Brownfield Notes: Urban foraging in the postindustrial landscape
In August and September 2018, I was the Visual Arts Nova Scotia and Lumiere Artist in Residence at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation in Sydney, Nova Scotia. During my residency I created my installation for Lumiere and worked on a personal project in a former rail yard near the home of my parents, the house that I grew up in.
The rail yard, now a brownfield, is adjacent to the playground I played on as a child and is on the bank of a former toxic waste site, one that was surrounded by a chain link fence hung with Human Health Hazard signs when I was a teenager. As a child there was no fence separating our playground and the rail yard and no fence or Human Health Hazard signs around the tar ponds. It just existed as a stinking, bubbling toxic mess consistently on the periphery of our lives.
Sydney, the small city I grew up in, has the highest cancer rate in Canada. Citizens have consistently been told that the disease has nothing to do with toxic waste and the PCBs released into our lives by the steel industry and everything to do with “lifestyle”, including diet. It has always been troubling to me that working class people are constantly blamed by the powers that be for their illnesses. This is true in every deindustrialized towns around the world and is an example of what Ann Laura Stoler refers to as “Imperial Debris”.
In Brownfield Notes I wanted to trouble the notion of illness, diet and sustenance by foraging for edible plants in the brownfield. When I told local people about my project their reaction was inevitably “But you’re not going to eat that are you?”. Toxic waste was the reason. As a result I worked with local foraging guide, Amber Dawn, and local chef, Susan MacDonald, to create an event that consisted of a guided foraging walk through the brownfield and a tasting menu built around edible plants available in the brownfield but sourced far far away from the former toxic waste site.
Would you nourish your body with food sourced from a former toxic waste site?
An unlikely illumination
The concept for An unlikely illumination was based on the existence of an illuminated flower garden, built by a miner, deep in a coal shaft. This underground garden was built purely for pleasure and to me feels like an oasis or a mirage of light and beauty in the depth of darkness. I view this as a gesture of resilience, joy and hope that is reflected in the people of Cape Breton.
An unlikely illumination was a spotlight project for Lumiere 2018.
(Detail photo was contributed by Melissa Kearney from Lumiere)
The Nourish series tackles issues of poverty, food, nutrition, health, precarity and toxic waste in the former steel city where I was raised. Each sculptural installation in the series relates a memory-story accompanied by a collage of memory-images and a memory-souvenir manifested from my youth growing up within the context of industrial ruination.
Nourish, the stories:
Whiteout (Case of Keiths)
We weren’t allowed to stay up late at my house. Chrissy and I shared a room and we had to be in bed by nine every night, except in summer when it was still light out. I slept over at Lorraine’s house a lot and we were allowed to do almost anything we wanted to do. We could stay up late watching Much Music (Lorraine’s big brother, Jamie, loved Madonna and had her posters all over his walls) and we could eat whatever we wanted to! Lorraine always had lots of junk food, like Marshmallow Fluff, that we weren’t allowed to eat at my house.
Janet and Larry were usually always there, unless Janet was waitressing late. They had couches, a fridge, and a ping pong table in the basement, and they would have all of their friends over, staying up late, listening to music and drinking beer down there. We weren’t allowed to go downstairs, but sometimes one of their friends, like Smitty or Red, would come upstairs to pee. They’d always be really friendly and sometimes they would give us money, usually a loonie, which was cool because those were brand new.
If Larry was in a good mood, or if Janet came home from work late, they would get take out and we would eat Tijuana Taxi Pizza or Hero Sandwiches in the middle of the night. One time, Larry was in such a good mood that he barbecued us hot dogs outside in a snowstorm at one o’clock in the morning! It was awesome.
Hash and Trash (bucket of clothespins)
Corned beef always came in a white plastic bucket with red lettering all over it and the meat was packed in brine. The only other corned beef I had ever seen was in a funny shaped can in my grandparents cupboard that my dad said was from the fifties, when he was a kid, and I believed him. My grandparents had some really old things in their cupboard and the licorice was always rock hard, but it made a great straw if you could manage to bite the ends off.
I don’t remember my mom ever making a boiled dinner, called a Jiggs Dinner. I think my dad was against it. He was against most things, practically everything. We had one of the buckets, though, and it was full of clothespins. At Lorraine’s house, they ate boiled dinners all the time. You’d take the corned beef out of the brine and boil it with cabbage, potatoes, carrots and turnip so everything was salty. Lorraine always mashed her carrots, potato and turnip together, but I thought that was gross. The next day, her mom, Janet, would fry up all the leftovers together in a big pan and call it “hash and trash”. I didn’t find the irony in this, considering the income flow into their house, until much much later.
The corned beef bucket always reminded me of a smaller version of the bucket my grandparents in Ingonish filled with sea water and kept live lobsters in all season long. One time, my uncle took one of the lobsters out of the bucket and chased me with it, it’s claws snapping behind me without any elastics. I didn’t eat lobster for a long time after that.
Milkweed Apples (Sobeys bag)
In late summer, early fall, the kids in the neighbourhood would take Sobeys bags from home and run around filling them with crab apples. There was a profusion of apple trees around the neighbourhood, and Mr. Crawley even had a plum tree, which we were forbidden to climb but always did anyway. We wanted to taste those dark purple plums, they were a North End delicacy. If you got them too early they were really sour and your face puckered, but if you got them at just the right time, they were juicy and as sweet and yellow inside as honey.
Some of the apples in the neighbourhood were also good to eat. The tall tree in my Uncle Bradley’s backyard had big red apples that tasted good. But then he sold his house and the people who bought it cut the apple tree down. Just a block away, the LeBlancs had a big apple tree with the best apples around. They were a very light yellowish-green and they were sweet, crisp and delicate. We called them Milkweed Apples and they were highly coveted, better than the ones your mom bought at the grocery store.
The apples we collected in our Sobeys bags weren’t for eating, they were for warfare. We picked the half rotten ones from the ground so they would splatter when they hit a body or a house. One day, my mother and I were driving in our car and we were bombarded with apples when it was almost dark. Mom was so mad she stopped the car right in the middle of the street, got out and started yelling. I was embarrassed, but I also thought it was sort of funny and I was careful not to let it show. I had a full bag of apples stashed away, ready for retaliation.
The day of battle came. There were no rules and the teams divided like they always did; boys against girls. We stationed ourselves on the half charred, wooden jungle gym that was supposed to look like a ship. The boys were coming into the playground from DesBarres Street. As soon as they got close enough, we pommeled (no pun intended, haha) them with apples. I was crouched down on the deck of the ship behind a short wall. My apples were more than halfway gone and a steady stream of rotten apples splattered around me. I looked at my clothes and knew I was already in trouble. I wasn’t getting out of this one unscathed, and so, I was reckless.
I stood up and started throwing the last of my apples with all my might when I took one in the face. I saw a light, felt a dense pain and covered my eye with my hand. I was going to have a shiner. Again. The apple fell to the deck by my feet. As the dread of impending trouble dawned on me, eclipsing the pain of my swelling eye, an angry wasp flew out of the apple and up my pants leg where it stung me over and over.
Soda Bread (A Little Irish Cookbook)
My favourite uncle, Stephen, went to Ireland. With one of his friends, I think. Maybe John but I can’t remember if they were still friends then, so I’m not sure. He sent me a postcard and he brought us back t-shirts that said “Kiss me, I’m Irish” and we thought that was funny. He brought my mom back a cookbook called “A Little Irish Cookbook”.
Most days, I liked to get up early in the morning, before everyone else so I could go swimming and watch Astroboy. I’d take the bedspread off the Big Blue Bed and spread it on the floor, tuck my undershirt into my underpants and swim a few laps. I was never a very good swimmer.
One morning, I took down “A Little Irish Cookbook” and decided to bake soda bread. I had never baked before, except bannik at Brownies and that was super easy. Plus, Janet always got mad if I called early and Larry yelled and said I wasn’t allowed to phone before nine AM. I would bake some soda bread and bring it down to Lorraine’s after nine as a surprise!
I set to work and soon I had a round golden loaf to cut into triangles. It didn’t look as puffy as the one in the picture, but I took it down to Lorraine’s anyway. Janet wasn’t impressed. She said my soda bread was as hard as a hockey puck and everyone laughed. I guess I forgot the soda.
A few years later, it was February 22, 1996, I remember. My grandmother opened the door of my Uncle Stephen’s truck, it was dark outside and the truck was still running. Stephen fell out on top of her, and he was dead. Carbon monoxide poisoning.
Marking time (Garfield bookmark)
Kiera lived next door to us for a while. After Mr. Gordon died, his large white house with the green trim was sold and turned into apartment units. Then there seemed to be a revolving door of people who passed through, and Kiera was one of them. We tried to be friends with her, drinking Kool-Aid and playing barbies under the canopy of rose bushes that separated our backyards in early summer, but it didn’t stick. Something was off, and it was a feeling we couldn’t shake, Christina and I. It wasn’t just because she hardly ever wore a shirt, lots of people did that. We simply didn’t trust her. One day it became clear why.
It was summer, and I suppose I was about eleven. Christina came running over to me in our backyard, and she was in tears. Kiera had stolen her bike and ridden off on it. I was immediately seeing red. You did not mess with my little sister and expect to get away with it. I went on a rampage around the neighbourhood and the word was out that I was looking for Kiera. I soon had a little posse of neighbourhood kids trailing me on my hunt, waiting electrically for the moment of collision. She was dead meat when I found her.
Suddenly, there she was. Cruising blithely down Fairview Street, topless of course, under the golden July sun. I stepped onto the road into her immediate path and grabbed onto the handlebars of my sister’s bike. A cloud of fear darkened Kiera’s face. I looked directly into her eyes and said, “If you don’t get off my sister’s bike, I’m going to rearrange your face”. She disembarked without a word. Without a backward glance, I walked Christina’s bike back to our yard while the neighbourhood kids looked on. Nobody would ever have to know that I had just quoted my favourite Garfield bookmark.
At home with ghosts
At home with ghosts is an installation project manifested at an abandoned former company house in New Waterford, Nova Scotia. It consists of a collection of former company clothes hung out on a clothesline in the yard of the abandoned home and recalls memories of family life, labour and domesticity.
This installation, made on November 20, 2017 in New Waterford, NS aims to reactivate ephemera tied to “the company” by placing it in the context of a former home that is no longer occupied. I feel that these garments and these discarded homes still carry a weight of emotion and the memories of the lives lived there, despite their tumble into liminality. The domestic scene of a clothesline strung with clothing conjures a semblance of life within the former home and in my mind is an acknowledgment of the ghosts that linger on.
Remembering with a sense of relief
In the winter and spring of 2017, I was involved with the LandMarks project, a huge cross country installation project. Part of my involvement was through the LandMarks Class at NSCAD, for which I was the TA, and I also created a piece as a part of Ursula Johnson’s event titled (re)al-location, featured in the Winter 2018 edition of C Magazine.
The piece that I created for the LandMarks Class was installed at Green Cove, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in June, 2017. It was an anti monument for the doomed memorial that was just narrowly averted in that space, and it was titled Remembering with a sense of relief. The documentation of this piece was installed at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax as a part of NSCAD’s official LandMarks exhibition that ran from late June through early July, 2017. When I returned to check on it about a month later, it had vanished.
Remembering with a sense of relief
It seemed to come out of nowhere and then suddenly it was everywhere. I very quickly became obsessed. Some Toronto business tycoon visited Cape Breton and came up with the bright idea to erect a gigantic statue of a veiled woman, arms outstretched toward the Atlantic Ocean, supposedly beckoning to Canada’s war dead at Vimy Ridge. An amateur’s riff on Canada Bereft. This fellow got it into his head that the pink granite cliffs at Green Cove on Cape Breton’s celebrated Cabot Trail was just the place for his monument. Right here, where you’re standing.
I was gobsmacked. Green Cove is protected land! It’s National Park land! Expropriated National Park Land!! How could this possibly be? The bug had gotten into the, then Prime Minister, Steven Harper’s, ear and suddenly land and money was being donated by the National Park for this so-called cause. The project was steam-rolling ahead.
The locals must be outraged, I thought. Some were. Others supported the project with the hope that it would bring employment to the economically depressed villages North of Smokey. Communities were cleaved. For and against factions were formed and the arguments were heated. Perversely, I hung about reading the comments sections of the numerous articles about the project, or I scrolled through posts on the group pages of social media platforms feeling muzzled. I was outraged too, but I didn’t feel like I could voice my opinions about the project - I didn’t live North of Smokey. I didn’t know how hard it was to make it through the year with only seasonable employment.
I was troubled. It seemed the entire country was troubled by this project’s seemingly unstoppable fast track into realization. Then, after about two years of controversy, it disappeared just as quickly as it had manifested itself. In 2015, the leadership of Canada changed hands from the Conservatives to the Liberals and the Mother Canada project died almost overnight.
Every once in awhile you still see an article about it crop up online (or if you are like me you have a collection of them bookmarked on your laptop, ahem), but it seems more like a distant joke than a possible reality. Now, like me, you can stand here on the pink granite cliffs of Green Cove, enjoying the untarnished natural beauty, and remember with a sense of relief.
Haunting the valley
Haunting the Valley is an installation project completed in conjunction with Ursula Johnson’s re(al)-location project for LandMarks 2017. Haunting the Valley is made up of a commemorative garden installed on the grounds of the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, Nova Scotia. This garden references crops grown by my ancestral family when it farmed the Clyburn Valley pre-Cape Breton Highlands National Park and is accompanied by a narrative relating local historical and familial information.
Living off the land. This concept has distant, romantic connotations for me. It brings to mind “the Homesteaders” and draft dodgers who came to Northern Cape Breton in the 1960s and 70s, mainly from bigger cities in the States, longing for a simple existence off the land. I’m fascinated by these stories and it always strikes me when I look at images of the young, educated homesteaders, how much they resemble photographs my father took in the late 1970s and early 1980s documenting my Mother’s family here, in Ingonish. My grandfather, Albert Doyle, was a fisherman and the family were, essentially, living off the land.
Grandad descended from a long line of Doyles who fished in Ingonish and his family once owned the land that now houses the Keltic Lodge and golf course. Grandad’s family sold the land to Henry Corson who established a hobby farm here - picture a barn where the golf club now stands, and fields and pastures on the greens. Corson’s wife, Julia, suffered from T.B. and they resided in Ingonish to benefit her health.
The ancestral Doyles spent the fishing season every year just beyond here, on the Middle Head Peninsula, in small, seasonal fishing shacks. It was there that my family gathered to honour the memory of my Uncle Stephen after his death in 1996. Stephen was deeply interested in history and literature and he studied both, in College and University, becoming the first member of our immediate family to earn a Bachelor’s degree.
In the fall of 2015, I was in the first term of my Masters of Fine Art working as a teaching assistant to the professor of Indigenous Studies. During class one day she said something along the lines of “know your own history so you can tell your own story.” This resonated with me. I had already been gathering oral history from my grandmother each time I visited her home in Ingonish. We’d sit at the kitchen table over cups of hot tea, made just so, and she’d tell me stories of growing up in Ingonish and her family who had farmed the Clyburn Valley before it was expropriated for the Park in 1937.
I have my own memories of the family homestead in the Clyburn Valley, partially formed by an issue of Cape Breton Magazine from 1988 which features my great aunt Leona and great uncle Tom talking about growing up in the Valley. My personal version includes a faded memory of being a child walking up to the 11th green of the golf course with members of my immediate and extended family. We saw a family of pheasants on the way and I held a fluffy, yellow chick in my hands. We swung out on the rope swing, but didn’t let go to plunge into the frigid Clyburn, it was too early yet for that. It was spring and we were walking into the Valley to visit the place where the Doucette homestead once stood. We were shown the remnants of flower gardens where bleeding heart and vinca still rambled next to the carefully groomed greens.
The Doucette farm in the Clyburn Valley is the stuff of family legend. Multiple sources tell the story of a lush, green, idyllic existence from another time, a time of back breaking labour and fortitude, living in the isolation of the wilderness. Alongside these realities, it was the magical stories that stood out in my mind: tales of ships built deep in the woods, to access the tallest trees, and sailed down the Clyburn when it was wide and deep. Tales of gold buried beneath killick stone doorsteps, strawberries as big as your fist, and giant ocean trout pulled from the river by children before breakfast. It was recalled as a quiet, satisfying existence where the efforts of your physical toil were evident on your dinner plate, in the roof over your head and the warming fire in your hearth.
Needless to say, these stories have stayed with me over the years, stoked by walks up to the 11th green and hikes to the abandoned gold mine nearby.
It was this year, in 2017, that I really fell down the rabbit hole. I was researching this project heavily and I went deep into time to read about the Indigenous peoples who resided on this land for millennia, choosing Ingonish and the Clyburn Valley for its richness in fish and game, and its relative shelter. This is a place with deep roots in fishing from the Mi’kmaw thousands of years ago to fishermen from Portugal, Spain and France recalled coming ashore as early as the 1500s, to the people still fishing the same waters today.
I learned that when Ingonish was first populated by European Settlers, it was the Acadians who lived alongside the Mi’kmaw people who had already been occupying the land for thousands of years. My reading told me that Acadian and Mi’kmaw families fled together, through the Clyburn Valley, when the British came to raze the outlying French villages in Cape Breton and seize the Fortress of Louisbourg in 1745, ultimately leading to the Expulsion of the Acadians several years later. I learned that my Doucette ancestors had already been in Ingonish at that time and had fled through the Clyburn Valley and over the mountains to Port Hood and Mabou.
Family history tells me that Francis Doucette was married to a woman of Mi’kmaw descent named Mary Elizabeth who died while giving birth to triplets. The triplets also perished and Mary Elizabeth and her babies are said to be buried together somewhere in the Clyburn Valley. Reading this story reminded me of my grandmother, Mary and her twin brother, Joey, who were the last children to be born in the Valley in 1937. It was March and the Valley was still deep in snow. There wasn’t enough time to bring the midwife - Mary and Joey were delivered at home by their older sister, Rose.
Their father, Thomas Leo Doucette, had been the last child born in the Valley before them, in 1897. It was just after the goldmine closed, and its workers had departed the Valley, leaving the Doucette’s in deep isolation. They soon followed the goldmine workers, leaving their 25 acre tract and its farmhouse behind them. For 40 years, the Doucette tract was occupied only by grazing cattle. In 1917, Thomas Leo was overseas serving in WWI, when his mother died, willing the Clyburn land to him. It was while serving in Europe that Leo met and married Agnes Lucy Devinish, in London, England on October 9, 1917. Leo had a brooch made for Lucy from coins collected in the countries he was stationed in during the war years, and in 2015, as the family goldsmith, I was given this family heirloom to care for by my grandmother, Mary.
Following the war, Leo and Lucy settled in New Waterford where Leo was a coal miner. He had been gassed during his time in service, so with fading health and with the onset of the Depression, Leo and Lucy moved their family back to the Doucette farmland in the Clyburn Valley. Here they farmed cauliflower, turnips and cabbage to sell to grocers in Sydney, as well as other crops for personal use. Rhubarb was grown as an early spring crop that was an important source of essential vitamins and minerals after a long winter deep in the forest. Parsley and summer savoury were some of Lucy’s favourite seasonings and my grandmother recalls the constant presence of these herbs drying in their kitchen.
It is with this knowledge, and under the instruction of my Aunt Carol, who tends these grounds, that I have built this garden commemorating the people of the Cape Breton Highlands, past, present and future. People who have worked in collaboration with the land to build a community and create an existence that is as filled with fascinating stories and historical facts as it was with toil and hardship. There are multiple histories to be told about this place, and numerous perspectives to look at it from. Ours is but one.
Keeper of industrial memory
In March, 2017 I exhibited my thesis show at the Anna Leonowens Gallery at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
During my Master of Fine Arts I was examining my experience growing up amidst the ruins of industry in deindustrializing Sydney, NS. I was thinking about land, identity and labour while considering the way history gets formed and presented to the public. I sought to challenge the beauracratized and sanitized versions of history presented to the public in Cape Breton and instead present my personal memories of living with industrial debris alongside detritus of former industry collected on trips back to the island. My history was presented in the form of brief personal narratives displayed alongside a curated selection from my collection of industrial debris.
I "repaired" objects like the lobster trap and the chain. I also recreated objects from my collection in plaster, sometimes imbedding secret histories within them.
Scavengers (repaired lobster trap)
Louisa playground, our playground, was built on top of the tar ponds. Part of the big pond was filled in (with slag, I heard) to make room for the train yard and the north end’s recreational areas: Playground, tennis court, and ball field. When we’d build sand castles at the playground, digging the moat was always the best part, we didn’t even have to go to the swamp for a bucket of water to fill it in. Water would just rise up and fill the moat in all by itself. It was sort of magical.
The big kids told us that there was an octopus in the swamp that would grab kids when they were crossing the railway tie bridge, but that wasn’t true. One time, one of the Joyce boys (it was Ryan) waded into the black water of the swamp and cut his foot pretty badly. We were afraid that he was going to get sick because the water was so dirty, but he didn’t. Around that time, I learned in school that lobsters are scavengers and people used to fish for them in the harbour but had to stop because of the tar ponds flowing into the harbour water. I think it was just glass that got Ryan’s foot, though.
Ice at night (repaired chain)
The fire department came every year around the end of November to flood the tennis court. The neighbourhood kids loved to watch the firefighters, all done up in their gear, let the water rush out of their hoses, filling up the entire tennis court. There were never any nets there anyway, and we all loved to skate. All winter long we had our very own outdoor ice rink and we skated every day.
Mr. McQuarrie, our next door neighbour, also flooded his backyard every winter to make a rink for his grandsons. When they weren’t around we were allowed to skate there and we did so often, especially when the tennis court rink was being used for hockey. It was after dark one cold, still night while Lorraine and I were skating on Mr. McQuarrie’s rink that we saw the strangest thing. There was a man jogging (nobody jogged in our neighbourhood) up Des Barres Street, in what appeared to be peach coloured tights. As he got closer to us, by the light of the street lamp, we realized that there were no peach coloured tights. He wasn’t wearing any pants at all! We ducked down behind the hedges and rolled on the ice with laughter. Imagine jogging around at night, in winter, without any pants. Oh man, that was too much. He did another lap, and that was when Lorraine got scared. She figured he must be crazy. We snuck quietly through the backyards to Lorainne’s house where we told her dad, Larry, what we had seen.
Larry had been sitting around with a few buddies, having a few beers (he favoured Keith’s) when we burst into the house with our news. He was absolutely outraged by what we told him. I didn’t really understand why he was so mad, I still thought it was funny. Larry and his buddies rounded up baseball bats, hockey sticks, chains, tire irons, etc. and raged off into the night. I can still recall watching them storm up Des Barres Street like a posse of vigilantes.
It was better off for everyone that they never found him. He did come back, though.
Sudden death (railway spikes)
My second big bicycle accident happened after a heavy rainfall and with a different bike. It must have been early on in hurricane season because there were branches strewn all over the street. I was riding my Princess bike: pink and white with a banana seat, sissy bars, purple streamers, one purple handle break and a bell I won in a colouring contest. I believe that bell was the first thing I ever won, the second thing was a two dollar bill for guessing the correct number of jellybeans in a jar at school. Anyway, I was riding down the hill (York Street) by the Convent and I made a hard right onto George Street, saw a downed branch, hit the brake, skidded, collided with the branch and went flying. Once again no helmet. It was still the eighties after all.
I blacked out, as you tend to do when you hit your head hard. The next thing I remember I was being carried, bleeding in the arms of Greg MacDonald. He carried me directly home and delivered me to my parents, I don’t remember much else about it. I do remember, though, that in a rough neighbourhood in a tough town, I looked up to Glen as a protector and he came through for me. The North End kids tended to stick together, the big ones looking out for the littler ones.
Greg kept order in the neighbourhood. He was the undisputed top dog. He took care of his parents (drinkers) and his brothers and sister. Glen sold drugs, and not just hash like my friend’s parents, but real drugs.
After I left home for university, my friend Cindy told me that Greg had had an accident. He was playing chicken with a friend down at the train yard when he went through the windshield of his Mustang and was decapitated. He died instantly.
Gems like death (coal)
My grandparents always took us to Dominion Beach. I’m not sure if it was because they were fond of it or if it was because it was near the city, but of all the beautiful beaches on The Island, Dominion was their beach of choice. We’d pack a lunch (my grandmother favoured salami on rye with mustard, all ingredients from Ike’s Delicatessen on Charlotte Street, next to the Y), and we’d drive out in their white Pontiac with the bench seats to spend a few hours on sunny, warm days in summer. My brother, sister and I would play in the waves, and they would sit on the sand in low folding chairs and observe, or read thick, paperback romance novels, allowing the sun to warm their skin, wearing hats and sunglasses.
The beach is rather unremarkable: eroding cliffs, a sandy shore, a sunbleached boardwalk, but one feature of this particular beach stands out clearly in my mind as extraordinary: Coal dust. It shone on the shore in sparkling lines of black, mapping the rise and fall of the tide. It glinted in the surf and shimmered like jewels clinging to our skin when we would emerge from the waves. As children we found it enchanting, magical, otherworldly.
I don’t know what my grandparents thought about the coal dust. Perhaps they thought it was normal.
Smoke in the air (slag)
It had been raining the last time I saw Bobbie. In my mind it was August, maybe because of the lush humidity left by the afternoon rainfall, and the sun that followed and made the streets shine. The air was heavy and the entire neighbourhood smelled like smoke. Something was burning.
I was sitting on the veranda when I saw Bobbie go by. There was nothing unusual about seeing him walk by, he only lived down the street a few blocks and around the corner on Pleasant Street, but for some reason I remember what he was wearing. He had on rawhide moccasins, cut off jean shorts, his hair was dark brown, short on top, long and curling in the back, he had a mustache and he was smoking a cigarette. I don’t think he was wearing a shirt.
He walked by the house, just like any day. Fire trucks whizzed by shortly afterward with their sirens wailing. It wouldn’t be until later that day when the news would travel around the neighbourhood - Bobbie stabbed his girlfriend to death up in Ashby, then he went back to his house, set it on fire and lay down on the attic floor, waiting to die. When it took too long to die, Bobbie left. He walked away, just like any day, his house burning behind him.
Tow the line (repaired plaster driftwood)
Down by the old Robin Hood flour warehouse, between the yacht club and the government wharf, there was the foundation of an old house and the remnants of its garden gone to seed. Next to these there was a rope tied to the branch of a tree and if you grabbed ahold of it you could swing far out, in a wide arc, over the embankment, toward the red painted flour shed.
One day Christina and I went down to the rope swing and we were taking turns swinging out. This is when I got the great idea: We should find a big stick, stick it through the loop at the end of the rope and swing out together! We searched around, located a big, thick stick, threaded it through the loop on the end of the rope, each grabbed an end and swung out on the count of three. It was exhilarating, and we were moving really fast because of our combined weight. We were far out over the embankment when the stick broke. We went crashing to the ground, landing in a heap on the dirt. Christina landed on my stomach and knocked the wind out of me.
Johnny Markowski Sr. told me later that he watched the whole thing unfold, with a beer, on his Cape Islander (not at the yacht club, ha ha). He said he was laughing so hard at us because he couldn’t believe we were such a pair of idiots.
Christina maintains, to this day, that I landed on top of her. I know she’s wrong, though, because I was the heavier one.
On the downswing
It seemed like the jungle gym in our playground was always getting burned down. It was made of wood, basically telephone poles, and was meant to look like a ship. There was a captain’s wheel and everything. I actually don’t know who was setting it on fire all the time, although if I had put some thought into it at the time, I’m sure I could have figured it out. I don’t recall ever really caring, it happened so frequently that it seemed like a normal part of everyday life. We all just assumed it was some of the big kids who were doing it for whatever reason, or for no reason at all. It was all the same to us.
Every summer, the city sent counsellors to the playground every day. To make sure that we weren’t getting into too much trouble, I guess. I always got the feeling that Louisa Playground in the North End was the least desirable assignment to these counsellors, although they did sometimes give us Kool-Aid. It wasn’t until after the counsellors left, after 5pm, that we could really ever do anything fun.
After 5pm, some of the big kids, Greg MacDonald (everyone knew he was the toughest guy in Sydney!) and his friends, would come to the playground and they would lift the picnic table up onto the giant steel swingset. They’d loop a swing around diagonally opposite sides of the bench seats to get the thing balanced, and it became one gigantic swing. It was utterly ingenious. All of the kids would pile on the table top and the benches and the big kids would push it to get some momentum going until we were flying. That thing was so heavy that it could really pick up speed. Luckily the swing set was cemented into the ground.
After the big kids set up the swing and got us going, they’d leave and go to the Foundation (drinking). To keep the swing moving we had to take turns jumping off, giving it a few good pushes and then letting it scoop you back up on the downswing. It had to be carefully choreographed. One time, I hopped off to take my turn pushing and I got hit in the face by the swing. I ended up with a big shiner, but the worst part was that Lorraine told me she didn’t feel bad for me. She said it was my own fault and I shouldn’t have been pushing the swing.
I was so mad at her for that because I was just taking my turn.
Ghosts in the house
Ghosts in the House was created for an MFA Group show and was exhibited in November 2016 at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
This piece was the first I created in the style that would influence my MFA thesis exhibition. The narrative I wrote for this piece was also used in my thesis show Keeper of Industrial Memory.
Ghosts in the House was nominated for a Starfish Award in 2017.
Ghosts in the house (Floor tiles)
The road was crumbling at the end of DesBarres Street, just before the guardrail in front of Louisa Playground, and it made a kind of gravelly spot. That’s where I went over the handlebars of a bike for the first time. I wasn’t riding my own bike, my bike had brakes on the pedals. I had traded with a friend and her bike had handle brakes. DesBarres is the second steepest street in the North End, after Louisa Street. I went careening down DesBarres on the bike and just before I hit the cumbly part I squeezed on the brakes. I guess that only the front brake worked because I flew over the handlebars and skidded along the gravel on my face.
Or so I’m told. I blacked out when I made contact with the street. No helmet. It was the eighties.
I vaguely remember stirring for a few moments in Lorraine’s Grandmother, Enid’s house (she was missing a pinky finger!!!). I remember stirring again in the emergency room and I have a small memory of being in our red volvo with all of the body filler on it (loved the smell of that stuff). I can recall my mother’s sense of panic as a feeling.
My face was a wreck, and it was right before school started up again. I lost two teeth. I went down to that part of DesBarres, right in front of Lorraine’s house, frequently after the accident, looking for my teeth. I felt cheated - I could have really used the cash from the tooth fairy.
I still get nervous going down hills on my bike, and it’s been almost thirty years. I have scars on my face and all over the inside of my mouth from that accident. I still love the feeling of the wind on my face, but I’m too scared to let myself go. On a really hot day, catching that extra bit of breeze flying down a hill can feel like a gift, but I ride the brakes.
In July of 2016, I spent two weeks tucked away in the Cape Breton Highlands for an artist's residency. During my stay in Ingonish, the small village my mother was born in, I challenged myself to create a series of sculptural objects from detritus I found washed up on the beach. The primary industry in Ingonish is fishing, thus the debris I used to create these works were mainly remnants of the fishing industry.
My personal roots are deeply entrenched in labour in Cape Breton Island. Members of my family have been embedded in mining, farming and fishing this land and sea for generations. My grandfather, Albert Doyle, was an independent fisherman from a long string of fishermen from the Ingonish area. Albert operated a small fishing vessel most often manned only by him, but at other times manned by various members of the family. He fished lobster, cod and salmon from his small boat, called The Clyburn Mist when I was growing up. The tumult of boom and bust is a reality that has touched all Cape Bretoners residing in one industry towns that have lost their industry.
I am old enough to remember the moratorium on the cod and salmon fisheries in Cape Breton in 1992 - that word has always felt like a death to me. I can recall the appropriation of my grandfather’s cod and salmon license and his hanging up of nets after the groundfish industry in the Maritimes had been pillaged by Big Industry trawling the seafloor. My father worked for National Sea Products in Louisbourg and he lost his job around this time during a massive scaling back of the company.
Like all industry in Cape Breton, there is a difficult and tumultuous history attached to the fishing industry, an industry that now relies on hauls of, predominantly, lobster and crab to keep its people going. Fishing is an enormously laborious way of life that brings just as much joy and satisfaction to those who pursue it as it does sorrow and heartache.
I wish to acknowledge this history in the works I am presenting in Industrious I: Moratorium. The pieces in this small collection have been made from detritus washed ashore from current, or relatively current, fishing operations in the area. These works speak to the concept of labour in their often repetitive, labour intensive application of materials. They speak to the origin of their gathering, buried in the sand, unearthed by industrious beach combing efforts. They speak to financially strained, frugal domesticities and a culture of people who are well versed in using what they have and “making do”. They speak to the struggles between small independent fishermen, pulling up their living in a respectful, sustainable manner and Big Fishing’s environmental carnage; scraping the seafloor raw to pull up enormous hauls of groundfish before dumping back into the sea anything seen as not worth their while. They also speak to the weight of years that families over the Island have spent embracing this way of life, despite the hardships that have often accompanied it.
Ultimately, Industrious I: Moratorium, is a highly personal exploration of an industry, a place, and a culture that has played a large role in my personal history and which has had a large hand in shaping me as an individual and an artist.