These portraits by Steven Rhude were painted to honour a Maritime folklore poem by June N. Jarvis, of Canso, N.S., a close friend who inspired the artist to probe the world of the regional Atlantic Canadian narrative. Rhude’s oil works amplify the power and pathos of the tale, called The Ballad (Curse) of Betsy Publicover.
This is a familiar story in the sense that it is tied to the very nature of folklore, yet like all memorable folklore, it still has a powerful resonance to contemporary times. . . . It’s a poem with vengeance and a curse that starts when a young woman is as they say – led astray by a young man. It’s about the days of yore, the sea and all the allegory it represents. It’s about a woman’s descent into supernatural darkness and the August gales that accompanied her.-Artist Steven Rhude, whose portraits illustrate The Ballad (Curse) of Betsy Publicover
It’s a poem that “rolls us through the darkness of the tale,” tragic and painful, the epitome of memorable folklore. Above, a pregnant Betsy. She bears a girl who turns 17 on the day of this storm, but is lost at sea when her ship capsizes. Beside her, Proud Whitman, the seducer of Betsy, father of the girl, and owner of the ship.
As hope is lost and the tragedy is confirmed . . .
Proud Whitman spoke to Betsy then;
and her response was wild:
“How dare you try to comfort me?
You, father of my child,
My blessed only daughter
who is in the ocean now:”
He blanched, as with mild laughter
She spoke this awful vow:
“I swear that every Whitman child
Shall die while in its youth!
Your seed shall vanish from the earth.”
Her fey voice rang with truth.
The poem flows on darkly, with the curse coming true, the villain and his line destroyed, and poor Betsy still raging as she keeps vain vigil at the shore.
Taken together, these beautiful glimpses of characters in the poem could potentially tell the story, although that would be a shame because the poem is also so good. Rhude points out that “portraiture has been said to provide the viewer with an encounter – not just a record of human features. Portraits feed our insatiable need for narrative and our experiences, however light or dark the story may be.”
Go here to read the whole poem in context, including background on poet June N. Jarvis, who died recently at age 86. Rhude notes that Jarvis was the aunt of the iconic Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers and instrumental in encouraging him to explore the Maritime ethos in his songs. Some were written at her kitchen table in Canso, NS.
A selection of these portraits from the poem will be at Secord Gallery in Halifax, from April 27.
Steven Rhude’s website, here.
His artist page, with a long biography, at Gallery 78, here.