The Francois Project
An artists love affair with Newfoundland's southwest coast
By Angela Baker
Where does a Jamaican living in western Newfoundland go for holidays? Why, the province's southwest coast!
I am an islander, born and raised in Jamaica, West Indies. Little did I know when I settled in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, in 1976 - aching with homesickness - that I would fall completely in love with Newfoundland's southwest coast, and its surviving and resettled communities.
It began with a group hiking trip to Francois in 2000. Glued to the railing of the ferry Marine Voyager, I videotaped the entire coastline between Grey River and Francois. The latter is hidden in a fjord, snuggled beneath a 680-foot cliff called "The Friar." Majestic mountains, carved by both glaciers and sea, dwarf the human element. Behind and beyond is a landscape that rivals the better-known Gros Morne National Park.
Being an artist, I wanted to paint this whole, magnificent coast! So over the past several years I've been creating The Francois Project, a series of paintings of the southwest coast and its people. During annual trips to Francois I've stayed with Mrs. Edith Green and gone on many explorations with Kim and Charles Courtney in their aptly named boat, Bide-a-Spell. Initially drawn to the region by its natural beauty, I also discovered a rich history of abandoned commun-ities, where courageous men and women had built peaceful havens in isolated fjords and bays to wrest a living from the sea. The few remaining structures decay a little more each year. The overgrown ruins and cemeteries remind me how transitory life is - how quickly Nature reclaims all when people depart.
Government-ordered resettlement of these communities was a painful experience and is to this day a contentious issue. It has been described as the largest forced mass migration in Canadian history. Between Rose Blanche and Burgeo, only La Poile and Grand Bruit remain inhabited. (Grand Bruit now has 30 people determined to stay, even though its school will close next year.) Nearby Petites and North Bay are deserted. The list of abandoned communities between Burgeo and Hermitage is long: Cul de Sac West; Cape La Hune; Deadman's Cove; Parsons' Harbour (formerly New Harbour); Rencontre West; Bob Locke's Cove and Cul de Sac East; Richard's Harbour; Muddy Hole; Mosquito; Pushthrough; Great Jervois (Jervis). All these I have visited. Only Grey River, Francois, McCallum and Gaultois survived the resettlement push begun in the 1960s.
My own experience of uprooting from my Jamaica home makes me emphathize deeply with the resettlement experience. I tracked down former "livyers" around Newfoundland to gather oral histories on video and collect old photographs. All spoke with nostalgia of their former isolated homes, where their hearts remain. Not only were they generous with their time and stories, but they were also amazingly trusting that this unknown "Come From Away" would return their precious photographs. They even let me copy their videos of those great community reunions - Come Home Years.
The results of my research trips so far are 33 paintings, a video in collaboration with Mark Prier, plus a 25-foot painting in two sections. That painting came from a May 2006 visit to McCallum with a friend, Nina Crant. The diptych features her at the top of a cliff looking towards Taylor Island, Middle Island, Saddle Island and McCallum.
Jamaica is also a mountainous island, which may have much to do with the powerful attraction and inspiration that the southwest coastal mountains and sea hold for me. I have yet to visit Petites, North Bay, Bear and Deer islands, Fox Island, Goblin, Grole and Pass Island, or to explore White Bear Bay and Bay d'Espoir. This is an ongoing project. Who knows where it will lead me next?
The Francois Project will be displayed at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College Fine Arts Gallery in Stephenville, Newfoundland, June 14 - September 15, 2007. Angela's work will also be in the Marion McCain Atlantic Art Exhibition in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in October. Angela plans to donate all her text and photographic research to the Newfoundland and Labrador Archives.