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My story and theirs: a Jamaican-Canadian artist living in Newfoundland

by ANGELA BAKER, almost 3 years ago

  • My story and theirs: A Jamaican-Canadian artist in Newfoundland.

I was born (1941) and raised in Jamaica, West Indies, and educated in Jamaica, England, Canada and the U.S.A. My family and I migrated and resettled in Corner Brook, Newfoundland in 1976, where I have lived since. My children were born in Jamaica and grew up in Corner Brook, NL. They and my two grandchildren now live in Calgary, Alberta. Being an islander I remain attached to the sea and hills of my adopted island home, with visits to family in the Caribbean.

I have been settled now in the island of Newfoundland for some 40 years.

Little did I know when I settled in Corner Brook, NL, aching with home-sickness, that I would fall in love with Newfoundland’s southwest coast and its surviving and resettled outports. Perhaps Jamaica’s mountains and sea had much to do with the powerful attraction Newfoundland’s southwest coast has for me.

It began with a group hiking trip to Francois in 2000. I videotaped the entire coastline between Grey River and Francois from the railing of the Marine Voyager. I wanted to paint this whole magnificent coast. So I kept returning to Francois annually for seven years.

Pronounced Fransway, Francois lies hidden in a fjord, snuggled beneath a 680-foot rock-face called “The Friar,” the community dwarfed by the majestic mountains. Behind this long ridge is the deep fjord of Chaleur Bay and an old Norwegian inshore whaling station at Reuben’s Cove. Beyond is a wilderness of rugged, glaciated granite, with stunted trees, steep coastal cliffs, and deep fjords, that rivals the well-known Gros Morne National Park.

Initially drawn by its beauty, I discovered a rich history of abandoned communities. Here courageous men and women built peaceful havens in isolated fjords and bays, close to fishing grounds where they wrested a living from the sea. Each year there is more decay of the few remaining structures. The last remnants of human habitation, overgrown ruins and cemeteries, remind me how transitory is life, how quickly nature reclaims all when people depart.

I tracked down former residents, “livyers,” around the island to gather oral histories on video, and collect old photographs of places & people. Others I contacted by email. Some phoned or emailed me after reading an article on my explorations, painting & research in “The Coaster,” a newspaper in Harbour Breton. This article spread along the coast.

People spoke with heartfelt nostalgia of their former isolated homes. They were generous with their time and stories, and amazingly trusting. Some took me and my side-kick researcher, Pat Dormody, on adventurous sea journeys, sometimes in open boats.

Resettlement remains a painful memory for some Newfoundlanders even today. In the 1960s the controversial Premier, Joey Smallwood, promoted resettlement. He was thus regarded as either saviour or sinner. Elderly people held real money in their hands for the first time, having lived in a cashless barter system all their lives. Residents were told that teachers, mail and medical services would be withdrawn. Families were paid a pittance to relocate from isolated outports to designated growth centres. Those who chose other locations received nothing. Some people dismantled and moved their houses, or towed them by sea to new places, leaving their ancestors behind.

Even today some return to record the gravestones, or to bury their parents’ ashes. The sense of belonging & identity remains strong for many Newfoundlanders who treasure fond memories of their origins, “the place where I belongs.”

Of over thirty communities between Rose Blanche and Hermitage only six remain, La Poile, Burgeo, Ramea, Grey River, Francois, and Gaultois. “Livyers” are gone from Petites, North Bay, Cul de Sac West, Cape La Hune, Deadman’s Cove, Parsons’ Harbour, Rencontre West, Bob Locke’s Cove, Cul de Sac East, Richard’s Harbour; Muddy Hole, Mosquito, Pushthrough, Great Jervois (Jervais or Jarvis) and, most recently, Grand Bruit.

There were two shows of this work, “The Francois Project” at Grenfell Fine Arts Gallery, MUN, Grenfell Campus, Corner Brook, 2007, and “It all began with a hike” at Christina Parker Gallery, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2008. Most sold and only a few pieces remain in my collection.

After seven years of research and a major series of paintings about resettlement of fishing communities on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, I produced and designed a book on the resettlement issue, “’The Forgotten Coast:’ Landscapes and Memories of Southwestern Newfoundland.” I published it independently and it is now available on amazon.ca.

The paintings in the first section of the book are my own. The second and longer section consists of old photographs, contributed by the people of the coast themselves, which depict a rapidly disappearing way of life in Newfoundland.

Thus the story of my immigration experience (and finding myself renewed as an artist by Newfoundland’s southwest coast and people) morphed into the story of the people of this special place where they feel they belong.

As these Newfoundland folk returned to the places “where they belong,” so too am I now reconnecting with my roots creatively in my septuagenarian years. February 2016 I revisited my birthplace, Jamaica, and went up to the coffee plantation, Whitfield Hall, in my beloved Blue Mountains. This was my second visit here in recent years to take photographs for later painting.

At age 19 I had hiked from Whitfield Hall (6000 ft) to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point in Jamaica, 7,402 ft. This time I hired a donkey! I rode the donkey up the steep switchback trail called Jacob’s Ladder and walked most of the narrow track through the Elfin Forest beyond Portland Gap. I made it to the Peak. I also walked down from the Peak to Portland Gap, and rode the rest of the way because it was getting dark and my guide, Bushy, wanted to get to Whitfield Hall in daylight.

Now I am painting the donkey’s head looking across the mountains at the trail we took. The Blue Mountains will be my new painting focus.

The Forgotten Coast: Landscapes and memories of southwestern Newfoundland. by J. Angela Baker. Amazon.ca

www.angelabaker.ca

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Elitena almost 3 years ago
Removed by moderator.
Elitena almost 3 years ago
Angela .I very much enjoyed this story .I felt as if I were there ! From Francois to Jamaica , Thank you .