On Leaving

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On leaving

I’ve been away for seven weeks this time, four left to go. You could call it escapism and you wouldn’t be wrong. I always try to leave at this time of year; I find it sad to be home. I’m worn from the summer and unsure about the winter.

When I was 18, I applied to go to art school in Corner Brook and only in Corner Brook. I was embarrassed at even the thought of committees on mainland Canada reviewing my portfolio. In many ways, I still carry that feeling. I haven’t spent longer than two weeks at a time on the mainland, even less in my adult life.

I applied to grad schools in Scotland during my fourth year in Corner Brook. I found safety in sending my ideas and portfolio abroad. Places where my Newfoundlandness may not carry a feeling of have-not. Places that would need the term “have-not” explained in a footnote. In Glasgow I felt permission to make work about Newfoundland, to write about it, to critically consider my place within it. Removing myself from preconceived ideas of The Newfoundlander helped me develop my voice.

Before moving to Glasgow, I briefly lived on Fogo Island. I went there for a summer job at the Fogo Island Inn, serving in the dining room. Fresh out of art school, it was exciting to go somewhere in Newfoundland, outside of St. John’s, that was actively making space for contemporary art through Fogo Island Arts. My imagination of Fogo Island was a place of exchange, site-specific art education through accessible dialogue and experience – an island of opportunity. It is an island of opportunity, but for whom? There have been a handful of Newfoundland artists who have taken part in the residency programme over the years, but not many. The idea of building photogenic artist studios on Fogo Island sounds like it would be an international asset to the province’s arts and culture climate. Artists are pulled to the island from all over by the opportunity to work uninterrupted in a contemporary studio, an authentic remote experience sold as being amongst the purest folk and air in the world. The stylish aesthetic of isolation on the well-connected Shorefast stage. Fogo Island Arts, Fogo Island Shop, and the Fogo Island Inn work in tangent to support an image of and desire for place. In turn, a place of social capital is formed and celebrated as a vision for other rural regions in our province and elsewhere. The capital lies in the names that show up for the experience and leave their stamp behind – in the gallery or studios, lecture theatre, shop, and the guestbook (even if only rumoured). This strategy will keep people coming, but despite the positive economic and cultural spin, all I hear is that good art comes from away.

In The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Dean MacCannell writes that value of authentic attraction is measurable to a certain degree by the time and distance that it takes to reach it[1]. He suggests, “modern tourists share with social scientists their curiosity about primitive peoples, poor peoples and ethnic and other minorities”[2]. In this tourism formula, The Newfoundlander becomes the bait: othered from Canada, attracting the visitor with their simple old charm. It’s telling in moments when visitors (usually Canadians and Americans) are shocked that I “don’t have an accent” or their awe when I say that I have two university degrees. They’re usually disappointed by my dialect, but once a couple told me that I was lucky not to sound like a Newfoundlander, that it would’ve held me back in life. They say in good nature how proud I should be of myself, as I open a bottle of wine at their table. The tourism vision in the province perpetuates a class system that has been a barrier for Newfoundlanders for decades. It relies too heavily on a past life.

“How does such a culture dream itself anew?” Lisa Moore asked in her exhibition review of Land of Mirrors: OngoingExperimentsinNewfoundland.[3] Curated by the late and very much missed Mary MacDonald at Eastern Edge back in January 2016, Land of Mirrors explored the dreams and experiences of five artists responding to the past, present, and future of the island portion of the province[4]. My thoughts return regularly to this exhibition. Jerry Ropson’s work in the show, rituals of preservation (part iii), presents a seemingly morbid outlook on the past and future of the place in his faux-museum style exhibit. Five painted black turnips rested on the floor, each tangibly resembling and metaphorically carrying the weight of a cannonball. On the wall behind, amongst black turnip silhouettes, he writes: ALL THIS CULTURE IS DEATH CULTURE. The turnip is one of the few vegetables that grow well on the island regardless of conditions; it’s hearty and resilient, symbolic of the people who have relied upon them for hundreds of years. In the panel discussion Ropson described his experience as a Newfoundland artist: “There’s this obligation to tradition, and a responsibility to move forward at the same time. But I feel like I am haunted, I’m always looking back. And I’m completely nostalgic.”[5] Followed by a comment by fellow artist Mike Flaherty, “As a group of people, we’re obsessed with the past in Newfoundland and I think it’s probably because we can’t really imagine a future very well.”[6] The black turnip reminds us of our hardiness, connection with the land, and unwillingness to disappear. We do live in a death culture, a culture that experiences constant cycles of death, eclipsed by recurring rebirths. But we must question: can death culture be a productive culture? We celebrate this death culture and echo our losses, over and over again. We perform our mourning for ourselves and for visitors and it hinders our collective healing.

In February, I gave a guest lecture to visual arts students at Grenfell. I spoke about my research, my practice, and why I choose to be in Newfoundland. Towards the end I asked for a show of hands, “Who wants to leave Newfoundland after graduation?” All hands up, every student in the room. This left me feeling sad until I reminded myself that I left, that I too felt that I needed to leave. My professors at Grenfell told me that I should leave. And actually, leaving was good for me. I probed the class with another question,

“Why do you want to leave?”

There’s no opportunity here.

My work isn’t about Newfoundland.

I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Newfoundland artist’

I think to myself again: good art comes from away.

Good artists come from away. They come to do residencies, have exhibitions, teach at Grenfell, buy saltbox houses and live a simple lifestyle (in the summer), they occasionally settle down. Good Newfoundland artists leave. They leave and sometimes they come back. When they come home we welcome them and we celebrate what they have done elsewhere. So if good artists come from away, and good art comes from away, do we have to go away to make good art, to be good artists? Is it a rite of passage in the development of a Newfoundland artist, a “Canadian artist”? What does it mean to go to a Newfoundland art school with no tenured or tenure-track faculty from Newfoundland? It would be natural to blame the exodus (once illustrated by Mary MacDonald in The Overcast[7]) on lack of funding for artists (and for supports like curators, art spaces, art writing), but it’s more than that. Newfoundlanders have been learning to leave since birth.

Last year I spent a week in the Maritime Provinces, my first time on the mainland (besides airports) since I was 19, with my parents. I spoke on a panel about making work from island places. Someone asked: how can you make contemporary art from an island? My colleague Vivian Ross-Smith, based in Shetland, jumped to answer, “Why is work coming out of Toronto or London instantly termed contemporary, while rural and island artists are endlessly asked to justify it?” I’m glad she answered for us because in that moment I didn’t have an answer. I nodded along. I think back to Fogo Island. Everyone in the room knew about Fogo Island. Artists-in-Residence from Canada and elsewhere granted permission to work with aesthetic of Newfoundlandia, privileged to make work in and about Newfoundland without fear of being irrelevant, non-contemporary, or inaccessible to a Canadian audience. Artists, who make installation art with fishing line, imagine quilts that are realized “authentically” by local women, build sheds in the gallery. They don’t feel the weight that is intrinsic to the materials and imagery of their products. They couldn’t feel it if they tried.

I often return to the collection of essays, Despite This Loss, edited by Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman. My stepsister shared it with me, and I’ve passed it on to several others since then. The essay Learning from Loss: Migration, Mourning and Identity by Kelly deals with many of these ideas – being away, being here, and in-between[8]. It narrows in on feelings of collective mourning and migration. Kelly positions Newfoundland within the depressive stage of grief. She references Melanie Klein in describing how those experiencing grief “idealize the lost object (a person, an ideal, a homeland, a way of life)” in order to hold close to what has been lost[9]. I see this manifested within the character of The Newfoundlander, marketed by the province and instinctively performed by the people, a livestream of loss masked as pride. The essay works to define our cultural loss as more than just the cod moratorium, considering for example the loss of and damage to Indigenous cultures, the implications of being both the colonized and the colonizer, the abuse at Mount Cashel and other parishes, resettlement programs of past and present, and unrelenting out-migration[10]. In the eight years since the essay was published, the trauma list could extend further to include the mismanagement of oil money, the Snelgrove trial, environmental racism of Muskrat Falls, just to name a few. The point is that our traumas are unresolved and that unprocessed grief will continue to be a barrier to our progress. RM Kennedy illustrates this contradictory mourning succinctly in his essay, National Dreams and Inconsolable Losses: The Burden of Melancholia in Newfoundland Culture, using the lyrics of Sonny’s Dream as an entry point[11]. We, The Newfoundlanders, love to describe ourselves as resilient, but resilience implies having overcome. We are constantly in a state of overcoming and there seems to be little relief.

This past summer I performed The Newfoundlander for visitors in Bonavista. I smiled along and accepted patronising comments about my dialect, my field of work, my marital status, my ability to make good coffee. I saved up gratuities that I earned for the pleasantries and I left in September, with a return date in mind. Eleven weeks away. Away from Newfoundland, away from Canada.

When I recognize Newfoundland in other places, I experience something that feels much like heartbreak, like seeing an old love with a new lover. They’ve moved on, so why can’t I? In Shetland I grieved for Newfoundland. Over the course of six weeks I wrote very little, I made virtually nothing. How can a place so parallel in geology, sea, resources, history, and culture be so much further along? It isn’t perfect, I know, but at least it’s future-oriented. Being in Shetland confronted me with a comparable inadequacy that I feel in relation to mainland Canada. Less-than. Have-not.

I’m tired of living on a haunted island, controlled by the ghost of past-Newfoundland. I long for a future-Newfoundland that develops new industries independent of our grief, allowing tourism to develop as a by-product of that, driven by a different narrative. I can see a future-Newfoundland that rejects the idea that innovation must come from away. I want a future-Newfoundland that is not defined by its losses, future-Newfoundlanders that do not wear loss like a birthmark.

I’m most able to develop my imagination of future-Newfoundland and my future in Newfoundland by leaving for a while; by watching other places problem-solve and direct their own futures. I give myself permission to exist outside the boundaries of The Newfoundlander, and it makes me feel more capable of staying each time I come home.

Jane Walker

19/11/18

Written at Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg

 

 

[1] Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory Of The Leisure Class, reprint. (University of California Press, 2013), 14.

[2] Ibid., 5

[3] Lisa Moore, ‘What Is the New Newfoundland Dream?’, Canadian Art (Canadian Art, 2016) <https://canadianart.ca/reviews/what-is-the-new-newfoundland-dream/&gt; [accessed 3 March 2016].

[4] Flaherty, M., Gill, W., Jones, P., Ropson, J., Wells, J. (2016). Land of Mirrors: ongoing experiments in Newfoundland [exhibition], curated by Mary MacDonald. Exhibited at Eastern Edge Gallery, St. John’s NL, January 23 – March 2, 2016.

[5] Jerry Ropson. Artist Panel: Critical refractions through storytelling, facilitated by Mary MacDonald, Eastern Edge Gallery (St. John’s, NL, CAN, 2016).

[6] Michael Flaherty. Artist Panel: Critical refractions through storytelling, facilitated by Mary MacDonald, Eastern Edge Gallery (St. John’s, NL, CAN, 2016).

[7] Mary MacDonald, ‘Fare Thee Well Young Artists!’, The Overcast (The Overcast, 2016) <https://theovercast.ca/fare-thee-well-young-artists/>%5Baccessed 19 November 2018].

[8] Ursula A. Kelly, ‘Learning from Loss: Migration, Mourning, and Identity’ in Despite This Loss, edited by Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman (St. John’s, Canada: ISER Books, 2010), 17-33.

[9] Ibid., 26

[10] Ibid., 25

[11] RM Kennedy, ‘National Dreams and Inconsolable Losses: The Burden of Melancholia in Newfoundland Culture’ in Despite This Loss, edited by Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman (St. John’s, Canada: ISER Books, 2010), 103-116.