Joe Norris: a guy with a work ethic, who painted 12 hours a day!

Another of the classic, first generation Folk Artists from Nova Scotia is Joe Norris. Joe was born in Halifax on 1924, and was one of nine children.

At the age  of  seven, Joe and his family moved to Lower Prospect, which in 1931 would have been an isolated fishing village far  off the beaten track, at the headlands of the peninsula that divided Halifax Harbour and St. Margaret’s Bay, near to Peggy’s Cove.  At that time, there were no access roads to any of these villages other than winding, narrow dirt roads. Road access between some of the villages is still sketchy to non-existent today although indirectly they can all be reached from the main Highways – #3 and #103 – from Halifax through to the south shore.

Joe’s father died in 1934, when Joe was 10. This was at the height of the depression. At that time, the schools and whatever social outreach there was was in the capable hands of the Sisters of Charity and the Church – Stella Maris or Star of the Sea. At about this time, the sisters founded an artisanal spinning and weaving workshop where beautiful tweed was woven, along with overshot designs for tablerunners and placemats – as tastes changed and other options became realistic for women in the communities, this workshop closed down in the late 50’s.

Joe was a sickly child and was often away from school – apparently he painted at this time, but put that activity away when he reached 16 and headed for Halifax to work. This would have been at the outbeak of the Second World War and Joe worked on the docks as a longshoreman or stevedore. He later worked as a groundsman after working in construction as well. Clearly he was not hesitant to put his hand to any sort of work he was offered. During this period, he is said to have painted a few pieces but no known survivals exist.


In 1952, Joe came back home to Lower Prospect and began working as a lobster fisherman. He proceeded to build himself a house, and fished for the next twenty years or so.

In 1973, a major heart attack put an end to the dangerous and  physically strenuous life of a fisherman. Joe was only 49. A visiting nurse suggested he turn to painting again to keep himself busy as he was the sort of guy who had to be doing something all the time or he became stressed out.


This was the opportunity he needed, and all the wonderful, pent- up images of life along the seacoast came tumbling out. Despite poverty and lack of opportunities, rural Nova Scotians are confronted with wildlife, natural beauty and striking colour at every turn. I can truthfully say that as many times as I have driven down my road and caught the first glimpse of the Bay, what I see is never the same twice, and that Joe’s sunsets do not lie – I watch the same intensity of colour develop each summer evening out my kitchen window and wish I could paint them as Joe did!

By 1975, Joe had been discovered by fellow artist and Folk Art collector Chris Huntingdon who was by then buying almost everything Joe produced – and he was prolific! In the less than 25 years before his death he is said to have painted over 2000 pieces.

Joe was so successful at his new career that he was able to stop receiving a disability allowance, and get by on his earnings as an artist.

In addition to painting in two dimensions, Joe turned his hand to decorating furniture that clients brought him. Phillip Brooks was especially selective in supplying good Canadian Country Furniture from the 19th century for Joe to decorate for him.


Joe painted a large number of night scenes and all depict starry nights with full moon. In the winter it is possible to see a lot of detail by moonlight, especially near the sea where reflection of light off the water helps detail to stand out.

Look carefully – I think you can see that there are basic similarities to Maud Lewis’ work, but there are differences too – one of which is that there is lessromanticism, and also the more detailed and filled canvases.

I think I like Joe’s night paintings the best, but then I look at his daytime and sunset paintings and his decorated furniture and am lost for choice!

As Chris promoted Joe’s work, along with various Canadian Galleries such as Mira Godard, and Houston-North out of Lunenburg, there were more and more exhibits including his work, culminating 4 years after his death in 1996 with a retrospective show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia called Joe Norris: Painted Visions of Nova Scotia.

I have the catalogue raisonnee for the show – same title – published by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia – ISBN )-86492-318-X

This is a must have and I’m sure it can be obtained either new or used if you search Amazon.



One thought I keep having as I travel among various periods of art, various art forms, and decorative concepts is the interconnectness of all forms and the wide range from the ultra-sophisticated to art and artisanal products which are made by ordinary people, and which stay in the collective experience over time and keep re-appearing time and again. For example, Joe Norris and Leo Naugler are both well-known for having made elaborate decorated frames to set off their work. As a quilter, I have records of so many quilt borders done using the same themes as Joe and Leo used – and these borders have stood the test of time from the 1800’s right up to today.

I look at Joe’s painted furniture as see it as being in a continuum from the early 17th century gilded and japanned furniture  imported into Europe from Asia and destined for the great country houses now owned by the National Trust – look closely – there is a connection!


Time to push the “Publish” button and send this on its way to you – thank you all the readers who are making Mich’s stats look very good lately – we hit a new daily high number of visits last week!

 I hope you are enjoying reading the blog as much as I enjoy creating the posts. See you all next week.





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