Finding creative inspiration in the splendid isolation of Fogo Island

Faculty of Education
Aug 10th, 2016
Marcia Porter

Dr. Ursula Kelly on Fogo Island

When friends, family and colleagues get together over the summer, and chat about their adventures and travels, Dr. Ursula Kelly can boast a little about her four weeks spent as cast-a-way on an island in the remote north Atlantic.

The Faculty of Education professor found herself "tossed up" on the shores of Fogo Island after successfully applying for a coveted Fogo Island Research Fellowship that would give her the time, and the space, to write the introduction of Songs and Stories of the Woodsmen of Newfoundland and Labrador, a book manuscript due at ISER Books late this summer.

Irresistable opportunity

"I love islands, and island studies, and the possibility of spending time in a writing retreat on another island – cast so far into the north Atlantic, was irresistible," she said.

Dr. Kelly saw the fellowship as a rare opportunity to focus exclusively on putting words to page, in a "community that offers opportunities for engagement, contemplation and renewal. I wanted to complete the introduction of the manuscript," she said. "And I fulfilled this objective in an extraordinary setting, a vista of the ocean and a rocky hillside and a daily parade of numerous icebergs."

I fulfilled this objective in an extraordinary setting, a vista of the ocean and a rocky hillside and a daily parade of numerous icebergs.

The Fogo Island Research Fellowship program is open to faculty members from across the university, like Dr. Kelly, who need dedicated writing time in order to complete a significant manuscript or a major work of artistic creation.

The write time

Up to 10 fellowships are available for faculty members every year.

"I maintained a daily journal of reflections on my experiences during the residency," she said. "I observed and learned a great deal and the journal helped me sift and sort my thoughts."

Dr. Kelly's book, Songs and Stories of the Woodsmen of Newfoundland and Labrador, focuses on the expressive culture of woodsmen. It's a follow-up to an earlier project, Mentioned in Song: Song Traditions of the Loggers of Newfoundland and Labrador, a CD and booklet produced in 2014 by the Research Centre for Music, Media and Place (MMaP).

Bringing songs back home

While the splendid isolation of Fogo Island gave her the writing time she needed, Dr. Kelly also took advantage of opportunities to meet local residents, including family members of composers whose songs are part of the Mentioned in Song research and featured in Songs and Stories.

"In some cases, the songs were unknown to them," she said. "It was an honour to be part of bringing a song back home, so to speak."

And on her first day, shortly after arriving, she came across a group of people protesting the announced closure of their public library – the only one on the island.

"I attended the rally, wrote letters and supported a petition and I also participated with others in a Writers' Alliance reading event to save the library," she said. "Libraries matter. I have been influenced by Fogo Islanders, including retired Faculty of Education professor Dr. Betty Brett, whose lives were shaped by a culture that values books, reading and the life of the mind."

Sharing the research

The residency program also included a public presentation, so Dr. Kelly and Dr. Meghan Forsyth of Memorial's School of Music, who is also a co-author of Songs and Stories, presented their collaborative mixed media show about the research that was published in Mentioned in Song.

"The show presented the social history of logging and featured archival recordings and historic photographs as well as live performances by Fogo Island musicians and writers," she said. "It was well attended and received by the local community.

Looking back on her four-weeks on Fogo, Dr. Kelly said her experience was not only beneficial for her writing and her peace of mind; she came away with an important reminder of how much there is to learn when you listen to people.

"The people and landscape are the true and abiding strengths of Fogo Island and are what is most remarkable about it. The residents I met were open, generous and thoughtful," she said. "They understand interdependence and know the value of strong communities. They have a very clear sense of the importance of their island and insist on a voice in determining its future.

"I encountered an eloquence and passion that moved me deeply. Fogo Island and its people captivated me; I did not want to leave. I appreciated the space the Island offered me, away from the routines of work in St. John's. It was a meaningful experience that continues to inspire in several ways, including spiritually. I am very grateful for all it offered."

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