The End of The Earth
Gary Michael Dault
I felt like Ishmael. With nothing to interest me on shore, I thought, like Melville’s saturnine interlocutor, that I would sail about a little (in a rented Dodge Caravan in my case), and see “the watery part of the world.” Whenever I find myself, like Ishmael, growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul (or a damp, drizzly July), I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can. “If they but knew it,” Ishmael intones, at the beginning of Moby Dick, “…almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean….”
My ten-year-old son, Alexander, was with me. We both wanted to see the watery part of the world. The offer was to go to Newfoundland, and to visit the Pouch Cove Foundation, the artists’ residency and retreat established ten years ago by bookseller and art dealer James Baird in the town of Pouch Cove (pop. 1500) in the north-east Avalon Peninsula, near St. John’s (“There is no generally accepted explanation,” notes the town’s slightly bemused website, “for the community’s name [which is pronounced ‘pooch’]”). Mostly we just wanted to go somewhere. Alexander wanted to see the ocean and, along the way, he wanted to see Quebec City and Halifax. I needed to find something more elemental then my life in Toronto was ever able to provide. I desired to become, however briefly, what poet Charles Olsen, in his study of Melville (Call me Ishmael), would call “long-eyed.”
It’s a big drive to Newfoundland and that’s one of the great things about going there. We could have flown, but flying is too abrupt. What I liked about the epic journey by van was the way you felt the gradual deepening and strengthening of the landscape. By the time you get to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and roll onto one of Marine Atlantic’s giant ferries to the Rock — the Caribou, the Joseph & Clara Smallwood — (we were Jonah and son, swallowed by the whale), and by the time you ply the grey Cabot Strait to Port aux Basques (a six-hour voyage that would lead us to St. John’s by way of Corner Brook), you have had time to feel the transformative nature of an ocean voyage, the strirrings of rebirth you experience when attain the land. Alexander’s wide twilight photos of Port aux Basques sliding by the slowing, nearing ferry are full of the hush of revelation, of the wondrous assurance of really being somewhere else, of coming from away.
We have no idea, in St. John’s, where James Baird’s bookstore Wordplay actually is (the James Baird Gallery is on the second floor of the store). But St. John’s is a magical city, and by some kind of intuitive Global Positioning System of the cojone, we pull up directly in front of a pub called The Duke of Duckworth on Duckworth Street — which I now remember Baird mentioning on the phone, and there he is, holding amiably forth, as he is wont. A few unwinding pints of Moosehead later and we’re down the street at the gallery. Baird leans back under an enormous painting by Greg Hardy, Windy day on the South Shore (1997), of deep green breakers smashing into froth on wet black rocks and giving me and Alex a short prologue to Pouch Cove. “The whole thing is based on an act of hubris on my part,” he tells me. “I co-signed a loan for a couple of guys. We were going to start a restaurant, and ended up building at the end of the Earth. And what do you do with a building at the end of the Earth? You start thinking what it’s got going for it. And the major thing it’s got is an incredible view. So what was I to do with the building?”
It was around this time, about 1998, that Baird was visiting Toronto and took a great fancy to a particular painting he saw at the Bau-Xi Gallery. It was called Still Life: Fragmentation(1998), and it was by Nancy Kembry. The painting consists of a large, brushy, wine-dark ground upon which floats, near the top, a small superimposed arrangement of three of the artist’s now trademark pears, and which supports, near the bottom, a small shelf holding a cluster of shore-like rocks. “I talked to Nancy for about 60 seconds,” Baird remembers, “but the painting kept haunting me. Eventually I wrote to her, inviting her to Pouch Cove. She came down in the summer of 1990 with her husband and her cat and dog and painted for a month in what was, at the time, a very raw primitive building — and she loved it. And when she returned to Toronto, she told all her pals about the place and other artists started calling me. Nancy was the catalyst.” Or at least Kembry’s painting, which Baird now owns, was. You can understand his seeing the picture as a seminal to Pouch Cove’s development, even though it was painted two years before Kembry ever saw Newfoundland: the work is essentially an emblematizing of the nature/culture dialogue provided by the ruggedness of the land as it rubs up against the subjectivity that is the artist’s vision.
Since that first summer a decade ago, more then 200 artists have lived and worked in the studios of Pouch Cove — Wanda Koop, Jennifer Stead, Susanna Heller, David Bierk, John Hartman, Milly Restvedt, Tim Zuck, Malcolm Rains, Lisa Neighbor, Thaddeus Holownia, James Rosen, and a whole lot more. They’ve come to the Foundation from all across Canada, from the United States, from England, Ireland, Russia, Bulgeria, and Poland. Dutch artist Margot Oomen made her first visit to Pouch Cove this summer. Some of them, like Kembry, like David Bolduc, David Alexander, Alex Cameron, Harold Klunder (who, with his wife, artist Catherine Carmichael, owns a small house in the cove), Joe Flemming and Mike Hansen come again and again.
What do they find here? “They cast off their day-to-day routines,” suggests Baird. “They have no other responsibilities here… they are in effect, on a holiday. They’re out of the loop, they don’t know what to expect, and.” he points out, with his usual genial boosterism, “they’re enthralled.” I can see that. I was enthralled. I suppose it’s that whole Thoreauvian thing about nature, and your status in it, being driven to it’s most elemental state. Alex and I got to our temporary home in Pouch Cove, 500 yards from the studio building — at night. You could hear the ocean, but you couldn’t see it. In the morning, the brimming sun woke us in our dazzling white bedroom and the ocean was sparkling everywhere upon us (flakes of light on the walls and ceiling), held by the long embrace of the rocky cove. I went out on the deck and felt five years old: “Where space is born,” wrote Charles Olson (my favorite poet), “man has a beach to ground on.” I stood with Alex at the lip of the rocky cliff overlooking the sea, and never wanted to go home again.
It came to me that morning that it would be hard to work, as an artist, against the ocean’s the power, the artist making art like a fisherman in a boat, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “alone on a wide wide sea “, each of them a tiny, shrill exclamation mark of pride, desire and vulnerability on a huge, fecund vastness of endless potential. Many of the artists who have produced artwork in Pouch Cove,” reads the Foundation’s website www.pouchcove.org, “Have been inspired by the Newfoundland landscape, and their experience at the residency continues to inform their art practice.”
Because the landscape is Pouch Cove’s overweening fact, it was landscape I expected to see there, in the art as well as in the raw. Alex and I had taken in ten days of landscape on the drive down, each framed by the horizontality of the van’s windshield (Alex began calling brief, albeit majestic, views on the road “McVistas,” after the McDonald’s McLobster signs we kept seeing everywhere). I had my Marsden Hartley with me. I was reading his recently edited autobiography, Somehow A Past (MIT Press, 1997), and although Hartley had never painted in Newfoundland, he had painted in Maine and Massachusetts and in Nova Scotia. About Dogtown (Gloucester, Massachusetts) he wrote “A sense of eeriness pervades all the place…and the white shirts of those huge boulders, mostly granite, stand like sentinels guarding nothing but shore…the place is forsaken and majestically lonely, as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone. That’s the way pouch Cove feels. Hartley was quite out of patience with what he contemptuously called the “summer sketch artists” who were attracted to such places, assuring himself that none of them would be up to “the austerities and intellectual aloofness which lost lonesome areas can persist in…” In these places, says Hartley, “…the chemistry of the universe is too busy realizing itself…” Dogtown looks like a cross between Easter Island and Stonehenge – essentially druidic in its appearance – it gives the feeling that any ancient race might turn up at any moment and renew an ageless rite there. Dogtown is therefore is not the ground for sketch artists and that is why they never go there – much too eternal looking for the common eye. Albert Ryder should have seen it once – and no other that I can think of – too much power in it for anyone else – there would have been at least one companion piece to his great Moonlit Cove.”
Pouch Cove isn’t Dogtown, and most of its visiting artist aren’t Albert P. Ryder. And they’re all better (surely?) Than Hartley’s sketch artists. Yet I found it hard enough to square the wilderness of the place with the artists polite, even academic, responses to it. The landscape paintings generated from Pouch Cove, more than works within other genres produced there, has, admittedly, been almost invariably charming, often sensuous, sometimes even delectable. Kevin Sonmor’s opulent Vinland V (2000), while not in it’s self painted at Pouch Cove, carries within its lush scarlet depths of a memorial, cove-like bend of landscape shape which now receives not breakers, but rather a tumble of exquisitely rendered blossoms and a virtuoso bunch of empurpled grapes. Joe Fleming’s My Pouch Cove (1998), painted during his first residency, shows the black thrust of the rocky cove as a disturbing rent or tear in the ebullient field upon which the decorative elements of his abstraction normally disport themselves. Malcolm Rains’s Incoming Wave: Pouch Cove (1998) gets the physics of the site right, while skimping on spirit of place. And Brian Kipping, urban pastoralist to his fingertips, turns his back entirely on the ocean, in his hushed little Pouch Cove study from 1999, showing instead the seaside village at dusk, the violet light bending low over the failing sunset.
There’s nothing amiss with any of this really. But it is salon painting, where you might have expected a little more, well, long-eyed. The ocean is all inescapable passion, ineluctable knowledge: “As this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land,” writes Melville in Moby Dick, “so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti , full of peace and joy, but encompassed by the horror of the half-known life.” The sea is a primitive power, and wells up before us in fierce contrast to what poet W. H. Auden called the “actualised triviality” of life on the land. “Man marks the earth with ruin,” wrote Lord Byron in “Childe Harold,” his control/ Stops with the shore.” Pouch Cove is the quintessenstential experience of edge-ness, and is thus a powerfully transformative , life-changing, art-changing place.
Oh, lighten up. Most of Pouch Cove’s alumni are not, strictly speaking, landscape painters anyhow. Take Harold Klunder. Klunder’ many painting sojourns in Newfoundland have ben about, as he explains it, an intensity and authenticity of experience which he sees as inevitably tincturing his painting, but in profoundly indirect ways. His Historie Naturale (2000), for example, shown in Klunder’s solo exhibition at the James Baird Gallery in July, during our visit, possessed a kind of mythic, inchoate, molten-slag-heap power that seemed convincingly equivalent to the experience of this spartan, salt-spray land and its panoply of imparatives. Even though it was not a painting of or abut Pouch Cove.
The fact is, it is easier to be Pouch Cove than to paint there. And that’s fine. Gazing out to sea-rime studio windows is probably enough. Or standing straight and small on the shore, posited against the sea’s immensity. It may not even be right to make work there, unless you’re Albert P. Ryder . It’s probably better just to learn from the place. Artists should probably go to Pouch Cove, put up their brushes or whatever they use, and just live. Pouch Cove is after all the end of the Earth. The town’s motto is “First to se the Sun.” Charles Olson is the only poet who can lift his big, seven-foot-high voice up against the ocean and here’s what he says, “The end of something has a satisfaction./ When the structures go, light/comes through.”