I am standing in the Christina Parker Gallery, staring at a painting of Newfoundland’s Highway 1, Exit 37. The canvas is the size of a camper van and the artist is Kym Greeley, from Conception Bay. Her unconventional take on landscape art – camel-brown roads, flattened yolk-yellow skies and graphic blue highway signs – is like looking at Newfoundland through the eyes of Andy Warhol.
The silkscreen and acrylics grab me for more than their nod to Pop Art. I just spent hours on this very highway, staring out the window at the cliff-flanked ocean, evergreen forest and rocky coastal barrens, driving south to St. John’s from Fogo Island.
I made the road trip with M’Liz Keefe, a Boston-based artist working on a giant-scale series of moody Fogo Island paintings. I met her while working on a book about the island, a rugged little outport that has become a magnet for creative types with its wild landscapes and its monochrome art studios on ocean-thrashed rocks. Keefe and I are both under its spell, but we’re curious to see what’s happening elsewhere in the province. What we find is a place where the crafts of the past inform the arts of the present, and where the pull of home is a constant theme.
Wandering further through Christina Parker Gallery, we scrutinize the colourful chaos of St. John’s resident Will Gill’s pastel, graphite and acrylic works, and we stop to peer at Corner Brook-born Mike Gough’s dreamlike series on memory and dementia, Truths. Gough, a lanky twentysomething artist with a swoop of dark hair, is the gallery assistant here, and he shows us his favourite works in between answering phone calls and playing traffic warden to caterers with wine glasses. “We’re hosting an after-party for the Women’s Film Festival crowd,” he explains breathlessly. “Last night we all went to see their movies, and today they’re coming to our exhibitions.”
Most of the artists exhibiting here are either Newfoundland born, based, or inspired. Many flit between genres. Take Bruce Alcock. In one room hang his inky midnight-blue paintings on raw linen burlap, mounted on steel bars. This series, Ice Men, depicts a 1914 disaster in which 78 Newfoundland sealers froze to death. In the next room, his animated film about the tragedy, 54 Hours, is playing. Alcock co-directed the film and created its dreamy shadow puppetry. Newfoundlanders have traditionally survived hard times and remote rural living through both community mindedness and a fearless approach to getting hands-on. “We all support each other here – the filmmakers, the visual artists, the musicians and the writers,” says Gough. “And that feeds our creativity.”
This vast, high-ceilinged marine-rigging warehouse-turned-gallery is Parker’s third exhibition space. Within five years of opening her first, three decades ago, she realized there was already too much happening locally to be contained within a 42-square-metre gallery. “We just grew,” she says, looking sharp in her asymmetric skirt and top, with jagged auburn haircut to match. “We all grew together!”
As Parker talks, I’m momentarily distracted by the orange and blue freight ships inching into the harbour out front, which serendipitously match the colour scheme in the abstract painting before me. Floor-to-ceiling windows connect the exhibition space seamlessly with life outside: a mountain-framed, iceberg-stabbed ocean; downtown boutiques in heritage buildings; houses in Crayola-box hues.
“Newfoundland is an artist’s place,” says Parker as she catches me staring through the panes. “I think this gallery reflects that.”
“I’ve made chain-mail bikinis,” says Jason Holley. “I’ve walked on runways with several women wearing chain-mail bikinis,” he pauses to grin, “…and it was very fun.” The 37-year-old artist also makes rubber, metal and ceramic jewellery and sculptures. He’ll work with any material as long as linking chains for hours and hours is involved. “I’m a little OCD,” he says.
At the downtown headquarters of the Craft Council of Newfoundland & Labrador, Holley grabs a knitted cluster of clunky chain links from its exhibition stand and shape-shifts it with both hands, as if it were a Transformers toy. Panic-stricken, I scan for security guards. “These are tactile things,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t pick a gallery in Toronto, because I wanted people to play with them.”
I didn’t pick a gallery in Toronto, because I wanted people to play with my sculptures.” Jason Holley, artist
Holley hands me the piece to manhandle for myself. It looks like a ton of steel but weighs less than a bag of sugar. This is one of 48 cubes originally stacked in a landscape installation called Chimney. Holley photographed them on the beach – once at sunrise, once at sunset – before bringing them here. The chains are actually made of clay, fired using the Japanese raku method for a metallic-like glaze.
Raku is for daredevils: Holley shares a YouTube video on his cellphone to prove it. We see him take his ceramics out of a fiery kiln when it hits its highest temperature – about 1,000°C – then he throws it all into sawdust. There the glaze crackles all over and a cloud of smoke encrusts it with carbon (unless the piece he painstakingly spent the previous week moulding explodes first). “You can’t get attached,” he says.
“People come to watch – it’s like fireworks. And I get to be this completely different person from the quiet guy who just worked alone in his studio, 16 hours a day for the past month.”
Holley has taken a craft practised locally for centuries to make functional, everyday items – such as cups and bowls – and adapted it to create exquisite objets d’art. Craft for art’s sake. And he’s not alone. At our last gallery stop of the day, Quidi Vidi Village Plantation, a new city-funded space in a 400-year-old oceanfront neighbourhood, we walk from open studio to open studio under a ceiling of criss-crossed steel beams, meeting around a dozen skilled young artisans just like him.
“I learned to sew when I was little,” says Megan Jackman, stitching her own block-printed fabric to a rippled square of sheepskin as we chat. “My mother taught herself leatherwork – she made belts and she taught me,” says the soft-spoken former pharmacist. “My nan taught me to sew; Pop taught me about upholstery hardware installation.” Jackman’s finished product will be a butter-soft fringed leather purse, with hand-hammered straps and one-of-a-kind textile details.
In neighbouring studios, we meet a weaver and seamstress who uses her loom and sewing machine to create decorative embroidered skylines from the vantage point of back alleys. And we admire the work of a beachcomber who turns sea glass and braided silk into necklaces.
This generation of artists has already explored many other parts of the world for work, study and vacations. They’re savvy about trends beyond Newfoundland’s borders. Proud of their roots, they’re preserving heritage crafts while articulating a complex new identity in which outside influences happily co-exist with local sensibilities.
I’m not one to disrespect a sunrise, but I curse this one as I lie in bed at Fishers’ Loft Inn at Port Rexton, three hours north of St. John’s. I’d planned on sleeping late, but I have to get up now and catch this on camera.
Outside, the swirling red-shrub labyrinth leads down the slope to a still and orange-tinged ocean. The cables between saltbox cottages cut across the landscape like golden threads. I snap photos until the spectacle has played out.
Co-owner John Fisher is up early too. “Did you see that sunrise?” he asks in the breakfast room. “Peggy and I have been here 25 years, and we were still yelling at each other this morning, ‘Look at the sun! Look at the sun!’”
The innkeepers and their sons, Luke and Gabe, have an eye for local beauty. They were named Patrons of the Arts by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council in 2012, and their property houses one of the largest collections of Newfoundland art in the province (the largest being at the Rooms, the provincial gallery in St. John’s).
After an impromptu exhibition of her work on the back window of our car, Keefe finds herself invited back to be artist-in-residence next spring. “See, our selection process is not particularly formal,” says Fisher, laughing, while his wife looks for her wallet to buy three small Fogo Island pieces as Christmas gifts for friends.
In the Fishers’ Loft bedrooms and public spaces, around 270 pieces hang. They’re all for sale, with 100 percent of profits going to the artists. “We have guests who always stay in the same room,” says Fisher. “And there’s different art there every time.” In a sitting room adorned with hooked rugs, ceramic fish sculptures and evocative photos of abandoned rural homes, I browse the “Give-and-Take” Library, which Fisher confesses to seeding with books by Newfoundland authors. He also started the provincial literary journal Riddle Fence in 2008, and runs a reading series each fall to help give voice to local writers.
“Artists have strong points of view on politics as well as aesthetics,” he says, hugging a sleepy granddaughter who just tottered in. (Three generations of Fishers live on the property.) “We want to connect visitors to the creativity of people in Newfoundland today.”
Seats of inspiration
We find ourselves dodging errant chickens on the trail to carpenter Mike Paterson’s workshop in Upper Amherst Cove. I’d fallen in love with Paterson’s locally sourced birch, spruce and balsam fir furniture at Fishers’ Loft. He built the prototypes for Fogo Island Inn’s furniture, too, conceived of collaboratively by local carpenters and international designers. His beds, seats and cabinets channel the spindled and utilitarian forms of traditional outport design, yet are pared back and contemporary.
“I have great respect for what’s time-tested but also evolves with the impact of time,” says Paterson as we walk around his sawdust-scented workshop, where paper templates hang from the ceiling alongside drying cattails.
I have great respect for what’s time-tested but also evolves with the impact of time.” Mike Paterson, furniture maker
His chef-d’oeuvre: the new set of convocation furniture for Memorial University. We leaf through plans and photographs of a black walnut convocation table with fish-splitting motif and photos of five magnificent chairs, cleverly incorporating motifs such as oars into their backs or whale tails into their armrests. “This is as creative as anything I’ve ever done,” says the carpenter, closing his album. “There’s no template for this at all.”
After watching other people create art all week, I’m inspired to join in. On my last day, I take a day trip to Landfall with photography instructor Maurice Fitzgerald, founder of Far East Photography Tours.
“I like the way the ‘fall’ in ‘Landfall’ is literally falling down the cliff in that shot,” says Fitzgerald as he checks out my images of a rusting hand-etched sign. I snap another pic, switching perspective to capture the ocean and the raw-wood picket fence. Fitzgerald passes me a filter to coax nuances from a flat grey sky. We play with the blur of the background. “You’ve got a great establishing shot there,” says my instructor, finally opening the gate.
We head down the grassy path to Kent Cottage, where iconic American artist and adventurer Rockwell Kent set up home a century ago and created some of his most spectacular wilderness paintings. By combining my pilgrimage with photography lessons, I get to experience this part of the world as Kent did – with an artist’s eyes. Fitzgerald knows which rocks to scale and dirt roads to follow for the best perspectives. I snap away with the gusto of a crime-scene detective.
Sitting in the passenger seat on the road home, I scroll through a week’s worth of photos, mulling over which to print and frame. Between the ocean spray and foggy harbours, the sunrises and painted cottages, I’m struck by how wildly inspiring Newfoundland is. I glance out the window as we approach our exit sign and smile to myself. Even the highways are a work of art.
For a road-trip tour of Newfoundland’s contemporary art scene, why not try a modern masterpiece: the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 AMG 4MATIC Coupe. Part SUV and part sports car, it’s a fascinating blend of traditional craftsmanship, design and cutting-edge inspiration – just like the current crop of art being made on the island. Of course, navigating the east coast of the Rock is not without challenges, nor opportunities. That’s where the GLE’s permanent 4MATIC all-wheel drive comes in, ensuring confidence on any surface, and the DYNAMIC SELECT system, which is what allows this 362-hp, 3.0-litre biturbo V6 vehicle to be both a solid and practical SUV and a spirited coupe, capable of going from 0 to 100 km/h in just 5.7 seconds. And the Active High-Performance LED Headlamps, which enhance nighttime vision and turn with the vehicle, mean never feeling on edge while driving along the coastline.