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Issue 124

Pictou Island Portage: An Artist Residency
by Veronica Simmonds

Rural artist residencies are often marked by their isolation. Escaping the speed and mundanity of life, artists are able to slow down and reconnect with themselves, their practice and the natural world. The Pictou Island Portage residency defined itself by similar ideas of productive isolation and pastoral enlightenment. Taking place on a secluded island, it was observed by few people; however, its physicality and aesthetic beauty made it a performance of sorts, raising questions about audience and its role in situations of process.

Pictou Island sits in the Northumberland Strait, four nautical miles off the north shore of Nova Scotia. The island’s small community relies on a little passenger ferry for transportation and supplies; larger shipments arrive by plane. There is only one road, which also doubles as a landing strip for planes. There is no commerce on the island, just a community centre, a one-room school, and for one week only, an “ambulatory artist residency” that walked the road.

Pictou Island Portage is the fourth manifestation of Eryn Foster’s New Canadian Pilgrimages – where Foster and her collaborators leave the studio and enter the situation of walking. In Foster’s pilgrimages, process is paramount. Throughout the Portage, six artists formed a procession that walked the length of Pictou Island each day, returning to their starting point to do the same route again the following day.

Unlike Foster’s previous Pilgrimages, which involved linear long-distance walks, Pictou Island demanded a different approach. The island is less than 10 km in length, so she decided to work with the idea of a portage. Each artist was invited to consider what they would carry (portage being rooted in the French word apporter, which means “to carry”). For some, this involved producing the work before stepping foot on the island.

Michael Waterman, for example, built a solar–powered Mobile Pirate Radio MPR station at his home in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Aimée Henny Brown built a wearable lighthouse library in Vancouver and Barbara Lounder crafted a yoke that she would carry during the portage, long before her arrival. For these artists, the activity of walking completed the project. It needed to be walked out, performed.

The other three artists created their projects on site. Sheilah Wilson wore photo–paper on the bottom of her shoes, so that each step impacted the resulting image; she also dragged a large stick with a piece of chalk in it, marking her path as she walked. Whenever she paused, she sprinkled a circle of chalk around her resting place as an ephemeral memorial to her walk. Ursula Johnson offered chopper’s bread (a sort of bannock) and Cape Breton Tea (an Orange Pekoe) to the walkers arriving at the beach after walking the length of the island. This gesture engaged with the Mi’kmaw tradition of Ke Pite’m (translated as “please give them tea”). Johnson’s walk was more of a practical one. She walked to find and harvest sweetgrass, which took her off the linear path that others were walking. And Douglas Smarch, Jr. carried no accoutrements on his walks, simply making trails by offering his help to islanders to re–walk old trails on their land.

Each of these artists was working through his or her own processes, alone and together at the same time. They were walking their own paths as they worked through this situation of movement. Foster explained that the end goal of the project was not the walk itself but what these artists would do with the thoughts and experiences of this portage once they left the island.

The project was not meant to be a performance, but a process, yet the movement involved and the actions undertaken were so aesthetically beautiful they seemed to demand an audience. Imagine these artists walking, carrying their pieces down this long, dusty road through a lush coastal landscape.

Some local islanders took notice and made requests to the mobile radio station but there was little official audience except the artists themselves and we few observers. When I asked Foster about the performative aspect of the project and its lack of an audience, she explained that the project was primarily a residency. She had invited artists to come and work together; if there was an audience, it was unintentional.

Foster mused that, if anything, the island itself could be considered the audience. The ground was receiving the chalk and registering the artists’ footsteps, and the island’s residents were hearing the radio. This notion resonates particularly strongly when one considers Douglas Smarch Jr’s paths. As he walked the woods alone, the only witness was the landscape around him. This reworking of what constitutes an audience is appealing: some experiences do not need to be witnessed in conventional ways, or by other human subjects to be complete. Perhaps these witnesses can be places or even objects.

The power of this project lay in its isolation and the ways it eluded documentation. While there were efforts to make the residency accessible to those who couldn’t attend by employing a resident photographer (Katherine Knight) and a resident illustrator (Sarah Burwash) in addition to Foster regularly sharing photos on Facebook, the residency was defined by its very inaccessibility, making the attempt to share the experience in these ways somehow unfitting. Process–based activities, such as those undertaken during a residency, cannot be adequately captured in a photograph or engaged by someone scrolling their Facebook feed, no matter how visually stimulating some of the images might be.

But process does not always need to be documented. As beautiful as they might be, photographs and illustrations don’t capture the essence of this project: it would have been enough if the island alone was its only witness.

Although Foster said the landscape might be thought of as a kind of audience, the movement of the walkers would be best viewed from above. Think of the trails deepening with repetition, the walkers bearing their strange weights and Patsy Cline radiating from the radio station up and out into the sky. Imagine it and let that be enough.

The artists who participated in Pictou Island Portage were Aimée Henny Brown, Ursula Johnson, Barbara Lounder, Douglas Raymond Smarch, Jr., Michael Waterman and Sheilah Wilson. Veronica Simmonds is a writer, radio producer and media artist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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