Artist residency uses Pictou Island as their studio

By Amanda Jess
The News

PICTOU ISLAND – Barbara Lounder carried her essentials on her yoke. Aimée Henny Brown travelled with her backpack library, ready for residents and visitors to borrow books about the former lighthouses on Pictou Island. Michael Waterman engaged citizens with his pirate radio broadcast, asking anyone he saw if they’d like to go on the air.

These three artists and seven others spent the last week of July on the small island, located between Caribou and Prince Edward Island, with their individual artist projects as part of a walking-based residency, curated by Dartmouth artist Eryn Foster.

Pictou Island Portage, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and Arts Nova Scotia, was the fourth of similar projects that Foster has organized.

“Just the reception we’ve had from the islanders and the support and the way in which all of the artists have come together has been really quite incredible. I think we’re all really happy with the way things have progressed with this project.”

Her series of projects called New Canadian Pilgrimages started in 2007 with a two-week walk from Halifax to Sackville, N.B.

Pictou Island Portage, created in partnership with NSCAD University and the Dalhousie Art Gallery, was a continuation of that work while also taking portage, the act of carrying a boat or its cargo between navigable waters, to the next level.

Foster chose artists she felt would work well together, who often touch on walking and movements in their body of work and were comfortable with working off the grid in the elements.

Though the weather was good for their entire time on the island, they needed to be flexible, spending their nights camping and their days walking the length of the island.

“Exploration of the island has been special,” Foster said, adding that residents invited the artists onto their property.

Barbara Lounder carved a yoke out of local birch wood and used it to carry her essentials as she walked across the island with the group. AMANDA JESS – THE NEWS

The art of labour

For Lounder, she was most interested in exploring the history of early settlements through her project, a handcrafted yoke.

Using her background in sculpture, the Dartmouth artist created a device traditionally, and currently in some countries, used to carry buckets of water and other items.

“I like to make things that have a relationship to human use.”

She said the yoke, made out of local birch wood, made her more aware of herself as a centre of gravity, forcing her to be mindful of her pace and equilibrium.

She used it while walking to carry jugs of water, dry bags, and anything else she’d need throughout the day.

Lounder was also drawn to the island’s own traditions and customs.

The group was walking on the main access road during their travels, which she referred to as an artery and “moving community centre” for the island.

The road was where they would meet people, whether they were also on foot, two wheels or four.

Lounder said she was surprised just how many cars they would meet along the way, considering there’s no gas on the island and cars have to come over on a barge.

The lack of services and infrastructure on the island contribute to the spirit, she thinks, one of co-operation and assistance.

“Even before we arrived, people were helping us.”

Aimée Henny Brown sketches lighthouses during a stop at one of the beaches on Pictou Island. PHOTO SUBMITTED BY KATHERINE KNIGHT.

The art of isolation

Brown, a Vancouver artist who works with print-based material, was drawn to the history of lighthouses on the island.

Through research, she had discovered lighthouse keepers often lived in isolation, relying on supplies brought in by ship.

Among those supplies was a portable library, kept in a wooden suitcase.

“That box of material, until the next supply run, would be their entertainment.”

She created her own lighthouse library that she wore on her back, filled with six different booklets on lighthouse keeping that could be lent or kept.

She said residents were forthcoming with their own stories of lighthouse keeping, allowing her to add to her research.

The island used to have three manned lighthouses.

Now, two are solar-powered stripped-down towers, while one remains at the south end by the wharf.

“It’s interesting to me the more we enter into the digital age.”

Michael Waterman made a pirate radio mobile by building a transmitter on a bike buggy. KATHERINE KNIGHT – SUBMITTED

The art of pirate radio

The project gave Newfoundland artist Michael Waterman the perfect opportunity to make radio mobile in every sense.

While Waterman walked with the group down the length of the island, he pushed his solar-powered pirate radio station along with him, built onto a bike buggy.

“It draws attention to itself,” he said, adding that it was intentional.

It allowed him to take what is normally stationary on the road, giving him a chance to further engage residents and visitors.

Waterman has been involved in radio for many years, working in campus radio for 15 years and pirate radio for seven.

“My art practice has always been bringing sound into the mix,” he said.

On the island, he brought anyone who was willing on the air, played music specific to walking, ie. These Boots Were Made For Walking and songs from his “pirate mix tape.”

Good weather was especially important for Waterman, and he luckily got it.

He had only a few glitches, including a downpour and a tire blowout.

Foster noted that the funding was important.

It covered all the bases: travel, with some artists coming from as far away as the Yukon, food, tents, supplies, first aid, and the artist fee.

Foster noted that artists are often asked to do things for free, and paying them for the residency allowed them to see it as a job.

“There’s no consideration that they’re doing their work,” she said, adding that it was crucial that they receive the level of respect and compensation they deserve.

Other artists included Douglas Smarch Jr., Sheilah Wilson and Ursula Johnson. They were joined by writer Mary MacDonald, photographer Katherine Knight, and artist Sarah Burwash, who were documenting the residency for a publication, as well as intern Elizabeth Johnson.

They will also be doing an artist talk in the fall at the Dalhousie Art Gallery.
On Twitter: @NGNewsAmanda