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Mixing it up on Fogo Island

Two weeks ago, after planning for five years to return to Fogo Island, I set foot at long last on that very special island. I visited Fogo for the first time as a child in 1954 and periodically since, most recently in 2008. At that time I wrote of our arrival on the ferry: “The voyage lasted less than an hour, but arriving at the terminal near Stag Harbour we knew we were entering a very special place. Fogo, an island off the coast of an island, off the coast of a continent. Not in the mainstream. Thriving though, not in spite of being outside the mainstream, but because of it.” That last sentence is truer today than it was then. Because they are islanders the people of Fogo Island realized when they first came ashore on their rock at the outer edge of Hamilton Sound: if we want to make it here we have to take matters into our own hands.

They did so when Joey tried to resettle them. They did so when they formed the Fogo Island Co-op and they are doing so today with the establishment of the Shorefast Foundation.

Everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador by now has heard the name Zita Cobb and has some idea that it is she who created the Shorefast Foundation. But you must go to Fogo Island to truly understand what an amazing phenomenon is taking place there.

I was expecting, from the trickles of information reaching me, to see several artists' studios and a large Inn. I was unprepared for the thoroughgoing originality and brilliant execution of those buildings. They took me back to the exciting idealism of my days as a student at the UBC School of Architecture, circa 1972.

But brilliant though they are, it is not the structures alone that so inspire me.

What does, is recognizing that the built environment, as with an iceberg, is only the visible tip. What lies below is much bigger. I can see that the buildings themselves are simply tangible tools to carry out the larger strategy. By returning to the first principles of outport life — inventiveness, handmade execution, and excellence of workmanship — Shorefast is brewing a kind of twenty-first century alchemy. The ingredients of design genius and artisanal participation are being melded to produce an optimism and healthy vigour among an entire population.

Everything about the Fogo Island Inn starting with the building itself and including every stick of furniture within it was commissioned after a worldwide design search.

While the designs may have emerged from the fertile imaginations of people far away, they are carried out using almost all Fogo Island materials and built by Fogo Island residents. The Inn itself was designed by Todd Saunders, a world-renowned architect, based in Bergen, Norway, born and raised in Gander. The chairs in the Inn’s 29 rooms, all built on Fogo Island, will be offered for sale worldwide with the potential to spawn an ongoing manufacturing centre staffed by island people.

The impact of the global economy has often meant that people in small places are unable to keep their heads above water when products from away flood their home marketplace.

Zita Cobb and the Shorefast Foundation believe that need not be so. They believe that globalism means the ability for every place, however remote, to make use of what is at hand nearby, in human and material terms and at the same time have access to the planet both importing and exporting in a way that makes sense to the local community. It is what I would call intelligent globalism. It is a different kind of chemistry.

A chemistry that affects not only the residents of Fogo Island who, themselves or through friends and family, are participating in the creative exercise taking place on their island. It affects every bit as importantly, visitors from away by demonstrating that there is a better approach to developing a sustainable, inclusive society.

I spoke about every stick of furniture earlier. The photos of the Fogo Island Inn show what many believe is a large concrete and glass hotel. Not so. It is entirely made of wood. Island wood, either from Fogo Island or elsewhere in Newfoundland. This material can be harvested, shaped and fashioned here, thus making work for people who live alongside. If we choose to do so. And Shorefast has made that choice.

That choice extends beyond the benefit to humans and encompasses the entire environment. The Inn collects rainwater for use in flushing toilets etc., sparing the municipal water. Though only newly finished, there is not any of the post construction mess that inevitably takes time to clean up. The site is entirely tidy. All wires are underground and every blade of grass appears to have been untouched. The environment looks as it did a thousand years ago. It is as though this giant building has been lowered gently to the ground by some magical crane.

The artist’s studios are entirely self-sufficient. Their electricity is created by solar panels. They are equipped with composting toilets. Water comes from wells and heating is by wood which is also available from the woodstove in each of the 29 rooms in the Inn.

One of my favourite photos from my visit was of the artist’s studio in Shoal Bay. In the middle is the three-storey studio, shaped something like a rocket, pointing upward to the sky.

On one side of the studio is the photovoltaic panel for collecting solar energy. On the other is a woodhorse for sawing off junks for the stove. Common sense can make strange neighbours.

As I was standing beneath the end of the Inn, cantilevered on a series of posts, some of them leaning slightly this way and that, I understood where that design idea had come from. It was probably inspired by the childhood memory of a young girl playing underneath a fish flake in Joe Batt’s Arm. When she grew up, like so many others, she moved away to get work. When she came home the flakes were gone, though she remembered them well. With her she brought a whole crowd of new ideas. She decided to mix them up.

That young girl was Zita Cobb.

—  Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following:

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