Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

© Fogo Island Arts Corporation/Spessi (Sigurpór Hallbjörnsson)

Fogo has garnered visibility for its intriguingly modern new artists’ studios and its international artist-in-residence program.

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Isles apart

On Newfoundland's Change Islands, residents are strengthening centuries-old traditions and breaking new ground

I was having a hard time understanding our captain, Pete Porter. The relentless clang of the make-and-break engine on his four-horsepower, one-cylinder skiff was partly to blame. But the main culprit was Pete’s Newfoundland accent, which was among the strongest I’d ever heard — though I'm probably not much of a reference.

“What’s a ‘by’?” I whispered to my tour guide, Shannon. “Boy,” Shannon translated. “He said boy.”

Pete, a retired marine engineer who has lived on Change Island virtually all his life, didn’t take offense to the question nor did he seem to mind repeating himself when I asked. Nothing seemed to ruffle him, in fact, except the gentle breeze coming off the ocean, and as the sun set over Change Island, the tiny corner of Newfoundland that he calls home, it was hard not to feel the same repose.

With its rocky shores and ochre-red fishing stages trimmed in white and suspended over the sapphire-blue water on stilts, Change Island makes me feel like I’d walked straight into a postcard.

Happening in stages

Things could have gone very differently for Change Island and neighbouring Fogo Island. Like the rest of the province, they were hard hit by the 1992 cod fishing moratorium. Make-work projects were instituted (like the blazing of the remarkably well-maintained hiking trail) but they could not stem the exodus of residents.

Slowly, the buildings on the Change Island fell into disrepair. But when one of the island’s most iconic fishing stages was demolished in 2000, a group of residents revolted and created the Stages and Stores Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps fund the restoration of traditional local buildings. Since then, residents have been making an organized and concerted effort to preserve their heritage and share it with visitors.

From land, the town of Change Island is lovely. Its white salt-box houses are humble but tidy, standing crisp against the blue sky. The road signs are shaped like cod fish (at a T-junction, the mouth always points in the direction of the intersecting road) and the stop signs are virtually all homemade.

But seeing Change Island from the water is downright magical. Unlike most old towns, which are clustered around a communal space — the church, the fountain, the town square — on Change Island, attention is directed outward, to the sea. The houses all hover at the water’s edge with the same expectancy of a child waiting for a parent to arrive home from work. The stages (where fish are landed, salted and dried) and the stores (where fishing gear and supplies are stored) rise above me, confident and commanding.

After the boat tour, Pete showed us the beautiful two-room Newfoundland heritage museum he built with his own money, using reclaimed wood from an old general store. There are flour-barrel chairs, telegraph cable insulators, pieces of copper stone (an old fashioned lip balm), old bottles of Screech rum... I browsed through a book of medical information written by Donald B. Armstrong entitled What To Do Until the Doctor Comes. The copyright was 1943. I asked Pete when they got electricity on the island. “1965,” he answered.

Hob nob with artists

On neighbouring Fogo Island, which is several times larger and more populous, residents are making similar efforts to preserve their unique heritage. But they are also working to bring new artistic blood to the island, thanks in large part to the dedication of a woman named Zita Cobb. Cobb grew up on Fogo Island (in a house without electricity or running water) but left at age 16 to go out into the world and make her fortune.

And make it she did — Cobb landed on the correct side of the dot-com boom, walking away a multimillionaire. “She’s our Oprah,” one resident told me.

Now, Cobb has returned to Fogo Island and created the Shorefast Foundation to help promote social enterprise on the island: encouraging the arts and ultimately tourism. In fact, their Fogo Island Inn will be opening in June 2012.

One of the foundation’s most visible projects is the construction of five intriguingly modern artists’ studios on the island — the first of which, Long Studio, was completed in 2010 — and the financing of an artist-in-residence program in which artists receive free lodging and studio space, and a travel stipend, allowing them to focus on their art. The idea is to give internationally significant artists and local residents the opportunity to meet and learn from one another.

Compared to Change Island, Fogo has a more barren, desolate feel. The water is the same bewitching sapphire blue and the greens are just as lush but the land is rockier and, around the towns, is devoid of any trees at all. The spruces I came across were scraggy and stunted. The drama of the landscape was inspiring. Long Studio is dramatic as well, in a completely different way. The building is long seemingly open-ended ebony box that sits on a rocky hillside, like an oversized telescope that has been abandoned.

For all that, the studio is spectacularly contemporary, the rest of the island is richly traditional. For lunch, we dropped by Nicole’s Café and pick up a picnic packed in a “grub pail,” an extremely heavy, traditional wooden lunch box that looks a lot like a butter churn. We headed out to Sandy Cove beach, outside of the town of Tilting, and laid out our picnic blanket on the grass amidst the traditional “picket” fencing made with sapling branches. I sipped homemade lemonade out of a mason jar. The wind off the ocean whipped through the tall grass and shook the sun-bleached grey fences. This was the same view picnickers had had for hundreds of years.

Quilts and nostalgia

After hiking the afternoon away on one of the beautifully maintained trails (of which there are eight, ranging in length from half to nine kilometres), we met up with Gerard Foley, the Mayor of Tilting, for dinner.

I was surprised that a mayor has time to eat with a journalist but he told me it was always a pleasure to talk about his hometown. “Being the mayor is just part-time,” he said, sliding a business card across the table to me. “Foley B&B,” I read. In a small town, everyone must be a jack-of-all-trades.

Although less well-known than the Shorefast Foundation program, Tilting has an artist-in-residency program too, Foley told me. It typically accepts professional artists whose work responds to the cultural heritage of the community. “We had one fellow come in who did the traditional Newfoundland step dance; the kind that was dying out,” Foley recalled. As part of his application, the artist offered to make lessons available to local residents. “It was very popular. He had a group of people that he taught this to.”

Tradition also takes centre stage during the annual Quilt Day, a community-wide open house in which residents put their quilts (those that have been in the family for generations and those that are newly made) on display for one another’s admiration and edification.

In 2007, Tilting held the biggest civic event that a rural Newfoundland community can host: Come Home Year. Instituted by Joey Smallwood in 1966 as a way of promoting local tourism, Come Home Years are years in which expatriate Newfoundlanders are encouraged to return to their home towns for a visit, reconnecting with their roots. The B&Bs are full to busting, the streets are crowded with nostalgic visitors and there’s a kitchen party every night.

I was sad to leave Fogo Island the next day. I wish I could have lingered a little longer. On the way out of town, we drove past a construction crew that was doing some roadwork. The man in the orange vest holding the “slow” sign looked familiar. It took a moment before I realized that it was the mayor of Tilting.

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Showing 4 comments

  1. On July 8, 2011, Boomergirl said:
    GREAT pic and wonderful story by Sarah. Would agree with Sarah that Mayor Foley defines "jack of all trades".
  2. On July 28, 2011, Carolyn said:
    I'm a Change Islands native and really enjoyed this article...I am a novelist and poet and my inspiration comes easy from her resplendent shores...she is a gem and you've done her justice. Thank you. Carolyn R Parsons
  3. On July 28, 2011, Robin Porter said:
    Hi Sarah, Thanks so much for the great article about my hometown Change Islands. I am the daughter of Peter Porter mentioned here in the article. My father has put many long hours into perserving our Newfoundland Heritage. He is truly an inspiration and a person of great knowledge. Most recently he had the privilege to present his wealth of knowledge to the Governor General of Canada and his Wife. They made a brief visit to Change Islands and Fogo Island while here in Newfoundland. It was said to be the highlight of their trip. Thanks so much for your great review. Cheers, Robin Porter
  4. On July 29, 2011, Kevin Penton said:
    I grew up on Fogo Island but love Change Islands. We visited relatives there in the summers. Beatie Hoffe was my aunt. Hats off to you all on Change and Fogo Islands for your determination and thanks for a great review. Kevin Penton, author of Brimstone Head, A Collection of Short Stories and Brimstone Head, More Short Stories

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