A few years ago, Ross and Barb Smith, both in their early 70s, set up a yard sale in front of their Fredericton, N.B., home, just down from one of the city’s several cemeteries, and waited to see if there was a market for any of their junk. Before long, an elderly woman had shuffled onto the scene and began buying up the yard. She wanted the wooden blocks Ross had used to raise the car during fix-it jobs, and a collection of metal odds and ends. “Oh, she liked that, she could use that,” they recall her saying. Ross, sensing an opportunity, invited the woman down to the basement to see if there might be anything else she could use. There below, she snapped up a mouldering grand piano.
“What could she want with it all?” the Smiths wondered. As they befriended her (the couple has now made a hobby of bringing the woman discarded bric-a-brac dragged from the local dump), they came to learn she was busy slapping the detritus together into sculptures—“objects of art,” as Ross, who worked for years for the provincial power utility, puts it. That was interesting, they thought, but also a bit mysterious. Nevertheless, upon receiving a handwritten invitation, last month the Smiths headed for the prestigious Beaverbrook Art Gallery, where the woman, Catherine Hale, is now having her first major solo art show, at the age of 84. “I stressed all day,” says Barb. “I thought, ‘What do I wear to something so special?’ ”
As it turned out, much of what she saw that day—a collection of eerie tapestries made from discarded lace and face veils, dismantled knick-knacks screwed together in incongruous ways and painted black—“looked familiar,” says Barb. Hale had caked their old piano in black paint and converted it into something like a motorcycle sidecar, a piece she calls Earhart—Amelia-style aviator shades and a leather flight cap are tacked up in the area of the cockpit—a nod, perhaps, to Hale’s great inspiration, Emily Dickinson, and her poem “Because I could not stop for death” (“The Carriage held but just Ourselves—And Immortality”). So close does Hale feel to Dickinson that Terry Graff, the Beaverbrook’s chief curator, subtitled her show Between the Spirit and the Dust, another Dickinson allusion.
A diminutive woman with short, powerful arms, piercing blue eyes, a rapid-fire monotone and explosive laugh, Hale arrived at the opening wearing black knee-high boots, a wide-brimmed black hat and a long black skirt—“like someone from another age,” says Louise Hale-Finley, one of her two daughters. “Was she always like this?” Barb, a homemaker, asked Hale-Finley of her mother. “Oh no,” Hale-Finley replied. “She used to be normal.” Hale was born on June 23, 1927, a date that’s already carved into a tombstone at the cemetery where her mother lays buried; she plans to be buried next to her. (Hale also has her own obituary prepared and keeps it updated: “My mother always felt you should have those things ready,” she says.) She grew up in the dollhouse town of Fredericton in a home her parents bought “for a song” because a man had once hung himself there. Across the way stood a funeral home; as a girl, Hale watched the processions of mourners, and even once accepted a ride in a hearse.
She married a University of New Brunswick professor and had four children. Only in 1969, after her divorce, could she devote herself to her art. She ripped the carpets from her home and put a Ping-Pong table in the parlour, her work table for decades now. About 10 years ago, after her eldest, Allan, died in a car wreck, “I decided I was going to do this night and day,” she says of her art. She gave up normal things and withdrew, churning out sculptures that soon filled the house and threatened to bury her. It was then that Graff, at the Beaverbrook, was alerted, and the show he curated tries somewhat to recreate the abundance he found when he first entered her home—a thick wilderness of black sculptures like ceremonial objects from a religion that does not exist. The day of her opening, Graff arranged to celebrate Hale’s 84th birthday by putting out a cake—with marzipan icing so black it resembled crepe—amongst her artworks. “I walked by the cake and I said, ‘I don’t remember making that,’ ” says Hale.