OCAD University

Fogo Island Diary

— By Associate Professor Catherine Beaudette

Fogo Island lies off the northern coast of Newfoundland. It is a small, remote, and rocky outpost in the North Atlantic that has a rugged, almost Arctic, beauty. About two thousand residents live in several small coastal villages, most the descendents of families who have lived there for generations. When I first visited the island in June 2010 for the opening ceremonies of the now well-known ‘Longstudio' by architect Todd Saunders, I was struck by how quintessentially Canadian it seemed. I felt it would be an ideal setting for an OCAD University graduate residency, and a year later in May 2011, I returned with five Interdisciplinary Master's in Art, Media & Design (IAMD) graduate students. The following is a diary of our experience there.

IAMD students at Longstudio, Fogo Island, NL

IAMD students at Longstudio, Fogo Island, NL, May 2011. From left to right: Marian Wihak, Christine Walker, Susan Campbell, David Clarkson, Po Chun Lau. Photo: Catherine Beaudette.

We arrive in Newfoundland by air and drove north from Gander to catch the Fogo Island ferry. After sailing for an hour, we drive to Joe Batt's Arm, the small outport community on the northeast side of the island that will be our home for the next three weeks, and settle into the houses assigned to us. Ours is ominously called the 'Coffin House'. (Later, I am relieved to see that Coffin is a common local family name.) Across the road, the harbour is a quiet, circular pond. Joe Batt's Arm hugs the shore like a horseshoe, and we have a clear view of the traditional 'punts', 'stages', and small white 'saltbox' houses on the other side.

Fishing Stage, Joe Batt’s Arm, NL.

Fishing Stage, Joe Batt's Arm, harbour. Photo: Catherine Beaudette.

The Longstudio will be our workspace. It is accessed by a footpath along the ocean, a 15-minute hike that begins the next morning in the parking lot next to the fish packing plant at the edge of town. As we walk along the shore, we spot a herd of caribou eating lichen in the tundra above us. Gulls circle a dead seal on the beach. Soon, a long black shape emerges over the rocks like a submarine — an imposing architectural presence on the stark, barren landscape. Long and narrow, its white interior creates a telescopic effect: focusing attention on an end wall of windows that frame the sea. There is a small apartment hidden behind a moving wall, allowing the main space to remain vast and empty.

Later, we spontaneously comb the beaches, wandering off the trail to explore the surrounding landscape. As the days unfold, the studio becomes our main destination — a place to make art, have discussions, and to consolidate our findings. There are four additional studios in isolated spots around the island, all recently completed, and a hotel under construction at Joe Batt's Arm. These are all part of a larger vision: our host, the Shorefast Foundation, is engaged in social entrepreneurship to alleviate the poverty that remains from the economic impact of the 1992 cod moratorium. Social capital becomes an investment, and profits are redirected back into the local economy.

During our residency, we have been paired with another group — artists and designers who are researching local craft traditions for adaptation and eventual use in the hotel. We have been invited to explore a residency theme together: ‘the seal' from many points of view — nomad, fisherman, scientist, environmentalist, and chef. Our research includes fieldtrips, as well as local food. We gather one night at a newly restored house to a note on the door that says: 'walk right in and just start cooking'. We infuse the air with fish cakes and crab, seafood soup and smoked caplin — the smell of the sea replacing that of fresh paint.

Opening reception of Shorenotes exhibition at the Longstudio

Opening reception of Shorenotes exhibition at the Longstudio, May 2011. Todd Saunders, architect of Longstudio (centre)  Associate Professor Catherine Beaudette and Artscorp Projects Director Jack Stanley (far right). Photo: Christine Walker.

The weather varies from warm and sunny to sleet and rain or snow.  On a 'sooky' day, our neighbor tells us, "It's good weather if you're a sea duck." On less sooky days we hike to abandoned communities or up Brimstone Hill towards the sublime.  We spot an iceberg, white and shocking. We roam the island, jumping from one shelf of ancient rock to another, crossing the boggy treeless landscape, interviewing craftsmen, gleaning stories, getting to know the people and the place.

As our time on the island nears an end, we gather for a last group meal, creatively prepared by visiting chef Robert Bourassa. Following our research theme, the cuisine is ‘seal from different points of view', and so he prepares it in many ways. We start with sashimi seal appetizer, cured and sliced very thin, accompanied by pan-fried rainbow trout, caught that morning. Next is barbequed seal, pulled from the bone like pork, though it tastes more like rabbit.  The oven-roasted Icelandic version tastes fishy, reminding us of the seal's diet. The best dish is 'seal au vin' — stewed meat in a deep rich jus — and for dessert, partridgeberry crumble with Fussels Devonshire cream.

Fogo Island shoreline

Fogo Island shoreline. Photo: Catherine Beaudette.

The final evening of our residency, we hold an open studio exhibition of the artwork we made there. Many of the community members we have met hike out to Longstudio for the celebratory reception, and to say goodbye.  There is a Newfoundland expression used for visitors returning to the island.  "Welcome home" they say, and we leave hoping to hear those words again someday.

Catherine Beaudette is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Art, and teaches in OCAD University's Interdisciplinary Master's in Art, Media & Design program.

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