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N.S. cabin designed by iconic Canadian artist Alex Colville sells for $15K over asking price

A simple wooden cabin on Nova Scotia’s north shore looks out onto rippling water as far as the eye can see, trees framed in a sunny window.

Designed and built by iconic Canadian artist Alex Colville, the cabin and 0.3-hectare property at 104 Colville Lane in Northport was listed in April with an asking price of $249,900.

After nine days on the market, the cabin sold for about $15,000 over asking price, according to Viewpoint Realty.

For Ray Cronin, the former curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia who has written two books about the late artist and knew him personally, the listing was a surprise. 

The interior of Colville’s cabin on Colville Lane in Northport, Cumberland County. (Sara Jewel/Concept Measures)

“Obviously, I’m human. My first [reaction] was, ‘Wow, I wish I could afford that,'” Cronin said with a laugh.

Ray Cronin, former curator for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, has been writing about Colville for 25 years. (Steve Farmer)

“It just goes to show that no matter how much you study someone, there’s always new things you can learn.”

Colville, who gained recognition with his haunting, realistic paintings of everyday life in Canada, was born in Toronto on Aug. 24, 1920. 

He moved to Amherst, N.S., as a boy with his family and studied fine arts at Mount Allison University in nearby Sackville, N.B., where he later created some of his most significant works, including Nude and Dummy and Horse and Train

It was also at Mount Allison that Colville met his wife and muse, Rhoda, an artist herself and subject of many of his pieces. The couple married in 1942 in Wolfville, N.S., which became their family home decades later in the early 1970s. 

The cabin on the Northumberland Strait was built in 1964, which Cronin said would have been around the time the former war artist was still in Sackville, but had left full-time teaching at his alma mater.

Cronin said the fact Colville designed the cabin is “very interesting,” but perhaps unsurprising, knowing how meticulous and hard-working the painter and sketch artist was.

Colville always handled the craftsman aspects of his own work, Cronin said, including building his own shipping crates and frames for his paintings, as well as designing his own Wolfville studio.

To Prince Edward Island by Alex Colville (1965), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa – Photo © NGC (CNW Group/National Gallery of Canada)

Cronin said it’s not hard to see the cabin — surrounded by only water and trees — as an escape for Colville, whose work explored what it means to be human.

“His solution was very much that it’s about community. It’s about place. It’s about holding true to the people around you, take care of the things in your world,” Cronin said.

The real estate listing suggests the view of the Strait may have inspired one of Colville’s best-known works, To Prince Edward Island, painted in 1965.

A painting of Rhoda also comes to mind, said Cronin.

Looking Up shows her standing on the edge of a bluff with the ocean behind her, which looks very much like the edge of the property on Colville Lane, Cronin said.

Alex Colville’s Looking Up, painted in 1975, from David Burnett’s book, Colville. The book was first published in 1983 by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and McClelland Stewart (M&S). (Colville/AGO, M&S)

“There’s no way that a place like that, that he built, that he used for decades, wouldn’t have echoes in his work,” Cronin said.

As someone who was meticulous about his art, making hundreds of preliminary drawings for a single image using a mathematical approach, Colville would have brought that same attention to the little cabin, said Sarah Fillmore, chief curator for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Colville’s legacy goes beyond his own work, Fillmore said, as he taught various artists at Mount Allison who joined him in what became known as the “Atlantic realist” movement, including Mary Pratt, Christopher Pratt and Tom Forrestall.

Over the years, Colville has also become a major influence for movie directors and art lovers around the world. Wes Anderson paid homage to Colville in a scene of Moonrise Kingdom, while Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining included posters of various Colville works in its set decoration.  

Fillmore has hopes these pop culture nods, or attention around the cabin, help people discover Colville’s work or find a deeper appreciation for the artist, who died in 2013 at the age of 92.

In a scene from the 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom, filmmaker Wes Anderson pays homage to Colville with this scene, projected onto a wall at the AGO, reminiscent of the 1965 painting To Prince Edward Island. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“When you start looking around here in the Atlantic provinces, you can find the Colville in so many places. Just in the way that the land touches a rock or, you know, the way a certain person’s holding themself, or the kind of like strange unease in something you might encounter around a corner,” Fillmore said.

“It’s kind of taken on its own life now.”

Fillmore said she’d love to see the cabin become an artists’ retreat or a space that honours Colville and serves the community in the future, like Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, France. 

When asked whether the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia would consider taking over the cabin, like it did with Maud Lewis’s original painted house, Fillmore did not give a definitive answer.

“I mean, wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be just the best?” she said.

Liz Martin, the realtor who handled the cabin listing with Domus Realty, said in an email there was “very good interest” in the property.

The real estate listing for the Colville cabin calls it a chance to own ‘a piece of Canadian history.’ (Sara Jewel/Concept Measures)

At the time, she said she was not at liberty to discuss any offers, including whether there are rules around preserving the cabin. 

Property records show the previous owners of the property are Colville’s children, including his daughter Ann Kitz, who declined comment on the sale.

While Cronin said he’d hate the idea of the new owners building a “monster cottage” on the lot over the cabin, he acknowledged its sparseness might not be what most people want. 

Photos of the property show honey-coloured wood from floor to ceiling, a couple of cupboards and a bare-bones loft. A small shed with what appears to be a washroom was added to the property years later.

A view of the upstairs loft in the Colville cabin. The property has a lot size of 39,204 square feet. (Sara Jewel/Concept Measures)

Ideally, Cronin would love to see the handmade aspect of the cabin saved, even if the new owners add more modern touches.

“I wouldn’t compare it to one of his paintings, but it’s an architectural piece of work that he’s made,” he said.

“It’s quite, quite magnificent to think about that, that something that he designed and built exists. So I hope it survives.”

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