I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Posts tagged “Newfoundland” (page 1 of 4)

Creative Nonfiction Fellowship with Newfoundland Quarterly

Newfoundland Quarterly has kindly selected me as their first Creative Nonfiction Fellow. Over the next ten months, as part of this project, I’ll be writing my way through the magazine’s extensive archives (founded in 1901, NQ is the second-oldest magazine in Canada). I’m super excited about this! Here’s an introductory article I wrote, and another about a codfish-gobbling robot from the 1920s.

I’ll be blogging about this project on Medium, and on the new NQ website.

A Good Name For A Ship

Originally published in Boat Shoes as part of Eastern Edge Gallery‘s HOLD FAST Festival.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

The Wandering Pavilion wishes it could sail. It is designed to travel. Like a ship, it has sturdy beams, a wooden deck, and a fondness for taut lines and triangles. Its fabric walls embrace the wind like mainsails. Today, docked in the parking lot outside Eastern Edge, it is even draped with signal flags. The flags say You should keep closer to me. The Pavilion gazes out over the water and hopes for a response from the ocean. It regrets the harbour fence.

The Wandering Pavilion wants the Atlantic, but it will settle for shoes. Waves of shoes wash over it, leaving scuffs and scratches. Its deck could use a good swab. Today it is cloudy and the Pavilion hopes for a shower, because rain is the closest it gets to ocean, and because when it rains people take cover under its canopy. The Pavilion likes feeling useful, keeping busy. It has made itself a stage, a shelter, a stall, a cinema. Today, as part of Hold Fast, it is a soapbox and a soundbooth. Someone deejays and someone paints faces. People take turns speaking, and then an artist performs, knotting ropes around themselves and dangling from a hook. The Pavilion beams.

With its two halves, the Wandering Pavilion is perhaps more like a flotilla than a ship, adopting different formations depending on its mission. And it is fleeting in other ways, rarely lingering in one place. It might not sail, but it is easily dismantled and shipped across the city. It’s especially drawn to parks and parking lots, spaces that people pass through, spaces where it might find passengers. Spaces that it can shape into places, into destinations. What the Pavilion does best is make room: for conversations, for collaborations, for interactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur. It is a vessel that brings people together. What is wants most is for you to come aboard.

Monsters

I caught a ride across the island in a car full of philosophers, all of us heading to The Future of Nature conference in Corner Brook and Gros Morne. We left St. John’s late in the afternoon. The irony of travelling seven hours in a behemoth of an SUV to attend a conference on sustainability wasn’t lost on anyone, but there were six of us sharing the vehicle at least, and it was better than flying. As we reached Gander it began to get dark. We listened to the evening news on the radio, then someone put on a podcast about Beowulf. A thousand-year-old tale of warriors, swords and monsters.

when the sheen of the sun they saw no more,
and dusk of night sank darkling nigh,
and shadowy shapes came striding on.

On the podcast, a panel of historians discussed how objects in Beowulf embody narrative. The heroes build a great hall, named Heorot after the majestic deer they hunt, but the warriors themselves soon become prey for the monster Grendel. Two opposing armies make peace after a vicious war, but then one warrior notices his father’s weapon strapped to the belt of his enemy, and it all breaks asunder again.

As the darkness settled in we watched the road carefully, keeping our eyes peeled for moose. “Despite their enormous size,” notes The Land Mammals of Insular Newfoundland, “moose share with all things wild an extraordinary ability to emerge from nowhere.” Put your moose eyes on, my parents would say. Drive slowly, and keep an eye on the side of the road. Everyone knows someone who has been in a moose accident, everyone has heard gruesome stories. Your vehicle sideswipes a moose’s legs, and its heavy body crashes through your windshield, crushing you, wounded and kicking. You were just trying to get to a conference. The moose was just trying to get from one bog to another.

Then from the moorland, by misty crags,
with God’s wrath laden, Grendel came.

I walked the East Coast Trail from South Brigus to La Manche with some friends a few weekends ago, a six hour hike. The trail skipped along the water’s edge, narrow paths between trees opening up into stunning grassy cliffs surrounded by bright waves. It was surprisingly warm for September, although the air was noticeably cooler in the trees. We scooped handfuls of blueberries and kept an eye on the sea, hoping to spot whales. About halfway to La Manche, we ascended a staircase and found ourselves overlooking a small cove. The view was wonderful. The smell, on the other hand, was horrendous.

We couldn’t tell what it was at first. The stench seemed to have settled along the low part of the trail, and after wading through it for a moment we discovered its source. Below us, drifting just off the beach, was a rotting sperm whale. Its tongue was a bloated ball, its skin pale and decaying where a couple of gulls were pecking away. Its mouth lolled open, revealing rows of rounded teeth. A juvenile, big, but hardly enormous.

No one said anything for a while. We were dismayed, not only disappointed that our whale sighting was such a pitiful one, but sorrowful that the creature seemed so out of place, and so alone. We wondered if we should tell someone, report it to the trail authority or the Department of Wildlife. Whales that wash up near communities are often buried on the beach, but this one seemed likely to remain unburied. I imagined its ghost haunting the forest, a pale cloud lost along the narrow trails.

on the edge of ocean up they lay,
put to sleep by the sword. And since, by them
on the fathomless sea-ways sailor-folk
are never molested.

The podcast ended. As we continued across the island in the belly of a monstrous vehicle, I kept thinking about monsters. Monsters that inhabit fables and fiction rarely come from nowhere, but are often summoned by our trespasses or carelessness. In Beowulf, Grendel attacks the warriors’ great hall because it is disturbed by the noise of their celebrations. Moose are not native to the island of Newfoundland, but were introduced as a food source.

On the first morning of The Future of Nature there was a presentation about ghost fishing. A ghost net, lost at sea, continues to drift through the ocean, killing fish. What kind of story does this object embody? Another conference presenter brought up Serres’ The Natural Contract, which compares human pollution to the way animals mark their territory with urine, an unconscious urge. We mark a place as ours by strewing it with evidence of ourselves. We wreck the planet not intentionally, not even by accident, but out of habit. Our negligence conjures ghosts.

Beowulf slays two monsters and later dies defending his kingdom from a dragon, which, like Grendel, was angered by humans blundering into its lair. Are we Beowulf, poisoned by the monsters we’ve provoked, doomed to be buried with our mountain of treasure? Or are we the monsters? If both perish, does it even matter?

he was fated to finish this fleeting life,
his days on earth, and the dragon with him.

Serres might ask us to widen the frame, “to include the consuming muck beneath the duelist’s feet and into which they are unknowingly sinking by clubbing one another to death.” At the conference we spend an afternoon arguing over the term Anthropocene. Does nature have a future? Does squabbling over language lead us anywhere? Metaphors only get you so far. If you lose track of them they can become ghost nets, tangling all understanding.

Brickwork

Houses tumbling into the sea, houses washing up on shore. In the exhibition, the two projection pieces will float in the centre of the room. It feels as if the show needs something else to anchor it, something planted firmly in the physical world. I imagined finding an artifact that had been eroded by the water, something that had once been part of a building. A chunk of rounded brick or wood I could suspend from the ceiling, to visually echo the virtual falling houses. I asked a few friends where to look, and someone suggested Ferryland.

day-74-ferryland

Another friend kindly offered to drive me to Ferryland, where we soon found ourselves on a beach dotted with red bricks, too many to count. They seemed lost and out of place against the grey stones. A student working at the nearby interpretive centre said she thought the bricks had come from renovations to the church up the hill, or when they demolished an old school. Someone else told me they had been used as ballast in British ships. In the walled garden beside the interpretive centre, a few salvaged bricks had been incorporated into the whimsical cobblestone paths.

day-74-garden

A brick is designed to fit in a hand. The worn clay of the beach bricks was almost warm to the touch, but dry and abrasive. Collecting them felt a bit like berrypicking, the ripe red and orange blobs clinging demurely to bits of mortar. Some of the ones I picked up had a gold glassy surface, as if the combination of sand, salt water and sun had somehow glazed them over time. The bricks near the water were oblong like beachstones, many having lost their rectangular shape entirely, and a few yellow ones had crumbled to almost nothing. Others further up the beach were still sharp-cornered, and clearly stamped with the name “PELLEY”.

I had hoped to find a large rounded cluster of bricks, but found myself intrigued by the way the individual broken bricks resembled houses, the rectangular impressions suggesting little doors. I wandered down the beach, gathering an armful while on the lookout for bigger specimens. I waded out into the waves to drag up a half-buried cluster, and found several others in a pile of fill below the roadway overlooking the water. Reaching the far end of the beach, I discovered a large block of about 30 bricks all attached, about the width of a chimney. It was too heavy to lift, and probably too big to fit in the trunk. I carried the roundest of the brick clusters back to the car, along with about twenty of the broken half-bricks.

day-74-bricks

A few mornings later, reading Robert Mellin’s wonderful Newfoundland Modern: Architecture in the Smallwood Years, I stumbled upon the history of the Pelley bricks:

Local brick was known to be of poor quality. […] In the late 1950s, Malcolm Pelley wrote many letters to Premier Smallwood, pleading for government funding to support the construction of a tunnel kiln to fire face brick. Once built, the kiln never worked as promised, and the quality of the brick was poor. In a letter to Smallwood dated 12 July 1962, Pelley wrote: “I have had over 75 years experience in brick manufacture and can assure you these bricks will last truly as long as the South Side Hills.” […] It soon became apparent that there were problems with Pelley bricks. Architect William MacCallum told me that the brick on exterior cladding of the Nurses’ Residence had to be painted not long after construction, since the brick was absorbing too much water.

So the bricks were manufactured locally, and not particularly well. They’re not really very old, but are already falling apart, clay eagerly returning to earth. I’d set out to find a relic of the way things used to be built, some evidence of a lasting architectural presence or authenticity. But the Ferryland bricks turned out to be more like the big new houses: not really designed with this landscape in mind, not really built to last. A pale imitation of elsewhere, a dream half-realized.

day-74-beach

In Ferryland, in the little tea room by the beach, we had pea soup strong enough to stand a spoon in. Driving back through Bay Bulls, a curve in the road offered a clearer view of the new constructions. There they were, huge houses crouching in their craters of bare earth. A fusillade of beige, yellow-brown and bruised red, torn out of the pine-clad hills, like bombs going off.

Moss and misunderstanding

I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

—Leonard Cohen, from I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries

A House By The Water

Some days I stare at a screen and some days I stare at the sea. I’m spending most afternoons programming A House By The Water, a digital projection of houses falling into the ocean, as part of an artist residency at The Rooms. I’m programming in Processing, which is pretty old-fashioned as far as computer graphics go – no fancy lighting engines or physics libraries. The computer talks in rectangles. I’ve written a program that draws houses out of boxes. Each box has a roof, which is eight rectangles and two triangles and a texture. Each box has a chimney. Some of the boxes have windows and doors. The boxes don’t know each other exist, so each house is full of vestigial chimneys that don’t reach the roof, and falling houses pass through each other like ghosts. I spend an entire evening failing to calculate shadows.

The computer talks in rectangles, but it breathes in loops. Loops are its essence. A rectangle is a loop if you untangle it enough (one, two, three, four sides). I write loops for stacking boxes into houses, loops for the choppy vector mesh that simulates the water’s surface, loops for the effect of gravity on a falling house, loops to control the translucency of shadows. Each loop is a set of instructions that repeats itself, slightly differently each time. Some iterations are faster than others. I spend hours rewriting code and the scene looks almost exactly the same as before, but the movement is smoother, or I can generate more houses at once without affecting the framerate.

The work so far, although it does not contain language, is very textual: I’ve made a video of little house-shaped points of light washing up on a shore, and the lights read almost as letters, the house shapes suggesting something different when singular or clustered. Similarly, the projection of falling houses is composed out of code, a kind of language. Making the art is mostly an act of writing.

So the computer and I communicate, often misunderstanding each other. I accidentally instruct it to draw the 2D background in the same three-dimensional space as the houses, and the scene collapses like a theatrical backdrop, houses tumbling into an empty grey aether. Or I forget to erase between frames and each house is drawn again and again as it rotates, spinning into itself like a ball of yarn.

A House By The Water (glitch)

On the weekends I get my eyes away from the machine. It’s been a soft summer, the city muzzled by clouds, more fog than I remember from last year. Frost warnings in July. I have been photographing moss, and I want to know more about moss, perhaps even grow some in the studio. A couple of friends have a moss garden, and invite me to visit. They’ve taken a worn-out corner of the backyard and reupholstered it in different mosses collected around St. John’s. The garden is a dappled tapestry of colour and texture, with dozens of different varieties: stubbled pool-table baize, spiky tufts tinged in orange, sturdy toothbrush-like bristles. A few rusty patches. The mosses they’ve found in the city seem to thrive, while others, collected from rocks higher up on the Southside Hills, don’t seem to like living downtown.

After the garden, we go moss collecting. In the part of the park furthest from the city, landscaped paths narrow into threadbare trails between trees. The ground is soft and damp, and the grass gives way to shrubs and bog. On either side of the trail, rocks and roots are lush with moss. We find a good-sized patch of the species that seems to do best in the backyard, a riot of tiny leaves in enthusiastic chartreuse. It’s like tearing up carpet. You just kind of lift the edge and slide your hand under, and it all comes up in a clump. We fill a garbage bag with miniature islands.

Moss collecting

What I like about moss is that it is unnoticeable. It keeps a low profile, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Moss is a squatter, colonizing any overlooked surface. It thrives in the in-between places, the damp pockets, the shadows. It lurks behind trees. It’s given up frivolities like roots, flowers, seeds. At the same time, it has a humble hospitality. It offers a seat, a place to think. It obliges visitors but isn’t much of a conversationalist, doesn’t know what to say besides hello. It mumbles a bit, repeats itself softly, likes to mull things over. It’s a welcome mat gone feral.

We walk home through the drizzle. My mind is amorphous, making connections that don’t make any sense. I think: maybe moss is a kind of software. A series of instructions on how to generate more moss. A fuzzy green code, writing itself into the world. Maybe I’m just an interface between the moss and the screen. I breathe and walk in loops: one, two, three, four. My body follows unknowable instructions, cleans and repairs itself. I’m not sure how, but I think I’ve learned something about how to calculate shadows. On Monday, back in the studio, I will have so much to tell the computer.

A drawing the moss made

A drawing the moss made

Content ©  2017 Matthew Hollett. RSS