By Caitrin Pilkington
Old Barn Gallery, established in 2009 on Beaver Dam Farm, may be ranked number 1 on TripAdvisor’s list of best places to visit in Antigonish, but owner Carol Naveta Rivoire says she doesn’t get a lot of visitors. That may be because the barn is a 15-minute drive from downtown Antigonish. One reviewer, in an accusatory tone, writes the gallery is in the middle of nowhere.
But what a nowhere it is!
Rivoire and her husband were visiting Nova Scotia on a two-week vacation, with no intention of buying property, when they discovered the 173-year old barn and surrounding property. They hiked up the hill behind the cow pasture, took one look at the fields, the ocean view, and put a deposit on the place the next day. That was more than 30 years ago.
The gallery owner speaks with the kind of natural, unaffected poetry you might expect from someone named Carol Naveta Rivoire—the images in the stories she tells are quite poignant and beautiful. Here is our conversation:
Did you always know you wanted to run an art gallery?
Not at all. My husband and I were in the Fjord horse business, and carriage driving was a big part of our business. One day we were at a conference in the mountains of North Carolina. They took us to visit a barn, overflowing with art. I was really impressed by the sight of all this beautiful pottery and quilts against the old wood. But I didn’t open my own gallery until much later. At that time, we were living in New England. New Hampshire. We had a 100-acre farm and a successful horse business with about 20 horses. We were Americans. We had no idea of moving to Canada. We were settled.
But we were so impressed with Nova Scotia and in particular, Antigonish, that I guess we were ready to be sold on it. One day, we wandered into a realtor’s office that was just next door to where we were having lunch. We started chatting and we spoke of our horse farm in New Hampshire, and she said, “oh, there’s a beautiful farm we have on the market right now.” We said, “well we have a farm, we’re not looking for a farm, we’re just here on vacation. But we’ll look at it.”
So we did. And we talked to the owner, who was living in a little house on the lower part of the farm. And they said, “oh, take a walk and look at the view.” My husband took one look at it, this ocean view, and he said, “oh my god, what a place for a house.” So that got him thinking. And we talked some more, and I think we came back to visit the next day and put a deposit on the place, and that was that.
The other thing was that my mother was from Prince Edward Island, and she’d grown up on a farm, and she would always tell me the most romantic bedtime stories about life on the farm. All the old ladies in Antigonish looked like my aunt and my grandmother. It just felt like home. So that’s how we ended up here.
I understand that you yourself are an artist. Can you tell me a little about your practice?
My husband was the artist, but for the first year, he was kind of shy about putting his pictures on display. And he didn’t until I solicited a lot of local artists to put their pieces in the gallery for commission sales. So that was nice, and then the next year my husband decided he would put his pieces in. At that point, I wasn’t painting at all.
My husband died in December of 2012. A year later, I happened to take an art lesson. And I was just…hooked. I don’t know why I never thought of doing it while he was alive. He was the artist in the family and I was just taking care of the horses, you know. I’ve been painting like a mad person ever since.
I discovered abstract art. The kind of art I do is called intuitive abstract, which means you don’t start off with a painting of a barn or a chair or a landscape or anything, it’s all a matter of putting paint on canvas in interesting shapes, in lines and variations of colour until you feel that it’s done, or at least that it’s right. So that’s what I do. And more and more, the gallery is filled with my work. I’m pleased to say it’s selling pretty well. I don’t have a lot of customers, but people do buy my pictures. And actually, what pleases me a lot is that my pictures seem to appeal to young people. I don’t mean kids. Young people from 20 to 30 or so. College age kids. Considering I’m almost 78, that really pleases me.
Do you still have horses?
I still have two. But I don’t ride or drive anymore. I have a young woman in the area who takes the younger one out. The older one is a mare, Molly. She’s 31 years old and she’s won a number of awards all over North America. So she deserves a rest.
Do you know very much about the history of your barn?
Not much. I know that it was built in 1845, and it was in the same family until we bought it. I was told just recently by someone in the area who knows about these things that this could be the finest example of a barn that age in the province. It’s straight. The roofline is straight. Anyone that comes in just marvels. At the craftsmanship of the barn, the huge timbers all marked with roman numerals, all cut for their exact purpose so they could be put together. It’s truly impressive.
Do you have a favourite artist in your gallery?
Rodney Tate is my handyman, but he’s way more than that. He’s a gifted wildlife photographer, completely self-taught. He gets phenomenal pictures that truly rival anything I’ve seen even in National Geographic.
My opinion on why he’s so good is that he knows the habits and location of wildlife from childhood. You see, both his father and mother were outdoor people. His mother liked to fish and his father was a hunter, so from Rodney’s earliest years, he followed them around and learned.
Patience is another vital component to getting great wildlife photos, and Rodney can sit with his camera literally for hours waiting for the hummingbirds to visit the purple flowers. Easy to get hummingbird shots with red flowers, not so easy with purple. Rodney knows the habits and behaviour of wildlife. He knows where to find them. Also, the greater part of his bird photos are taken right here on Beaver Dam Farm, land which has been nothing but organic for ever.
Why do you think your gallery has gotten such good reviews?
Antigonish is a very art-oriented town. Counting the university gallery, there are three art galleries right in the middle of town, and they’re all great, but what really sets this one apart is the setting. I’m big on gardening. I’ve planted close to 500 rose bushes over the years where the art gallery is and up by the house. I chose them for bird and butterfly attractiveness, and also for their scent. So when they’re blooming, it’s really mind-boggling out here, a wonderful perfume in the air.
I’ve also got a lot of perennial gardens, container gardening. I use horse troughs, which are ideal, being so wide and deep. I grow vegetables and flowers all mixed together, and stone pieces made by a local artist. There’s a big terrace in front of the gallery so people can enjoy it. And the birds and the butterflies.
What can people expect when they walk in?
I have four distinct galleries right now. The stable gallery is where I take people first. We converted a tractor shed into a stable for seven horses. And then in 2010 or 2011, we turned it into a gallery. You can still see the places where horses are tied up, but now it’s all wildlife photography.
And then in another room, the room that was the feed room, where the grain was kept, is now a really exclusive little separate gallery, where we hang our most beautiful paintings. So if you want to see really nice art, you go into that particular room.
I’m a self-taught artist. I didn’t have any experience working or running a gallery, so it’s been a learning experience all along. I think this year has been kind of a culmination point, of refining the pieces that I’m showing—curating, you know, the best, and displaying them.
So there’s that gallery, and right next door we have the carriage gallery. That’s where we used to store the carriages when we were fully involved in the carriage driving business.
And then I’ll walk people up to the old 1845 barn. There’s a section in there where we used to house the foals, where we weaned them, where we separated them from their mothers. We wanted a place where they could eat as much as they wanted to and not be bothered by the bigger horses, and come and go from the shelter area to the field. So that’s another gallery now, and that’s where I hang my large paintings.
You go up a few stairs and you’re on the main floor of the loft. And all our antiques, I used to have them all mixed in, in a home decorating sense, with the artworks. And people would come in and say, where are the antiques? And I’d say, they’re here! Here’s a bowl, there’s a pitcher, here’s this and that. But I think we have such a selection here that it’s hard to ferret out the antiques. So I’ve put them up on the main floor of the loft now because it has beautiful lighting and it’s really quite impressive. I’ve put them all up together there. So that’s our layout.
What would you like people to know about your gallery?
Well first of all, that I am selling the larger part of Beaver Dam Farm. Hill House, the magnificent home my husband designed, plus 240 or more acres of great land. I’ll be keeping the small house I own at the bottom of the Hill (The Charming Cottage) and probably about 20 acres. Included in this is the 1845 barn, the Carriage House and Carriage House Loft Apartment, and the Stable Gallery.
But I would also like people to know: If you want to see very creative art in a pastoral setting, you need to go just a bit out of your way and be thoroughly rewarded.
Photos provided courtesy of Carol Rivoire