Nfld. & Labrador

Searching for home: How this woman's photography project became a struggle with identity

Melissa Tremblett's striking photographs on display at Grenfell Art Gallery tell a larger story about trying to find her place in the world.

Melissa Tremblett's photographs part of show at Grenfell Art Gallery

Melissa Tremblett was an artist-in-residence at North West River in the summer of 2014. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

When Melissa Tremblett sees her photographs gracing the back wall of the Grenfell Art Gallery in Corner Brook, she goes quiet.

"It's a very weird feeling," she says, after one of those long pauses where you can almost see a person's brain churning to fit words to an inner turmoil. 

The black and white photographs transport Tremblett back in time, to a version of herself from four years ago.

They also transport her to different places, particularly to the parts of Labrador where she is rooted. 

In the midst of a bachelor of fine arts degree at Grenfell Campus, she seized upon the opportunity to take part in the North West River artist-in-residency program, with a plan to create art in her home community of Sheshatshiu.

The Innu community is both her home — and yet not home. 

A community she left at three years old, when her father took a job in Gander. A community she returned to for summer holidays. A community she describes as feeling a "disconnect" with.

A migration that left her for years, feeling in limbo about her identity.

"Not feeling like I belonged in Newfoundland. Like, I was almost too Indian for Newfoundland. And then, I'd go home and I was almost too white for Sheshatshiu. So I always struggled with feeling like I didn't belong anywhere," she said.

A struggle she reckoned with through the lens of her camera, in the summer of 2014.

All of Tremblett's photographs in the show are untitled. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Feeling like a stranger in her hometown

Tremblett arrived at her artist residency full of energy and optimism, planning a photo project based in Sheshatshiu. But her first few days were marked by closed doors and community members skirting her gaze. She spent much of her time wandering, her only company the weight of her equipment.

I was almost too Indian for Newfoundland. And then, I'd go home and I was almost too white for Sheshatshiu.- Melissa Tremblett

"I was hoping that people would, for some reason, automatically know who I was. And then getting there and feeling completely isolated — it was challenging," she said.

"For them to see this stranger, walking around the community with a backpack, a tripod and two cameras around my neck, that was very isolating in a way. Because people are generally on guard when a stranger comes into their community with cameras and they don't know who they are."

Tremblett's summer vacations in Sheshatshiu were spent with close family members like her grandmother, but still, she had hoped for more from the community.

"I always knew I belonged from Sheshatshiu. I'm a Labradorian, I'm an Innu woman," Tremblett said.

A detail from one of Tremblett's photographs. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Her pictures in the gallery echo isolation. Small remnants of human life, enlarged: a butterfly sticker on a broken window, Canadian flag hockey tape wrapped around a discarded water bottle-turned-bong.

"I love black and white. I love how it expresses the subject, how it really focuses [the eye]," said Tremblett, pointing to a photograph of a child's bicycle being reclaimed by marsh grass. A landscape she'd seen for years, but now in her long hours to herself had time to truly consider.

"To be able to kind of look at it and just see the grass, see how nature has just grown around it, I found that that was beautiful. It was kind of sad, but beautiful, so being able to actually slow down, walk around, take time, look at everything — that was a beautiful thing."

'Amazed' by what kids accomplished

Just as some people shied away from the stranger and her cameras, the unusual sight in the small community brought out a youthful curiosity. Soon enough, Tremblett had a young girl trailing behind her, asking to take a picture. That one girl multiplied into a small mob.

"'OK, this is something,'" Tremblett recalled thinking. "So, I let them follow me around, I let them take pictures."

Tremblett sought permission from the children's parents, and then set them free with a digital camera to interpret and examine their own sense of home.

Their results surprised her.

"When I put all the photos in their own files, I was amazed by the beauty of each child, how they saw things," she said.

The colour photographs captured by the children feature lots of small slices of their lives in Sheshatshiu. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Tremblett compiled the photographs into books by each child. In the gallery, visitors can flip through them, their pages filled with colour photographs that burst with life and people in a startling contrast to the stillness and contemplation of Tremblett's own work.

"For me, the photo books are showing the perspective of children who've never left the community, and they're juxtaposed with my large scale black and white photos, of my perspective, having left and come back," she said.

The book project also broke the ice for Tremblett with the community at large. Chatting with parents and guardians gave her a chance to explain herself, swap stories of relatives and talk about her art.

"That was definitely an entry point into the community's eyes, of me being there, and my intentions," she said.

Tremblett admits those conversations didn't hand her the acceptance and validation of identity she was looking for, but it marked the beginning of a journey toward self-confidence that still continues to this day, as she lives and continues to create art in Corner Brook.

Pouch Cove-based Gerald Vaandering's piece, Salmon with Mercury, uses an actual Labrador-caught salmon in his sculpture. (Grenfell Art Gallery)

'A powerful validation'

Tremblett is not the only artist at the show North West River AiR: Six Years of Artist-In-Residence at the Labrador Institute. But her work stands out for Matthew Hills, the gallery's curator and director, who returns again and again to the back wall.

"You can't appreciate her eye, and the way she frame things, without seeing it in person," said Hills, calling her work "striking."

Looking back, I was definitely in a different place than I was now, and I'm more comfortable with who I am.- Melissa Tremblett

The gallery runs the residency program in partnership with Memorial University's Labrador Institute, which sends artists from all disciplines to the Institute in North West River for anywhere from two to 12 weeks. 

"We look for people engaging in place, in particular," said Hills.

The show focuses on Newfoundland and Labrador visual artists who have created work at the residency. They include Grand Falls-Windsor's Steve Evans, whose pink and purple-soaked pastel landscapes are painted en plein aire in freezing temperatures. ("They're very sweet and intimate. And his colour choices are eclectic and wonderful," said Hills.) There is also a babbling brook video work by contemporary art powerhouse, and Twillingate native, Anne Troake.

Steve Evans' work In The Trees Behind North West River, Labrador, was painted outdoors in -20 C weather. (Grenfell Art Gallery)

For Hills, it says a lot that an emerging artist such as Tremblett has found space in a gallery alongside someone as accomplished as Troake.

"For me, that's a powerful validation of the work the residency does, and the gallery does.… For us, it's not a question of where they're at in their career, necessarily, as it is about the nature of their practice, and what having time and space in Labrador will do for their practice," he said.

Hills sees the show as just part of Tremblett's ascendancy to the national art scene, following other Indigenous artists from Newfoundland and Labrador who have made art world waves, such as Stephenville Crossing's Jordan Bennett, listed this year as a Sobey Art Award finalist.

Tremblett accepts praise for her 2014 photographs with modesty. "I'm proud of it," she said.

A still from Anne Troake's video work, Little Stories. (Grenfell Art Gallery)

But even as she sees the beauty in the work, the struggle of trying to find her place in the world is still sharp.

"Since then, I've had more experiences, I've done more research, I've made more art about self-acceptance, about identity. So with that new information and that new perspective, I look back on this and I see that it was me trying to find who I was. It was me trying to gain acceptance from the community that I'm from," she said.

The show runs at the Grenfell Art Gallery, in the Fine Arts Building of Grenfell Campus, until Sept. 21. (Grenfell Art Gallery)

"Looking back, I was definitely in a different place than I was now, and I'm more comfortable with who I am. So when I see these photographs, I do see the beauty. I do see the sadness. But I understand it came from the same place of needing a purpose. It's just different now. It's beautiful."

North West River AiR: Six Years of the North West River Residency runs until Sept 21.

Tremblett stands with some of her work at the Grenfell Art Gallery at the opening night reception for the show. (Grenfell Art Gallery)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.