Newfoundland: Design on the Edge

1 Apr 2011

enRoute - View Source Article
By Susan Nerberg. Photos by René Synnevåg

Multimillionaire Zita Cobb zips up her windbreaker, pulls on a toque and checks her watch. She turns to me with a challenge: “Let’s see how fast we can get to the top. Usually, people take half an hour.” Looming above us is Brimstone Head, a hulk of a rock that anchors the north end of Fogo Island. Cobb sets off ahead of me, scuttling up a boulder-and-boardwalk path that’s flanked by lichen and ground-hugging berry bushes striving to stay clear of the relentless wind. Halfway up, a sign proudly claims that not a single hiker has fallen off the cliffside trail. Newfoundland humour, I think.

After 17 minutes (berry breaks not included), we make it to the top; the ocean, sprinkled with gold by the setting sun, greets us by hurling a nor’easter our way. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful place in the world,” says Cobb and looks out over fishing grounds that have sustained the people here for four centuries. It’s difficult not to agree – the rugged island, which breaks the surface of the Atlantic Ocean 15 kilometres northeast of Newfoundland, has a charisma that’s amplified when Cobb tells me Brimstone Head is considered by the Flat Earth Society to be one of the four corners of the earth.

As Cobb and I drive through the town of Fogo, one of 11 island communities, we pass white clapboard houses and red fishing stages used by fishermen for landing their catch. Some of the buildings look like they’re about to topple. When cod stocks shrank, half the island’s population lifted anchor. Cobb herself lived away for 30 years, returning in 2005 after making a fortune as an executive with fibre-optics giant JDS Uniphase. To hold onto the island’s remaining 2,700 people, she decided to cast some unorthodox bait. She co-founded the Shorefast Foundation with her brother Anthony in 2006 and donated $6-million of her own money to the charitable organization, whose goal is to add tourism and, yes, the arts to the traditional economy. “Artists can bring new ways of seeing old things, so the arts must be part of the process of renewal,” she says as we stop at the Marconi Station, a museum on the same hill where the distress signal from the Titanic was first received. “Four hundred years from now, you’ll still find us here.”

In the meantime, Shorefast’s construction workers are pouring the concrete foundations and erecting the walls for the five-star Fogo Island Inn on a rocky outcrop between Joe Batt’s Arm and Barr’d Islands. Designed by the Norway-based Newfoundland architect Todd Saunders, the 29-room property will employ 50 people, many of whom have never set foot in a hotel. Trailing Cobb and intern architects Nick Herder and Joseph Kellner, I hop over a small fence and step into what will become the inn’s art gallery. The space will showcase works by the international contemporary artists who’ll be coming for three- to six-month stints as part of a residency program created by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. Cobb leads me to the entrance of what’s to become the cantilevered oceanview restaurant and informs me that most of the ingredients, except things like olive oil and wine, will be locally sourced.

The construction workers and carpenters building the inn, slated for a December soft opening, are also busy renovating deconsecrated churches and some of the dilapidated “saltbox” homes, providing exhibition and living spaces for the artists-in-residence. They’ve completed the first of six Saunders-designed artist studios and are finishing the remaining five later this spring. Chowing down on takeout snow-crab panini with Herder and Kellner in the sleek Long Studio, which opened in Joe Batt’s Arm this past June to applause in the international architecture press, I feel like I’m sitting inside a telescope aimed to capture the swell and the setting sun. Herder, originally from St. John’s, tells me he was working at a firm in New York when he learned that Shorefast was hiring. “I’ve always wanted to live in rural Newfoundland but never thought I’d have the chance until after my retirement,” he says later as we drive across a boggy landscape dotted with stunted spruce and dark ponds and carpeted with enough caribou moss to support a herd of 500 animals. “If Shorefast is able to provide an opportunity for me, imagine what it will do for the people here.”

Don Wells, a fisherman who isn’t fishing much these days, is already working full-time crafting furniture for the inn. When I arrive at his workshop – a two-storey shed so replete with tools and knick-knacks from six generations of Wellses that it looks more like a museum – he and Élaine Fortin are putting the finishing touches on their punt chair, named for a traditional rowboat. Fortin is a Montreal designer invited by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation to bring that avant-garde eye to age-old skills; indeed, the chair’s birch seat and back and the curved Newfoundland-spruce base draw on vanishing boat-building techniques to create a sturdy yet unequivocally modern piece. I ask when I can buy my own set, and Wells tells me the long-term idea is to train more carpenters and export the furniture, including this chair and an ice-floe-inspired table.

I sense his optimism in just about everyone I meet. The island’s craftswomen, expert at rug hooking, knitting and quilting, started the Winds & Waves Artisan’s Guild with Shorefast’s help. “It’s changed our perspective on what we do,” says Lillian Dwyer, the guild’s head, who walks me through the Winds & Waves gallery in the spiffed-up former Orange Lodge in Barr’d Islands. I try on a pair of wool mitts with thumbs and index fingers, knitted for hunters, and run my hands through a rug so thick, its maker tells me if you wet it, it will never dry. “Before, people felt embarrassed to have handmade quilts for bedspreads, but now we’ve realized what a treasure they are,” says Dwyer.

All images: Conceived by Todd Saunders and built by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation as workspaces for its artists-in-residence, the Long Studio in Joe Batt’s Arm features a whitewashed interior that doubles as a canvas or as a clean backdrop for displaying art. Five more studios, all uniquely designed and located in different island communities to encourage interaction with the locals, will be completed this spring.

Cobb’s vision of a local economy as indomitable as the wind-whipped berry bushes has already seen the birth of an annual boat race, a professional theatre company, a partridgeberry harvest festival and the Fogo Island Film House, inaugurated last June in collaboration with the National Film Board as Canada’s first English-language e-cinema. It has also inspired individual ventures. One evening, I sit down with Cobb for the 5-Mile Supper at nicole’s café, where the waiters’ to-and-fro leaves scent trails of salt-cod fritters with partridgeberry mayo and turnip soup with fresh cream and thyme. When Nicole Decker-Torraville opened the 45-seat restaurant, Shorefast’s business fund helped out by having celebrated chef Stephen Vardy assist with the start-up. Islanders and come-from-aways alike agree she’s found a winning recipe; I can honestly say the oven-baked cod is the best I’ve ever had. I tell myself to slow down, for cod’s sake, and manage to set aside my fork long enough to clink glasses of Quidi Vidi beer with Cobb. When she’s greeted for the gazillionth time by a fellow patron, it occurs to me that she’s the mother hen of Fogo Island. And even though the round earth has no corners, she’s fussing over building a solid cornerstone for her nest.