Naturalist turned watercolourist
Cora Scott loved the North.
After arriving in Canada in the 1960s—having trained as a nurse in London, England— she spent much of her nursing career in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Scott was the first permanent nurse at Grise Fiord on the southern tip of Ellesmere Island.
While committed to her profession and her patients, she was also an artist who developed a keen interest in the North’s plant biodiversity. The legacy of her interests is now preserved in the nature art collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
As Canada’s national museum of natural history, the museum is known for its scientific collections of more than 14.6 million specimens of plants, animals, fossils and minerals that document environmental change over time.
Supplementing this record of biodiversity is a collection of about 2,800 works of nature art, housed in the museum’s Library and Archives at its Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec.
For a number of years (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), two dedicated museum volunteers, Yolande Hachez and John Davies, have been working with the nature art collection. Among their duties was documenting and digitizing the artworks, ensuring that the collection could be shared more broadly via the internet.
While sleuthing out information on the many artists and their works, they came across an album entitled, “Flowers of the Northwest Territories” prepared by Cora L. Scott.
They were intrigued. Who was Cora L. Scott? The curatorial file had little information, so John and Yolande started to investigate. An online search led them to an obituary in the newsletter of the Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Cora Scott was born in 1930 and raised in Jamaica. She passed away in Ottawa in 2005 after decades in the North. Her love for the Arctic was so much a part of her life and spirit that she requested her ashes be scattered in Resolute Bay at Grise Fiord.
“She was quite a character by all accounts, admired and well liked,” says Davies, after speaking with some of Scott’s friends.
Long-time friend and former colleague Constance Suite described her as “an icon of Northern nursing”. The two met decades ago, after Scott arrived at Great Whale River in Nunavik (northern Quebec) to manage the nursing station.
Scott was also an enthusiastic artist, having trained at an art school in Kingston, Jamaica. She applied her skills with watercolours, acrylics and charcoal to record the life and culture of the communities and people she lived with in the North.
One of her pastimes was to collect the local Arctic flora and to preserve and document them. She depicted the diversity of Arctic flora with a lovely watercolour painting for each of 64 plant specimens. She also took a sample of each plant, which she pressed, mounted and inserted into the final donated album alongside each of the watercolours.
“There was a unique folk-art quality about her work that we found very compelling. Cora was particularly interesting because she was not a professional artist or botanist, although we learned that she developed considerable expertise on Arctic flora through her own observations and study,” says Davies.
The culmination of the research by Hachez and Davies was a public presentation of Scott’s album and the story of her life at the museum’s annual Open House in October 2016.
Chantal Dussault is Head of Library and Archives for the Canadian Museum of Nature. John Davies is a museum volunteer.