Fogo on fire

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Finging new ways with old things

The Tower Studio in Shoal Bay. — Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

First in a three-part series —

On the Shoal Bay shoreline, a striking charcoal tower is rising from the rocks and lichen. Flanked by scaffolding, the modern architecture catches the eyes of Route 334 travellers and holds them hostage until a bend in the road commands their attention.

The building has prompted many questions.

So have other contemporary structures scattered around Fogo Island, including the five-star inn under construction a few miles away.

For those unfamiliar with the buildings’ back story, the burning query is: “Why Fogo Island?”

If you ask Zita Cobb, she’d likely counter with the question: “Why not Fogo Island?”

Sitting in an e-cinema built in partnership with the National Film Board, Cobb beams a PowerPoint presentation onto the screen and provides insight into what’s happening.

Her own story is well-known. She grew up on the island, in Joe Batt’s Arm. After moving away and making millions in high-tech, she returned and realized the traditional way of life was under threat.

To preserve it and make it prosper, she and younger brother Tony Cobb started the Shorefast Foundation.

The registered charity is using social entrepreneurship — solving a social problem through business-minded ways — to try to create lasting prosperity and continued existence, on an island named after the Portuguese word for fire, “fuego.”

Using a slide to illustrate, Cobb explains the foundation’s name: “A shorefast is a tether that joins a cod trap to the shore. The point of all of our work is, ‘May we always be shorefast here in this place.’ ”

To generate cultural and economic resilience, the Cobbs and others took stock of Fogo’s fortunes — including an abundance of berries, local crafts and a rich storytelling tradition.

What was missing, they found, was a demand for all the archipelago had to offer.

They decided to build a five-star inn and start an artist residency program. (Look for more on the multimillion-dollar Fogo Island Inn in The Weekend Telegram Saturday. The Fogo Island Arts Corporation, which runs the residency program among other things, will be featured Monday.)

Cobb envisions the inn as an economic engine that pumps all profits back into the community. She sees the arts programming as a creative engine that fires up crafty people who’ve always built practically everything they’ve needed.

“(We’re) hoping the commerce from the inn and the influence of the creativity will help unleash the innovation that’s innate in us,” she says.

If there was a tag line for what Shorefast is doing, Cobb continues, it’s finding new ways with old things.

The modern architecture springing up around the island is marrying past and present quite well.

To make that happen, Cobb tracked down Gander-born architect Todd Saunders in Norway to design the inn and the studios that’ll be used by visiting artists, including the charcoal building in Shoal Bay called The Tower Studio.

Saunders, who has lived in Norway since 1996, didn’t think the idea of building on Fogo Island was off the wall.

“No, not at all. I thought it was a great idea,” he says, admitting his opinion might have been different if he wasn’t involved in experimental projects around the world.

While in Norway to meet Saunders, Cobb was introduced to a woman running an artist residency program there.

Cobb says she knew she had to get Elisabet Gunnarsdottir to Fogo Island.

Sure enough, she succeeded in getting the Icelandic woman to relocate and run the arts corporation.

Gunnarsdottir sees immense value in the work.

“We bring artists into the communities and give them the chance, this precious possibility of meeting people. They would never ever get a chance to meet a fisherman from here ... who have this knowledge of when the waves come from this side and meet the waves from this side, and the special conditions you should never go out in. All those little things that open up a whole universe for you.

“We have to help them meet these people and we have to tell the local people, ‘Don’t be afraid. Tell them everything. Talk about the things you know.’

“This is our main objective. Anybody can go to New York. Anyone can go hang around in bars and diners and jazz clubs. ... But people don’t always have a chance to meet people in a place like this one. It’s unique, completely unique, and it’s going to give unique results, I know it.”

A few short years after those and other key hires were made, the inn is under construction in Barr’d Islands. One studio was completed last year and the finishing touches are being put on three more that’ll open next month.

Besides the inn and the arts initiatives, Shorefast administers a $1-million business fund established by Dr. Jozef Straus, a Canadian businessman and Cobb’s former boss.

As well, the foundation is involved with community projects such as a partridgeberry festival and the Great Fogo Island Punt Race, which recently won a Manning Award for presenting history in an original way.

For Shorefast to be successful, Cobb says its endeavours must benefit those who visit as tourists or artists, as well as the people of Fogo Island.

Asked if she’s met with much local resistance, she suggests that’s too strong a word.

“But skepticism. Oh my goodness, skeptics are everywhere. ‘Who’s going to come to Fogo Island in the middle of February?’ You know how often I’ve heard that? Or, ‘Who’s going to come to Fogo Island at all?’”

But Cobb says she hasn’t encountered an islander who’s been out and out opposed to Shorefast’s endeavours, “and I get opinions quite a bit.”

She’s been encouraged by the number of Fogo Islanders who have applied for the jobs that are being generated, particularly the people who are living away and want to come home.

“That’s pretty nice,” she says.

The mayor of Fogo Island gives Shorefast’s efforts a big thumbs-up.

Gerard Foley says the town is pleased to have such an organization contributing to economic growth, long-term substantiality and cultural preservation.

“We look forward to working together and complementing our efforts to (having) a stronger and brighter future for Fogo Island,” he writes in an email.

Cobb feels Shorefast has remained true to its vision. But even though things are progressing, she doesn’t feel a sense of accomplishment yet.

“I only see what’s left to be done,” Cobb says.

“I am (pleased). My gut tells me we’re on the right path. We don’t have all the answers, but I think we have the right processes and the right people, the right attitudes.”

Twitter: bartlett_steve

Related stories, page A4

Organizations: National Film Board, PowerPoint, Fogo Island Inn Fogo Island Arts

Geographic location: Fogo Island, Shoal Bay, Norway Gander New York Barr Fogo Island.Asked

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Recent comments

  • sharon
    December 15, 2012 - 19:40

    i think it is awesome what you are doing Ms.cobb! I live in winnipeg man. i have a friend on fogo lsland that i talk with regularly and i find the story very uplifting and encouraging, It takes courage to have a dream and live that dream out. Good for you! Hope to visit the Island one day.

  • Chris Porter
    May 25, 2011 - 01:06

    it's newfoundland and labrador ain't it.... but i call it newfoundland. or the rock.

  • JP
    May 09, 2011 - 16:59

    I totally agree with DP and so does TP. Anyone who is not from the town of Fogo takes offence when we are referred to as living on Fogo! I am from FOGO ISLAND, Not Fogo! and for those of you who do not know, there are 11 communities on FOGO ISLAND, one being Fogo. Do you call Change Islands, Change? Or Bell Island, Bell. No, because that is not their proper names so why call Fogo Island Fogo? Like DP said, journalism is about presenting the facts and the facts are not present in the Headline of this article. I also agree with Jason, each building she has sticks out like a sore thumb. I also have a question for the people to consider, what do you think happened to the building being built in the community of Seldom-Little Seldom, which is now on-hold?

  • Jonathan
    May 08, 2011 - 08:39

    I grew up in Fogo and clearly understand the animosity towards the incorrect use of Fogo vs Fogo Island. But consider it no difference than the mispronunciation of 'Newfoundland'. It’s a common mistake. Non-Fogo-Islanders will rarely get it right without friendly correction. It’s the same abroad. I would suggest we remain tolerant rather than aggressive. DP/BN/CECE: Your negative comments fuel negativity. I would suggest using your full name for future posts, hoping that you might tone it down a bit. I commend and support Ms. Cobb and those working with her. Ms. Cobb decided to invest locally rather than in guaranteed investments, i.e. oil. Their project requires rapid change and this is something Fogo Islanders are not accustomed to. Please give them the chance to complete their work, trusting that they have the best intentions for the island and its people. Only by working together can we continue to grow as a community.

  • Jerry Broaders
    May 07, 2011 - 11:22


  • Jason
    May 07, 2011 - 11:13

    I am in favour of protecting our Fogo Island heritage and even highlighting and promoting it to the tourist sector and applaude Zita for doing so. I do, however, take offense to the obscene structures she has started erecting around the island. Nothing ruins the beautiful landscape of our beloved island like huge "charcoal" buildings. The inn being built in Joe Batt's Arm, not Barr'd Islands, stands out like a sore thumb. What once was a beautiful place over looking the ocean for the local population as now become an eyesore of financial gain. A more suitable location could have been selected and all the 'artsey folk' could have easily still gained all the 'culture' they initially came to the Island to get.

  • jennie keefe
    May 06, 2011 - 22:01

    Fogo IS the Portuguese word for fire; fuego is the Spanish word for fire... please get that right!

  • cece
    May 06, 2011 - 17:12

    I agree with DP, it is 2011, there are more communtities on the Island other than Fogo and to continue to call it Fogo is an insult to the these other great communities. The structure in the pic is not in the town of Fogo, the story is not just about the town of Fogo, therefore the article has a mistake in it. The towns are now ammagalated so it is the town of FOGO ISLAND, it's not rocket science. This is just a case of bad journalism, once again, from the Evening Telegram. It's why I don't buy it.

  • BN
    May 06, 2011 - 13:19

    It is an ugly structure and does not compliment its surroundings. Who cares!?!

  • Nic
    May 06, 2011 - 11:59

    More great news for Fogo Island! DP - get over it and get your priorities straight.

  • DP
    May 06, 2011 - 11:56

    High Horse - that's laughable! Thanks for enforcing the issue and my point Haliey. It's that attitude that makes these issues even more important to resolve. Journalism is supposed to be accurate and factual. I am guessing you like vagueness and preferential treatment?

  • Brad
    May 06, 2011 - 10:59

    Good for Ms. Cobb, people need to do something themselves to preserve the outport way of life as the government doesn't have the insight or the interest to try to help. They'd rather see everyone resettle to St. John's and be done with the outports. we have a unique lifestyle and culture that needs to live on and tourists eat this stuff up and spend billions to see such things. Our insightful government though is blinded by the quick buck made by industry, and is busy tearing up our environment and in turn ruining what this place is all about.

  • haliey comerly
    May 06, 2011 - 10:23

    Hey DP, get off your high horse. Nobody cares to hear your corrections.

  • DP
    May 06, 2011 - 08:33

    It's not Fogo, it's Fogo Island. it's unbelievable and unacceptable that in 2011, the media continues to misrepresent the 11 communities and the people of this Island with the reference as 'Fogo'. It's Fogo Island.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    May 06, 2011 - 08:08

    Congratulations to Ms. Cobb for not only having the vision, but for having the drive to make her vision a reality. Hope all goes well for both Ms. Cobb and the people of Fogo Island (also a great example for the government and the rest of NL).

    • mary donegan
      May 10, 2011 - 20:28

      My husband and I drove all the way from Maryland in the USA to Cape Breton in August 2007. We took the ferry to Cornerbrook, explored Gros Morne Park, Tableland Mtn and Twillingate and then took the ferry to Fogo Island. I made the trip as I was born in Carrick-on -Suir in Ireland and heard that a man from my home town was buried there. We received a warm welcome from the people of Tilting, stayed at Foley's bed and breakfast and were delighted to meet many of the local people, including Rosemarie Burke with whom I am still in contact.. We were very impressed with the beautiful scenery,the vernacular architecture and the friendliness of the people. I would certainly like to come back to visit. I think we could find plenty to do for a week on the island. On Vancouver Island is The Wickanninish Inn. It is not easily accessible, but it is a very popular destination for those seeking a unique relaxing vacation. I think Fogo Island could develop a similiar facility. It is truly a one of a kind place