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Beneath the Top Layer: Peter Crouse - Assemblage Artist

Updated: Mar 15

A man wearing a red shirt and blue jeans applies blue paint to a wooden panel. In the background a collage of a crow is seen.
Peter Crouse working at his home studio in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia..

Peter Crouse, an assemblage artist and high school art and drama teacher living on the Bay of Fundy with his wife and children, has watched the tide come and go almost his entire life from the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Being from a rural place, Crouse grew up as many a kid from a smaller town did, playing outside and building ‘stuff’. Forts, treehouses, rafts, and even homemade pinball games were created from the detritus of the area he lived in. As a teenager Crouse drew blueprints of things he dreamt about building in the future, and slowly, these turned into watercolor cartoons.

Crouse turned to theatre in college, but a portfolio of those cartoons got him into a few studio courses with the Art Department. It was there he discovered art could be anything, it could be about the materials or ideas, or the process.

Due to the financial strain artists may feel in their careers, and after living with his wife in South Korea, Crouse considered that teaching could support his ability to create more regularly while negating the monetary concern. Currently, as a Visual Arts and Drama teacher, he can explore ideas and projects with his students regularly, and that becomes another outlet for his own creativity. ‘Furthermore, I think that when you teach something that you are passionate about, you get to pass on your joy to others,’ Crouse says. He aims to teach his students fully and does not focus on the successes of art making without also celebrating the learning that can happen from the failures. ‘I think it’s important that they see me struggle sometimes and make mistakes, because all these things are part of the true creative process. I model artistic behavior by working at their side, rather than just giving them instructions from the sidelines.’

I would have done well to have a teacher or two who were passionate and joyful in their lessons concerning any of the arts. The impact of these roles cannot be underestimated.

A black and white photo of a man looking into the camera with a sketched self portrait and mirror sitting on the table.
Peter Crouse shown with a sketch of himself.

Capable and skilled at making sketches of his surroundings, Crouse often does so to pass the time. In fact, as a father to two active teenagers, he finds himself at various sporting events or activities with a sketchbook, capturing his family’s memories with a pad of paper and various mark making tools. Inspired and driven by travelling to new locations with his family, sketches often arise from his acute fascinations of these new surroundings as well. He claims he was not a natural sketch artist and has implemented a strict regimen of study and practice to hone his skills inspired by the work ethic of Vincent van Gogh. Between games, while camping, grabbing a coffee, while his students work; whenever a snippet of time is found, Crouse sketches to become better and touts the ability of sketching to form a hyper-awareness of your surroundings. This nurturing of a skill with the aim to master it despite lack of dedicated time is commendable and a testament to his dedication to the arts.

Crouse also uses his own photography in his artworks and enjoys the immediacy of taking a photograph, applying digital manipulations to it, and using the various iterations within his collages. He hopes to further this process with screen printing and using these prints in his analogue collage in the future. ‘For me, it’s important that I use my own imagery when making art – and so lately I try to draw inspiration directly from my own life and surrounding environment rather than relying solely on found photographs and images of others. I also like the notion of incorporating my own sketches and drawings into my collaged art pieces. The juxtaposition of different lines, textures and images is what appeals to me. I see printmaking as another creative way to take something ‘handmade or hand drawn’ and place it next to something of high refinement such as a photograph. I love that great visual juxtaposition. (Imperfect man in a world of technological perfection?) A great example of this technique is Robert Rauschenberg’s screen-printed splatters and smears on top of screen-printed photographs.’

He describes his art as a form of personal storytelling, with items gathered from his own interactions with the world. Colorful Bingo cards found flying about the street caused him to stop and capture them for use within his assemblages and collage. A piece of found wood discovered by his son has become the base for one my favorite pieces on display at Cuts and Paste currently. This collection of elements and Crouse’s ability to grasp details and make associations leads to the making of deeply layered and impactful juxtapositions between materials and imagery, often highlighted by bold primary colors and stark black typographic elements. Crouse has been collaging since his twenties and notes, ‘collaging is a different experience than drawing or painting. With collage, it usually comes down to figuring out what the artwork needs. An artist’s job in part is to take the ordinary and develop it into something extraordinary.’ Solving problems and figuring out what a piece needs is exciting to Crouse and the solution to one problem spurs him on to try solving the next.

Crouse admits his art making comes and goes in spurts, but it’s because he is a devoted father, husband and teacher and getting time to create comes secondary to those roles. Some may find this type of creation schedule hard, but Crouse has found a few silver linings. For example, he says he’s a planner, and the times he cannot physically work on a project, he can consider the pros and cons of certain decisions, or plan and do some of the menial tasks needed, like making photocopies or finding specific objects required by the idea. When he does get the time to work on his art, it’s in the TV room of his home, filling it up with organized papers and materials and multiple projects in various stages of completion. Multi-tasking, he may be painting one piece while another is drying, and yet another has the glue setting to work as efficiently as possible, all supported by his prior planning and preparation. Although this way of working involves a lot of planning and readiness, Crouse also talks about the magic of creation too. ‘I enjoy the ‘mystical’ part of artmaking when inspiration and ideas seem to appear (or offer themselves) out of the cosmos. I try to pay attention to those moments and to act upon them when they happen – I’ll take photos. Film strange videos. Do thumbnails sketches. Jot words and phrases down. Document the ‘random’ details of my world. Inspiration surrounds us. It presents itself to us all day long – we only need to be aware of it and try to gather it up for later use. It’s the job of the artist to first collect, and then connect those seemingly random ideas into art. I believe it’s very important to listen to what the world offers you as the possibilities for your art.’ He calls his artistic process ‘controlled spontaneity.’

This creative environment stems from Crouse’s intentions for raising a family and honoring the essence of time itself. ‘I never wanted to miss out on opportunities in life because of my art. You only have one opportunity to do things with your family while they are with you at home. I think that being involved in family life is important and I have tried to find a balance between my own creative needs and my family’s needs. I make art when I ever I can, usually in between schoolwork, making meals and basketball games. I have a great wife and good kids, who I believe understand that.’ He says he is most proud of his children and the job both he and his wife have done to raise them. When asked what makes him excited, the answer is divided between travelling and experiencing new things with his family and artmaking.

I think this is the soul of Crouse’s art career. The equilibrium between nurturing one’s own creative drive and output and being present with those he has devoted himself to. The recognition that it is important to spend time developing oneself, but that we are also valuable in a supporting role to others as they attempt to find what drives them. You can tell planning is an important aspect to Crouse’s work, as the objects and images used in his bold and vibrant assemblages always work together to create a cohesive commentary on some theme or idea. What gets me excited by Crouse’s work is his contemplative and astute nature and the ability to find symbolism and meaning, beauty and humor from everyday objects and images. Although his art, he says, is starting to represent more serious topics such as family, children, aging and death, he aims to find some lightness or humor in his work.

I was surprised by the use of his baby boots in one of the assemblages on display entitled 'She Had a Bright Future', to which he quipped, ‘Well, I have no use for them now’. This type of light-heartedness allows Crouse’s artworks to speak to sensitive subjects in a way that gives us, the viewer, space, and permission to move past them.

According to Crouse, ‘An artist is someone who, creates something with every ounce of their being, energy, and passion, and who recognizes that it has flaws and imperfections but, in a moment of vulnerability offers it to the world just the same. Artmaking requires vulnerability and courage.’

As he inches closer to retirement from teaching and his children moving into adulthood, I wish that Crouse continues to find a balance that allows him to create and relay to us through his collages and assemblage works small glimpses into his life journey.

See all of the work available by Peter Crouse.

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