In 2009, Newfoundland ceramic artist Michael Flaherty spent three months on the Grey Islands, a remote group of islands off the east coast of the Great Northern Peninsula.
During that three-month period he went for weeks at a time without seeing another human being.
The Grey Islands have been basically uninhabited since the early 1960s when residents of the islands were relocated to more central communities as part of a government resettlement initiative.
But, Flaherty didn’t go to the Grey Islands to meet people.
He travelled there with the intention of creating an interdisciplinary conceptual art piece.
To that end Flaherty, whose work is currently the subject of a new exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, spent his time taking photographs and shooting video of the islands’ rugged natural landscape.
He captured images of the islands’ principal occupants, the caribou, who were introduced to the islands in large numbers several decades ago.
He also gathered pottery shards, which were plentiful on the islands, and old caribou antlers.
And using materials he brought with him, expending considerable effort to transport across very rugged country, he built a kiln.
Given that Flaherty is a ceramic artist the fact that he built a kiln should not come as a great surprise to anyone.
What is unusual however is the manner in which he constructed the kiln and the end result.
The installation itself is quite simple, Flaherty said in an interview.
“I built a wood-fired kiln according to a traditional design, only I inverted the design so that in principle the kiln is inside-out. Therefore, in a conceptual sense, the entire island is ‘inside’ the kiln — when I fired the kiln I fired the island.”
The photographs and video footage Flaherty shot during his stay and the ceramic antlers and other works of art inspired by what he saw there are included in the current exhibition, which is simply entitled The Grey Islands.
Included as well is a replica of the kiln he created there.
Some pieces from this exhibition, specifically the antler pottery sculptures, have been shown before in parts of Newfoundland and Labrador.
But this is a much larger show than that one, Flaherty said.
“This show also has the kiln, four video pieces, several photographic pieces and one piece of pottery that have never been shown before.”
The first things most people will notice, though, are the antlers. These ceramic-based works fuse handmade antlers with pottery fragments made to represent shards from the abandoned town of French Cove.
These pieces were then painted in classic blue and white decorative patterns.
“I made the pieces to be seductive and beautiful objects, and I hope that people find them as such,” Flaherty said.
“I also made them to be evocative of an historical feeling or connection to local culture and our past.”
Some might ask why Flaherty chose a location as remote as the Grey Islands as the site for this project.
The reason, basically, is inspiration.
Flaherty was inspired to travel to the islands after reading a book by John Steffler, a former poet laureate of Canada who teaches at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, where Flaherty also works.
“It’s a poetry book, I guess you could say, it has a bunch of different forms in it, from prose to poetry to census data, all sorts of things. It’s a narrative and it’s an amazingly beautiful book and when I read it I wanted to go.”
He was also inspired, in part, by the training he received at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he majored in ceramics and studied art history and by his own subsequent work experiences.
What did he hope to accomplish with this exhibition?
“The ultimate purpose of The Grey Islands is to say that even within the material-oriented craft genres traditional hierarchies of medium and concept need to be reevaluated.”
The Grey Islands, which was curated by Pan Wendt, remains on view in the Confederation Centre Art Gallery until Dec. 23.