The Arts

"Thank God we're surrounded by water." This line from the chorus of a well-known Newfoundland and Labrador song reflects a central theme in the province's rich artistic tradition. Indeed, there is scarcely an art form that has not been influenced in one way or another by the sea and the seafaring life.

The Amateur and the Professional

Here, as in most other places, art and artists can be divided into two areas or groups—the amateur and the professional. In Newfoundland, however, amateur arts long remained the dominant tradition. Through most of Newfoundland and Labrador history, artists expressed themselves primarily through the folk arts, including storytelling, recitations, songs and ballads, traditional dance, and the music of the accordion and the fiddle.

An Array of Musical Instruments
An Array of Musical Instruments
This music practice room in Nain, Labrador contains various string instruments. The art of music is strongly expressed throughout Newfoundland in both amateur and professional arts.
Photo courtesy of Ben Hansen, Newfoundland Gems (St. John's, NL: Vinland Press, ©1996) 85.

Before confederation with Canada in 1949, this tradition was mainly practised by amateurs in a community setting. After 1949, the growth of government and corporate sponsorship made it possible for a limited number of individuals to make a living from the arts, with the result that professional artists emerged in a number of fields.

Newfoundland Influence

In spite of the trend toward professionalism in the arts, however, a strong folk tradition has survived and has exercised a profound influence on the work of professional artists. Themes from Newfoundland folklore and folklife have furnished much of the subject matter for plays and other theatrical performances. Novels, short stories, and other literary forms have often dealt with the values and characteristics associated with outport life.

Random Passage
Bernice Morgan's novel, Random Passage
The story of two families attempting to cope with the isolation of outport life during the 19th century.
Courtesy of Breakwater Books Ltd. and the Christina Parker Gallery, St. John's, NL. ©1992.

The dialects of the region and local customs have been used to enliven many of these same works. The divisive influences of religion and politics in the province have also been favourite themes. The work of visual artists has concentrated heavily on the majestic scenery of Newfoundland and Labrador and on the depiction of objects, ranging from fish and marine animals to fishing gear and rustic houses, which are part of everyday life.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the influence of mass media and the modernizing policies of the government placed new pressures on Newfoundland and Labrador traditions and values. Partly in response to these pressures, and partly as a result of the influence of similar developments in Europe and other parts of North America, a cultural revival occurred. Led by artists and intellectuals, the revival explored and celebrated the distinctive customs that had been a part of the region's culture for centuries. The influence of this cultural renaissance is still evident in contemporary artistic expressions of all kinds, and has contributed to the national and international recognition that Newfoundland and Labrador music,literature, painting, printmaking, photography, and other art forms have achieved.

David Blackwood's 'Gram Glover's Light'
David Blackwood's "Gram Glover's Light"
Etching on paper.
©1985. Reproduced by permission of David Blackwood. From the Memorial University Permanent Collection, St. John's, NL.

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