When Abbie Whiffen’s young granddaughter asked her, ‘Grandma, how did you ever grow up without a computer?’ she likely had no idea she was about to become the inspiration for not only a literary composition, but an historical work of art.
Whiffen (nee Ellis) grew up in Caplin Cove, Trinity Bay. She left as a young woman for Bonavista, where she taught school, married and had a family, and remained until her death last summer at age 84.
Local actor, author and comedian Andy Jones and his family bought a home in Caplin Cove in the 1980s, and learned a few years ago that it was the very home in which Whiffen had grown up.
“She knew we had the house and she called me up and said she had written something, and was wondering if I’d be interested in this little story about her growing up in that house,” Jones said.
Whiffen had written a response to her granddaughter’s question in the form of a 35-page essay entitled, Growing Up, Up in Cove. In it, she details life in the community between the 1920s and the 1960s, giving little anecdotes about playing, farming, going to school, being quarantined due to typhoid fever, and living with her sisters and brother in a family engaged in the salt fishery.
“A fair-sized brook ran through the cove and at a certain spot just before it entered the sea it was just right for wading and swimming,” Whiffen wrote.
“We would swim in the fresh water then walk under a bridge (long gone) then swim in the salt water and when we went back to the fresh it felt ever so warm. The boys would be on one side of the swimming hole, the girls on the other side, with hollows among the rocks providing change rooms. A lot of the boys wouldn’t have trunks — they would put one hand in a certain spot and quickly jump into the water. Needless to say, we never told our mothers. Several of the harbour children would join us and some times our cousins from St. John’s would be there in their pretty dresses and their parents with fancy cameras.”
Jones became friends with Whiffen, whom he says was a lively lady with a great sense of humour, and in 2006, he had the idea to use her memoirs to create an art piece for a project at The Rooms. Using three 10-foot-long pieces of spruce, he made a table, on which he transcribed Whiffen’s entire essay by hand in columns, in the style of a medieval illumination. He then invited about 50 other people — Whiffen’s family members and friends as well as amateur and professional artists — to illustrate the “book.”
“The artists go from Abbie’s little grandson to Gerry Squires,” Jones explained. “(Abbie) mentions all the flowers that were in their garden, and somebody drew every one of those flowers in among the capital letters at the beginning of sections. There are pictures of all the fish she mentions they ate. Things like that.”
The piece, called “The Abbie Table Project,” was displayed at The Rooms, and Whiffen herself saw it and read from it during the exhibit’s opening reception.
“She loves it and she loved the fact that we were getting it out into the world,” Jones said.
The project was never completed, but last year, Jones proposed what the Eastern Edge Art Gallery calls “a wonderful idea” to serve a month at the gallery as its first artist-in-residence, finishing the piece.
Jones will also be taking part it a number of gallery events over the next month as part of his residency, including a public celebration of art’s birthday — a day recognizing the role of the arts — from noon-5 p.m. Sunday; a reading from Whiffen’s memoirs at 8 p.m. Jan. 20; and a performance based on the Abbie Table Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. The public is welcome to come watch Jones and the other project participants illuminating the table on Feb. 3 and Feb 10 from noon-5 p.m.
“Michelle (Bush, gallery director) had wanted to do an artist-in-residence for a long time, and make it a regular thing, and when Andy proposed finishing this project, it was the perfect opportunity to start it,” said Graham Blair, the gallery’s director of communications and outreach.
“It’s also perfect because it’s
got specific Newfoundland and Labrador content, which is something we rarely see at the gallery. It’s visual, it’s performance and it’s literary — it’s a nice kind of project to have here.”
Jones feels Whiffen’s words are important to record and share, since they are a part of our provincial history. He’s hoping the Abbie Table will eventually be returned to the Caplin Cove/Hant’s Harbour area, perhaps in a local museum.
“Her story is the Newfoundland story, in a way. It’s everyone’s story; it’s just her particular house and it’s sort of from a fisherman’s point of view,” he said.
“This is just one Newfoundland story of survival in the Newfoundland salt fishery.”