Blackwood’s touchstone

In three exhibits opening in St. John’s this weekend, David Blackwood looks into the province’s past, and his own

Tara Bradbury
Published on June 8, 2012

David Blackwood’s inspirations have always been clear; his name synonymous with iconic images of life and death in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

For the first time, Blackwood is giving the people of this province a glimpse into the life and muses behind his work, with what is his most personal, private exhibition to date.

Blackwood is in St. John’s this weekend for the opening of three shows of his work: two at The Rooms and one at the Emma Butler Gallery.

The Wesleyville native is one of the country’s leading printmakers and most popular artists, known for the distinctive etchings he uses to tell stories of Newfoundland and Labrador. He uses the limited, mostly grey-blue palate and fine hand required of copper etching to produce visual narratives of scenes on the land and water, of life and of misfortune.

“Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland,” opening at The Rooms Saturday, is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it exhibited last spring. Some of Blackwood’s best-known etchings — 1971’s “Great Lost Party Adrift,” 1979’s “Lone Mummer Inside” and centrepiece “Fire Down on the Labrador,” from 1980 — will be on display alongside related historical artifacts and archival material from Blackwood’s own collection. There’s a painting that once hung in Blackwood’s family kitchen when he was a child, several of his childhood artworks, books that have influenced him, and a shed door he says has inspired more than 100 works, including etchings, drawings, and paintings.

“The exhibition in Toronto was so excellent, we were trying to keep everything together. A few things are missing, but it has been supplemented from the collection of the museum. For example, we had a gun in Toronto that’s been substituted with a very similar gun in St. John’s,” said Blackwood, who lives in Port Hope, Ont. but keeps a studio in Wesleyville.

He hesitated when asked if he felt comfortable with having his personal items on display.

“Well, it’s OK,” he said. “We were a little bit shocked when we saw some of the letters and things in Toronto, but everyone seems to have enjoyed that aspect, which, of course, shows a very personal thing, whether you like it or not.”

Also opening at The Rooms Saturday is “Back in the Day: David Blackwood’s Newfoundland and Labrador.” Last June, Blackwood spent a week at The Rooms, poring through artifacts, archival records and examples of his artwork, choosing items of particular relevance to his pieces. The exhibit, co-curated by Blackwood, contextualizes his art.

“There were some wonderful things in the museum collection, like the big model of the Imogene,” Blackwood said. “In Toronto there was a smaller model, and when I saw the builders’ model in the museum collection, I thought my God, there’s no substitute for that.”

The sealing vessel S.S. Imogene was captained by Blackwood’s grandfather, and is depicted in his 1973 piece “S.S. Imogene Leaving for the Icefields.” That etching, as well as the ship’s bell and flag, which were rescued when the vessel hit a sandbank and sank, are on display in the exhibition.

Blackwood said his art grows not only out of artifacts and items, but memory.

“It has nothing to do with choosing — I was just there and it was part of my life,” he explained. “I was drawing and painting in kindergarten and I was encouraged all the way along, so it was a natural development and I was very fortunate that I was surrounded by all of this incredible stuff. It was a very, very rich atmosphere — the stuff of literature and art.

“It’s part of the legacy of every Newfoundlander, what they’re going to be seeing (at The Rooms), whether it’s the prints that deal with aspects of the cod fishery and sealing and things that were a part of my childhood and upbringing or the artifacts.”

Most Newfoundlanders will be able to relate to the work and items on display, and the exhibits might hold a particular importance for a younger generation, for whom the images and items might seem a little more remote.

“All this stuff is fading, you see, and so an exhibition like this is a bit of a touchstone for younger people,” Blackwood explained.

Saturday afternoon from 2-5 p.m., Blackwood will open “Blackwood,” an exhibit of a different type of work at the Emma Butler Gallery on George Street West. It has material you won’t find at The Rooms, including several paintings, which are rare for Blackwood.

The show isn’t entirely removed from The Rooms exhibits, however, in that they are also quite personal, containing a number of preliminary studies and pieces showing the work process. These are recent pieces, drawings, watercolours and oil paintings, completed in the last few years, and they’re a nice contrast to Blackwood’s etchings.

“They’re completely different,” Blackwood said. “I’m constantly exploring and exploration is a very important factor. I’m into working in ceramics and sculpture; I’m not bound by the etchings that most people seem to be familiar with.

“An artist has to develop, he has to grow, he has to think, and he has to move. If you’re bound by one thing, it’s a disaster.”

“Black Ice: David Blackwood Prints of Newfoundland” will run at The Rooms until Sept. 9, while “Back in the Day: David Blackwood’s Newfoundland and Labrador” will be on view until the spring of 2013.

“Blackwood” runs at the Emma Butler Gallery to June 30.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury