There’s Something About Newfoundland That Entices Many Visiting Artists To Stay
September 27, 2002
When David Bolduc chats with his neighbors, talk goes on as talk will, but it inevitably turns to why the well-traveled artist came to Biscay Bay; a tiny Newfoundland community on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula. Long-time residents don’t understand it.
Bolduc, a native of Toronto, has a hard time explaining it to people used to having fresh lobster on the table one season and crab another. “They’re berry- picking now, they’re about to go partridge-hunting, your neighbors share a moose license and you know they’ve been salmon-fishing -who in the world eats that well?” Bolduc says, laughing, in an interview in the downtown St. John’s gallery where his latest work is showing. He refers to his neighbours as the last generation to enjoy a quality of life that has virtually disappeared everywhere else in the world. “They’ve been blessed in many ways,” says Bolduc, who bought the Biscay Bay house over the phone in May without seeing it. “French farmers may be approximating it in terms of the quality of their life -because they refuse to give up how good food should taste for prepackaged nonsense -but nobody has had a life like this in the last 20 to 30 years.”
Bolduc is one of 20 artists in the last three years to buy homes here after spending a month at a residential artists’ retreat in Pouch Cove, operated by James and Angela Baird. Seven artists have settled in Trepassey alone. With about 100 artists going through the doors in that time, Baird, proprietor of James Baird Gallery and Wordplay bookstore on Duckworth Street, is seeing a 20 per cent return rate.
Another artist residence opened in Corner Brook with the help of the city, the province and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency- in July 2001, doubling the number of artists Baird can accomadate to four a month. “People come down for a month, they paint, they hang out, they drink, they party, they see what’s going on in Newfoundland and they enjoy their time,” he says. “It’s all word of mouth.”
Artists are attracted by the landscape and quality of life, along with the cheap housing in outports that the moratorium has turned into virtual ghost towns. It’s an extension of the tradition of artists moving out of New York for the more relaxed and inspiring pace of Rhode Island, Maine and, most recently, Nova Scotia. It makes sense that Newfoundland and Labrador would be the next stop in that migration back to the land. Baird says we’re now bordering on trendy. “We’re getting there. We’re cheap. I think we’ll be trendy in about five years,” he says. “We’ll know when we have arrived when you start getting direct flights from Newark airport into St. John’s. Then you can look out.”
For the first time in six years, Ontario-based artist Harold Klunder missed summer in Pouch Cove. Klunder talks excitedly about his summer residence during a telephone interview, obviously happy to be on the line to someone from Newfoundland again. “The last two years we’ve lived in Montreal and we’ve gone to Newfoundland in the summer and the change is huge,” says Klunder, whose wife Catherine is a performance artist and sculptor. “You put your feet up, throw all stress aside and you just have good time. I love Newfoundland.”
Klunder taught for two years at Memorial University’s Corner Brook campus from 1994-96, but a stroll during a stay at the Pouch Cove residence turned into a house-buying expedition when the couple found a run-down waterfront property. “It’s so overwhelming and beautiful, It’s hard to look at the ocean and try to paint it,” he says. Klunder doesn’t even try, preferring instead to soak up the beauty. He does watercolours and prints at St. Michael’s work shop, or draws in a sketchbook, leaving the really large paintings for when he returns to the mainland. Klunder’s love for his Pouch Cove home is evident, but with it comes a sense of guilt for those who have had to move away from the province’s windswept, rugged shores. He feels bad that artists are capitalizing on residents having to leave their homes and selling them for cheap. “It’s better than opening a McDonald’s or something, I guess. At least if you’re an artist you’re appreciating the place, you’re hopefully leaving nature alone,” he says. “But I do feel for the people in Newfoundland. You wish there was a way they could make a living and that they could stay in a place that they love so much.”
The artists’ residence, known as the Pouch Cove Foundation, started by accident. Baird was stuck with the building after cosigning a loan for partners who bailed on him. “What do you do with a building at the end of the world?” Baird asks, laughing. He invited a Toronto artist he admired to stay at the residence, inadvertently tipping off a flurry of interest when she wrote about her stay in an independent artists newsletter in New York. “It just went from, there,” Baird says. “We didn’t know that there was really such things as artists’ colonies and residential programs like that, but now we’re members of the International Association of Residential Artist Communities.”
About 150 artists’ residences exist worldwide, offering programs based on tourism, professional development or just a retreat. The two Newfoundland residences are retreat based, although they do contain studios. Feature films The Shipping News and Rare Birds have helped put the province on the map, which Baird predicts will result in more American artists coming to the residences.
Semi-retired American artist Jim Rosen tries to spend as much of the year as he can in his adopted home of Trepassey. He says the place and the land felt exactly right, convincing him to buy a house here in 1999. “I’ve lived in Hawaii and Italy and Georgia and California most of my life, but I felt there is something here yet to be experienced,” says Rosen, who teaches once a month at the Pennsylvania College of Fine Arts, which takes him back to the States during the school year. “I certainly feel at home in the world. People in Trepassey have given me my privacy; but at the same time are very kind and generous and I enjoy being part of the community.” Rosen’s last exhibition at the James Baird Gallery was inspired by Trepassey and the angularities of the cliffs and rooftops. After 40 years, he says his work has taken on deserved simplicity since moving here that was never there before.
Bolduc is intimately familiar with the transformation of which Rosen speaks, Bolduc’s latest exhibition. showing at the James Baird Gallery until October 4, is based in part on what he sees outside his window -houses shrouded in fog — and how he sees Newfoundland. “The shapes (are) how I’ve been seeing the houses. Some of them have all the elements of some abstract art. The kind of atmospheric things that happen I like very much — lights in the rain, lights in the fog — I’ve been playing for years and years with this idea of something coming at you out of another element.”
Bolduc, like Rosen, has been all over the world, living in Morocco and France and spending time in China and India. Nowhere compares to this island in the North Atlantic, he says. “My last big trip was two months in Sri Lanka and then two more months traveling through Malaya, Thailand and overland through China to Hong Kong and the rest of the world is relatively horrible,” Bolduc says. “There are beautiful natural sights, but most people live in high-rise slums and have a very hard time.”