Seen by the Water: Marlene Creates and Fogo Island
by Anna Kovler
For Marlene Creates, the landscape is not simply something we look at and represent. It is also something that looks back at us. That her exhibition takes place on Fogo Island in Newfoundland makes this reciprocal looking even more emphatic. It is nearly impossible to exert one’s will over nature here, even in the imagination. As a glacially formed island, Fogo exerts a presence that humbles the most self-assured visitor. Here an ancient metamorphic rock-bed meets gusting winds, low shrubs, countless ponds, arctic drift ice, and acres of undeveloped Crown land.
Walking into the Fogo Island Gallery we see large photographs of a particular spot on Creates’ Newfoundland property at different times of the year, snapshots of wild animals at the same location, and self-portraits taken by the artist with a camera submerged underwater in the river that flows through her forest. Looking up through the river, Creates’ face appears warped and wonky, melting into the trees behind her, morphed by the effect of water on the camera’s lens. As the water sees it, a woman is not much different than the trees, sky, and landscape of which she is a part.
Belonging to the land, even when it’s harsh, is a sense that runs deep through Fogo Island’s mythology. From songs describing the near-death trials of fishers and sealers to more recent struggles to revive a community hit hard by the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992, the commitment to living on Fogo, like the rocks that reign here, is monumental. The Fogo Island Inn – a white, angular modern structure the size of a ship – houses the Fogo Island Gallery and was designed by Newfoundland architect Todd Saunders and staffed by local residents. Founded by Zita Cobb, who was born on the island, the Inn belongs to a wider resilience initiative that includes an artist residency, lending fund for small businesses, heritage building preservation, and a furniture business.
Seeing a place remotely through photographs has never been easier, but what people who live on or visit Fogo want is to be seen by it. Creates captures this desire when she plunges her camera down into the frigid water season after season, blurring her own image and distinct identity in the process. This is a landscape people learned to fit into rather than re-make or mould. But it is not all tumultuous storms and rock sheets here. As the icebergs melt and crack in the summer heat, a constant gentle breeze sways the blueberry bushes and wildflowers, and the doors on the colorful clapboard houses creak.
Marlene Creates, “To The Blast Hole Pond River” is on view at the Fogo Island Gallery from May 18- October 15, 2017. Curated by Alexandra McIntosh and Nicolaus Schafhausen.