Celebrating the 'Island Maid'

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Over two summers, in 1990 and 1991, photographer (now city councillor) Sheilagh O'Leary and interviewer Rhonda Pelley drove throughout Newfoundland, speaking with women in rural communities about their lives.

"We did a women's studies course (Women's Studies 2000) taught by Roberta Buchanan and another woman at the university and the course kind of focused on women's stories," O'Leary said. The course sparked the idea for the pair's travels, in what became known as the "Island Maid" project.

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Over two summers, in 1990 and 1991, photographer (now city councillor) Sheilagh O'Leary and interviewer Rhonda Pelley drove throughout Newfoundland, speaking with women in rural communities about their lives.

"We did a women's studies course (Women's Studies 2000) taught by Roberta Buchanan and another woman at the university and the course kind of focused on women's stories," O'Leary said. The course sparked the idea for the pair's travels, in what became known as the "Island Maid" project.

Now a new book featuring those travels, "Island Maid: Voices of Outport Women," has been released by Breakwater Books.

The book includes the collected women's stories recorded by Pelley and images captured by O'Leary over their summers spent in a Rent-a-Wreck van and pup tent.

Pelley used a tape recorder to record her conversations with the 11 featured women - mainly older women, she said, only two of whom are still alive today.

The women of "Island Maid" are Olive Blundon, Beulah Oake, Bessie Hurley, Flora Whitt, Minnie White, Sarah Benoit, Viola Payne, Phyllis O'Leary, Beatrice Sibley, Annie Dollimount and Vivian Cluett.

"One of the things that's amazing about them all is how tough they were," Pelley said, reflecting on the life stories that included everything from building up roads with buckets of gravel to acting as midwives to sitting on a town council.

She and O'Leary both noted the women's strength and independence.

"The women were all very strong by the nature of the lives that they led and the environment where they were raised," O'Leary said. "They really were like the foundation in their communities."

While documenting life in outport Newfoundland, "Island Maid" also captures important perspectives on a key period in modern Newfoundland history.

"We were actually in Ramea when the fishplant closed there," O'Leary recalled.

In Ramea, island maid Vivian Cluett spoke about little outside of the fishery as it had been and how the cod moratorium was then affecting her community.

"If we had to, we wouldn't know where to move," Cluett said in her interview. "We had our wedding supper in the house we live in now and all five of our children were born here. They all grew up here and they all want to come back."

O'Leary's images of Cluett and others - including cover maid Sarah Benoit - are page-beside-page with landscapes and waterfront shots.

"I always used manual cameras," O'Leary said. "I processed along the way. I brought along my film developing equipment."

"Island Maid" is the second book featuring O'Leary's photography, the first being "Human Natured: Newfoundland Nudes."

O'Leary and Pelley's complete "Island Maid" project was completed with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council and the St. John's City Arts Jury. It resulted in an exhibition of photos and stories at the LSPU Hall gallery before being collected and published in its most recent form.

The book "Island Maid: Voices of Outport Women" will celebrate its launch with special guests tonight at Bianca's (171 Water St.) from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada Council for the Arts, Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Ramea, St. John's

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  • Allison
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    It is nice to see people recording the lives of NL women . They were and are strong, amazing women. This is a wonderful way to pay tribute to a way of life, that us younger generation have no concept of. Thank You and my young daughter will someday thank you as well.

  • Allison
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    It is nice to see people recording the lives of NL women . They were and are strong, amazing women. This is a wonderful way to pay tribute to a way of life, that us younger generation have no concept of. Thank You and my young daughter will someday thank you as well.