Art collectors look to shed light on forgotten Island artists
Joe Martell and Rick Smith have collected about 100 paintings, most of them by P.E.I. artists
Joe Martell says he and his partner, Rick Smith, have always been collectors of something.
But it wasn't until the last few years during the pandemic that they started to get serious about it.
It all started when they stumbled onto Restful Cove, a painting by renowned P.E.I. artist Henry Purdy. It depicts Herring Cove, a fishing village in Purdy's native Nova Scotia.
"The lady that was offering it for sale was from New Jersey," Martell said. "Her claim on the painting was that it was the first painting that Henry Purdy had ever sold as a professional artist.
"After it got here in the mail, Henry Purdy himself confirmed it for us that the story behind the painting was … true, that it was the first painting he ever sold back in 1958."
Once they got that one, Martell said, they thought, "Well, maybe there's other paintings that are out there that we could bring back to P.E.I. as well.'"
Martell and Smith have now collected about a hundred paintings, the majority done by artists from P.E.I. They are one of the few but dedicated collectors who specialize in Island art.
"The number of art collectors on the Island … I think is fairly small," said Aubrey Bell, co-owner of Gallery 18, which sells fine art, antiques and other items related to P.E.I. "But the ones who are collecting are quite avid."
Bell, whose gallery has carried works by some of the biggest names in Island art history — including some from 19th-century portraitist Robert Harris — said only a few P.E.I. artists are prominent enough for most people to consider their works "collectible."
"Often people collect art because they know the artist, or they knew the artist, or they know something about the artist," he said. "Some of our best clients for some artists tend to be descendants of the artist."
Martell and Smith have lived in Charlottetown for 30 years. Both of their families come from P.E.I.
Martell said their goal for the collection is to have a broad representation of artists, living or dead, who are also from the Island.
The collection features a wide range of paintings produced at different times and in various styles which change according to the art movements that were then in vogue.
A common theme are landscapes and seascapes, which are always in high demand, according to Bell.
Martell said the paintings normally cost $2,000, though he said on incredibly rare occasions some could be "found for $10 online somewhere."
He said some of the paintings they've collected were done by artists whose names were all but forgotten, even on P.E.I.
"A lot of the pieces that we have come across have no information about the artist at all," Martell said. "You'd have a signature on the front. Maybe on the back, you'd have their name written on it and possibly an address. But that's it."
A spotlight on forgotten artists
Martell and Smith have been compiling biographical information for some of the artists in their collection, combing through old newspapers, gallery websites, collector sites and auction listings.
"It's nice that when you're viewing a painting there's also something that you can read to give you a little bit of history about the artist as well," Martell said.
"Rick [collects] all of those tidbits of information, then I do my best to assemble this into some sort of legible narrative that will give the reader a glimpse into the life of the artist."
Recently, they've started to post some of their findings on social media.
"Quite often we'll get a message from somebody who has a painting, and they admit they knew nothing about the artist until they saw one of Rick's posts online, and they're thrilled to learn about the artist," Martell said. "Others are just genuinely appreciative of the efforts, you know? 'Hey, great story. Yeah, never knew that.'"
Bell said such efforts can expand the public's appreciation for the artists and may give them the confidence they need to acquire some of the paintings themselves.
"We need more of this kind of thing. It's very important [for] people who may not have had an education in art," he said.
For Martell and Smith, it's all about putting a spotlight on some artists who most people wouldn't know.
"The more we dig into this, the more we realize how much artistic talent has been nurtured in this province in its history," Martell said.
"We could be talking thousands of Islanders over the last 100 or 150 years, and a lot of that talent is easily forgotten with the passing of time."