The schooners and sealers and mummers in David Blackwood's etchings illuminate New-foundland history, but also shine beyond.
I have a very strong feeling I've been around 150 years," says artist David Blackwood. Born in 1941 into a seafaring family in the strict, hard-working Methodist outport of Wesleyville, on Newfoundland's northeast coast, David Lloyd Blackwood came into the world at the junction of two distinct ages in Newfoundland history. "I experienced things that a lot of young Newfoundlanders have no idea existed," he says.
"In the community where I was born, the harbour is completely empty now. Yet when I was 10 years old it had schooners, a busy harbourfront with wharves and warehouses and forges and sail makers."
As the recipient of both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, and the subject of an Academy-Award-nominated documentary, Blackwood established himself long ago as a major Canadian artist. Early in his career, he created one of the longest thematically linked series of prints in Canadian history by telling the story-in 50 etchings-of The Lost Party, when 252 sealers died in two separate but simultaneous disasters in 1914. His work is included in permanent collections in The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, in St. John's, and the National Gallery, in Ottawa. It has also been the subject of popular exhibitions in Japan and Russia, and is permanently displayed in the National Gallery of Australia and the prestigious Uffizi in Florence, Italy, rubbing shoulders with Botticelli's Birth of Venus as well as works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Michelangelo.
Which begs the question: Why is a Canadian printmaker and painter, whose work is almost exclusively concerned with a small corner of pre-Confederation Newfoundland, held in such high, international esteem? The answer may have something to do with just how narrowly Blackwood focuses his view.
David Blackwood lives in Port Hope, Ont, his adopted home since he left Newfoundland in 1959 to study. For inspiration, he relies on stories and memories of a small place in a time long passed. "The work I've done is very focused on one small area, basically Cape Freels up to Bragg's Island," he says. "It was a world, a city-state."
As a boy growing up in Wesleyville, Blackwood drew and painted the storied faces he saw around him. Ever resourceful and always driven, the young Blackwood fashioned his own canvases from bedsheets swiped off his mother's clothesline. As William Gough tells it in his biographical book, David Blackwood: Master Printmaker, David's father blamed the disappearances on the neighbour's goat.
Later, David was able to talk his father into letting him set up a studio in his grandmother's abandoned general store. He painted every day there, and displayed his work in the window for the people of Wesleyville to see, sometimes to their great dismay. He recalls the time the vengeful brother of one of his subjects kicked down the door of the studio and threatened to destroy his brother's likeness. Blackwood apparently chased him from the premises with a shotgun.
Although Blackwood continued to draw and paint, it was with etching and printmaking-learned at the Ontario College of Art, in Toronto-that he truly discovered his medium. Printmaking is a complicated process by which etchings on copper plates are inked and printed on paper.
Blackwood remembers his childhood home in the colours that dominate his prints: "all shades of grey and black and white." A glimmer of colour sometimes appears in his work, usually in the form of fire-a ship ablaze on the sea, a church engulfed by flame and surrounded by mourners, the blast from a gun barrel.
Of course, fire often signals danger.
"It was the only thing Newfoundlanders were afraid of," Blackwood says. "They could put up with the wind, they could put up with the ice, they could put up with storms, but fire…."
Occasionally the use of colour indicates hope or defiance: a torch on an ice flow offsetting disaster, a rising sun signalling a new day dawning, the red flower on a mummer's hat-fleeting beauty in a hostile, unforgiving landscape.
Blackwood's characters sometimes persist in what seems like an eternal winter, everything but their faces buried in layers of dark clothing. Great crowds in long coats, hats, two-fingered mitts and boots congregate around a burning church, huddle adrift on ice flows and bid anxious farewells on wharves.
Both his grandfather and his father commanded ships "down on the Labrador." His father often took David on voyages there aboard the family schooner, Flora S. Nickerson.
"I remember the experience vividly," writes Blackwood on his website. "It is a landscape both mysterious and starkly simple-a region of tremendous, even surreal, contrasts of atmosphere, light and character. Its strange, bleak beauty carries an undercurrent of danger, an undefined threat which seems to lurk just below the surface. Moving through it, men and their ships are dwarfed by mountains of ice and by the immensity of the forces of nature that shaped them. One gets a sense that powers as old as Creation move through this watery dreamscape, and that the whales who spectacularly breach and sound into its black depths are somehow an embodiment of this sublime power."
At times, the sublime power at work in Blackwood's art can be gentle and mystical. Whether it's a bouquet of flowers glowing next to a window or the village viewed from the perspective of an airborne kite, there is sometimes a subdued joy in Wesleyville. Mummers crossing winter ice wear veils trailing skyward. There's a sense of an inner life, an inner light. Spirits and mirages appear to lost sealers; visions, dreams and messengers visit the doomed; a halo shrouds the head of a dying captain.
"This is one thing I can attribute to the Methodists," Blackwood says. "The word 'light' appeared in their songs and on their headstones. It was a big factor. There's a famous hymn, 'Lead Kindly Light.'"
A light particular to Bonavista Bay illuminates Blackwood's world. "It's a very peculiar, strange atmosphere. There's always some kind of incredible movement in the sky. It's full of spirits."
Whether gentle or dangerous, the presence of this sublime power in Blackwood's work raises it above the everyday. The schooners and sealers, wharves and villages, mummers and mourners in his etchings of Wesleyville are identifiably of Newfoundland history, but it's a history populated with figures of mythic proportion. Giant whales swimming beneath burning ships next to glowing icebergs imply immense, indifferent forces. Veiled and solemn mummers float like visitors from the greatest of human mysteries. The characters and stories in Blackwood's art are lifted from the cold waters and slippery decks, transcending time and place.