David Blackwood’s art tells my family’s story

You don’t have to be a Newfoundlander to feel David Blackwood’s art, but it helps.

I’m not a Newfoundlander, but my family’s lifeline run deep through the island’s rocky skin and bones.

My mother’s family were fishers, jigging for cod for several generations in the deep waters off Upper Amherst Cove, a small fishing outport 10 kilometres from Bonavista, Canada’s most easterly point, a 4-hour circuitous drive from St. John’s. A boat can travel by straight line across the Atlantic between Bonavista and Wesleyville, Bonavista Bay, where David Blackwood grew up.

Photo of handwritten Poem about loss of seabird hunters off Chance Cove, Newfoundland

A poem telling of the death of seabird hunters off of Chance Cove, Newfoundland

The visual stories David Blackwood tells through his meticulous etchings echo through my family’s history.

Take the Newfoundland native’s many etchings of ordinary men going seabird hunting. It’s a subject David Blackwood returns to again and again: The Seabird Hunter (1978), Wesleyville: Seabird Hunters Crossing the Reach (1981), Wesleyville: Seabird Hunters Returning Home (1991), Seabird Hunters (1998) and Seabird Hunters from Pound Cove (2005).

Seabird Hunters

And then there’s one of his masterworks, The Great Peace of Brian and Martin Winsor (1982).

Two tiny figures of men, lying in peaceful  repose, their rifles beside them, beneath the great tale of a sperm whale, their tiny boat floating on the ice-filled sea hundreds of feet above their watery grave.

A compelling image, a  moving story. Based on a true tale of tragedy David Blackwood was told growing up.

It’s a story that  mirrors a tragic tale passed down through my family.

Two great uncles, Burt and William Smith, my grandmother’s brothers, died along with two other men while seabird hunting off Chance Cove, a tiny community about 90 minutes from St. John’s.

Tragedy of Chance Cove

The story has come down to me in a hand-copied poem, called Tragedy of Chance Cove: January, 24th, 1940. Author unknown. Publication, if any, also unknown.

One section is written:

“Many men, they left their homes,

A birding for to go,

Not looking as they left their homes,

For signs of wind or snow.

They had not gone so very far,

When the wind came on to blow,

And soon these men were blinded

With bitter frost and snow.

Some of these men they got back home,

And some in Tickle Bay,

While four young men they lost their lives

Upon that fatal day. . .

There (sic) names I now will mention.

They were full of strength and wits,

These prime young men of Chance Cove,

Two Peddles and two Smiths.”

When her brothers Burt and William drowned while seabird hunting in January 1940, my grandmother Mary Dina had already seen her share of tragedy. Mary had lost her husband Mark Skeffington, or Skiffington — the spelling being interchangeable — of Upper Amherst Cove the year before to a heart attack, leaving her with two young children, my mother, Margaret, and her younger brother, William (Willie).

Photo of the Great Peace of Brian and Martin Winsor by David Blackwood

The Great Peace of Brian and Martin Winsor (1982). Copyright David Blackwood.

In 2012, my family visited both Chance Cove and Upper Amherst Cove, saying our final goodbyes to Willie, who died shortly after at age 77, the oldest man of his village. As the warm summer sun reflected off the calm waters of  both coves it was hard to imagine the Tragedy of Chance Cove of winter 1940.

The poem preserves my ancestors’ tragedy on paper. David Blackwood in his etchings on paper such as The Great Peace of Brian and Martin Winsor immortalizes similar tragedies for all people.

 — Mark Skeffington, Fine Art Collector
Copyrighted material. Cannot be used without written permission.

To learn more about David Blackwood, visit his website.