We’re about halfway through our conversation when I have to ask June Thurber if she was born in Nova Scotia. Every time she says the word “arm” or “harbour”, I hear a New England accent. Considering June lives in Pugwash and paints seascapes, including the lighthouse painting behind her, she says “hah-bah” quite a bit.
She chuckles and tells me she’s originally from the South Shore.
“The kids in school used to make fun of me once and a while,” she says.
She was Mrs. Turner when she arrived in Pugwash in 1972, a recently divorced mother of ten, to teach junior high English.
“I had ten children,” she states, watching my face and apparently, I give her what she expects. “Now, wipe that look of your face.”
I’m not shocked; I’m in awe. Ten children plus a full-time job as a teacher?
“I haven’t seen that face for awhile,” June says. “People would ask -- ” she raises her voice, minces her tone -- “ ‘And how many children do you have, Mrs. Turner?’ and I’d say, ‘Ten’, and they’d say ‘Oh, isn’t that lovely’ but there would be that look of horror in between,” she laughs.
“It’s not horror, it’s amazement,” I insist.
“Well, we’ll put it down as that.”
When she moved to Pugwash, a few of her children were old enough to be on their own so six children came with her, ranging in age from six to sixteen. (One of her children has since passed away.)
I ask her what it was like to raise so many children and work outside the home as well.
“Oh, hard. Very hard,” says June. “And I never got to be a mother. I was Attila the Hun. I was a man. Now I have nine best friends. I don’t know how because I wasn’t a sweet little mother, I can tell you that. My students used to say I didn’t bore them. They were good years but they were busy.”
There was a simple reason for making it work: Desperation.
“I was divorced from my first husband so it was desperation,” June explains. “We had to survive. My kids were pretty good about all of it. ”
She became a teacher because she likes kids but the profession also allowed her to keep the same hours as her children.
“I liked teaching for a long, long while. At the last, I didn’t. Kids’ attitudes changed.”
When she retired in 1984 at the age of 55, June didn’t keep on as a substitute teacher; instead, she devoted herself to a talent that had been put aside through her working and family years.
“I’d always played around with painting but never had time,” she says. “It takes quite a bit of time. If you have to drag everything out – kitchen table painting is not good. You don’t get much time to paint and it’s upsetting to everyone else in the house because it’s a mess. You need a place. ”
When all the kids were gone, she turned a downstairs room into a studio.
“I started out with watercolours but I didn’t hang with it long enough to get any control,” June says. “Then I went to acrylics and then I went to oils. I like oils. They’re stinky and dirty and messy and destroys your clothes but I like them.”
She doesn’t paint every day but she always attends the Mixed Palette’s painting group every Thursday morning at the Pugwash Village hall where she paints “just about everything. Seascapes are hard but landscapes are easy. I like animals, horses in particular. Just about anything.”
She’s been a member of the painting group since 1984 when they started meeting at the old fire hall.
“If you don’t get your Thursday painting, your week is off,” June explains. “And we don’t gossip,” she assures me, eyes twinkling. “Only intellectual conversation here.”
Her favourite painting is one of two deer; it is a painting she won’t sell. Anything else, if she likes it enough, gets offered up in the annual Mixed Palette Art Show that runs at the village hall before and during HarbourFest. Last year, June sold all of the paintings she had on display.
“I paint under my maiden name, Frauzel. I told my husband at the time that I could have three or four more husbands before I stopped painting. It was only a joke...” (She did remarry after all her children were grown.)
June is a self-taught painter although she says the ability to draw has always been there.
“If I was making up a grocery list, the kids would make fun of me because there would be drawings all around. If I was taking a course at school that was boring, there’d be drawings all over. I’ve always done that. Way back, I used to draw for my mother to make hooked mats. I’d draw on the burlap, flower arrangements, landscapes.”
Out of her ten children, 13 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren (“I’m old,” she states but won’t allow me to print her age), only one daughter and a granddaughter paint and none of her children became teachers.
She surveys her painting space at the end of a table. She’d spent the morning searching for a photo with the right background for her lighthouse painting.
“I don’t think I’m good enough mixing my colour to paint from my mind,” she says about using photographs. “Sometimes I mix something I shouldn’t but it’s getting better. By the time I’m 95, I’ll be okay.”
And that’s a long way off yet.