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Pictou County woman’s documentation part of museum exhibit

Margaret Nicholson shares tea with her mother Rita, middle, and Valley View Villa recreation programmer Kim Fraser before the opening of The Life of Jean.
Margaret Nicholson shares tea with her mother Rita, middle, and Valley View Villa recreation programmer Kim Fraser before the opening of The Life of Jean.

STELLARTON – When Margaret Nicholson received her aunt Jean Nicholson’s many photo albums and scrapbooks after her death, she didn’t know what she would find on the pages. But she knew she didn’t want them to be thrown out.

“When I started to really look at them, I was absolutely hooked.”

Jean had documented her life beginning before she was even born in 1921, as well as what was going on in the world around her.

“It’s a linear narrative. So you’ll follow that from her grandparents; that would be the latter part of the 19th century to where she died in 2014.”

She cut out stories and photos from newspapers, showing different buildings going up in Pictou County including the large number of churches built in the area in the 19th and 20th centuries and what was happening with the Second World War.

“You can follow a whole cultural history, what it was like in the ’30s… and then the war, and all the marriages that are going on. And where women are moving into the workforce, you can see that happening.”

The photos slowly start to shift to colour, and she keeps track of the deaths of well-known figures such as Terry Fox and Johnny Miles. Near the end of her life, she notes what’s happening in Afghanistan.

Though it’s Jean’s story, Margaret believes it’s relevant to anyone who lived through that time.  

That’s why Jean’s meticulous documentation is part of an art exhibit that opened at the Museum of Industry on Thursday night.

Margaret Nicholson, with the help of several others, spent a month figuring out what Jean had in her albums, and then six months sorting and organizing photos, postcards and clippings for The Life of Jean.

Margaret, who has done several large installations during her more than 40 years as an artist, believes everyday people like her aunt, who worked at the Metropolitan store and McLaughlin’s Florists, attended the Presbyterian Church and loved dogs, make up most of our history and culture.

“Our culture is being constructed as we cook dinner for our friends, go to church, build our homes and take a holiday,” she writes in her artist statement. “Jean’s albums were a fastidious documentation of almost 100 years of history of Pictou County and her life in it – history and memories. The collection is something that will become increasingly rare as we begin to store our memories in the fourth dimension – a state of precarious existence.”

Museum director Debra McNabb said the museum was interested in the exhibit because of what it represents.

“Jean Nicholson spent all of her life in New Glasgow and was from the working class. Her life represents the lives of a lot of people who live in industrial Pictou County, so I think it’s important for us to represent that history. Also, it’s interesting for us to include art in what the museum does,” McNabb said, adding that they’re interested in supporting local artists.

Margaret notes the work is Jean’s as well as hers, and hopes she’d be thrilled to see it displayed in the Stellarton museum.

“People forget when they meet somebody who is old that they were young, that they had a vital life, just like yours, just like any 25-year-old. And if you walk through these pictures and you see Jean when she was young, she was very beautiful, she was active, she did all this stuff,” Margaret said, adding that she led an ordinary life, which she believes is very important.

The Life of Jean will be on display at the Museum of Industry until Oct. 1.

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