Fogo Island: the fisherman’s friend

My heart sank a little when I was assigned to visit Fogo Island. A diminutive offcut of Newfoundland on Canada’s eastern seaboard, its craggy, kelp-bound shores are a magnet for the freezing winds and clammy fogs borne by the Labrador current.

“You’ll probably see icebergs,” said a Canadian friend before I left. In June? My inner sun-bunny winced.

Settled in the 18th century by Irish and English immigrants, for centuries the island sustained its people through its cod fisheries. By the 1960s, however, the cod were dwindling. In 1992, Canada announced a moratorium but by then the shoals were gone. Soon, the island’s community would be extinct too.

Enter Zita Cobb. Born on the island in 1958, Cobb left aged 16 and went on to make a C$69m (£44m) fortune in the fibre-optics industry. Now she is back with a plan to save the islanders’ way of life. She has set up a foundation, Shorefast, whose initiatives include a $1m microfinance fund for local entrepreneurs and a research centre devoted to sustainable fishing practices. But her core vision revolves around a residencies programme for contemporary artists and a hotel, the Fogo Island Inn, which opened in May.

At 9am on a sunless Sunday morning at the ferry terminal in the Newfoundland town of Gander, I fear that Cobb is being overly optimistic. Simply getting to the ferry has involved two aeroplanes, a taxi, an overnight stay on Gander and two time changes, as Newfoundland lops 30 minutes off Canada’s mainland clock.

I am accompanied by Sandra Cull, one of the inn’s “community hosts”, and her husband Earl, who have scooped me up from my hotel in Gander in their Jeep. They remain calm when we discover that the ferry – the only means of transport to the island – has broken down.

“That boat is coming from Fogo Island so it must be going back there. We can get on it,” Earl murmurs as we watch a small motorboat approaching across the pewter-grey water. He strolls over to the vessel, a sturdy, no-frills, plastic affair, and after a brief conversation, secures us a ride.

As a weak sun burns through a pelt of cloud that seems to stretch to the Arctic, and silvery glints brighten the ocean to a mirrored sheen, we skim past islands whose granite shorelines are slaked to a ferrous gold by seawater. Rock is this landscape’s bottom line, its going-nowhere presence a paradigm for the people who, despite the growing lack of livelihood, resisted the government’s plans to resettle them in 1965.

As we travel through the salt-swept emptiness, Earl tells me stories of growing up here. The day a posse of killer whales poked their snouts over the hull of the boat. Of seal-hunting in spring when fish stocks are low – “The people need the meat. Greenpeace don’t understand.” Swinging into the little harbour town of Tilting, with its lobster pots and white clapboard houses, its plethora of churches and dearth of billboards and brand-name coffee-shops, I begin to suspect I have come upon a place less ordinary.

By the time we arrive at the hotel, the sun is high and sea and sky are pristine china-blue. Raised on a bluff metres from the ocean, the inn is a hybrid of ship and seabird – an oblong slice of white wood, one end perched on stilts as if poised for flight.

No one could say it blends in – it’s too big and too lonely – but as a postmodern riff on indigenous style, it is definitely preferable to alien “starchitecture”. Within, the respect for genius loci continues. Patchwork quilts hark back to a tradition of home-made textiles. The furniture is crafted from local spruce, birch and fir. Rare is the house on Fogo Island without one of the wood-burning stoves that feature in the inn’s lobby and every bedroom.

What brings the place alive is the ocean. Thanks to generous glass walls, the radiant skin of water is a constant presence. My room is a glorious Zen-meets-Shaker alchemy of pale wood, effervescent patchworks, and chunky knitted throws and cushions. But you could put a sleeping bag in there and the sea view, along with the sound of the waves on stone and the pellucid light, would still make it impossible to envy the resident of the most luxurious urban suite.

The bedroom

After breakfast, a beautifully choreographed spread of local specialities including wild blueberry sausages and partridgeberry chutney, I am taken out for the day by Helen Broaders, another community host.

The daughter of a fisherman and a schoolteacher by profession, Broaders is a natural storyteller. Looking out at what seems to me a swath of anonymous sea, she says: “My father could name every one of those rocks, every shoal that was out there. There was no GPS so you carried the map of the ocean in your head. The coastline was covered with traps and nets. Boats coming and going constantly. Now the fishing is all offshore.”

As she whisks me from the local museum to a fish-gutting demonstration and on to the workshops where the inn’s fabrics and furniture are made, I build a picture of the life she and her fellow residents led. Houses were tiny and families huge – “You slept three or four to a bed but that was fine because it was so cold.” There was no electricity until the 1960s and the only heating came from wood-burning stoves.

Many peoples’ parents, Zita Cobb’s included, were illiterate. There was very little currency. “At the end of the season, you traded your fish with the local merchant who gave you your winter supplies in return. Oh, he was powerful, the merchant. Everyone was frightened of him,” Broaders tells me.

Life was hard and dangerous – “Every time my father went out in the boat, I worried he wouldn’t come back” she says – but rich in human spirit. Still, it is a place where no one locks their houses, where women bake their own bread daily and meet once a week for quilting and knitting sessions. In the showroom of the Winds and Waves Artisans’ Guild, where local craftspeople sell their work, I ask one carpenter from what kind of wood a potato peeler is carved. He peers at it carefully then declares: “That’s the dogberry tree from Bill’s garden.”

That night, Cobb joins me for dinner. A gamine figure in jeans and shirt, her down-to-earth manner and acute social responsibility confound expectations of one of Canada’s wealthiest women. The problem with the world, as she sees it, is our obsession “with optimising a return on profit”.

Any profits from the inn will be ploughed back into the foundation. The furniture has been designed by international makers but their brief was to take inspiration from local styles that could be carved from local materials by island craftsmen. The textiles are designed and made by islanders. Currently Cobb employs 80 people and the presence of the inn and its guests should boost enterprise generally. Given that the population of the island is 2,400, it could make a real difference to the island’s future.

Why include contemporary art in the mix? “I’m frightened to death that we are losing all our original ways of knowing,” Cobb explains. “Like fishermen, artists possess those ways of knowing.”

One of the artists’ studios

There are six studios dotted around the island, which the inn’s guests are welcome to visit. The following day, Broaders and I visit Mark Clintberg, a Montreal-based artist on a three-month residency. Built by Todd Saunders, who also designed the inn, the studio rears up like a black plasma TV screen on the horizon. As we pick our way along a rough path, Broaders points out the wild irises and primroses that freckle the grassy, granite slopes.

What attracted Clintberg to a residency on the island was a project which involved knitting a fishing net out of reflective material that would bear a written message on its mesh. “I had no idea how to go about it,” he recalls. “But here, they introduced me to an incredible fisherman called Kevin Decker, who gave me lessons.”

Inside the studio is a stunning, loft-style space end-stopped by – you guessed – a magnificent view over the ocean. Nevertheless it is not the easiest place to work. Clintberg shivers as he remembers the hike along that promontory during the spring gales. Supplies arrive via wheelbarrow and, if they have been ordered from the mainland, delivery can take weeks. “This place has resistance built into it,” observes Clintberg, though he admits he also finds it inspiring.

The strength of the residencies lies in the calibre of its artists. The co-chair of Fogo Island Arts, as Shorefast’s cultural programme is known, is Nicolaus Schafhausen, also the artistic director of the Kunsthalle in Vienna, and highly respected in the contemporary art world. Schafhausen makes it clear that only serious practitioners are considered: “We are absolutely not running a community arts project.” Clintberg has work in the National Gallery of Canada. Another participant, British-based Hannah Rickards, won the London Whitechapel Gallery’s prestigious Max Mara Art Prize in 2008 for her film and sound installations.

Schafhausen also stresses that artists are free to make work that has nothing to do with the island or is even critical of it. “Good art is always critical and political. It’s a think-tank here.” Currently, the exhibition at the inn – which will regularly show residents’ work – is an installation entitled “Let the other thing in” by New Zealand artist Kate Newby.

The dining room

On one of the wooden platforms where traditionally the cod were laid out to dry, Newby has placed clusters of ceramics glazed in jewel-bright colours above scrappy, handwritten labels with legends such as Little Saturday, I love NY and Feel it Forever. The work, which conjures maps of Fogo Island, where every headland and archipelago has its own quirky name, is both a touching homage to the islanders’ sense of place and a witty reminder that such nostalgia is not enough.

Cobb’s vision could provide the contemporary relevance that the island will need if it is to survive without losing its soul or turning into a quaint memento mori. The presence of the artists is already igniting new conversations and relationships. (Clintberg has been holding “dance parties” in his studio.) Slowly, younger people are arriving to make a life here. New residents include Jack Stanley, Schafhausen’s assistant, and his partner Vida Simon, an artist who is running workshops for the inn’s guests in a restored “stage” (fisherman’s hut).

One afternoon, Simon teaches Broaders and me how to transform matchboxes into mini-installations. Installation pioneer Joseph Cornell wouldn’t be losing any sleep over my offering but, as the three of us snip, paste and nibble Simon’s home-made partridgeberry shortbread, our conversation voyages around art, politics, families and island life in a convivial, ceremonious rhythm.

Suddenly I understand why the quilt-makers choose to stitch in company. In his paean to the oral tradition, “The Storyteller”, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote: “If peasants and seamen were past masters of storytelling, the artisan class was its university ... Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes on happenings from generation to generation.”

If, in a century’s time, Fogo Islanders have held on to their old memories yet also made some new ones, Cobb’s ghost can be truly proud.

Rachel Spence was a guest of Air Canada ( and Fogo Island Inn ( Air Canada has daily flights from Toronto and Halifax to Gander; a return flight from London to Gander via Halifax costs from £877. Double rooms at the Fogo Island Inn cost from C$550, full board. See also

More islands for art-lovers: Sun, sea and contemporary installations

Naoshima, Japan

Work by Yayoi Kusama, Naoshima

A 20-minute ferry crossing from Uno (45 minutes by train from Okayama), Naoshima lies in the Seto Inland Sea, and is home to 3,600 people and seven significant galleries. The finest is arguably the Chichu Art Museum, which owns five of Monet’s water lily paintings as well as site-specific works by James Turrell and the land artist Walter de Maria. But the Benesse House runs it close, with works by Gerhard Richter, Jackson Pollock, Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Jasper Johns and Kan Yasuda. It also has a 10-room hotel. Both Chichu and Benesse were designed by the architect Tadao Ando, who is also the subject of a museum here. There are other museums devoted to the Korean artist Lee Ufan and, improbably, 007, though this is just the sort of island to put you in mind of a Bond villain. This year also sees the second edition of the Setouchi Triennale, across Naoshima and 11 neighbouring islands, featuring more than 200 artists from 23 countries.;

Sarvisalo, Finland

Inspired by Naoshima, the London-based collectors Anita and Poju Zabludowicz have embarked on a project to turn Sarvisalo (linked to the mainland by a bridge, 90km east of Helsinki), into another art island. To date, there are 14 installations by 11 artists, spread across three sites. They’re currently open only by appointment to groups but public open days are promised in future.

Isla Simca, Panama

It may come as a surprise but highlights from the world’s greatest collection of contemporary sub-Saharan African art, featuring several thousand works by more than 80 artists, can be found on Isla Simca, just off the Pacific coast of Panama. The island, like the art, belongs to Jean Pigozzi, investor, photographer, collector and scion of the French car company after which it is named. His hilltop villa, designed by architects Ettore Sottsass and Shigeru Ban, glows at night in a rainbow of LED panels that change colour in time to whatever music is playing. The collection (and island) are only available to those who rent the villa, which costs £57,000 a week for up to 10 guests (available through Abercrombie & Kent).

Lopud, Croatia

Part of Dalmatia’s Elefiti archipelago, Lopud is a popular stop for yachts thanks to the sandy bay at Sunj. To reach the beach from the harbour, it’s worth taking a detour to see “Your Black Horizon”, a transfixing installation by Olafur Eliasson, housed in an equally arresting pavilion by David Adjaye, surrounded by olive and cypress groves. Commissioned by Francesca von Habsburg’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary project, it’s been there almost every summer since 2005, and it’s open again this year till September 29.

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