New book chronicles lighthouse story ‘for the children’
Les Noseworthy had never seen anything like it. Perched atop the sheer granite cliffs of Belle Isle, under rich blue skies, the midday sun poured onto his canvas where a sketch was taking shape of the South West Light Station.
A colour plate of the Southwest Light Station on Belle Isle.
A breeze ruffled against his back and the pencil flicked in all directions. His aging muse, built in 1858 but decommissioned in 2001, sat silently revelling in the calm conditions — something it was not familiar with.
Consumed by his project, Noseworthy didn’t notice Canadian Coast Guard helicopter pilot Bob Dunn approach him.
“We won’t be getting off the Isle today,” he told Noseworthy, who inquired if there was a problem with the chopper.
“No, it’s the weather.”
It was a response Noseworthy hadn’t been expecting. From where he was standing, looking towards Labrador, the skies were blue and the ocean was calm.
But the pilot directed his attention south, towards Newfoundland.
“It was like a door closing,” Noseworthy recalled of the incident several years back.
“There was this bank of fog. Black fog just rolling in at such a rate it shocked me. It was speeding up on us like nothing I had seen. Bob said that in the time it would take to fire up the helicopter and get airborne, it would be that thick we wouldn’t know which way were going.”
Instead of risking their lives, Noseworthy and the pilots stayed, camping out in one of the houses with former lighthouse keepers Emily and Randy Campbell, who happened to be there as well.
“They gave us food and shelter and told us stories about their time on Belle Isle,” he said.
“It is an experience worth a million dollars, something you get the chance to do once in a lifetime.”
Noseworthy travelled back and forth to Belle Isle several times more recently as part of his project to sketch both of the lighthouses on the 15-kilometre rock for the book “Sentinels of the Strait,” a project which saw him partner with Canadian Coast Guard Newfoundland Region Alumni Association.
The official launch of the book will be held Aug. 18 aboard the 83-metre Canada Coast Guard service vessel, the George R. Pearkes.
The next day, Noseworthy will have an official book signing ceremony between 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. at the Grenfell Heritage Interpretation Centre.
“We could have launched the book in St. John’s or Corner Brook, but I really wanted it to be as close as possible to the Straits, which is whey we chose St. Anthony,” he said.
“The area up there is spectacular, it has a beauty of its own, so I am looking forward to coming up there.”
The book contains between 70 and 80 sketches of both lighthouses on Belle Isle, the northeast and southwest towers, as well as other structures on the island. Thanks to Wade Kearly, who took the written material and forged it into a readable historical narrative, it weaves a wonderful tale about the history of the monoliths.
“It was a pleasure and a privilege to go out there and document them before they are lost forever,” he said.
“It’s an artist’s dream and a wonderfully humbling experience.”
And while lighthouse aficionados will undoubtedly love the book, the real beneficiaries will be the next generation of children.
“The children of Newfoundland and Labrador may never, unless they are very lucky, get the chance to see that place,” he said.
“I really wanted to document these historically important structures for the children before they fell to ruin.”
It wasn’t an easy task, either — weather conditions on the rock were far from gentle.
“You are up there, hundreds of feet from the ocean on a piece of granite that doesn’t have a lot of trees,” he said.
“I had to tie my easel down to an old piece of steel just so it wouldn’t fly away.
“There was one day that I had the canvas ripped straight from my arms and over the hill. It’s probably halfway to England.”
This is not the first project Noseworthy and the alumni have teamed up on.
In 2001 they released their first book, “Let There Be Light,” featuring 75 of Noseworthy’s paintings of Newfoundland lighthouses accumulated over 12 years.
“It all started when my wife Glenys and I visited Point Riche lighthouse (near Port aux Choix) one year. The next year we returned and it had been vandalized, the keeper’s dwelling had burnt and all that was left was the tower,” he said.
“From that point on I pledged that I would paint every lighthouse in Newfoundland to ensure they are remembered.”
His vow led to a meeting in Florida 15 years ago with former Canadian Coast Guard director general Lorne Humpries who, upon discovering what Noseworthy was up to, pledged his own support to the task allowing access to topography and plot plans.
Three years later, Noseworthy offered his work to the alumni, granting them a role as permanent custodians of his art as long as it remained on display at Cape Spear Lighthouse.
And there it has remained ever since.
Current alumni president Ed Matthews said up to 5,000 tourists each season visit the art studio that houses Noseworthy’s works.
“With the first book we printed 1,000 and at last count we had sold 7,000 copies with all the money going back into the community,” Matthews said.
Of the 1,500 copies of “Sentinels of the Straits” printed thus far, 315 have been donated to schools in Newfoundland.
The Northern Pen