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