Experience art in unexpected places

Newfoundland and Labrador’s stunning Bonavista Peninsula is the setting for a series of contemporary art pieces installed in unconventional locales along the coast

Perched atop a ridge overlooking the harbour in Bonavista, N.L., a former high school is the canvas for an expansive mural by artist Jordan Bennett. Swaths of colour serve as a background for reective metallic cut-outs – shapes drawn from Mi’kmaq and Beothuk visual culture.

"I was given this huge space and I wanted to create a piece that really speaks to the presence of the Indigenous people of this Island," Mr. Bennett says as he surveys his just-completed work. Mr. Bennett is of Mi'kmaq descent and was born in Stephenville Crossing, Ktaqamkuk – the Mi'kmaq term for Newfoundland.

Long, thin shapes scattered on the mural are based on Beothuk pendants found near Bonavista; other shapes include squares evoking Mi’kmaq basket edging and stars from stone drawings found in Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia. At the bottom right is a Beothuk canoe, positioned as if it could slip off the wall and into the sea. 

The cut-outs on Jordan Bennett's Pi'tawe'k are made of the same material used in road signs.

Titled Pi'tawe'k (he/she is upriver), the mural grabs the attention of anyone walking, driving, or boating by the area. At night, the reflective material catches passing headlights, illuminating the design as brightly as a neon sign. The sight stops pedestrians in their tracks.

"I've been learning about [the Mi'kmaq's] relations with the Beothuk for a long time," Mr. Bennett says. "To actually come to the place where there were settlements, to the land that they lived on, as well as the Mi'kmaq, is a great opportunity to tell the history that is not spoken about as often as it should be."

Pi'tawe'k is one of 21 contemporary art pieces installed in outport communities dotted along the edge of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Bonavista Peninsula for the 2019 Bonavista Biennale. Open until September 15, the event features new, site-specific work by Indigenous, Canadian, and international artists.

Many of the installations are outdoors – on a beach, along a street, or (in the case of US artist Sean Patrick O'Brien's geodesic iceberg) in the waters of a secluded cove. Others are in unusual indoor settings: a root cellar, a salt fish plant, a restored church and other historic buildings. St. John's artist Jason Holley evokes fishing nets made of porcelain and stoneware chains draped from the ceiling of a twine shed.

Jason Holley uses unconventional materials to create fishing nets.
Here, nets of porcelain and stoneware chains drape from the ceiling. 

Residents or visitors to the area may stumble upon a piece by surprise, or they may pick up a Biennale passport to plot a tour of the artworks while taking in 100 kilometres of spectacular coastline.

For founder Catherine Beaudette, the Biennale is a way to bring high-profile visual artists to Newfoundland and Labrador, showcase some of the province’s best contemporary artists, and contribute to the buzz and the economy of the Bonavista Peninsula.

"It came out of thinking about how cultural tourism [could] create a rich experience where you might have art, good food, interaction with local residents, hiking," Ms. Beaudette says.

"As people travel the loop, it's built in that they will go into the different communities, that their experience will be of the landscape, of the communities, of the art, and you can't help but take in the history."

The title of this year’s Biennale (the first took place in 2017) is Floe. It’s a play on words, Ms. Beaudette says, highlighting the movement of ice, whales, and ship traffic down the Atlantic coast. “It’s about how connected we all are,” she says.

Bonavista Biennale founder and curator Catherine Beaudette welcomes visitors and participants.

It’s a theme that pops up in many of the works in the Biennale. Mooring is a work by Massachusetts-based artist Anna Hepler, located at Ryan Premises National Historic Site. The large geometric structure is made of recycled cardboard and completely fills a 10 x 15 metre salt store – one of six historic buildings on the site that have been restored to show the history of cod fisheries in the area.  

Mooring, by Anna Hepler, is made entirely of recycled cardboard. It was constructed by a team of three in six days at a salt store.

"It's neither boat nor whale," she says of her work, "but it gives this kind of feeling of being in the belly or being suspended in water." Ms. Hepler points to where she saw whales just a few days before.

She says she was "delighted" when she found out the site was on the water. "This is everything that I want – being given a space of this scale, being able to think of a project at this scale, connecting with other artists. I’m having the best time."

Hikers explore the sea caves and stunning views in Dungeon Provincial Park, located on Cape Bonavista.

A few minutes' walk away is a work called passing where to by Robert Hengeveld, also known as "the ghost house." The work, made from aluminum tubing, is a 1:1 replica of a local house, including the twin peaked dormers specific to Bonavista architecture.

It evolved out of Mr. Hengeveld's fascination with stories of Newfoundlanders literally moving their houses between communities through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. 

These moves were a result of government resettlement programs that incentivized families in isolated communities to relocate to designated "growth centres."

During the month of the Bonavista Biennale, the installation will, appropriately, be moved to several different locations. As a Toronto native now living and teaching in Corner Brook, N.L., Mr. Hengeveld says the work reflects "my own processing of what it means to move, be in a new place." 

Robert Hengeveld with his artwork passing where to, which overlooks Bonavista Harbour.

He also hopes it gets people talking about history. "Being new to the province, I'm interested in listening and learning," he says. "I hope this opens people up to talking about the uniqueness of this province and the history of it."

That's another key goal of the Biennale: to spark conversation, says Matthew Hills, director of the Grenfell Art Gallery in Corner Brook and one of three curators of the Biennale along with Ms. Beaudette and David Diviney from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

The Cape Bonavista lighthouse is one of the area's most recognizable landmarks.
Barb Hunt and Jane Walker make art with discarded plastic flowers from rural cemeteries. 

"The Biennale lets people be surprised and caught unaware by art. For some people, a gallery space can be intimidating – or, worse, pretentious," Mr. Hills says. "When you take art outside of that setting, people are more comfortable and [more ready] to engage."

The Biennale also brings attention to the province’s vibrant visual arts community, he adds.

"It's not news to anyone that Newfoundland and Labrador punches above its weight culturally. There are some incredibly talented visual artists in this province," Mr. Hills says. “The Bonavista Biennale gives them a national and international stage."

Floe runs from August 17 to September 15. Find out more and plan your art tour at bonavistabiennale.com



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