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

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Posts tagged “Writing” (page 1 of 5)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Fog and forgetting

Thinking about fog. Starting with my code that fades out the foreground based on the depth data, I modified the script so that there’s some randomness to the transparency. I want the edges of the object to shift in and out, as if in a fogbank. But the effect needs work, and I didn’t get any good images today.

I spend a lot of time remembering. I scribble lists of what to try next, I keep track of my hours, I write blog posts about what I’m working on. My code is strewn with comments and reminders. I save drafts and sketches, I backup my work. The computer is a machine for remembering.

It’s easy to forget how useful forgetting can be. If I’m stuck on something, especially when writing code, most of the time I just need to get away from it for a while. In the movie True Stories, David Byrne’s character says something that’s stuck with me for years:

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

Forgetting, not only as a creative strategy, but as a pleasure. A way to recapture the joy of experiencing something for the first time. This came up again in a book I just finished, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire:

Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting – on a process, that is, of subtraction.


When I want to wonder, I read anything by Italo Calvino. His final, unfinished book, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, is a series of lectures about various qualities he valued in literature. He starts with “lightness”:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. […] Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. […] Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

To erase the opacity of the world, what an admirable idea! I want my little fogbank script to attempt this. By erasing information from the video stream, by subtracting opacity, I can introduce a kind of lightness. An opportunity to see something as if for the first time.

Feet are good tools for forgetting. When I need a new perspective, I walk up Signal Hill, often along the North Head trail. I was up there once last summer, soon after I first moved here, and there was an incredibly dense fogbank hovering just off the edge of the cliff. I sat down and watched it for a bit. A kind of brilliant backlit haze, and peering into it felt almost as if my eyes were closed, but white instead of dark. After a while, I realized I could see something shifting around in the haze. It took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at, and I’m still not entirely sure if it was my contact lenses, or the inside of my eyes. But my vision was full of subtle little squiggles and inconsistencies, and if I moved my head they would swish from side to side. Entoptic phenomena.

The idea of seeing things with new eyes is present right in the title of Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of The Thing One Sees. Near the end of the book Robert Irwin rants a bit about getting away from screens, something else I should try not to forget:

The point is to get people to peel those visors off their faces, to remove the goggles, to abandon the screens. Those screens whose very purpose is to screen the actual world out. Who cares about virtuality when there’s all this reality – this incredible, inexhaustible, insatiable, astonishing reality – present all around!

Artist in Residence, Day 2

I’ve never been an artist in residence before. What is a residency? The act of dwelling in a place. The title of my project proposal is A House By The Water, and I love that the word residency implies an address, an occupancy, a home. Dwelling is such a beautiful word. But what does it mean to dwell? One definition is to think moodily or anxiously about something. Well! I could be quite good at this.

I’m still moving into my new “residence.” I carried a second batch of supplies to the studio today: a camera tripod, a lamp, a digital projector, a webcam. So many wires and glass surfaces. I have a list of things to try. But mostly I’m drawn to the books and the kettle. I want to dwell.

What am I here to think about? How the way people inhabit this island has changed and continues to change. I could start by considering this spot I currently inhabit, a small room in a larger Rooms. The Rooms is a daunting architectural structure, dominating the cityscape from almost any angle. Soaring into the skyline of historic St. John’s, The Rooms combines twenty-first century technology with a striking visual reference to our past. Its unique design mirrors the “fishing rooms” where families came together to process their catch.

The Rooms

Like any city landmark, The Rooms accumulates nicknames. My favourite is The box the Basilica came in. From a distance, the building resembles the kind of house a child might draw: a square box with a trim triangular roof, one big door, one big window. All that’s missing is the chimney. I like how the facade over the entrance seems to play with this motif.

So I sit in this enormous house and think about enormous houses. When I imagine the way the visual landscape of the island is changing, they’re the first thing that comes to mind. We were hiking in Maddox Cove on the weekend, and there they were again: a cluster of huge new houses overlooking the water, looming incongruously over the smaller buildings below. Older homes in Newfoundland can be remarkably tiny, so low and humble it’s easy to imagine the island was once populated with hobbits. Then there are the modest saltboxes of St. John’s, and more suburban homes like the one I grew up in, a medium-sized split-level in Pasadena. There’s the new subdivision my parents live in now, full of houses slightly taller and wider than the older parts of town. And then there are the giants, which are mostly found wandering outside the city grid, jostling for position in a scuffle for the best view of the water.

Maddox Cove

They jut out, ostentate, occupy the horizon in a new way. They’re signs of prosperity and wealth, and as such, they’re easy to begrudge (or difficult, depending on which side of that equation you’re on). But perhaps that’s the laziest reaction. What interests me is how our collective landscape is changing. What does landscape mean, exactly? An expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view, but also an extensive mental viewpoint. How do these structures reflect the new ways that we view and engage with the land? Surely these dwellings are worth dwelling on.

Working on a collection of poems

Helping a bug write a poem.

I’ve written poems for years and had a few published here and there, most recently in the Newfoundland Quarterly. A few years ago I started cobbling together poems I’d written over the years and trying to make something book-shaped out of them. Since then I’ve put together a couple of artist’s books of photography and writing, Small Landmarks and Field Notes. But most of the poems haven’t found a home yet.

A few months ago I put together new Professional Project Grant application for the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council, this time to work on a book of poems. I found out recently that I was awarded the grant! So I’ll spend this spring finishing my first book of poems, tentatively titled The Colour of White Paper. The poems I am working on will draw from firsthand observation, offering a way of looking at landscapes and language that is sometimes sharply focussed, sometimes oblique, but always curious. My camera is present in every poem.

I found my tentative title, The Colour of White Paper, in a passage spoken by David Byrne’s character in the film True Stories:

“I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The colour of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.”

This passage is perhaps a reinterpretation of Paul Valéry’s famous remark, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” My work often investigates the tension between seeing and remembering, as well as the themes of walking and revisiting a landscape.

The Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council has previously supported my projects Make No Wonder and Field Notes. These Professional Project grants have really helped shape the past few years for me, allowing me to focus on my art and writing practice in a more serious way.

Barbershop Quartet

Finishing up Barbershop Quartet, a new mini-book for a zine exchange at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s. Four short stories about conversations that happened while getting haircuts in Montreal, Arcata and St. John’s. I printed 30 of these.

Content ©  2019 Matthew Hollett. RSS