In search of Island art environments
I spent four weeks on PEI from mid-June to mid-July, a slight summer vacation in semi-warm weather. I only made it to the beach twice (in layers the first time) but I did take a couple day-long road trips up West, in search of Island art environments, continuing my research for The Builders. I don’t remember the last time I drove to places like Alberton, Tignish and North Cape, and I’d never done the coastal drives on that end of the Island either (at least not since I’ve been driving on my own). But, I had vague memories of visiting the Bottle Houses in Cap-Egmont as a kid, and the site had lodged itself into my consciousness when I first began to research art environments as a larger phenomenon in 2011. I’d also heard about Kerras Jeffrey’s Backroad Folk Art in Alma, since he had done design work for Young Folk and Row 142 a couple years ago. So with a car, a camera, lots of snacks and two days of clear skies, I set out on a PEI road trip with my mom, in search of art environments.
The first place we stopped was neither of our predetermined destinations. We pulled into Alberton just out of curiousity, and as we drove down the road to the harbour, I caught a glimpse of some colourful piles of stuff in front of a small bungalow. We turned around and pulled into the driveway. No one was home, but we parked the car and wandered into the ‘garden’, walking under an archway made of welded scrap metal, into a fenced in area of the same materials that enclosed a large heap of miscellany – old signs, plastic garden decorations, more scrap metal, statues and other found objects. An old blue mailbox invited us to “please sign guestbook,” which we happily did. The garden was quite large and we explored it in detail, fascinated by every bizarre component and unexpected discovery. There was also a small little shrine of sorts, that seemed to be for a dog (the stone reads “Our Best Buddy GAUGE 1995-2004 RIP” – which makes me think dog, but maybe I’m just avoiding sadder thoughts). And bird houses! So many birdhouses, propped up on a horizontal wooden beam, and also lining a couple telephone poles. A nearby barn held hundreds of lobster traps. I found out through Ker that the garden is a collaborative effort of a husband & wife, Annabel & Franklin Fraser, who are “avid junque collectors”.
Our unexpected art environment find in Alberton was definitely the highlight. Not being something that’s really on the map as folk art and is much less ‘considered’ in its making, it contrasted quite a bit with the other two spots we visited. The Bottle Houses, an impressive effort of one man, Édouard Arsenault, working on his own in the 1980s, have since been re-built numerous times during preservation efforts, require an admission fee that goes towards site maintenance, and have a gift shop where you can purchase glass-related gifts and bottles of PEI sand. Kerras’ place has a different feel to it…it’s a quirky mix of a barn full of wooden & metal folksy sculptures (you can purchase them via the honour system!), a museum with a ‘guessing wall’ and an extensive collection of hand-held egg beaters as well as the World’s Largest Eggbeater, and a shed full of rustic, distressed-wood furniture for sale. Both places were well worth the visit, though they definitely capitalize on folk art as a genre and a public attraction, which isn’t really worth critiquing, since if they didn’t capitalize on it, neither could exist in the way that they do. They are curious detours from the typical attractions of the Island, and maybe, just maybe, their existence has provoked other environment-building efforts around the province. I’ll save those discoveries for next summer’s road trips.