Nfld. & Labrador

Behind the scenes: How The Rooms created a history of Newfoundland and Labrador art

Future Possible: Newfoundland and Labrador Art from 1949 to the Present is an exhibit showing at The Rooms in St. John's.

A wide-ranging history of visual art in the province has never been attempted — until now

The completed Future Possible exhibit opened May 17 at The Rooms with 60 pieces spanning 70 years of Newfoundland and Labrador history. (Paul Daly)

Although the province has one of the highest per-capita ratios of artists in Canada, a wide-ranging history of Newfoundland and Labrador visual art has never been attempted — until now. 

Future Possible: Newfoundland and Labrador Art from 1949 to the Present, an exhibit showing at The Rooms in St. John's, gathers art works from the 70 years since Confederation. Part one of Future Possible, which showed in 2018, covered the years prior to 1949.

The project is led by Mireille Eagan, curator of contemporary art at The Rooms. She talks about creating history in an area that has gone largely unrecorded.

To curate the Future Possible exhibit for The Rooms, Mireille Eagan reviewed countless pieces of visual art produced in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Daly)

On compiling the story of Newfoundland and Labrador art:

"The realization that a comprehensive history did not exist was sparked when I was at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, and curated an exhibition about the 60th anniversary of Newfoundland and Labrador's confederation with Canada. It became a genuine desire as soon as I was hired here. I kept mentioning it to people who I thought should pursue it."

"The project became an obsession after I realized that there was no Wikipedia page about the art history of this province. So I wrote that article in my spare time. I drew upon any writing I could find, surveyed people on Facebook, and pulled from comments in the community and from colleagues."

"From that process, I realized that the format of Wikipedia was exactly how a history of should be approached, with consultation and collaboration.

"Future Possible has been in formal development since 2015. It is certainly the biggest project I have ever worked on. Luckily, I could work with a great community of professionals both inside and outside The Rooms. My name may be on the wall, but the exhibition was built by many people."

Curator Mireille Eagan (left) with a member of The Rooms staff, negotiating space in the gallery a few days before Future Possible opened to the public. (Paul Daly)

On choosing what to include from a long and varied history:

"The choices are rooted in years of planning and research. A large number of the works are pulled from The Rooms collections."

"Sometimes an object or potential commission ended up being taken out — we couldn't get the work here in time, or it was too delicate to ship, or it was being shown elsewhere, or the budget for a commission wasn't going to work, or a work needed to be conserved, and so on and so on."

"It was a constant juggling act, one that involved considerable meetings, emails, phone calls, working through logistics, and then adjusting the conversation in the space accordingly."

The Future Possible blueprint is a combined product of design software, spreadsheets, and numerous pencil and paper drawings. (Paul Daly)

On filling a big room with art:

"The exhibition saw several versions as different components came together. I worked primarily in SketchUp (a software program used for 3D design and layout) before we got in there. I also drew several versions on paper, spent considerable time in the vault looking through objects and making Excel spreadsheets, and pinned up printouts of works in my office to play with pairings."

Why is Joey Smallwood's chair in an art gallery? Jamie Fitzpatrick checked out a new exhibit at The Rooms which focuses on the art in this province since Confederation. 9:32

"In the space, we build, patch and paint after the previous show, work with commissioned artists to install their work, finalize the layout of the objects, make sure all the technology is in order, put up the vinyl lettering and labels, and light. In this case, we also brought in people to install the murals."

Opening an exhibit at The Rooms requires two weeks of patching, painting, layout, installation, labeling, and lighting. (Paul Daly)

On building an art show that appeals to experts and non-experts alike:

"No matter how much planning you do beforehand, something changes once you are able to get into the space. That's when you can consider how a visitor moves through the space."

"Ultimately, the goal is to tell as comprehensive and accessible a story as possible to many different types of people, from those who don't feel comfortable conversing with art, to those who have considerable visual literacy."

Marc Losier traveled from Corner Brook to install his piece, AUTOTXT, which prints a Twitter feed in real time, using the hashtags #future, #possible, and #futurepossible. (Paul Daly)

On the choice to place pieces way up high, way down low, or in-between:

"The intention was to talk about social hierarchy. The height difference speaks to class difference, but the height also plays off other aspects. Images that portray progress (the openings of Memorial University, Gander Airport, Confederation Building) are placed at the same level as a work by Emily Critch that reads TAKE CARE OF ME. It's a gentle reminder."

A draft of the text to accompany the 1962 Helen Parsons Shepherd painting Sunday Morning is affixed to the wall. The final text was applied directly to the wall. (Paul Daly)

On the upcoming publication of Future Possible, the book:

"Future Possible: Art of Newfoundland and Labrador will be approximately 250 pages, with about 150 visual art images from throughout the province's history, and essays by 17 notable authors from various backgrounds."  

"It will be launched in the fall. So, Future Possible will take on a new life in libraries, bookstores, bookshelves, and coffee tables. It will be argued with and built upon, as history should be."

The title of the exhibit comes from comedian and writer Andy Jones, who invented the tense “Future Possible, Possibly Horrible” to describe the mindset of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Daly)

On the inevitable trap that any attempt at history is incomplete:

"The thing is, Future Possible doesn't pretend to be definitive; it admits from the start that it is one version. The point is to create a space to question and explore how a history should look."

"History changes depending on who writes it. Cultural organizations are very much in the process of looking at how they describe histories, moving away from a central, authoritative method of describing the past."

"I have a sturdy ego, but I am not so obnoxious as to think that I could write a history of this place alone or definitively."

Future Possible: Newfoundland and Labrador Art from 1949 to the Present continues at The Rooms in St. John's until Sept. 22.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Jamie Fitzpatrick is a writer and broadcaster in St. John’s. His latest novel is The End of Music.