Silk - rust dyed, ecoprinted with plants foraged on Exploits Islands,
screenprinted with archival photos. Installation also includes a location sound recording
Exhibited at the Craft Council of Newfoundland & Labrador Gallery in October 2023
Approximately 20 nautical miles north of Lewisporte in Newfoundland’s Notre Dame Bay lie two small islands called Exploits Islands. Once a bustling fishing outport with stores, schools, churches, forges, and shipyards, over 600 people lived here year-round at its peak of European settlement in the 1870s. The community was resettled in the late 1960s and Exploits is now home to a group of off-grid seasonal residents in about 80 houses, including one where I am privileged to spend part of my summers.
I am I visitor here. I was born and raised in Southern Ontario and have no family roots in Newfoundland, but Exploits has become a home to me in large part because I share the house with decedents of the family that built it in the late 1880s.
At their closest point, a deep, narrow tickle with a strong tidal current separates the two islands. I can see and hear the water from my bedroom.
Known locally as “The Narrows,” a bridge spanned this 50-foot gap for nearly 100 years, creating a vital physical connection between the two islands. Historical documents and photographs show the presence of a bridge from about 1899; first a wooden structure which was later converted to a drawbridge, then a concrete version was built in 1945. This bridge was demolished in 1988 and not replaced. All that remains of it are tangles of rusty rebar and concrete.
Archival photos show the bridge was an integral part of life on Exploits. It was a meeting place and a place to have your photo taken. Even the sheep used it. It served an important community function, and its removal changed the social fabric of the islands. Social connections were diminished as people became partially cut-off from their neighbours. A boat, then and now, became the only option to travel across the harbour.
I’m intrigued by the bridge’s history. And by its absence. It’s like a great ghost lingering in the view from my bedroom window.
The bridge was my collaborator in creating this work, which is made of silk fabric that I naturally dyed by wrapping it around the rusted remains of the bridge. I then screen printed it with archival photos and eco printed it with locally foraged plants. The location sound was recorded at dawn.
In the beginning, I intended to metaphorically recreate the social fabric that the bridge once wove together. When the COVID-19 Pandemic started, I saw obvious connections between my thoughts about isolation and what it means to live in community, and the reality of pandemic lockdowns. The pandemic also forced a slower pace in my art practice, and it took me over three years to make the work. During those years, my thinking evolved to include ideas of remembering. Specifically, how, what and who we remember.
My creative process began with a twice-daily walk down to the bridge site to methodically wrap silk around the metal. I was mindful of the ways that I wrapped it, knowing each method would produce different results but that I was not in control of the patterns that would be on the fabric.
For two summers, I made the short trek of about 120 footsteps in all weather, usually first thing in the morning and again in the evening. My steps released the smell of juniper, more pungent after a rain. I sat quietly with the sound of the water flowing through The Narrows. I listened to the chatter of the gulls, crows, and songbirds and, in late summer, the clicking of grasshoppers. Occasionally, a boat would travel through. I waved to neighbours who were out for a walk on the other island.
When I began printmaking, it was easy for me to fall into nostalgia, imagining simpler times in a tight knit community of people who shared a common goal of survival in a harsh environment. To put on your Sunday best and stand on the bridge for a photograph must have been a special occasion for those privileged enough to afford both the clothing and the camera.
As I worked with the photos, I began to think about what – and who – was outside of the frame. I unexpectedly found a bridge to a deeper understanding of the past.
These photographs offer an incomplete version of the history of Exploits and we can’t ignore the darker stories that played out in this place.
The merchant trade was not kind to many people in Newfoundland’s history. Some of the island’s families lost multiple children at once to illness. Women died in childbirth. Men were lost at sea and at war. Life had moments of joy, but it was not easy.
Exploits Islands also features in the story of Shanawdithit, who was recorded in the colonial archive as “the last Beothuk.” After her capture, she lived some of the final years of her life on Exploits in the residence of John Peyton Jr., who is buried in one of the island’s cemeteries. The Beothuk story is not mine to tell, and it is not the focus of this exhibition. However, I cannot tell a story about lost community and cultural connections without also acknowledging those who lived in Notre Dame Bay for generations before European settlement. The unprinted silks acknowledge and honour the stories that have been obscured by the colonial archive.
I also acknowledge the land on which the bridge stood. The ground was altered by the construction of the bridge and was not remediated after it was removed. The silks that are eco printed with locally foraged plants, as well as the location soundscape, are for the land, the water, and all the creatures I live here with.
Finally, I am grateful to those who allowed me to use their family photos and who shared their memories of the bridge. I feel more deeply connected to this place because of your openness.
This project was financially supported by