Isolation breeds, well, QUIRKINESS

Just got back from my second visit to Newfoundland, affectionately known as “The Rock”. Get out your maps. This glacially scoured island lies halfway between Boston and Greenland. It’s got a tough-luck history that would leave most people bitter or at least depressed. But Newfoundlanders are survivors. (Just a quick note to say I’m using the word Newfoundlanders in this post, because there’s chatter online that the term “Newfies“, which the people of Newfoundland call themselves is thought of by some to be a derogatory term if used by outsiders. Outsiders, by the way, are called “CFA’s” or “Come from Away” ) There’s an amazing can-do, pull yourselves up by the boot straps mentality here that’s inspiring.

The reputation that Newfoundlanders have as the friendliest people in Canada (and that’s saying something, as I think Canadians in general are pretty darn friendly) and the funniest, is well deserved. There’s beauty abounding in the great expanses of space in Newfoundland which I’ll leave to the travel writers. Instead, I’ll focus on, what else,  the quirkiness, of which there is plenty.


It’s a hard scrabble place that makes up in makes up in humor and friendliness what it has lacked in luck. And the humor shows up in all kinds of places, starting literally with geographical names.

There’s at least 5 different terms for coves and harbors, and they’re tacked onto place names in a way that make reading a map of the province sound like snippets of song lyrics: Witless Bay, Trinity Bight, Chance Cove, Conception Harbor, Random Sound. And that’s just a smidgen of the long list of curious and evocative place names. You just want to visit towns named Paradise, Blow Me Down, Joe Batt’s Arm, Spread Eagle, Come-By-Chance, Happy Adventure, and Little Heart’s Ease.

I doubt that any tourist has driven the Baccalieu Trail in eastern Newfoundland without stopping to taking their picture in front of the sign for the town of Dildo or their informative museum,the Dildo Interpretation Center.


There are deniers among the town folk that the name has any sexual connotations, but really…

Dildo is just south of the towns of Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, and Heart’s Delight. It’s a happy peninsula.

This lovely gal is just up the road from the Interpretation Center, and I would say she does look content:

IMG_9055    with her guy:IMG_9054 

Up the coast a stretch, on over to Fogo Island I encountered this more anxious looking duo:



And there’s plenty to be anxious about in Newfoundland. First and foremost the disastrous collapse of the Cod fisheries in the 1990’s devastated the province’s economy and threatened the heart and soul of the Newfoundland culture.  The material signs of the collapse are everywhere–a terrible, poignant beauty:


The Church above and collapsed fisherman’s shed below are side by side in the speck of a town of Clarke’s Head.     IMG_20140818_105311537_HDR

Looks like the prevailing wind blows the opposite direction in the town of Cupids:


Abandoned boarding houses in the once thriving town of Port Union, the only union -built town in North America, birthplace of the  Fisherman’s Protective Union, the first labor organization for fisherman.          IMG_20140812_092742693

There was a Pompeii feeling to this deserted home in the village of Baraneed. Wide open at every orifice:IMG_3174   The collapsed roof filling the space of the stairwell,

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The tableware staying obediently on a shelf that is one rotten floorboard away from landing in the basement:                 



Skeletons of beautifully handcrafted punts like beached whale remains:



And fishing vessels dotting the landscape yearning to be ocean-bound:


Yet amongst the collapse are beautiful signs of re-building:



This may be a small thing, but I really love all  the hand painted signs one sees along the road.

You’ve got a board, you’ve got some left over house paint, you’ve got a brush, go for it:



Elliston’s claim to fame, by the way, is as the “Root Cellar Capital of the World“. Do not even try to dispute this.

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This lovely sign for Mr. Bully’s Meat Room in Petty Harbor:


topped off with this window above: (Could this be Mr. Bully?”)


The next level up in signage: carve something that’s going to outlast anyone’s memory of what was not to be denied on “No Denial Path”:


Or give the most talented guy in town a chance to flex his or her creative muscle:



And hey, you don’t always need words to get your point across:


Here and there I encountered folks making their mark on the landscape. Az in Hibbs Cove (shown here with his wife Lorraine) who made excellent use of the tree that died in their yard:

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And up the same peninsula, in Port-de-Grave we stopped to chat with Matt who was adding a fresh coat of paint to his impressive built environment.




I did not sense one whiff of irony in this man so I don’t believe there’s a hidden message in the positioning of his cannon in relationship to the sign he made for his hometown:IMG_3302

An incredibly handy man, Matt fabricated all his own crab traps, which stacked up and stored away for the winter were a beautiful site to see:

(seen here with my artist colleague and collaborator, Antoinette Winters.IMG_3330   IMG_3329

We were so pleased when Matt invited us to tour his fishing vessel: IMG_3313         IMG_3314

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Matt hired a Twillingate artist (sorry not to have caught his name) to paint this beautiful portrait of his father and himself on the bow of his vessel:


Port-de-Grave was one of the only fully active fishing towns we saw–and it’s crabbing that’s keeping these fishermen in business.


Speaking of crab, when Antoinette and I went to the Independent Fish Harvesters to buy crab for dinner, we discovered that the minimum order was 20 lbs, a bit much for two for dinner! When we expressed disappointment, Graham said, “Wait a minute ladies” ducked into the freezer and emerged with one of the twenty pound boxes which he promptly sliced open. Turns out he was breaking into his own box that he had set aside for his family for Christmas. Our protests fell on deaf ears.

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When we took out our wallets, Graham said “You don’t owe me anything”. “What do you mean?” we asked. His reply, “This is Newfoundland. All you want is some fish for dinner. Anyone in Newfoundland would give you that. You’re not asking for twenty pounds–just a little fish for dinner, You don’t have to pay for that.”

Ok, so, didn’t I tell you at the beginning of this post, Newfoundlanders have got to be the nicest, friendliest people on earth?


And even their digitally printed signs are pretty great:


Concrete–it’s a beautiful thing!

Arguably, the most renowned of all Wisconsin outsider art built environments is Fred Smith’s Concrete Park. I first learned about this site when I was in grad school at Cranbrook Academy of Art where I studied under the early champion of outsider art, Michael Hall. When I saw the images of the Concrete park I knew right away I need to make a pilgrimage and so Wisconsin went on my bucket list. And there it stayed for about 15 years until I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical with travel funds by my employer, Concord Academy. Armed with the invaluable resource of Lisa Stone and Jim Zani’s book, “Sacred Spaces and Other Places” I mapped out a route that criss-crossed Wisconsin. I was determined to visit every outsider art environment in the state.  I assumed that October would be a lovely time to visit Wisconsin. After all, that’s the best time to visit New England and Wisconsin is at about the same latitude, right?  Well, it turned out to be a miserable time, at least that year, weather-wise, to visit Wisconsin. It was cold, dark, and drizzly just about every day. It was so dark I had to stop at a drugstore to restock my film supply (yup–this was a pre-digital trip. You will excuse the images that you’ll see in this post which are scanned from slides and so not as sharp as the originals) to buy low light ektachrome. Nothing could dampen my spirits, though,  as I drove up to Phillips in the north woods of the state to finally get to see the Concrete Park in person.




Fred Smith, born in 1886 of German immigrant parents began his working life as a teen lumberjack. Later,to supplement his lumberjack income, Smith grew ginseng (surprising thing for the early 1900’s, no?) and Christmas trees for sale. He also built and operated a popular roadside watering hole, The Rock Garden Tavern. The Tavern provided the first real outlet for Smith’s creative impulses.  Providing the nightly entertainment at the tavern, Smith fiddled on his homemade fiddle, sang,  and danced with sleigh bells strapped onto his legs.

In 1949, at the age of 62 Smith quit lumberjacking, ostensibly due to arthritis. Arthritis or not, he threw himself into the making of his Wisconsin Concrete Park (his title). Though disdainful of the modern era of car travel (too much rushing around, thought Smith) , Smith realized the benefit of siting his roadside attraction alongside the highway. Smith clearly loved the attention that his ambitious creation brought to him.

IMG_3423Portrait of Fred Smith. Photo credit: Robert Amft. (Amft was an early admirer of Fred Smith’s work. He visited Smith often in the 1950’s and 60’s and photographed the artist and the site extensively. He even introduced Smith to the work of other self-taught artists.)

Smith worked obsessively on his sculptures, ultimately jeopardizing his marriage and sacrificing his family life.  He filled his 120 acre property with an astonishing number of figures–over 200 pieces, which he embellished with colored bottles embedded into the wet concrete. Smith liked using the bottles both for their reflective quality and like the other recycled material he incorporated, the fact that he “could get them for nothing”.

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When Fred Smith first started his work on the Concrete park, he thought of his sculptures as commemorative pieces. He set to work sculpting historical and mythical figures he admired  including Sacajawea (just one of several Native American figures he sculpted), the Chinese statesman, Sun Yat-sen (a little random, eh?) , Abraham Lincoln,  Kit Carson, and a Paul Bunyan who bears a great resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt.



Besides these commemorative works Smith paid homage to his fellow lumberjacks, farmers, and plain old common folk.



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For good measure Fred Smith scattered several deer and moose, native to the Wisconsin north woods,  throughout the property.




Sadly, after Fred Smith finished sculpting the last of his Clydesdale horses for his ambitious  Budweiser beer tableau he suffered a stroke which ended his creative output.



Fred Smith described his Concrete Park, “a gift for all American people everywhere. They need something like this. ”  Couldn’t agree more!