Sticks and stones may be the things of childhood games and nursery rhymes, but for Pictou artist Sharon Nowlan they have been providing a livelihood for almost 20 years.
Nowlan began as a painter and has turned her hand to various forms of art, from rug hooking to egg decorating to quilting, but it is her work as a pebble artist that keeps her producing at a frenzied pace.
“By the first of August I have to be turning out pieces for a major craft show I’ve been attending in Toronto for many years,” she said, noting she brings 300 pieces of pebble art to the show.
It all began when Nowlan was a young mother, walking her oldest son on the beach.
“He was about three and as we walked and talked he filled my pocket with little stones. When I took them out later I wondered if I could do something with them,” she said.
Since then she has produced countless shadow box pieces capturing maritime scenes, weddings, family events and even yoga poses.
Nowlan was always interested in art but when she and her father took painting classes together when she was 14, her passion was ignited.
“My father took painting lessons as a stress reliever and I went along because it sounded cool. I was completely taken by what could be created with paints. Selling my first little painting of a sailboat at our class show was unforgettable.”
Her parents later opened Artcetera Art and Frame Shop in Pictou which Nowlan, who took art and environmental studies at the University of Western Ontario, later took over and operated for a decade.
“That’s where I sold my first piece of pebble art. I designed two family scenes by sketching and then composing them from pebbles, framed them and put them on the wall. My mother was coming to see them but a woman walked in and bought them before my mother got there.”
She points out the shop gave her a lot of advantages the average artist does not start out with.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop. The shop had gallery space, so not only were materials on hand but I also had the space to show my work and traffic coming through. Without having the shop in the early years I don’t think I’d be where I am.”
She no longer operates the shop and gallery but has a studio in the backyard of her Pictou home where she creates and operates an online art business and produces for shows.
“If you want to live in a small town you have to search for a market. When I first started selling pebble art I was also running the shop, working in a nursing home and teaching piano.”
For a number of years she did a dozen shows a year. Since establishing herself on social media she is down to two large shows and a couple of smaller shows she can do if they appeal to her. To her surprise, an American gift company discovered her work online and now has a licensing agreement with her.
“They manufacture my designs, creating little sculptural casts of the actual stones which makes my art more accessible and affordable. It is very similar to the way a painter would also put out prints. It was a two-year process but I’m happy to now have my designs in Hallmark and Carleton Cards.”
Nowlan’s large wooden desk is covered in trays of tiny pebbles, mostly slate and sandstone, the origins of which she can identify at a glance.
“Skinner’s Cove, Merigomish, Melmerby,” she said, pointing to one tray after another and adding that there are great variances in the stones found in different places.
Occasionally she goes in search of a particular shape of stone but more often her art is inspired by her finds.
“I might pick something up, thinking that looks like a dress. That one stone may inspire the whole picture.”
There are also smaller trays of beach glass, which she collects at a few secret locations.
“I don’t find as much as I need so I have to source some these days. We have a lot of people looking for beach glass but a bigger factor is that we have less glass and more plastic going into the ocean.”
Tiny twigs are used for everything from flower stems to clotheslines.
“I like that most of my materials are organic and being put to new use. There is a minimalist trend in art these days and pebble art reflects that for some people. Others just like stone and others like the serendipitous, unique nature of the work.”
Once in a while she encounters someone who is not a fan.
“At a show in Toronto a guy walking by was shocked by the prices and pointed out he could gravel his whole driveway for the price. He couldn’t but I got his point. He wasn’t seeing what other people were seeing and that made me very aware that very often people project their own feelings into a picture.”
Much of her work is custom ordered, as is one of the pieces she is currently finishing up.
“It is a nostalgic or romantic piece because it is meant to capture a couple just meeting and going together to watch whales in the ocean.”
For a few years she worked out of her home but the year-round studio has made her more productive.
“I found it very hard to walk by a sink full of dishes to go to work. In the house, there were always distractions. The studio also made it easier for my kids to understand that I was gone to work.”
Conversely, she is grateful that self-employment allowed her to be available when her three children were young.
“I’m grateful I could always come when needed, always get to a game or a practice.”