Fogo Island

13 April 2016

Fogo Island offers the perfect environment for creativity, with the grandeur of its natural landscapes, and its slow pace of life. Dotted around the island are a series of artists studios – works of art themselves – designed by architect Todd Saunders

“Fogo Island lies at 49° 44’ north,” Zita Cobb, innkeeper at the Fogo Island Inn tells me, “that’s super important. These rocks know what you are thinking. I’m pretty sure about that. They know almost as much as the ocean.” The island perches midstream in the Labrador Current off the north Newfoundland coast. Named by Portuguese explorers, and set aside in the Treaty of Utrecht for French fishermen, English and Irish migrants settled here in the 18th century. Their arrival was quickly followed by the extinction of the indigenous Beothuk population.

“Everything that has been done on Fogo Island emerged out of our particular context as people who live on an island and fish for cod in the North Atlantic. Our fishermen, boat builders, knitters, and quilters all have knowledge that has been passed down for generations. It’s a type of knowledge that cannot be captured by writing it down. Making a living out here has given rise to a singular way of knowing.”

Zita was born to a fishing family and raised, the only daughter of seven children, in the community of Joe Batt’s Arm. “We grew up without electricity and running water,” Zita says. “My parents could not read or write. We were a society of natural recyclers, innovators, makers, and artisans. Our houses, fishing premises, clothing, furniture, and boats were all handmade. We rarely encountered a challenge that wasn’t embraced and solved. Except perhaps the near demise of the cod.” The collapse of the cod fisheries began when Zita was around 10 years old. “Factory dragger ships circled our shores catching tonnes and tonnes of fish. It didn’t take long to bring the cod to the brink of extinction. One day, my father came home after a day at sea with just one fish.” Zita soon left for university in Ottawa, and the rest of her family relocated to Toronto.

Despite the distance, Fogo Island remained close to her. “I studied business. I wanted to understand the system that had caused those factory boats to catch all the fish. My father told us to remember it wasn’t the fish that let us down. They tried to hold on by reproducing at younger ages, but they were no match for 20th century capitalism.” By the time Zita returned, the 1992 moratorium had long since formalised the end of cod fishing as a way of life, and the island was slowly emptying out. “I retired in the 2000s with more than enough to live on,” Zita says. “I wanted to do something for home, and two of my brothers were in a similar situation. We wanted to secure a future for Fogo Island in a way that reinforced the cultural integrity of the place.”

First, they created the Great Fogo Island Punt Race to foster boatbuilding skills in a new generation: “My brother Tony pointed out that we were eight funerals away from never being able to build another wooden boat on the island.” Next came a scholarship to send Fogo Island teens to university: “But at a community meeting, a mother stood up and pointed out that we were ‘paying their kids to leave.’ She rightfully asked if we could do something to keep people on the island instead.” This was a turning point that led to the establishment of the Shorefast Foundation in 2003, and ultimately, to the creation of Fogo Island Inn. “We needed to find a way to grow a new leg on the island’s economy so people could have meaningful employment. We figured the inn would be a wonderful vessel for our ‘ways of knowing’.”

Newfoundland architect Todd Saunders was given a simple brief: Find a way to express in contemporary architecture everything we have learned in 400 years of clinging to this rock. His wooden design, standing on stilts, echoes traditional fishing premises. “Every detail reflects the island’s culture,” Zita says. “We tried never to miss an opportunity to make things out of the fabric of this place. The quilts and rugs are made by the local artisan guild; women who learned their craft from their mothers, and their mothers before them. It’s filled with handcrafted furniture, and we practice hospitality the way our mothers and fathers taught us. Every person in the community was invited to stay here. An early guest – an older man who had been sceptical about the contemporary architecture – came in and said, ‘I’m glad to see you built it old.’ There was a quiet moment of celebration all round.” 

“It is 100% a social business,” Zita says. “There are no investors seeking a return, and all operating surpluses are reinvested into the community through the foundation. It’s an economic and cultural asset we hope can serve Fogo Island for generations to come.” The foundation also offers micro-lending for local entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on geotourism. To support cultural and economic resilience for the island, the foundation created Fogo Island Arts, which, with its residency based model, draws makers and thinkers from across the world. “The artists work in their own studios and live in traditional restored homes in the community. They come to the inn, the art gallery, cinema, and library as guests. I think this powerfully elemental place shakes everyone out of their usual zone. It stimulates parts of ourselves that maybe we couldn’t reach before – or didn’t know were there. Artists have a way of working and thinking that is highly complementary to our ways,” she explains. “Our capacity as a community has increased because of their presence. They help us better understand how we belong to the world. They are our partners. We also have partners in the travel world, the design world, and the culinary world. These relationships help us distill and clarify who we are. By knowing who we are and by understanding how we belong, we won’t fall out of our own story.”

Looking to the future, Zita’s mind is clear: “Those of us in our 40s and older still have handholds on the past and the people who have gone before. We are the ones who must translate it into something new. My hope is that we can live, grow, and thrive as a people at home, holding onto this place as we have held on to the past, continuing to find ways to stitch ourselves into the fabric of the larger world. I hope we can adapt as modern people without ever letting go of place, and without letting go of all that has come before us in this place. I hope that the sense of continuity can always be felt. We see the inn as a bridge that connects us to the past and the future,” she pauses. “Or perhaps it’s like a ship that carries the memories and knowledge of where we’ve come from, and the dreams of where we are heading. Most of all, this ship carries the place called Fogo Island. Place itself is what sustains us. Without our place, we wouldn’t be.”