Exquisite, far-flung tapestries well worth the trip.

15 Jan 2013

By Shelley Cameron-McCarron
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CONCHE, Newfoundland - I'm preparing to be drawn and quartered by my friends as we drive a long gravel road on the northeast tip of Newfoundland's rugged Great Northern Peninsula with no idea how far it is to the French Shore tapestries in Conche, an outport of 200 that had no road connection with the rest of the island until 1970.

Just an hour and a half earlier we'd sat chummily, but road-weary, in St. Anthony - some 90 miles northwest - pondering the five-plus-hour drive we faced back to Corner Brook, when someone suggested nixing our planned side excursion.

"Who really wants to see the tapestries? No pressure, but, who wants to skip it?"

"I'd like to see them," I piped up.

But I tell you, it wasn't looking good for me as we crested Sailor Jack's Hill - no matter that the vistas from the steep hill overlooking the unspoilt fishing village elicited a chorus of approval - and into a cluster of wind-weathered colored clapboard houses on a deep harbor that once made Conche one of the busiest fishing harbors on Newfoundland's French Shore.

(Image supplied by Amy Fisher, TCR)

In its heyday in the 1960s, the village supported as many as 1,000 people, a close-knit community of mainly Irish descent. Whales are often spotted in the waters, and icebergs drift into the coves.

Today, we pass several tiny sheds with white crosses painted above windows and doors as blessing for a good fishing season and protection from the harsh life of the sea.

But no interpretation center. No sign of tapestries.

We stop to chat with a woman walking her dog who points us back up the hill to a brightly colored turquoise building, once home to the Grenfell Nursing Station, where nurse Joan Cattell cared for the sick for more than 30 years as part of the famous medical missionary of Sir Wilfred Grenfell.

(Image supplied by Amy Fisher, TCR)

We climb the stairs to a second-floor room to find one of the most magnificent tapestries outside of Europe, wrapping around corners and stretching 216 feet.

It took 13 women - teachers, homemakers, fish-plant workers, a doctor, and a mother and daughter - more than three years and 20,000 hours to lovingly stitch the story of their community with brightly colored Appleton crewel wool manufactured in Britain into the Jacobean linen twill from Scotland.

"Before, only two women knew how to embroider. The young women don't know how to embroider anymore," says Joan Simmonds, one of the 13 and now the manager of the French Shore Interpretation Centre, where the tapestry is housed along with other displays introducing the culture and seafaring ways of the region.

"But in the second year, it started to take on a life of its own. They were getting the impression they were doing something. Then it became theirs, and mine. It became ours, the whole story around it.

"The community pride was amazing. We loved telling the story of how it came to be."

Their story starts in 2006 with a chance encounter with French painter Jean-Claude Roy and his Newfoundland-born wife, Christina Roy, who were summering at Casey House, the local artist retreat.

"He was here painting Newfoundland. At the time I was working in a store, and we just started chatting," Simmonds recalls of the conversation on creating a project similar to the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry in France, which depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

She and a friend went to visit at Casey House, where Christina Roy was working on a piece of Bayeux tapestry. "She opened up a bottle of wine. By the time the bottle was gone, we had a plan."

That plan included Jean-Claude Roy's completing the sketches in France and sending them on to Conche for the women to embroider.

The exquisite stitches tell the story of the French Shore of Newfoundland, with image after image revealing the rich legacy.

The tapestry's story starts with the animals who roamed Newfoundland's shores, unveils aboriginal bands, the Viking mariners, and European fishermen and their descendants who settled the area, and continues through the 20th century to end with the artists at work, a self-conscious pause in the history of the region at the close of the first decade of the 21st century.

An endearing display showcases the needles and scissors of each of the women who worked on the tapestry. The embroiderers felt a special attachment to their equipment. A neighbor's needle just didn't feel the same. "The scissors and needles aren't artifacts, but they will be some day," Simmonds says.

They also opened the project to anyone who wanted to come in and do a stitch, and help bring the pictures to life with brightly colored wool threads.

(Image supplied by Amy Fisher, TCR)

Funding came from a combination of federal and provincial governments and private grants and donations. "Any way we could get it," Simmonds says.

It all started to help bring tourism to the rural area.

And come they have. Just a few years ago, they had maybe 300 visitors. Last year, they welcomed 2,200 and Simmonds says these figures are increasing all the time.

"It is absolutely working. We're between two UNESCO World Heritage Sites [L'Anse aux Meadows and Gros Morne National Park], but getting them to come on over here is tough, and we have a gravel road. We needed something that was a real draw."

And my traveling friends? "Hands down, the best thing we've seen in Newfoundland," they raved.