Joe Martell says he and his partner, Rick Smith, have always been collectors of something.
But it’s only been in recent years, during the pandemic, that they’ve started to take a serious look at it.
It all started when they came across restful cove, a painting by the famous PEI artist. Henry Purdy. It depicts Herring Cove, a fishing village in Purdy’s native Nova Scotia.
“The lady offering it for sale was from New Jersey,” Martell said. “His claim on the painting was that it was the first painting Henry Purdy had ever sold as a professional artist.
“After it arrived in the mail, Henry Purdy himself confirmed to us that the story behind the painting was…true, that it was the first painting he ever sold in 1958.”
Once they got that one, Martell said, they thought, “Well, maybe there are other paintings that exist that we could bring back to PEI as well. .”
Martell and Smith have now collected about 100 paintings, the majority by artists from Prince Edward Island. They are one of the few dedicated collectors specializing in Island art.
“The number of art collectors on the Island…I think it’s quite small,” said Aubrey Bell, co-owner of Gallery 18, which sells art, antiques and other related items. in PEI “But those who collect are pretty greedy.”
Bell, whose gallery has exhibited works by some of the biggest names in PEI art history – including some by 19th-century portrait painter Robert Harris – said only a few PEI artists- P.-E. are well known enough that most people consider their works “collectible”.
“A lot of times 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 certain artists tend to be descendants of the artist.”
Martell and Smith have lived in Charlottetown for 30 years. Both of their families are from PEI.
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 presents a wide range of paintings produced at different times and in different styles that change according to the artistic movements 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, although he said on incredibly rare occasions some could be “found for $10 online somewhere”.
He said some of the paintings they collected were done by artists whose names were all but forgotten even in PEI.
“A lot of the pieces we’ve come across don’t contain any artist information,” Martell said. “You would have a signature on the front. Maybe on the back you would have their name written on it and maybe an address. But that’s it.”
Spotlight on forgotten artists
Martell and Smith compiled biographical information for some of the artists in their collection, combing through old newspapers, gallery websites, collectors’ sites, and auction listings.
“It’s nice that when you look at a painting there’s also something you can read to give you a bit of history about the artist as well,” Martell said.
“millstone [collects] all of these snippets of information, so I’m doing my best to piece them together into some sort of readable narrative that will give the reader a glimpse into the artist’s life.”
Recently, they have started posting some of their findings on social media.
“Quite often we get a message from someone who has a painting, and they admit they didn’t know anything about the artist until they saw one of Rick’s messages online, and they are excited to learn more about the artist,” Martell said. “Others genuinely appreciate the effort, you know? ‘Hey, great story. Yeah, I didn’t know that.'”
Bell said such efforts can increase public appreciation for artists and can give them the confidence they need to acquire some of the paintings themselves.
“We need more of this stuff. It’s very important [for] people who may not have had an art education,” he said.
For Martell and Smith, it’s about highlighting certain artists that most people don’t know about.
“The more we delve into this question, the more we realize how much artistic talent has been cultivated in this province throughout its history,” Martell said.
“We could be talking about thousands of Islanders over the past 100 or 150 years, and much of that talent is easily forgotten over time.”