Keeping it real

Realist Artists of Newfoundland and Labrador unveil major exhibition after years of preparation

Published on June 18, 2014
Capt. James Cook — who based his survey operations in Burin for five years — is part of the inspiration behind a major group exhibition  “They Way We Were.” featuring worksa by 34 artists recreating life in Burin and the surrounding area, from the 1600s up to the 1950s. — Submitted image/Painting by Mary Dunphy

The members of the Realist Artists of Newfoundland and Labrador are particularly excited about their upcoming exhibit, and so they should be. Five long years in the making, the major project has meant not only working putting brush to canvas, but plenty of interviews and archival research, too.

It’s been a veritable labour of love — emphasis on the labour — and they’re excited to see it up and running.

Consisting of 40 paintings by 34 artists, the group will officially unveil “They Way We Were” to the public at the Burin Exhibition Hall Saturday morning.

Announced in 2010 but started a year earlier, the exhibit features mainly acrylics, several watercolours and one mixed-media piece, recreating life in Burin and the surrounding area, from the 1600s up to the 1950s.

“During our travels around, we were painting places like Fogo and Trinity, but Burin just had all the history and scenery,” said RANL executive director Larry Mahoney.

Burin is believed to have been a port for Basques fisherman in the 1650s, and, according to information obtained from the provincial archives, was used as a safe anchoring point by the British Navy. The first record of permanent settlement was around 1710, and in the 1920s, Burin was the largest settlement on the Burin Peninsula.

Navigator and cartographer Capt. James Cook, who spent five summers mapping the coasts of the province, had his headquarters in Burin; a lookout in the community bears his name.

With a rich and vast history, there was only one place the artists could start: Wayne Hollett, local historian.

“He has collected anything and everything on Burin from as far back as possible. An incredible amount of work that we would have had to do — if we could have done it — was already done. He was an incredible find,” explained artist Ed Roche, one of RANL’s founders.

The artists pored over photographs and documents of life in Burin, divided up the subject matter (no easy task when there’s almost three dozen of you), and created their artwork from concepts featuring everything from Captain Cook’s travels to family life to fishing. Many of RANL’s members are full-time artists, but many are not, and they each completed their work for the Burin exhibits here and there, in between their own private projects.

It’s not the first time the group has decided to take on a historical project. A few years ago they put together a collection of paintings of local life called “Newfoundland and Labrador: Through the Centuries,” recreating the hardship of early settlement, fishing and other themes.

Historical paintings are one of Mahoney’s fortés, and he has previously painted scenes of old St. John’s. In 2011, Parks Canada purchased one of Mahoney’s pieces, depicting a canteen, store and military barracks on Signal Hill circa 1840, which he had created through lining up documentation with the remains of structures still found on Signal Hill.

“The theme, for me, is showing what the place was like 150 years ago; bringing people back there, said Mahoney, who has one piece in the Burin exhibit, called “Jersey Room/Paul’s Hill.”

Roche has three pieces in the Burin show, and a portfolio that includes paintings of many Newfoundland outports. He’s known in particular for a similar project he did himself in the Exploits area.

“One thing I found out very early was there was very little artwork done in Newfoundland in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s,” he explained. “Lots of ships came out and artists could sketch and bring the sketches back to the old countries, but a lot didn’t survive. So much about a given area is found through the artforms of the people that came before, like we know in Rome, for example. Sometimes written word can’t give physical descriptions as well.

“This (type of project) prevents a lot of communities from being lost to history, and also prevents a way of life from being lost to history.”

“The Way We Were” will run at the Burin Exhibition Hall (formerly St. Patrick’s School) all summer.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury