by Emily Hiltz
John Devlin’s dreams have come true. The Halifax artist’s sketches will be displayed at la Galerie Christian Berst in Paris, France until May 25th.
Devlin’s collection, titled Nova Cantabrigiensis, consists of some 300 sketches of his ideal utopian city. He says that if you spliced all the best parts of Nova Scotia and Cambridge University, the result would be Nova Cantabrigiensis.
Devlin went to Cambridge in 1979 to study theology and become a priest because he felt he had a calling. He had studied theology and architecture at T.U.N.S., arts and social sciences at Dalhousie and worked as a stock broker for two years but felt he was flailing in different directions. This was when he became interested in Christianity. He changed his religion to Catholicism and “flew off to Cambridge.”
While at Cambridge, Devlin immersed himself in his studies. Many of his days were spent reading books and essays in his room or at the library. He believes working too hard is what let him to have a nervous breakdown in the spring of 1980.
“I kinda snapped and flipped out I guess,” says Devlin. “I didn’t realize that was the end, the kibosh of my career as a student at Cambridge.” Devlin returned home to Halifax and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals until he was discharged in 1982. Later that year he began to write stories and eventually, he began to sketch.
Devlin sketched Nova Cantabrigiensis as a way to have Cambridge in his own backyard. All the best things about Cambridge without the pressure and the stress, he says.
Nova Cantabrigiensis is located in the middle of the Minas Basin not far from his parent’s summer home in Walton, on the Hants shore.
“I love it out there, but it’s so desolate, so lonely in a way, but it’s beautiful,” says Devlin.
Part of Devlin’s psychosis involved trying to find the essence of Cambridge. Though his search died a natural death as he gradually got better, the images that are currently being showcased at la Galerie Christian Berst in Paris are what have been left behind. Devlin says he feels his life can move forward in a more productive and happy way knowing that his art is being showcased.
La Galerie Christian Berst specializes exclusively in Art Brut, a form of art created by people who have suffered from mental illness and through art therapy found their way back to health. Devlin hopes his display in Paris can show people the silver lining behind mental illness.
“Just putting pen to paper and exorcising those demons, that sounds like an extreme way of putting it, but it helps immeasurably in calming the psyche,” says Devlin. He says art along with proper medication, exercise and diet is great therapy.
“By no stretch of the imagination is it a dead end to be mentally ill in Nova Scotia because there are great resources, great doctors and great people to help you get better, stay better, realize your potential and contribute to society,” says Devlin. He believes in the mental health care system in Nova Scotia.