anna Leonowens.

Those are just some of the women who make up the Nova Scotia Nine.

Nine women who have played a significant role in the history of Nova Scotia have been memorialized in the Nova Scotia Nine, a gallery of portraits on the website of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

All of the paintings are by Halifax artist Jo Napier, who told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton that the project started out as a means of finding role models for her young daughter.

"It was a problem that turned into an opportunity, I guess you'd say," she said.

The paintings by Jo Napier were first shown together in an exhibit in 2011 at the Nova Scotia Archives. (Submitted by Jo Napier)

"My daughter, who's adopted from China, was looking for bedtime stories and I was reading her Curious George and showing her Alvin and the Chipmunks and reading her Anne of Green Gables, that kind of thing, and I thought, 'Why not tell her some stories about Nova Scotia women, great Nova Scotia girls, kind of our Nancy Drews, that sort of thing?'"

Looking for inspiration

So she started to research, beginning with Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe.

"I was just purely ashamed, honestly, that I did not know much about Rita Joe," she said.

"So I started with her, learning about her and her amazing writing and her inspirational work and just how she became such a beacon of light to the Mi'kmaq people."

Jo Napier's portrait of Mi'kmaq poet Rita Joe. (Submitted by Jo Napier)

Next came Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond, whose portrait was shaping up as a study in subdued dignity until a meeting between Napier and Desmond's sister, Wanda Robson of North Sydney.

"I threw this big canvas in the car and drove over to Dartmouth and cornered Wanda and her lovely husband Joe, and sat them down and asked them about Viola," she said.

"She literally filled me up with feelings for Viola, so I completely changed my portrait of her."

The original portrait of Desmond had her in a jail cell wearing white gloves, painted in sombre colours.

​"I set that painting aside and painted her instead in these kind of almost pop art colours," Napier said.

"Pinks and golds and sort of vibrant, joyful hues that you'd see in a Matisse painting or an Andy Warhol silkscreen or something."

From the 18th century forward

Research on each woman led Napier to the next, until there were the Nine.

The portraits were first shown together in a show in 2011 at the Nova Scotia Archives.

Mabel Bell, education pioneer and wife of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, is included in the gallery. (Submitted by Jo Napier)

In addition to Joe and Desmond, the group also includes the late 20th century peace activist Muriel Duckworth.

Earlier notables are Mabel Bell, education pioneer and wife of inventor Alexander Graham Bell; track star Aileen Meagher; writer Margaret Marshall Saunders; social activist Edith Jessie Archibald; the inspiration for The King and I, Anna Leonowens; and 18th century healer Marie-Henriette LeJeune (Granny) Ross.


Peggy MacDonald


Peggy MacDonald has been a reporter and editor with CBC Cape Breton for 18 years. She also serves as assignment editor. With a background in both print and radio, Peggy now primarily works in the digital world.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton