The Engagement Ring
-by John Gillis
Artist Betty Nordhage of West Mabou was born and raised in the Kamloops area of British Columbia.
She worked for 15 years in Calgary, much of it with Air Canada in passenger reservations before going to work for a few oil exploration companies - all work which she enjoyed.
In 1964, she married Bill Nordhage who had a long career working for the Royal Bank.
She and Bill and their growing family moved to the Montreal area and it was there they got to know the late Fred Smith of Mabou who was at that time also working for the Royal Bank.
The Nordhage family visited Cape Breton shortly after Bill was transferred to Halifax and they immediately fell in love with Nova Scotia and they soon began to inquire about buying land in Cape Breton. They were hooked up with Hawley Cameron of West Mabou and purchased property from him on New Ferry Road. Shortly after they purchased the land, Betty and Bill retired to the area in 1983.
The Nordhage family raised two girls here. Daughter Lise is married to Tim Sangster and they have two daughters and live in Montreal. Daughter Kathleen married Paul Rankin of Mabou. They have four sons and live in Lively, not far from Sudbury, Ontario.
While Betty was living in Calgary she began to volunteer with a local elementary school where she taught art. She soon took an interest in papier mâché and it became a medium she then stayed with for much of her artistic life.
Bill always had an interest in boats and sailing and Betty was the one in the family who took an interest in maintaining the boats and keeping them painted.
Before long, Betty became involved with An Drochaid /The Bridge Museum in Mabou. Many people will remember the beautiful window displays Betty created there throughout the 1980s up to very recently.
Betty told The Oran this week that sometimes some of the ideas for the window displays would be suggested by local people involved in running the museum, people like Margaret Hunt, Effie Rankin, or Margie Beaton.
Betty said it felt good over the years to know that so many people enjoyed those window displays.
“I often did seasonal themes as well, Christmas displays, Halloween or Easter were common. I often enjoyed making the displays rather whimsical and people seemed to enjoy that. I’ve always enjoyed creating art – it’s a bit like giving birth. I think everyone should have something creative to be involved in,” Nordhage added.
While she no longer works in papier mâché, Betty is still as active as ever drawing and painting in her home studio. She enjoys making rapid portrait sketches and especially making the sketches identifiable.
“I think if I were in a larger area, I’d likely go to a café and sketch strangers but here, I tend to sketch human figures on some of the television programs I watch such as Power and Politics,” she added.
An Drochaid’s Effie Rankin has great things to say about Betty’s contributions to that organization over the years.
“I recall her attention to detail in all her creations. She was an excellent seamstress and a consummate artist - both of those talents were obvious in her papier mâché work.
“In her many years of helping us decorate two large windows at An Drochaid – Betty took pains to get everything just right. While Bill was alive, he helped her with many projects, but after he passed away, she had to rely on her own resources to produce scenes which often reflected events in the community. Some highlights were school graduations, weddings, musical events, and of course, special festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Very often, her figures were modeled on local characters - for example, Willie Kennedy inspired her fiddler while Mary “Doc” MacNeil was probably the idea behind her piano player. Her life-sized fiddle and bow were so realistic that some were convinced they were the real thing! Betty’s posters remain memorable - so colourfully reminiscent of the 60s Op-Art. One special trait Betty taught us all was to treasure every small or large item which might become useful to her art - whether this meant carrying heavy rocks and sand from West Mabou or saving tiny toothpaste caps - we were made aware of recycling long before it became fashionable.
“But perhaps Betty’s greatest asset is her enduring sense of fun and optimism; she remains so young at heart - a tremendous inspiration to us all,” Rankin concluded.
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