Halifax printmaker finds inspiration in music and art

Alex MacAskill has done artwork for the Halifax Pop Explosion and local bands. Now he’s headed to Nashville.

Atop the maze of studios at NSCAD’s Granville campus sits multi-talented Alex MacAskill. He’s actively sketching, scanning, printing and pressing art work for school, as well as for his business Fish Bone Prints.

His workplace is rugged; large wood panels and easels are scattered throughout the area. His desk is accompanied by all the tools he needs: black ink, illustration paper, and a printer. He is an artist printmaker and designs everything from album art to beer holders. The collection of his favourite works are pinned to his work space. He works alone, with folk-rock and indie music filling the air.

MacAskill is pursuing a degree in fine art and managing Fish Bone Prints simultaneously. He has grown an array of clients for his business, including Matt Mays and JEFF the Brotherhood. He’s also worked with local artists such as Wintersleep and The Novaks, as well as many government organizations. His biggest client last year was the Halifax Pop Explosion, which posted his work throughout the city.

“I have been lucky enough that I don’t need to advertise,” he says. “After a few years doing this I’ve developed a kind of signature style, one that is expected when an artist reaches out to me.”

There are a number of steps to screen printing.

“It all starts with pencil sketches to develop the idea of it. From there I take those sketches and make a full size drawing on illustration paper – done with black ink – I scan that onto the computer and work it in Photoshop and add some digital colouring. You have to print the colours differently and separate the layers. From there you use a squeegee to push the ink through the stencils.”

His school work is an outlet of personal expression. MacAskill even dabbles in the unique practice of woodcutting.

“I take a block of plywood and use chisels to carve into it. Then I roll over the ink to hit the high spots, then press paper onto it and begin to trace,” he says.

From a young age MacAskill was very artistically inclined, just like his older sister.

“She was a big inspiration for me,” he says, smiling. “I looked up to her a lot, she went to NSCAD too. She inspired my love of art, and I guess I’m following the same path as her, just carving my own footsteps.”

In high school, MacAskill wanted to find a way to design his own T-shirts for his band and began experimenting in homemade remedies. Through this desire, MacAskill acquired a foundation of skills in print work and ultimately let that flourish into his own brand.

His boyhood passion for both art and music is a combination of interests that now work in harmony to pay the bills, and takes him to places he’s always dreamed of.

“I’ve actually just landed a job with a graphic design firm in Nashville. I graduate in April and start work down there in May. It’s a dream come true. Nashville has a great culture of art and music, I really love it there,” he says.

MacAskill departs shortly after he performs a farewell gig with Drags, his garage rock band. They will be performing their last set at the Seahorse Tavern at the end of the month.

Nathalie Morin and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet: the complex world of a chocolatier

“Welcome to Rousseau,” Nathalie Morin greets customers, upon entering the specialty French chocolate shop, Rousseau Chocolatier. Fittingly, she says the shop’s name with a French accent, rolling the “R” and deepening her voice.

“Welcome to Rousseau,” Nathalie Morin greets customers, upon entering the specialty French chocolate shop, Rousseau Chocolatier. Fittingly, she says the shop’s name with a French accent, rolling the “R” and deepening her voice.

The small shop is clean, bright and cozy, in a minimalistic sort of way. One wall is accented with warm wood, the other walls are painted white. Wooden shelves hold a small number of other products like chocolate bars and specialty caramels.

It smells, aptly, like chocolate. However, it’s not a sugary, sweet scent. It’s a deep, cocoa aroma, with multiple layers laced with subtle hints of other flavours.

There is only one glass showcase, but it is full of at least 10 different types of chocolates. Behind that, there is a shiny hot chocolate machine and a small cabinet of colourful macarons in flavours like banana rum, blackberry and apple cinnamon.

Owned and operated by Ottawa native Morin and her husband Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet, Rousseau Chocolatier has been in business on 1277 Hollis Street since May 2014.

Originally from Roquebrune-sur-Argens in southeast France, Rousseau-Dumarcet now handcrafts specialty chocolates, brownies and French macarons everyday on site in Halifax.

Rousseau-Dumarcet left school at age 16 to find a job, and initially began working as a pastry chef and chocolatier. Since then, he has worked for hotels or in chocolate shops across Europe, and has had professional training in France and Scotland.

Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet met about six years ago, in Wakefield, Que. Now, at age 30 and 28, respectively, and based in Halifax, Rousseau-Dumarcet crafts the business’s products and Morin runs the store front, greeting customers, offering samples and describing in detail each flavour of chocolate.

Through the viewing bay, opposite the showcase full of chocolates, Rousseau-Dumarcet can usually be seen at work, in his white and navy blue uniform.

Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons.
Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

He sets up the workplace carefully, making sure his tools are in the proper place. If he’s making macarons, he will turn on the oven and mix meringue made with sugar and egg whites into a second batter. Then, not spilling even a drop of the final batter, he’ll scoop it into a bag.

Hunching over the table so his face is mostly obscured, Rousseau-Dumarcet squeezes the batter onto trays covered in white sheets. The batter comes out as small round dots that will soon be, in this case, chocolate macarons. He moves quickly, filling a tray in only a minute or two.

Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons.
Rousseau-Dumarcet in the process of making chocolate macarons. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

When he’s making chocolate, his favourite step of the process is finishing off each individual chocolate by garnishing it with a unique topping: a sprinkle of coconut; crushed rose petals; a simple, single pumpkin seed or a more complex, edible design of pink skulls.

Out front, Morin describes exactly how the chocolates are made and has detailed description for each flavour on display.

The peanut butter cranberry is a “a reminder of those PB and J days, it’ll take you back, its comfort food;” the orange balsamic caramel was inspired by fresh, tangy summer salads; and the lemon ganache has been described as “lemon meringue pie dipped in chocolate.”

Morin describes a product to a customer. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Morin describes a product to a customer. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

As for how much chocolate they eat themselves? Morin says they each eat only one chocolate per week, and both name the lemon ganache as their favourite flavour.

“When you work with chocolate all day everyday, you just don’t crave it as much,” she says.

Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet spend seven days a week in their store, usually from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., and will occasionally take one day off every two weeks. They do not have any employees.

Other than Rousseau, there are a couple other chocolate shops in the Halifax area specializing in handmade chocolates.

Besides creating confections for the shop on site, Rousseau Chocolatier also provides products to several hotels and businesses in Halifax, takes custom orders and caters for events. A gift box of 12 chocolates can be bought for $19.

Both owners say their business is unique because of the simplicity and specialty of the products and their freshness.

“We are definitely a specialty store,” says Morin. “We try not to spread ourselves too thin by offering pastries and all these different types of products.”

As well, ingredients like chillies and sea salt are purchased from local farmers’ markets, maple from Acadian Maple Products, rose petals from the Annapolis Valley and other ingredients from a New Brunswick based distribution company called Dolphin Village.

Morin prepares a specialty hot chocolate made of 2% milk, cocoa, cream, dark chocolate and a hint of white chocolate for sweetness. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Morin prepares a specialty hot chocolate made of 2% milk, cocoa, cream, dark chocolate and a hint of white chocolate for sweetness. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

For the two entrepreneurs, who had been planning, doing paper work and researching Halifax for two years prior to moving, the preparation stage of the business plan was the most stressful. However, Morin says they were motivated to keep going through this initial struggle.

“We’ve been waiting for this for years,” she said, “so it made sense to push through it as much as we could.”

“It is very difficult when you start, because all the money you put in the business is your money, it comes from your pocket. So if I failed, I lost everything,” says Rousseau-Dumarcet. “It’s very stressful, but after, when you see the business grow, it’s amazing. It’s like a little baby.”

For French born Rousseau-Dumarcet, finding a suitable location to establish his first business was the greatest concern.

“I liked a good quality of life and all my life I lived near the Mediterranean, so when we moved to Canada I wanted to be close to the water,” he says.

“We wanted to be able to enjoy life,” says Morin.

Halifax won against their other choice, Vancouver, because it is more affordable, there was less competition and is located closer to both Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet’s families.

Nathalie Morin (left) and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet (right), co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)
Nathalie Morin (left) and Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet (right), co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier. (Photo: Bronwen McKie)

The co-owners of Rousseau Chocolatier say their experience in Halifax so far has been positive.

“It’s amazing. We work for our future,” says Rousseau-Dumarcet. “It’s really nice to have our own business.”

“People generally love the story, two people meeting and creating this idea, running their own chocolate shop, and hard work does pay off and in the end we did pull through and do what we’ve always wanted to do,” says Morin. “I think that’s the romance about it.”

Sarah Knowles: Musher, volunteer and dog lover

Sarah Knowles loves her dogs and helping people. That’s why she’s a member of HRM Urban Mushing and wants to help at-risk youth with animal therapy.

On a frigid Wednesday evening, after the sun has set and the sky is dark, Sarah Knowles and her team of mushers meet at the very end of Perrin Drive in Fall River, N.S.

The only light comes from the headlamps on each of the mushers and the headlights of cars that are still running.

Each musher clips a belt around their waist and then attaches a gang-line from the hook of the belt to the harness of the dog or dogs who are a part of their team.

They venture onto a trail while the dogs howl in excitement.

Knowles and her brother Corey are the organizers of HRM Urban Mushing. Corey got a taste for mushing in 2010 when he went to Vancouver for the Olympics and took a sled tour. When he returned, he introduced his sister to mushing.

When HRM Urban Mushing started, Knowles did not own any dogs. She now has three. There is Sage who is a husky and labrador retriever mix, Heidi a golden retriever and Koda who is a pure husky. All three dogs are rescues.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Knowles says there are about 70 people in the Facebook group, though there are others involved outside of that. Knowles says that there are roughly 100 dogs who are a part of the team.

“From there it grew, and the more research we did the more experience we got and we started to learn that we didn’t have to use sleds, we use scooters and we do canicross when there isn’t snow.”

Canicross is how mushers continue to train when there isn’t any snow. It is the practice of running or fast-paced walking while a dog, or team of dogs are attached to a harness and a belt around the musher’s waist. However, there are specially made scooters for this sport as well, which require the musher to attach the gang-line to the scooter.

Knowles and her brother have concerns for the well being of their dogs and offer seminars, which members of the mushing team must attend in order to learn about their dogs’ nutrition, the right way to mush and how to check for injuries on their dogs after a run.

Although Knowles and her mushing team like to run their dogs at night, they have never had a wild animal pose a threat to the team.

“It’s because they are an established pack. No animal would dare threaten them because they would fight and protect each other and us, just like a pack would,” says her brother, Corey.

Knowles and her team do mushing and canicross almost all year around, except for the summer.

“I can run Sage, who is a husky and lab mix and Heidi who is a golden [retriever] and the heat doesn’t bother them as much as it would Koda, who is a husky. So, Sage and Heidi get out much more than Koda does. But the runs are still very short and very quick, 10 minutes tops,” she says.

In the summer, Knowles likes to get creative when it comes to keeping her dogs active, this includes finding ways to burn off their energy, while still keeping them cool in the heat. Knowles especially likes to take her dogs to the beach, and explains how Koda is a big fan, because huskies tend to love the beach because of the cool temperature and winds.

“If I miss more than one day [of exercise], I’ll have a mutiny on my hands,” Knowles says.

Dog therapy

On top of organizing a mushing team, Knowles and her dogs also volunteer for St. John’s Ambulance dog therapy. Heidi works with children, while Sage and Koda work more with adults. Although, Sage will be testing to work with children soon.

“Heidi can sense people. In the testing she went over to this little boy who recoiled a little bit, so for the rest of the testing she would let him come to her,” Knowles says.

“When it came to the point where the kids lined up and would come over and pet her, for all of the kids she would take a step forward and wag her tail, but when it came time for that little boy, Heidi sat down and looked the other way and let the little boy come to her instead.”

Knowles knew that she wanted to get involved with an animal therapy program even before she owned any dogs. As soon as she got her dogs, she signed them up right away.

“Animals don’t judge you, they don’t care what you look like or what you’ve done and they have respect for you,” she says.

Knowles is two years into her social work degree at Dalhousie University, but has since put that on pause to figure out a better route for achieving her goals. She wants to help people feel like they are a part of a group by getting them involved with animals and with her mushing group.

Knowles wants to mix helping people with animals by getting a farm where at-risk youth can help out, to help keep them busy and allow for therapy when they interact with the animals.

“My goal is to have a small hobby farm. I’ve kind of taken a break from school to see if there is an alternate way of achieving that goal. The biggest thing I’ve found is that kids get in trouble when they are bored,” Knowles says. “To see kids interact with the dogs, you can see the pride that they have for being an equal.”

Knowles also does shift work, working with adults with disabilities and going to their homes. She helps with supper, to get them ready for bed, and she takes them out to the movies. Knowles explains that the people she works with are “genuine and trusting people.”

“I love working with people, helping people to reach their full potential and to live to the highest capacity or help them reach their goals, whether it be taking a trip somewhere or getting a job at Superstore.”