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Painting leaves indelible mark on Canso hospital

Prominent Ojibwe artist Ahmoo Angeconeb spent time in Canso

  • September 6 2023
  • By Corey LeBlanc    

CANSO — There is an adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Well, when it comes to a painting that has adorned a wall of the Eastern Memorial Hospital (EMH) in the seaside community for almost half a century, the count would be much higher, especially after more of the story about the unnamed piece – one popular with staff, patients and visitors alike – was discovered.

“It has been there for a very long time,” Melanie Newell, EMH facility manager, said of the art work, describing it as an “everyday visual” for passersby.

Not given a second thought by most who have seen it often, she remembered looking at the colourful painting when she would visit the hospital growing up.

One day, as Newell and colleague Julieann Myatt walked by the piece, they started wondering about its history, and then they decided to learn more.

They began their search by chatting with other staff members, including Bonnie Richard – a long-time registered nurse at EMH. She recalled some of the story from earlier years of how it was gifted to the hospital.

That artist – Ahmoo Angeconeb (his name adorns the piece) – as they discovered in a Goggle search, was a residential school survivor who became a renowned Canadian Ojibwe artist. He was born in Lac Seul First Nations Reserve, outside of Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario, as a member of the Lac Seul First Nation. As their research uncovered, he – the sixth of nine children – belonged to the Caribou clan.

As a framed narrative mounted next to the painting now explains, while growing up in a cabin on the south shore of Whitefish Bay, a young Angeconeb would use a 22-calibre lead bullet to create pieces on the walls. At only 13, he sold his first painting. He completed formal training at York and Lakehead universities. With a move to Halifax, he became a student and teacher at Dalhousie University.

“It was amazing,” Newell said of what they discovered as they put some meat on the bones, when it came to the painting and the artist’s story.

Along with gathering information, EMH sent the 4X8 painting on plywood to Antigonish for refurbishment. Now, back in its spot, there is also a framed description of its rich history gleaned from the staffers’ detective work.

“He made a lot of friends when he lived here,” Newell said of Angeconeb, who was commonly known as ‘Allen’ when he spent time in the Canso area during the 1970s and 80s.

At that time, the internationally acclaimed artist worked for Parks Canada as part of a team that carried out the excavation of Grassy Island, which uncovered history of the fort that once stood there.

“We also learned that – years later – during a visit to Canso, he came to the hospital to see if the painting was still there,” Newell said of another tidbit unearthed during their research.

Angeconeb, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 62, not only achieved artistic success across Canada, but also in Europe. Countless galleries display his pieces, while his work is also part of Prince Albert II of Monaco’s art collection.

“People have been surprised; a lot never knew where it came from,” Newell said of reaction to the information update on the iconic local painting.

She noted that Richard recalled the reaction of a visiting physician to EMH when he came across the Angeconeb piece.

“He couldn’t believe it,” Newell said.

That doctor’s wife was a curator at many larger art galleries, so he knew the significance of the painting, one thousands of people passed by over the years without a second thought.

“We have heard a lot of great stories,” Newell said of the process.

And, through their research, they also found out that Angeconeb had gifted paintings to friends he made during his time in Canso.

“It is something else,” she added.