Spending three months alone in a resettled community has led ceramicist Michael Flaherty to create a haunting, exquisite look at parts of our province’s history.
In 2009, Flaherty spent three months in the now-abandoned community of French Cove, on the Grey Islands, off the Northern Peninsula. He was there to execute a conceptual art project, based on the book “The Grey Islands” by John Steffler, creating an inside-out kiln and firing the entire island, in a conceptual sense.
During his time in solitude, Flaherty developed a fascination with the remnants of pottery, gravestones, dwellings, and caribou antlers he found.
“I got really interested in the history and the whole issue of rural resettlement in Newfoundland and how that still is going on,” Flaherty explained.
According to MUN’s Maritime History archive, 307 Newfoundland communities were resettled between 1946 and 1975, affecting more than 28,000 people. Flaherty decided to focus on this resettlement — and the resettlement of animals — with his “Rangifer Sapiens” solo show, exhibiting until Sunday at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador gallery on Duckworth Street in St. John’s.
Thinking of resettlement as an end is a very anthropocentric view, Flaherty explained.
“My idea was that we think of resettled places as being abandoned, but they’re not really abandoned, they’re just taken over by nature,” Flaherty, currently living in Corner Brook, said. “I think the Grey Islands is a really good example of that, because there actually was no caribou herd there when the people were living there. The animals really inherited the place from us.”
“Rangifer Sapiens” is a collection of porcelain pieces representing the natural with the artificial. Flaherty has fused fragments of teacups and other useful pottery with handmade caribou antlers. The pottery shapes he has painted to resemble mottled, weathered, decomposing antlers; the antlers are decorated in traditional floral pottery designs, or landscapes he imagined on the Grey Islands.
Making the antlers was a particular challenge, Flaherty said.
“Clay doesn’t like to be treated that way, where it’s really long and thin like that. It can be very delicate and it’s not a normal shape to make with clay,” he said.
“(For the teacups) I’d make the piece on the wheel like I would a normal piece of pottery, put the handle on it, and then when I was at the right stage, I would carefully cut it apart so I could get the shape that I wanted but also make it look like a broken fragment.”
Flaherty chose to go with a predominantly blue and white classic pottery surface. The more decorative, floral patterns and borders are also taken from historical pottery for the most part, predominantly Chinese.
“A lot of the pieces I found on the Grey Islands didn’t have much on them in the way of patterns; a lot of them were more simple and utilitarian than they were precious or showy objects. A lot of them that did have patterns on them were worn away. I found a lot of them on the beach and in the ocean, and they had certainly been there for at least 50 years, probably a lot more than that.”
Flaherty hung some of the porcelain pieces on metal hooks — some of them homemade — on weathered wood with wallpaper, in an effort to reflect on Newfoundland architecture. The rest are displayed horizontally and almost haphazardly, evoking a sense of having been found there.
“I made the pieces to be seductive and beautiful objects and I hope that people find them such,” Flaherty said. “I also made them to be evocative of an historical feeling or connection to our local culture and our past, although not anything too specific.”
Flaherty received a diploma in visual arts from the College of the North Atlantic in 1998, and went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts (ceramics) from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and his master of fine arts (ceramics) from the University of Regina. He was a semi-finalist for the prestigious Sobey Arts Award in 2011, and a finalist for Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador’s Large Year Award in 2010, and his work has been exhibited across Canada and in the United States. He works as a sculpture technician at MUN’s Grenfell Campus.
“Rangifer Sapiens” will be shown at the craft council gallery until Sunday. It will be shown in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in August.
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