The first thing Mathew Aldred does when I walk through the door of his Shinimacas house is break open the frozen chocolate cheesecake and freshly-picked raspberries.
“We don’t normally eat dessert,” he explains so whenever anyone comes over, it’s an excuse to eat cheesecake.
We settle at the dining room table in the home Mathew, a teacher at Oxford Regional Education Centre, shares with wife Maria and their teenaged son and daughter and between bites of decadent cheesecake, he explains what brought the family from England to Nova Scotia in 2007.
“Maria was brought up on a farm in Ireland so we wanted that for our kids. The open space, the animals, the peace and quiet. There was some family land in Ireland but we couldn’t get permission to build because of strict building and planning restrictions. Beautiful country, West Cork, sort of the last stop between Ireland and Nova Scotia. We couldn’t afford to buy a home there, very expensive, so we started to look further afield,” he says.
Mathew says Maria was looking at a map and realizing that it is only a six-hour flight from England to Halifax.
“It wasn’t like going to Australia,” he says.
His parents had emigrated to Australia in the 1950’s but returned to England because they missed family.
“I had that at the back of my mind,” Mathew says, “but this didn’t seem too bad. We started looking at the real estate listings and we bought this place unseen.”
‘This place’ being a 1930’s home and 55 acres on the Shinimicas Road. Mathew says they were pleasantly surprised by Canada, and the property, when they arrived in June of 2007.
“We hadn’t been to Canada, didn’t really know anything about Canada, in nature documentaries it’s always that snowy wilderness,” he admits. “I remember quite well when we drove up the driveway, we said, ‘This is nice,’ and as we got out of the car, hummingbirds were coming around us. We walked to the back of house and looked at the fields and felt we’d hit the jackpot.”
Determined to make a go of the move, the family was prepared for anything.
“We’d brought a tent with us because we thought the house might be a complete ramshackle affair and we’d have to stay in the house until we could fix it up a little bit. We’ve never opened the tent. It’s still in the shed,” he laughs.
“We were so in love with the place. Looking back, there was a lot of work to do but none of that mattered. We were so happy just with the location.”
Mathew says they wouldn’t have considered Canada if he hadn’t been able to get a teaching license; he now works full-time at OREC.
“I guess I showed a willingness to teach whatever,” he says of landing a permanent contract after a few years of subbing and term contracts. “I was up for anything. I’ve taught over 20 different subjects in the last seven years. You wouldn’t think there were that many subjects, would you?”
He now has a stable set of subjects but what he’s most thrilled about is teaching art.
“The school did art for a year but it didn’t go down very well because the teacher wasn’t art-trained,” he says. “It’s a difficult subject. It’s not too bad if it’s an elective and you have a committed group of artists but if a Fine Arts credit is compulsory and you’re in a small school, how many Fine Art subjects can you put on? In our case, only one so that is art.”
Since Mathew went to art school and majored in photography before doing a history degree, he thought he’d like to teach art.
“That was the best thing I ever did. It awoke in me all that early days stuff. It’s like I’ve been reborn because I’d veered away from it,” he says. “That’s what I live for now. It would kill me if they took away Art.”
He’s been teaching Grade 10 and Grade 12 Art and this year, picks up a class in Junior High.
“Most of my timetable is art,” he says. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”
But Mathew isn’t a ‘those who can’t do, teach’ artist. He and Maria work together to create large, unique paintings using techniques they created themselves.
“When we came here, we had this dream we were going to do this farm,” he explains. “We wanted to do some beekeeping and grow herbs because I wasn’t sure I could get a job. When the job came, Maria took care of the farm then she was ill quite seriously and wasn’t able to do anything for three years. I suggested to her that she try a little bit of art. She’d never done it before, only as a kid. She took to it naturally and loved it.”
When they decided to collaborate on art, they didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.
“I couldn’t get excited about that, painting in the same style, the same medium,” says Mathew. “We spent some time, I guess two years, trying to develop entirely new techniques and this is what we came up with in the end,” he says, gesturing to the huge Art Nouveau-inspired painting of a peacock on the wall that looks similar to a stained glass window.
“We call that the Fluid Foil because initially we were using aluminum foil and we had to come up with a formulation for the paint that would be very, very fluid and transparent. That’s why it took so long.”
While the Aldreds still sell honey and products made from honey to neighbours and school colleagues, the honey-and-herb building is now the art studio they share with 15-year-old Joanna, also a gifted artist.
Out in the studio, Mathew’s passion and enthusiasm for art overflows.
“I love the experiments,” he says of the different styles he uses. “I want to give people something new to look at. And everything I do for myself, I do with my students.”
He loves teaching art because he believes everyone is capable of doing some kind of art.
“Picasso said we’re all born artists and I really do believe that.”