Fogo on fire

Finging new ways with old things

Published on May 6, 2011
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.”

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Twitter: bartlett_steve

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