Surviving as an artist

Artist Mary Garoutte’s biggest reward isn’t the money but the revitalized feeling her students get after they leave her painting class.

By Sindi Skenderi

Mary Garoutte (Peninsula News/ Sindi Skenderi)
Mary Garoutte (Peninsula News/ Sindi Skenderi)

Mary Garoutte’s biggest reward isn’t the money – because it’s not that great she says – but the revitalized feeling her students get after they leave her painting class.

After practicing art her whole life, Garoutte’s biggest challenge is being disciplined enough to not procrastinate on her work. She hopes she can overcome it, so she can take her talent to further places.

The 33-year-old teaches five students a week, all her busy schedule can handle, in her small studio space on North Street in Halifax.

Most of her students don’t have a creative background, but she says those are the ones that surprise her the most with their talents.

“They show up and you can tell they’re tired, they’ve had a long day after their office jobs, and they leave totally giddy.”

Garoutte tells them from the start that she will rewind everything they have learned so far. She believes that over time adults lose their creativity and form preconceived notions of what’s right and wrong.

“It’s essential to go back to square one look at things as a child in order to create good art. It’s an attitude before practice,” she says.

If they leave feeling inspired, then “you know you’ve taught it with some blood running through the veins,” she says.

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Revealing her heart to the public

As her classes aren’t enough to sustain her living, Garoutte also puts her pieces up for sale at the Argyle Fine Art gallery on Barrington Street.

She started there about two and a half years ago, and has had good success not only with selling her pieces, but also with reception from other artists, from art commentators and from the media.

“At the moment, Mary is one of our most sought after emerging artists, and we’re thrilled to have her work here at the gallery,” says Crystal Ross, owner of Argyle Fine Art.

Prices depend more on size then on time, Garoutte says. Small pieces usually start at $500, and the larger ones, like a 36×36 or 40×40, range to about $2,000.

Garoutte’s biggest compliment comes when other artists buy her work.

“It kind of reassures you that you’re still making something that catches the eye of someone who’s creative,” she says.

Creativity is really important to her because it has encompassed her life since an early age.

Canvas trumps paper

As early as four years old, Garoutte found herself magnetized to art.

“It was more natural to pick up a paintbrush than a pen,” she says.

Her parents thought she had a learning disability because it took her forever to read and write. In the following years she struggled academically, but got bumped up to fifth-grade art.

It became art therapy for her, “cathartic” she says, especially after her parents split.

Garoutte was born in Phoenix, Arizona, but after her parents split up her mom got custody and moved back to Nova Scotia to live with Garoutte’s grandparents.

While Garoutte’s mom never had the money to send her to art lessons, she gave her verbal encouragement, which was all Garoutte needed.

Garoutte says lessons are helpful, but can put pressure on you and set expectations when you are a child and just need to let your creativity run wild.

“You should never try to tame a child’s imagination, let them go free because that’s what is actually brought out of you in art-college,” she says.

School years

Her first year at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design felt like going back to elementary school. It taught her to look at everything she’d learned until then, which is the same technique Garoutte uses with her students now in her class.

What she loved most about NSCAD was the fact that they taught her to see and observe.

She says you have to go into it with a bit of talent, because they don’t really teach you techniques. Classes are more focused on encouraging personal ideas and personal style.

“That’s the only way you can develop your voice,” she says, and adds that while some students didn’t like the lessons, she was thankful they were that way.


After her four years Garoutte felt burned out, and took  a nearly six-year break from creating art.

She was glad she did because she says if she’d pressured herself to create art, she might not be doing it anymore.

“For me art’s much more emotional, it’s not something I can just pump out like a factory. That’s why it always took me a little longer, being in the right headspace to do it.”

Garoutte started working at Zwicker’s Gallery on Doyle street with her sister seven years ago.

Along with it being a historical commercial gallery, it was also a service gallery that did appraisals, art restoration, art consultation and framing.

Her formal job is a gallery assistant and the exhibition co-ordinator, but her favourite part about working there is when she has the opportunity to appraise the value of a piece of art.

“You have to know the art market and it challenges you,” Garoutte says.

Incorporation of her environment

But the best influence on her art has been living in Nova Scotia. She says it created a huge dialogue for her art and has affected her practice.

“I have made a lot of art based on recurring themes in my life. Things like family, and loss and childhood.”

Crystal Ross says Garoutte’s popularity largely comes from her ability to capture a scene with honesty and skill. In her last exhibition, she featured streetscapes from the Halifax and Dartmouth area.

“They were painted from the perspective of a local, meaning that rather than painting iconic, idealized, and picturesque scenes from around HRM, she found places that are part of our everyday landscape. They were familiar, and felt like home,” says Ross.

Halifax is a great place to create art, but Garoutte believes that it is not a great place to sell it.

Whether you work in a commercial gallery to sell your pieces, or put them out for view and not for sale like in a public gallery, “you want a broader audience.”

“Canada’s a great place to live, but in terms of art’s and culture it has a long way to go. And most of that is because it doesn’t have any funding – it makes it hard for artists,” Garoutte says.

Eventually she would like to find that sweet spot of producing at a steady rate, and create art somewhere out of the province.

Her next exhibit for her work will be in mid September at Argyle Fine Art. With only 10 pieces up for show, it’ll be smaller than her past ones, but will take a lot of time as they are all large scale pieces, starting at $1,000.

“Mary’s work is very well executed, and we’ve already seen that her paintings are being admired from collectors all over the country,” says Ross.

Garoutte believes now’s the time to put her stamina to the test, while also creating art that is collaborative of all she has learned until now.

“One huge temptation is leaving your ego at the door; don’t make it about yourself,” Garoutte says.

“And the second temptation is don’t make it about money. Nothing wrong with making money with what you’re doing, but that shouldn’t be the means to the end.”