Thursday, June 9, 2016

Set in Stone

Looking over photos from a recent trip to Northumberland, England I am impressed with stones.   My folder of images is full of walls, forts, castles and churches, gravestones and milestones.  Solid stone endures and outlasts; whether fashioned into simple building blocks or elaborately carved pillars, this material serves as an open history book.

Haltwhistle, Northumberland is right in the center of Britain, and that's where my father's family originated.  I have traced Ridley ancestors back to medieval times, with knights, bishops, farmers, soldiers and tradesmen forming a long line in the border territory marked by Hadrian's wall.

Our May trip to Haltwhistle included a visit to the Roman site called Vindolanda.  Its name means "white expanse" a reference to the fact that this high location, surrounded by rolling hills, remained in shadow and was covered with snow for much of the winter.

Vindolanda was settled as a frontier fort as early as 85 AD
The excavations reveal at least 9 rebuilds on the site.

Rendering of the Roman bathhouse

Bathhouse stones
At the command of Emperor Hadrian, who visited Vindolanda in 122AD,  Roman legionnaires of the sixth Vitrix began building the wall that separated the wild, northern Pict clans from Roman territory.  Local stone quarried for the project was also used to turn the existing wooden fort at Vindolanda into a more permanent, solid settlement.  Masons constructed large military barracks, a granary, bathhouse, workshops, a temple, and a spacious residence for governor Platorius Nepos, the commanding officer.  These buildings were equipped with running water, in-floor heating and toilets.  
Volunteer guide Michael brought Roman times to life with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

A replica of a section of Hadrian's wall shows the actual scale of the project.

Hadrian's wall is a protected World Heritage site and a favourite route for hikers

Roman milestones measured the Stanegate road running from Carlisle to Corbridge
A replica of a Roman temple graces the garden
The museum building is Chesterholm, an 1832 cottage built by Anthony Hedley, first excavator of Vindolanda

Sculpture outside the museum
The museum at Vindolanda houses artifacts uncovered on the site, an amazing collection of leather shoes, coins, jewellery, glass, ceramics and human remains.  The successive groups of settlers at Vindolanda built one foundation on top of another, creating sealed chambers with excellent conservation conditions.  Garbage heaps became treasure troves for archaeologists, as objects trapped between layers of clay and stone were well-preserved.

There are wooden tablets bearing messages from one Roman to another.  Thin slices of birch, alder and oak were used like sheets of paper, written in ink and then folded in half with an address marked on the back.   The translated messages from the Vindolanda tablets convey personal details of life in the fort.  One example is this request for military direction and more liquid refreshment.  

Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings.  Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow.  Are we all to return to the standard or just half of us? .....(missing lines)....
My fellow soldiers have no beer.  Please order some to be sent.

Vindolanda is still an active archaeological site, excavated with a team working on stone foundations in the north field.  A survey shows a 3rd century vicus  yet to be uncovered, and below that level, Antonine workshops, a Roman kiln and the possible remains of a tavern.  The current work is being conducted by the Vindolanda Trust with support of a field school from the University of Western Ontario.  

For details about signing up as a volunteer excavator see the Vindolanda website.  

Walls of stone and flocks of sheep

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pancake brunch

A Sunday morning in April turned out to be a perfect day for a trip to Stilesville, just north of Moncton NB.  Visions United church was hosting a pancake brunch fundraiser, with local maple syrup as the highlight.

Visions United church

Buckwheat pancakes and sausages, a good old-fashioned breakfast

After brunch, a walk through the sugar bush

Trees are tapped and tubed
The trail leads to the Trite's sugar shack

Evaporator used for syrup reduction

The end product - NB pure maple syrup
For recipes using maple syrup, see the New Brunswick Maple Syrup Association website.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


As an art student attending Mt. Allison University in the 1950s, Mary Pratt was given some advice by university administrator Lawren Harris.  He told her there could be only one painter in a family, and that role was destined to be filled by Mary's husband, Christopher.

She was upset by this pronouncement though not deterred, and vowed to continue painting in the midst of domestic chores, raising four children and being a supportive wife to career-driven Christopher. Given the circumstances - a stay-at-home mother managing household tasks -  it is not surprising to learn that Mary Pratt's artistic oeuvre evolved from a set of slides, photographs showing arrangements of everyday objects in ordinary settings.  The kitchen counter and dining table became stages for the drama and beauty she found in the quotidian.   Photography was the tool that made it possible to preserve fleeting moments for later consideration in the studio.   

The Owens Art Gallery at Mt. Allison University is hosting an exhibition of Mary Pratt's paintings with one work from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada as the centerpiece.   "Red Currant Jelly" from 1972 is a small canvas painted in primary colours, featuring four bowls of jelly and a plate positioned on sheets of aluminum foil.  The reflective surface of the foil forms a complex shimmery web of blue sky highlights and dark maroon jelly shadows.  

Mary Pratt, "Red Currant Jelly" 1972, oil on masonite, 45.9 x 45.6 cm 
The hyperactive, busy section of the composition is contrasted with the blank slice of counter top shown in the lower left foreground.  There are conflicting elements at work in Pratt's work: wobbly liquid vs. solid surface, floating vs. resting.  It's a painting that encapsulates the jellymaker's main concern, "Will it set?"  On a philosophical level, it may suggest a precarious human condition: life is a risk-taking venture. with no guarantees that things will work out as planned.

Apparently husband Christopher didn't think much of the off-kilter, asymmetrical composition.  (Perhaps he had never tried his hand at making jelly.)  In the exhibition catalogue Mary records his critique.

"Usually Christopher and I didn't visit each other's studios - but for some reason, he did come to my space while I was working in the first stages of "Red Currant Jelly." He took one look, and said. "You'll never get away with that big yellow shape."  Always - always - I had followed his advice - but not this time. 
I didn't dismiss it right away, but after looking at the drawing and considering the slide, I knew that the painting required this calm, flat shape.  The oval tops of the jars and the plate served to establish a gentle perspective.  But the yellow added a more rigid notion of not just perspective, but the fact that the foil was raised and so there was the added suggestion that there was an underside to the whole image - even a floating sense - and that feeling that, if you put your finger under that little lift of foil, you might upset the jelly."

The jelly painting proved to be an important, pivotal piece in Mary Pratt's development as an artist.  It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1976 and marked the beginning of curatorial recognition of Mary Pratt as a significant Canadian artist.

 "Anyway, I didn't pay much attention to Christopher's advice - and probably this was the first time.  Maybe this little picture was my first small step to an independent life."   
- Mary Pratt, February 23, 2015

The exhibition "This Little Painting" continues at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, NB until May 22, 2016

Monday, February 29, 2016

Language and a closed door

A newspaper article (Moncton Times & Transcript January 16) outlining the distribution of 1500 Syrian refugees in NB included the following statement:

" House leader and Beausejour MP Dominic LeBlanc told Brunswick News earlier this week that his government is committed to increasing the number of immigrants in New Brunswick, while respecting the province's linguistic makeup.  
'We don't want to dilute the presence of French-speaking (New) Brunswickers by including a whole series of immigration streams that over time have the effect of diluting it,' the MP said."

I was shocked to read that French communities in NB are not accepting Syrian refugees; the current stream of "dilution" is being directed to predominantly English-speaking areas.  This policy reflects a level of cultural protectionism completely out of character for Acadians who are not and never have been an exclusive club allowing only French members.  Naomi E.S. Griffiths, author of "The Contexts of Acadian History 1686-1784" points out that unions with non-French immigrants were common in early Acadian settlements and these relationships helped to strengthen their society.
"To deal with kinship ties first: family relationships within and among the Acadian communities made a close net of interconnections.  It was a net, not a solid piece of cloth.  Before exile, as afterwards, Acadians showed a considerable ability to absorb newcomers into their community.   ...even in older settled Acadian parishes of Annapolis, Minas and Beaubassin, newcomers accounted for a significant percentage of marriage partners."  

A recent government survey of the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada revealed a few facts that should be taken into consideration in determining suitable settlement locations:

  1.  They are younger than expected, with 55% 14 years of age or less
  2. They have bigger families, with 53% numbering 5-8 members
  3. They have minimal education.  Syrians average 6-9 years, while 95% of those from Jordan have not finished high school.  Many children are a year or two behind their peers in school.  
  4. Adult males are mostly unskilled, with little or no work experience. 
  5. They are generally healthy. 
  6. They speak little French or English, with 67% speaking neither language.  

Clearly the settlement of refugees is not a language issue, or a question of preserving cultural homogeneity, but a humanitarian crisis requiring the provision of safe haven for a displaced group.  It's not a new situation, or an insurmountable challenge.

In the village of Cap-Pele a large number of temporary foreign workers (mostly English-speaking) are employed in the fish processing plants.  The workers are not encouraged to become citizens and settle here, in fact the government grants them a four year work permit in Canada and then they are required to return to their countries of origin: the Philippines, Mexico and Jamaica.  They have to wait another four years before re-applying for work in Canada.

 Last year, a shortage of workers forced one NB processing plant to discard 1360 kilograms of  perfectly good, edible lobster.  The local post office bulletin board is plastered with ads seeking employees, no experience required, for entry level positions paying $11 - $13 per hour with bonuses for extra work.  It's not a prestigious or cushy job, but it might be a starting point for an unskilled refugee seeking a paycheque to support his family.

The government could gradually phase out the temporary foreign worker program and offer the vacant fish processing jobs to incoming Syrian refugees.  Language training in French or English could be part of the employers' incentive package.

If any group should be able to sympathize with the plight of refugees, it is the Acadian population whose ancestors were displaced and relocated due to ethnic and religious persecution.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Close to the heart

"Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
         Is so much of the past."                                    

from "The Past"   
- Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Joanna Close has created a textile tribute to the past in the form of nine hooked rugs depicting scenes from her family farm, a once profitable, now demolished property acquired by her ancestors in 1858 and handed down to successive generations until 2011.  Showing at the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, N.B. until the end of February, the series documents the modest architecture and interior furnishings of a place that no longer exists, except in memory and faded photographs.

Joanna Close "Gram's House"  2012

Joanna Close "The Barn"  2012

Joanna Close "The Kitchen Stove" 2015
 The interior image of the kitchen stove is particularly strong, as it seems to conjure up the intimacy of a well-used domestic space and even its smell, a blend of wood smoke, bacon fat and basement damp that permeates many an old farmhouse.   The use of black and white helps to define the elements of the composition and suggests a link to the work of Edouard Vuillard, a painter known for his evocative interiors.

Installation view, "Documenting the Farm" by Joanna Close
Joanna Close studied textiles at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, and went on to earn her Master of Arts degree in Textile and Fibre Art at the Winchester School of Art in the U.K. in 2006.  She is a weaver and illustrator, and teaches at NSCAD University in the Textiles department.  Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Canada, the U.K. and China.  You can see more of her textiles and illustrations by visiting her website.

Entrance, Owens Art Gallery, Mt. Allison University, Sackville NB

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eel

 "The Interpreter of Silences" by Jean McNeil is a novel set in a small coastal village in Cape Breton.  The story is full of eels, a fish that serves as a metaphor for the life of central character Eve.  From the opening paragraph of the book eels are featured, en masse, swimming in a migratory pattern that takes them from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea to the shores of Nova Scotia and back again.

"For months they are only scraps of transparent gelatinous flesh, no bigger than a thumbnail.  They float, thickening, until they resemble tiny chevrons.  By the time they reach the island they have lengthened and look like thin hairs dotted on the ends with two tiny black eyes.  This is the first of several mutations: throughout their lives they will change colour and shape several times, even the composition of their blood."  

"They will arrive and leave at night, entering the island's salt lakes through a bight, wrung in the currents that swirl around the stanchions of the Seal Island Bridge.  They taste the sudden drop in salinity and know they are home.  Although they have never seen this before, there is also something familiar about the single halogen light and the two concrete fingers pointing into the lake in a V, the coal-black water, the shattered hulk of a ruined ferry."

"She is standing on the shore beside the ferry with her father.  He is pointing southeast, in the direction of the Sargasso Sea.  She is twelve years old and her father is explaining that the eels will return there to die.  In his voice is the rough note of satisfaction produced by inevitable truths.  Less than you might imagine separates him or her from these creatures, he says; like them we will return to the nowhere from which we came.  There we will start again.  We are on a loop, he tells her.  Time is repeating itself endlessly, we are repeating ourselves." 

Continuity - eels are a good representative for that. It's not only their snake-like shape suggesting the image of Ouroboros, or the perfect circle of a life cycle made up of instinctive departure and return.   It's tradition in our household;  no New Year's eve celebration would be complete without smoked eel on the table.

My husband Robert has fond memories of "gerookte paling" served on slices of rye bread in his native home, the Netherlands.  The custom is shared by many European countries and seems appropriate fare for a night that heralds the end of the old calendar year, and the beginning of the new.  Perhaps the custom derives from Christian iconography.   After restoration of the work, art historians confirmed that a plate of eel is depicted on the table in Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper."

Leonardo da Vinci, "Last Supper" detail of plate with sliced eel

In the pioneer days of New Brunswick, eels provided a nutritious year-round food for Mi'kmaq and Acadians.  August to November was prime time for downstream runs of mature eels to the ocean, and spring brought the small elvers upriver.  During the winter months, eels could be harvested through the ice with a rake-like spear that pulled the fish from the muddy river bottom.   Mi'kmaq performed a ritual at the end of January called "grandfather feeding" or "apuknajit." By leaving eel heads and skins on a tree stump, natives offered gratitude to their ancestors for helping them to survive the harshest part of winter.

Tonight we'll eat eel for the last supper of the year and give thanks for our survival.  The loop continues...
Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Grave Matters

Across from the church in Cap-Pele lies the Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, a park-like setting where a central tree-lined pathway leads to a monumental calvary.   This is the final resting place for many Acadians whose lives relate directly to the history of the village; pioneers, priests, fishermen, farmers and their relatives.  The surnames etched on stone markers are as familiar to those who live in the community today as they were to residents of the region in 1842, when a plot of land was ceded to the Catholic church by the Leblanc and Cormier families for use as a graveyard.  Situated in the heart of Acadie,  it's a significant historic resource and a sacred place.

Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, Cap-Pele

The NB government has a register of historic places, and this cemetery is listed in their files.  The notes supporting historic designation of the site mention the graves of prominent local figures, the unique symbolism and style of certain gravestones and the variety of mature trees.

In November, when I took a walk through the cemetery to honour the Day of the Dead,  I was shocked to find that many of the old tombstones were freshly painted.  Coats of white paint topped with flashes of garish colour had transformed the character of the cemetery from historic landmark to Disney-esque stage set.  How had this happened?

A well-meaning but misguided village resident had decided to "spruce up" the cemetery during the summer months.  She sought and was granted permission for the project from the church caretaker, received a donation of enamel paint from the hardware store and recruited a team of volunteers to help out.  Unfortunately, she neglected to do any research regarding acceptable methodology for tombstone restoration.  Any conservator would have advised her to put away the scrub and paint brushes and leave well enough alone.   Minimal intervention is often the best approach.

The professional restoration experts emphasize that stone needs to breathe and should not be sealed with paint or epoxy.  Treatments that seal the stone actually promote deterioration, as moisture laden with minerals and salts migrates to the surface and cannot escape.  Eventually the stone becomes structurally weakened and collapses.  "Surface failure" is the term used to describe an irreparable, crumbling mess.

What took place in the local cemetery is tantamount to vandalism, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that permanent damage was done - unwittingly, to be sure - by a group that had no business even attempting the task.  Indeed, the initiative of the amateur painter was applauded by church and community and received media coverage on CTV Atlantic.   

The Canadian designation of historic places does not go far enough to legally protect important spots from inappropriate alteration or demolition.  The general standards for preservation, rehabilitation and restoration listed on the Historic Places website start with a basic rule of thumb:  

"1. Conserve the heritage value of a place.  Do not remove or substantially alter its intact or repairable character-defining elements. "

A "before" photo from November, 2013