Saved by Art: A Fishing Community Preserved Through Beauty and Culture

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Bridge Studio, one of six artists' studios that dot Newfoundland's stark Fogo Island and which have fostered a growing and evolving art culture on the island. Bent Rene Synneva photo

Artists have a way of thinking and being. They can make visible what is invisible to mere mortals.

And if there ever is a problem, call on them.

These are ideas Zita Cobb said she believes to her core — as not an artist herself, but a visionary nonetheless, who turned to them when she needed help.

They delivered, and helped her revitalize an entire Canadian island.

It is a story she will tell on Saturday night at Pierson High School — marking her inaugural visit to the East End — and one that began almost 60 years ago, when she was just a child, growing up off the coast of Newfoundland.

Zita Cobb

“I often say to people that I’m 59 years old and I’ve lived in three centuries. I mean, literally,” she said. “And I’m not a vampire. I’m definitely not a vampire.”

The first was the 19thcentury, lasting until a young Zita Cobb was 10 years old. The Fogo Island of her childhood was a remote, barren landscape dotted with weather-beaten clapboard houses and handmade wooden boats. They were a fishing people — aware of the world at large, but not a part of it.

She grew up in Joe Batt’s Arm as the only girl among six brothers in a house without electricity or running water. There were no land deeds, no bank accounts, or even money.

“My parents were pretty typical of their generation. They couldn’t read and write. And I don’t want to sound like I’m utterly nostalgic about all that, and we need to bring it all back, because it certainly had its challenges — the least of which, it wasn’t very pleasant when people got sick because they usually suffered and died,” Cobb said. “No dentists, no doctors.”

Despite the hardships — most notably a battle with tuberculosis at age 5 that locked her away in a sanatorium for a year — her childhood memories are, by and large, idyllic, she said. The island had an ecological embeddedness only seen in indigenous communities, she said, with a critical reliance on the sea.

“If you couldn’t figure how to extract the codfish out of the North Atlantic on a stormy day, you weren’t gonna do very well,” Cobb said. “Then when I was 10 — it started when I was 8 and collapsed when I was 10 — there came the industrialization of the fishery, which had started when the first fishing draggers were built in Scotland. They came to our shores and it took no time at all for the massive, massive industry of ship to take just about every last codfish out of the ocean.”

She sighed. “And so, overnight, all of the cultural knowledge we had accumulated over the 350 years we were here, was seemingly useless.”

This was the, albeit belated, turn of Fogo Island’s 20thcentury, and the beginning of their fight to stay afloat.

The Inn on Fogo Island. Courtesy of the Shorefast Foundation

“Fogo Island narrowly avoided resettlement when I was 10, in 1968, because of an intervention on behalf of the National Film Board of Canada — which is why I say, if you have a big problem to solve, which we did, you better invite the artists,” Cobb explained. “As a result, Fogo Islanders found a way to form a cooperative, which owns the fishing assets on this island to this day, so there isn’t some distant capital owner that’s making decisions about our fishery. That’s how the island hung on, and we still are a fishing community.”

But it was a fishing community that needed to evolve, and bring itself into the 21stcentury, Cobb realized. After building a career in high-tech telecommunications — she was once a top executive at JDS Uniphase — the multimillionaire returned to her hometown 10 years ago, and got to work.

Alongside two of her brothers, Anthony and Alan Cobb, they co-founded Shorefast, a charity that uses asset-based development to bring economic and cultural strength to their heritage, while complementing the fishery.

“I had this realization that we are living through a very brutal time in our human history, as it relates to any kind of understanding of the value of a human community — which are the essential building blocks of our lives, and we’re crushing them every single day everywhere,” she said.

“This little community hadn’t been crushed yet, but pressing economic realities were putting us under pressure. I could see we have all the assets in the world — we have everything, we have everything that matters — so I thought, ‘If I’ve learned anything out in the world and in business, surely to God I can do something for home that gives us a good chance at another 100 years.’”

At the center of the revitalization would be an engine of knowledge, the most valuable asset they have, Cobb explained. “The richest communities are the people who know the most about themselves, about nature, about their past, about the world, and trying to invest in all the human ways of knowing,” she said.

And it began with the artists, she explained.

The first stage was the Fogo Island Arts Corp., a collection of six artist studios on the island that help facilitate a contemporary art residency program. Designed by native Newfoundlander and Norway-based architect Todd Saunders, the studios led to an art gallery, international exhibitions and dialogues, as well as the second component: the modernist, 29-room Fogo Island Inn, fostering a sense of tourism that would allow visitors to see the art and experience the island.

“The design brief for the architect was very simple: You have to express in contemporary architecture what we have learned in 400 years of clinging to this rock. And it has to be made of wood, because that’s what we build with,” Cobb said. “So much of what we need to do better in, in the world, is making sure we don’t break the relationship between nature and people, because that’s what culture is. Being able to continue to make a living on the North Atlantic is where our knowledge comes from, our confidence comes from, our identities come from. And as long as we can create a viable economy here, that allows this culture and this way of knowing to carry on.”

The Long Studio. Bent Rene Synneva photo

Though hundreds of years have passed, Fogo Island looks very much the same on its surface. It is still a bald slab of rock ravaged by the North Atlantic. Its population still hovers under 3,000. And it is still a fishing community at its core.

But there has been a shift in its people’s collective thinking, Cobb said.

“I would say in the beginning, because we started with art, they did say, ‘I don’t really understand what contemporary art is and I certainly don’t know what it has to do with the price of fish,’” she said. “And now, in fact someone sent me a Christmas card last year — it’s my favorite card — and all he said was, ‘I now know what art has to do with the price of fish.’

“I think they understand that it’s about knowledge,” she continued. “It’s not about objects, it’s not about what they make, it about how they think, and this critical thinking,” she said. “I have to tell you, people who get on little boats and go out to sea to make a living, are people who think about the world from first principles, and that’s exactly what an artist does.”

“Zita Cobb: Film, Art & Fogo Island,” a talk about the intersection of art, film, culture, economics, sustainability and impact, will be held on Saturday, June 2, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Pierson High School auditorium, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. Admission is free, but reservations are required. For more information, please visit sagharborcinema.org. The event is co-sponsored by the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center and the Sag Harbor Partnership.

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