Joseph Purcell: Jewels of the Shaman

By Dee Dwyer 

The prolific Acadian painter and printmaker Joseph Purcell is well known along the Eastern Shore. He and I met to talk about his life and art at the Rose and Rooster Café in Grand Desert, where he will show recent work in a three-day show, from September 29 to October 1.  Summarizing his approach to his work, Joe says, “I celebrate the natural realm in a decorative fashion with the use of harmonious jewel-like colours and metallic highlights.” 

Joe grew up in West Chezzetcook and can trace his ancestry back to the time of the Acadian Expulsion of 1755. He mentions the long history of his people and what they went through, and rural traditions, such as banking a house with eelgrass, cleaning a chimney with a spruce tree, and playing as a child with a dried pig’s bladder.  

He started painting at 10 years of age, and sold his first work, a painting of an elk, only three years later. Coming from a long line of trappers and hunters, he is interested in animals and nature, which are colorfully depicted in his art. “My work reflects my interest in zoology,” says Joe, “in particular the field of entomology.” He has a collection of over 20,000 specimens of insects. Joe considers himself a shaman in touch with nature, someone who interacts with nature as a power source for life.  

Joe studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, graduating in 1979 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education, majoring in printmaking. One of his mentors there was Dr. Peter Purdue, who encouraged Joe to make art about his Acadian roots. His first show, in 1977 at NSCAD’s Shooting Gallery, was called Dreams of a Shaman. 

Joe taught art in the school system, doing much substituting. He taught at Dartmouth High, and for two and a half years at Eastern Shore District High in Musquodoboit Harbour. In 2009 he went to Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories to teach at Aurora College and the elementary school there. He stayed for five summers and four winters. “It’s a harsh paradise,” Joe says. “The land is pristine and pure, the people are friendly, but it’s a killing land.”  He added moose, lynx, bears, eagles, and ravens to his subject matter, but he was most struck and influenced by the many shades of blue in the arctic landscape. In Fort Simpson, he had two one-man shows and participated in three group shows as part of the Dené’s Open Sky Festival.  

Joe says he is a “line-man,” a graphic painter using a strong line-drawing “that I meticulously colour in using harmonious colours.” he says. “It ‘s meditative work.” He also uses pointillism, using points of complementary colours. “I like the idea of colours mixing and shimmering on the retina,” he says, as he shows me a close-up of many blues in a sky. The bold lines and rich colours are the jewels of his work.  

About 35 years ago, Joe started his own card company, and under the name Joe Blacksold cards of his art. Now Joe has a new project, Wee Trade Monsters, a set of limited edition trading cards of his own designs of monsters super-imposed over northern landscapes. 

If you catch his show at the Rose and Rooster from September 29 to October 1, you will see samples of his monster cards, as well as colourful acrylic paintings, pen and ink drawings, and prints from his new Acadian series.  

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11 E Petpeswick Rd, Musquodoboit Harbour, NS B0J 2L0


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