"AMAZING." An overused sentiment perhaps, but when Martine Vermeulen utters the word her eyes widen and shimmer-as if caught in some great surprise. Although Vermeulen says the word frequently, it's always laced with wonderment. It's also a cue to pay attention, as if she's saying, "Something special is going on. Take note. There's more than meets the eye."
Vermeulen has spent much of her 65 years paying attention. Originally from France, she moved to Greenwich Village, New York City, in the early 60s and became a well-known ceramic artist. Her work was featured in galleries and sold to private and corporate buyers, but popularity started to chip away at the artist's privacy.
Fast forward to 1983: Vermeulen moves to Stanfordville, in upper New York state. She falls in love with the pastoral setting and the slower pace, and continues to create beautiful works of art in her studio, Feu Follet.
Then friends invite the artist to visit them at their summer home in Port Medway, NS, and she falls in love a second time-with the people, the sea and the lifestyle. While poking around the region, she comes upon a dilapidated home for sale on the shores of Blueberry Bay.
Despite the fact that mushrooms sprouted from its carpets, the ceilings were crumbling and the vinyl siding flapped in the wind, the house had her name on it. "I knew this was where I belonged," she says. "It was very visceral. I could see it all finished... I just had to be patient." Vermeulen drank in the sunsets, visualized living there and made an offer. She ended up with two homes. "I say to people that New York is my husband and Nova Scotia is my lover. I love them both dearly."
When in NY Vermeulen potters away, but in Nova Scotia she's morphed into a new phase as an artist. It started by creating driftwood compositions. "I never planned to do things in wood, but that's what artists do," she says. "You take something completely ordinary and transform it into something out of the ordinary."
Her art took a major shift five years ago when she restored a friend's summer home, also in Blueberry Bay. "They had area rugs [made of linoleum] that I had never seen before. Amazing! So I picked them up and put them out of harm's way." Vermeulen used the substantial chunks in the restoration, squirreling away the leftovers in the rafters of her barn.
Compelled to do something with these scraps, she created two collages. Eureka! The old linoleum came to life. She was mesmerized by the patterns and passionate about the potential of this new-found medium. "It just took off. One piece led to another and the infinite possibilities were moving me along. It's amazing-like archeology. It's like picking up pieces of somebody's past."
One day while cleaning the linoleum, Vermeulen started thinking of all the people, now seniors, who would have walked across it. "These people had such hard lives yet they had a quality of life, and they were so rich with knowledge and wisdom. Some of us today live in their old houses, walk on their old linoleum." She thought, "What if these floors could talk?"
So as a tribute to seniors Vermeulen visited retirement homes, where she discovered just how much her linoleum collages trigger nostalgia for the way we used to live.
"The Way We Used to Live" is now the title of her exhibit; she also gives talks and presents her work in libraries and museums.
Mary Anne Mehaffey visited the exhibit while it was at the Yarmouth County Museum & Archives last summer. "It sure triggered memories," she says. "We called it 'Congoleum.' There were patterns I hadn't seen since I was a child and I knew immediately where I had seen them."
One of the patterns in the exhibit brought the 76-year-old back to her grandmother's home in Port Maitland, NS. It reminded her of the eight-foot tub encased in tongue-and-groove wood, and "having a bath with a grandmother who was very gentle compared to my mother who was very busy!"
Mehaffey notes that in the early to mid 1900s it was common for US rug dealers to visit Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, peddling linoleum in exchange for hooked rugs. "People were tired of wood floors and splinters and thought they [linoleum rugs] were up-to-date," she says.
Lemoine Bent, a resident at Hillside Pines, in Bridgewater, used to install floors for Nauss Brothers and reckons he tore out miles of linoleum in his lifetime. When he first saw the exhibit, his eyes lit up and he could barely contain a grin. "I remember the linoleum in the kitchen. It wasn't fancy, but we had running water and a bathroom, which lots of others didn't have," he says.
The 80-year-old remembers playing hide-and-seek in the root cellar where the family stored pickles, and potatoes and carrots in barrels of sand. Many homes were insulated with rockweed, seaweed, birch bark and wood chips. "We always had food to eat. I think I started drinking tea when I was five years old. I put in sugar and fresh milk from the cow."
And so it goes. People see the collages, and memories tumble forth like waterfalls. Meanwhile, neighbours and builders still bring the artist pieces of linoleum, and she's having as much fun as a child building a sandcastle.
Vermeulen has what seems like an enchanted life, easing into the day with a cup of chicory laced with lemon zest, and "some good French bread" with jam. If the weather and tides are right, she's likely to haul her custom-made wooden kayak (a gift from friends on her 60th birthday) to the shore and paddle for a couple of hours. Or she may reach for her "Black Horse," a vintage Raleigh bicycle she's had since 1963, or turn to "Rav," a perky black moped, and journey off somewhere.
Rainy/snowy day options include staying in bed until noon reading The New Yorker, The Nation, or a book from her collection, which includes everything from Maritimers Donna Morrissey and Wayne Johnston, to French author Marcel Proust and American poet Mary Oliver. Occasionally you can find her bent over an eight-foot puzzle stashed under a carpet in her living room. She calls it the ultimate meditation, adding that "Like in life, if a piece doesn't fit, it doesn't fit and you have to wait for the right piece to fit in order for the picture of your life to be complete." She offers this tip: "Always do the frame first, then fill the frame. It's the thing that gives you the parameters." Looking at the puzzle in progress, she murmurs, "Amazing."
Some days she'll step into "Snow White & My Seven Dreams" (a well travelled white Toyota truck) and scurry around making arrangements for a film festival, or take a neighbour to a doctor. And, of course, she makes time to show "The Way We Used to Live," and talk with seniors.
But more likely than not, you can find Vermeulen in her studio composing a new work of art using linoleum scraps. Here, in what feels like a sacred place, she loses track of time, surfacing in the late afternoon. Friends often come to visit at this time; she'll reach for a plump teapot and prepare a brew. While it steeps, she steers the conversation to simple things like the virtues of Nova Scotia russet apples, or a commentary on a recent film she's seen. Or she'll invite you to take a stroll in her secret garden, or along the path leading to the shore.
Oh yes. The New York "husband?" Vermeulen doesn't get back to the US much these days. In fact, two years ago she became a permanent resident of Canada, and in the next year or so will apply for Canadian citizenship. Picture the headline: "Lover wins Vermeulen's heart."