Research

Cultural Minorities in Saint John, New Brunswick

Peter J. Larocque, Curator New Brunswick Cultural History & Art

This quantitative investigation has been undertaken over the course of three years in collaboration with community groups including, P.R.U.D.E. Inc. (Pride of Race, Unity, Dignity through Education Inc.) representing Saint John’s Black community and the Jewish Historical Museum. The project seeks to establish a better understanding of aspects of two distinct communities within the framework of Saint John, New Brunswick’s primarily white and Christian population. The project provides a baseline description for each of these minority communities.

In the case of Saint John’s Black community, few archival documents and sparse historical literature impede our ability to delve into the composition and character of this component of the city’s citizens. However, detailed examination of census data raises some intriguing questions about the challenges facing the community at various points over the past 225 years. Particularly useful to the community has been a nominal database that was compiled as part of the data collection. It is a popular genealogical resource that has served to strengthen community definition and sense of belonging.

In the case of the Jewish community, a significant feature over the past 150 years has been a legendary cluster of businesses that has, over the past generation, almost completely disappeared. There has been no examination of the extent and composition of the businesses to understand how they emerged, expanded and, ultimately, declined. Some explanation can be posited by analyzing the information found in city directories, community stories and published material.

Jack Weldon Humphrey: Portrait of an Artist in Saint John, New Brunswick, 1932-1967

Peter J. Larocque, Curator New Brunswick Cultural History & Art

Saint John, New Brunswick, has a significant tradition of fine art. As the most populous city in the province, it has been home to a number of professional artists who have managed to support themselves through their art. During the mid-twentieth century, a small group of artists garnered a national reputation for the quality of their work. One of them, Jack Weldon Humphrey, was born into a prosperous middle-class merchant family in Saint John in 1901. He trained in Boston, New York, Paris and Munich, and reluctantly returned from his studies to Saint John at the beginning of the 1930s when his family’s resources were severely strained. Ultimately, he chose to stay and maintained a somewhat regretful relationship with the city until his death until 1967.

Despite what might be considered this self-imposed limitation, Humphrey was convinced that he could make a living as a productive artist even though he lived within a small industrial city in a marginalized region of the country. This conviction underlies many of the strategies he undertook in pursuit of his goal. Membership in national and international professional art groups, frequent submissions to group exhibitions and the investigation of alternative production methods were some of the means he undertook to ensure his success.

Within the context of Canadian art history, Humphrey’s work to 1950 is synonymous with representational views of Saint John and portraits of its citizens. Consequently, an important shift in the focus of his work during the last fifteen years of his life has been virtually ignored.

Humphrey died in 1967 at a critical point in his career. The solo exhibition of his work being circulated by the National Gallery of Canada was in mid-tour. For many artists and the public, this event can be seen as pivotal recognition and a tangible affirmation of the critical success and importance of their contribution to Canadian art. In fact, he was one of only a handful of New Brunswick artists to have such an accolade. Unfortunately, this exhibition has been the only major overview of the Humphrey’s work ever undertaken and in the intervening decades his contribution to Canadian art has languished.

This project investigates and analyzes the factors that significantly impacted Humphrey’s efforts at recognition and creative progress while taking into consideration the impact of living in a particular industrial city where limited financial and intellectual support were available.

© 2018 New Brunswick Museum / Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick