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Gaspésie Portraits: Art Imitating Life

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--August 5, 2013.

The “Birthplace of Canada” as we understand it today is a living legacy of breathtaking coastlines with rugged cliffs and azure blue seas, of towering forests dwindling into the Appalachian mountainscapes, weathered by time. The historic peninsula which intertwined its spirit with the great Mi’kmaq people and captivated some of the first European explorers continues to enrapture those who set foot on its shores, and the lure of the landscape has forged a long-lasting tradition of artists, musicians, and poets who have left their mark. Gaspésie’s rich culture is one which pays reverence to the past while celebrating the present and future, opening centres like Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer, on the Baie des Chaleurs. Providing an inclusive venue where artists can challenge new forms and give a voice to their work, it is reflective of a rising community of talented craftspeople who have made Gaspésie their personal and creative home.

Historical Roots

The earliest art of the Gaspé Peninsula dates back to the time when the Mi’kmaq lived across much of the land – the Mi’kma’kik. Semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Mi’kmaq developed a spiritual tradition evocative of their relationship with the sea and the forest which manifested into a rich folklore illuminated by art, dance, and oral poetry/music. Wood-carved totems painted with pigments from earth and clay, etched stones, and treated hide composed vivid images of Mi’kmaq spirit animals like the moose, deer, and beaver encompassing their winter diet; summer filled with imagery of salmon and other marine life. The Mi’kmaq adapted their architecture to meet the essential needs of their lifestyle, using local resources (spruce saplings, birch bark, hides) to construct durable yet easily-assembled wikuoms.

After the Mi’kmaq, Gaspésie’s beauty – while briefly recorded in the journals of early European settlers – is left in a relative dark age where the visual arts are concerned. “The Sun Sets Percé Rock Gaspé, Quebec 1861-1867” by William Bradford is among a few works to herald later periods, a romantic seascape of the distinctive landmark, while Ogden M Pleissner’s “On the Gaspé” draws on the camaraderie of three fishermen who are enjoying their trip at dusk. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century when American photographer Paul Strand used his lens to capture the lifestyle of Gaspésie residents where the inseparable scenery and its people were revealed in their most powerfully honest light.

Gaspé through the Aperture

Strand’s black and white work portrays a very still and rugged storyscape. Rustic villages settled into the rolling and jagged coastlines before a calm sea suggest a stillness, a life which has hardship but is resiliently accepted. The occupied gaze of the “Fisherman, Gaspé, 1936” reveals activity while the fisherman himself is static, and his framing by a darkened background, wooden post and mesh suggest containment, a deliberate boundary to the outer world which is so often the character of insular villages. His Village, Gaspé is among a series of shots which are akin to a ghost town – no movement, but enveloped in an almost eerie sense of peace. They are haunting accounts of a life which has not altered much since the early days of the European settlers; similar to the Mi’kmaq before them, life depended on living off the land from which their main industries in fishing and agriculture flourished. Though wildly beautiful, the harsh nature of sweltering summers and frigid winters would have taken their toll on the people, and Strand’s work illustrates this beautifully while allowing the landscape to reveal its vastness.

Emerging Artists

Since Strand, Gaspésie has seen a variety of artists flourish. Turning from the still and stationary to the vivid and energetic, the spirit of the region has been embraced by all mediums. The vibrantly coloured works of early to mid-20th century artists Rita Mount and Dutch-born Tunis Ponsen resonate a lively and blissful coastal life, slightly impressionistic in style and capturing a more “holiday-like” sentiment. The late 20th and early 21st century works by Marcel Gagnon – who stunned the world with his mysterious sculptures, carven ghosts surveying the shores – continue to reinforce the identity of the Gaspésie resident, whose spiritual and ancestral past is tied to the land and shore.