Each of us harbours a landscape we long to return to.
For many, that place is Fogo Island.
Who wouldn’t want to return and hike Joe Batt’s Point for wild Atlantic seascapes, a commemorative sculpture of the Great Auk and dramatic architecture like the Long Studio?
The easy hike starts on Southside Street, where we were renting a house with Clare and Keenan in the village of Joe Batt’s Arm. The community, the largest on Fogo Island, is home to about a thousand people. It’s where the iconic Fogo Island Inn, a modern, environmentally friendly luxury hotel with a stunning view of the Atlantic, is located.
A filmmaker, poet or painter telling the story of Joe Batt could “have a time,” as they say in Newfoundland.
According to local legends, Joe Batt was a poor, shoeless sailor working for Captain James Cook. It’s said Joe was either jettisoned overboard or jumped ship in 1763 when the crew was surveying Gander Bay. He fled to Fogo Island.
The story goes that Joe stole some shoes, was arrested and sentenced to fifteen lashes. But Joe had endeared himself to the locals, who liked the young sailor so much that they rescued him from the magistrate’s office.
In those days an ‘Arm” referred to a settlement wrapped around an inlet. It’s also said that the shoreline here is shaped like the arm of a person drinking a pint of beer, which Joe Batt probably did a time or two during his lifetime here. Hence the name, Joe Batt’s Arm.
Despite the gelid winds off the Atlantic, the four of us loved the hike to Joe Batt’s Point, a well-worn coastal path that ambles round rocks and beaches, boardwalks and boulders.
Poking around Long Studio, we wondered what it would be like to be an artist, writer, painter, musician or filmmaker who was fortunate to have landed a residency to work here.
Fifteen years ago, Fogo Island Arts (FIA) was founded to rejuvenate the island through arts and culture. The organization and Shorefast Foundation commissioned the architect of Fogo Island Inn, Todd Saunders, a Newfoundlander now based in Bergen, Norway, to design four contemporary artists’ studios as workspaces for selectedartists-in-residence.
It’s not just about artists coming and working in solitude in amazing contemporary studios for a few months and then returning home to Berlin, Toronto or California.
FIA aims to create meaningful partnerships—locally, nationally, and internationally. Starting with the resourcefulness and creativity of Fogo Islanders, “who provide a vital framework for the organization’s activities,” says the FIA website. FIA also reaches out to arts organizations, nationally and internationally, to exhibit the work of artists in this program.
Artists are required to make a public presentation about their practice. They don’t have to get involved in the community. Yet most do, hosting events in their studios, exhibiting their work and interacting with island residents.
Long Studio, its list of awards a tribute to its name, was the first artist space that Todd Saunders designed on the island. Shorefast Foundation says:
We want to create structures that respect where we’ve come from and dignify this landscape that is so fragile yet so fearsome. We want structures that touch our imaginations and help maintain a connection between our past and our future.
Michael Carroll describes Long Studio as highly distorted, pared-down with zero-detailing, “sitting like a viewing apparatus, an elongated camera obscura that frames its exterior views in a dramatic fashion.”
The studio was built from local materials by local carpenters. Long and linear, light in its 120-square metre floorspace is maximized from large windows at both ends, floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side overlooking the ocean, and a triangular north-facing skylight on the roof. Internally, the panelling in the three rooms is white-painted spruce.
Like all the other studios, it sits in a solitary place off-grid, self-sustained and equipped with solar-powered electricity, a water cistern, a wood-burning stove and high-speed internet. (It was locked when we were there.) To avoid visual distractions, a metre-deep wall with doors flush to the wall along the building’s south side is used for storage, a galley kitchen, compost toilet and sleeping loft.
Along with the studio, each artist is assigned a restored traditional salt box house, located within one of the island’s eleven villages, as their primary residence., The remoteness of each studio from the various outport villages is highly intentional. Each artist, as part of his daily routine traverses the dramatic terrain of Fogo Island. A landscape composed of barren stretches of land with outcropping of granite boulders covered with delicate lichens, low lying juniper trees and grassy bogs. Given that the studios are not located on accessible roads, the fifteen-minute journey must be made on foot; the hike becomes a meditative ritual of sorts, with dramatic views of the North Atlantic along the way.
Who were some of these lucky people who were awarded an artist-in-residence?
The very first person I read about—Silke Otto-Knapp—intrigued me.
When she came to Fogo, Silke was an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of California in Los Angeles. Silke was known for her delicate paintings in watercolor and gouache on canvas and linen, monochrome palettes of light and translucency in black, gray and silver with a flattened perspective and heightened luminosity. Elongated and elegant, her images—seascapes, landscapes, stage designs, women artists and modern dancers—came from repeatedly washing away and rebuilding layers of paint. Like the North Atlantic washing away and rebuilding the shoreline of Joe Batt’s Arm.
For her first project on Fogo, she used the poem Questions of Travel by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, a modernist poet who grew up in Nova Scotia and visited Newfoundland in her youth, as a starting point.
For this project it was important to me to approach the motif of the seascape without producing an illustration or a sentimental representation. I tried to think about this problem via the work of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. A lot of her writing is about the idea of geography and travel, and the experience of living in different places, in a way that is descriptive and unsentimental. It’s as though the writer is looking at something and observing rather than interpreting it or expressing emotion.
Silke’s exhibition Questions of Travel (Fogo Island) was featured on Fogo Island and in Vienna. Her etchings were also presented at the 2014 Toronto International Art Fair, and in the 65th Jahresring publication, What do we know? What do we have? What do we miss? What do we love? in 2019.
The island became her most treasured place. “After numerous residencies at Fogo Island Arts, she purchased and restored a classic saltbox house with friends, returning to this second home every chance she got,“ her friend Sharon Lockhart wrote in an obituary for Silke when she died from ovarian cancer in 2022.
Silke knew everyone on the island. She loved them dearly, and they loved her like she was family…I think she had hiked every trail on the island…
I like what Silke herself had to say about Fogo Island.
Obviously, it’s a very beautiful place—the seascape is very barren and very striking. It sounds so isolated, but I actually found it to be a very social place. That’s one of the reasons I like to go back there—I feel like I’m part of a community.
I grew up in the countryside in Germany, but I did not experience the kind of openness there that I did coming to Newfoundland and Fogo Island.
I think it has something to do with how the geography affects the economy, the social structures, really every aspect of life there. The ocean determines lives so much—historically and even today.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Questions of Travel.” New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1965. Her trip to Newfoundland in August 1932 was the first time that Elizabeth ventured beyond her childhood world.
Carroll, William James. “The Fogo Island Experiment.” ACSA.
Gotthardt, Alexxa. “This Remote Artist Residency Is Set on a Tiny Fishing Island.” Artsy. Oct. 2, 2017.
Lockhart, Sharon. “SILKE OTTO-KNAPP (1970–2022).” ArtForum. January 2023.
Maerkle, Andrew. “Cold Dark Deep and Absolutely Clear.” ARTiT, December 17, 2014. This is an excellent article about Silke Otto-Knapp who received a Master of Fine Arts from Chelsea College of Art and Design and a degree in Cultural Studies from the University of Hildesheim. She had solo exhibitions in major galleries in London, Oxford, Munich, Chicago, Minneapolis and Toronto and participated in numerous group exhibitions in places like the Tate Gallery and the Istanbul Biennial.
Waldstein, David. “Sorry, Jose, This Joe Batt Came First.” The New York Times. Oct. 23, 2015.