Gather: A Year of the Arts Exhibition

Co-curated by Rose Bouthillier and Mireille Egan
The Rooms, May 18 – September 22, 2024
Reviewed by Rhea Rollmann

Shall we be tourists, you and I?

Let’s imagine we are tourists, disembarking from our cruise ship for the six hours it’s in port. A short visit won’t cost us much – the cruise ship has its own e-bikes, no need to rent them in town. And the boat provides packed lunches, so as long as we’re back on board in time for supper we won’t need to spend anything on food in the city – have you seen what prices are like these days?

No, let’s not shop – we’ve already spent too much on this cruise as is. People labour under the misconception tourists are rich spenders, rather than simply hapless fellow victims of an economy out of control, scrimping and saving for a ten-day escape from the sordid reality that awaits them at home.

But this sounds interesting – The Rooms – art gallery and museum all in one. And this exhibit in particular, Gather: A Year of the Arts Exhibition – over two dozen NL artists all in one spot! It’ll be the definitive dose of NL culture. And we can do our selfies there as well, with the finest view $13.80 can buy. Yes, it’s settled.

The exhibit is Newfoundland (and Labrador) incarnate: an awkward coming together of peoples and visions of this place, held together as much by tension as by harmony in a precariously achieved balance. It opens with the familiar: there are Mary Pratts, there are photos of bucolic beaches and berries; grasswork baskets and embroidered linens. These evoke as much an era as an artistic style; there is something hauntingly familiar about these representations of our existence here, before we realized art could transgress and women’s labour involved more than weaving. Turning a corner, this comforting familiarity is offset by a reminder of the precarity of this place: Marlene Creates’ visual representations of uprooted trees from Hurricane Igor. But what really ignites the imagination is Sylvia Bendsza’s sketchbooks and Anne Meredith Barry’s travel diaries. Both provoke by way of restraint, the rough yet tantalizing scenes hinting at all the unexplored vastness which this place contains (forever out of reach for tourists like us, with no provincial transit and rental cars booked up a year in advance).

Before moving on, don’t miss the small alcove near the front, where Megan Samms shares beachrocks lovingly collected and the memories they enshrine. The piece is touchingly personal, its recessed hideaway evocative of a secret cove sheltered from rough waves and unforgiving winds. The memories carved into each rock remind us the beauty of this place is equally shaped by what we bring to it, the memories formed here tied to place and people; feelings fleeting and ephemeral as the tides yet etched into us as permanently as striations on a beachrock. So yes you may touch them, but you cannot remove them.

Megan Samms’ held/unheld. (2020-2024). Handmade mineral-based watercolour paint, cotton paper, stones. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of The Rooms.


Venturing into the second room, we encounter more representations of the familiar: portraits of beer-swilling baymen, acrylic mug-ups and rug-hooked lobster dinners. But there are also fishing nets imaginatively imbued with layers of queerness by Daniel Rumbolt, and Larry Weyand’s rug-hooked bag of potato chips reminds us art can honour the ephemeral as well as the eternal.

The most exciting part of the exhibit lies deep within the second room, subsumed under a section titled “Coming Together” (interesting, is it not, how we shy away from celebrating difference in this place, concentrating on the ties that bind rather than exposing the barriers that still keep us apart?). Here we are presented with Indigenous culture not just in the form of soapstone carving (although there is that) but Ossie Michelin’s stirring photos of Muskrat Falls protests and the chilling beauty of Heather Campbell’s acrylic paintings, evocatively titled Land/Poison/Fish (also condemning the methylmercury poisoning of local ecosystems by Muskrat Falls). And then the crowning glory: Brian Amadi’s short film “An Ode to Black Newfoundland.” This film must be watched in its entirety and listened to as well; there’s more depth, complexity and beauty in its six minutes than in a hundred NL tourism videos of ginger-haired children in billowing white dresses dancing around precariously perched clotheslines.

What would it mean if these representations – which speak in such vital ways to this province’s past, present and future – opened an exhibit of this nature, instead of lying in wait toward the end?

But if we’re committing the sin of combining artistic appreciation with political imagination, let’s go further. Let us wonder what impression our tourists will be left with: a sense of awe at the courage and resolve of Indigenous Labradorians fighting Muskrat Falls? Or will they learn about the police harassment, the long court hearings and trials, the years of trauma and stress those same people experienced off-camera? Let us also wonder what it would mean if Ossie Michelin’s powerful protest portraits and Heather Campbell’s stunningly caustic acrylics of poisoned ecosystems actually led to political change, instead of being politely assigned a wall in an art gallery, a neatly delineated space in a tapestry of memorialized identities? What would it mean if we preserved the ecosystems that produce the natural dyes and sea grasses with which we weave; if we gave as much thought (and money) to the memory of hundred-year-old trees destroyed by climate change-induced hurricanes as to the memory of a hundred-year-old skeleton felled by other forms of human folly?

If there is a constant to our existence in this place, it is that of a storytelling culture that never quite learns from the stories it tells.

But come, let us gather; there’s a little something for everyone here, in this unsettling, disjointed, awkward space we call home.

Rhea Rollmann is an award-winning journalist, writer and audio producer based in St. John’s, NL, and is the author of A Queer History of Newfoundland (Engen Books, 2023). She’s a founding editor of The Independent NL and her journalism has appeared in Briarpatch MagazineCBCXtra MagazineChatelainePopMattersRiddle Fence and more. Her work has garnered three Atlantic Journalism Awards and she’s a two-time Canadian Association of Journalists’ awards finalist. She also has a background in labour organizing and queer/trans activism, and is Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL.