Newfoundland is a place that dwarfs human life.
It is surrounded by deep, black water and massive ocean icefields. It is covered with expanses of scrubby marsh and misty lumps of rocks. This landscape is brooding, barren, impassive. It puts you in your place. It is not a generous land; anything taken from its soil or water is hard-won and sometimes dangerous.
You feel this when you visit the place. You can see it on a map—the swath of uninhabited land pocked with craters of water and a rare scratch of road. Towns hug the coast; some are linked only by boat traffic.
This is a place that gets under your skin. It’s compelling rather than attractive; the granite of Putin to the clay of Bush. The place infects you. It captivates you. Artists try to capture it.
David Blackwood is one who does. He is Newfoundland’s artist. Even though he left the place as a young man to study in the big city, the island left its mark. At its finest, his work is an attempt to capture its essence. His medium is intaglio etching, and the spare black-and-white captures the fragility of the people against a vast darkness.
I first saw an exhibit of David Blackwood’s work at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. This is a lovely, spacious, informative museum/gallery/performance space/community meeting space. The Blackwood exhibit was called “Black Ice.”
This man knows his subject well.
Blackwood is a slight, spectacled man who was raised in a Newfoundland outport on the northern coast of the island. His family had been fishers and sealers and ship captains for generations.
Outports in Newfoundland were remote villages strung along the coast. They survived, barely, on fishing, sealing, and what gardening could be done in the boggy peat. Mostly they supplied the voracious European appetite for cod and seal products.
Life in the outports changed when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, and its new federal government realized that it couldn’t deliver basic social services, like education and healthcare, to these tiny, remote places. (And this is a government accustomed to serving provinces like the Yukon and the Northwest Territories!) So the Canadian government began to relocate and consolidate the outports, luring in residents with a cash payout and promise of a better life.
But it was a tremendous upheaval for the people being relocated, and Blackwood, although only a child in the 1950s, remembers it well. And while firm hand of the government might have coaxed his grandmother off Bragg’s Island, that same government also recognized the prodigious gift of this native son and sent him to art school on its own dime.
If you’ve read The Shipping News, maybe you recognize the cover art, which is a David Blackwood print.
Blackwood’s work is as spare and powerful as the Newfoundland landscape. He’s stripped it of anything unnecessary; removed all the fat. What’s left is stark, simple, and weathered. Like many of the faces I saw on the island–and the more poignant for it.
I saw the Black Ice exhibit at the beginning of my time in Newfoundland, and I was gripped by its primitive, elemental power. The more I traveled throughout the province, the more I recognized that it was true.
Disclaimer: Some of these prints have appeared on other blogs, so I don’t apologize for borrowing, but others are from the websites of the Abbozzo Gallery, and the Emma Butler Gallery. My intention is simply to showcase some of Blackwood’s work, and I hope this attribution is sufficient.
Correction: Margaret Kirwin from Abbozzo Gallery mentioned that the Canadian Government wasn’t quite so generous as to have completely funded Blackwood’s schooling. While he did indeed get a scholarship for tuition, he received no help with room and board.
She also mentioned the work of another Canadian artist who visited Blackwood’s tiny studio in Newfoundland, among other places, and did a series of paintings about the island. Check out Heather Horton’s work at the Abbozzo Gallery here. It’s worth a look.