In September 2015 I had an e-mail from an artist based in Ontario, Canada, who was looking for help in finding soil for an interdisciplinary art project documenting earth colours from across Canada. He was looking for “soils and rocks that leave a good stain or streak,” which he could use as an artist pigment.
We here at the Institute of Island Studies get lots of queries about our Island – our history, geography, our economy, our culture, our islandness. We hear from scholars wishing to visit or become Research Associates, and from students who want to come study for a few weeks or a semester. We have people looking for reports or books or information about PEI and our comparative studies with other islands. It’s fun to open my e-mail each morning to see what’s waiting.
But I must admit: I’ve never received a request for information about dirt. I was intrigued.
Prince Edward Island is well-known for its red soil. Except for a small area of New Brunswick located on the other side of the 13-km-wide Northumberland Strait from PEI, the Island has a geology that is exceptional when it comes to its red soil. Science tells us it’s the iron oxide content that makes it so distinctive. The red-haired and red-freckled protagonist in the novel, Anne of Green Gables (known round the world as the fictional orphan created by PEI’s L. M. Montgomery), imagines that it’s the result of blood seeping into the soil from centuries of battles. PEI storyteller David Weale says it’s the blood of so many tongues being bitten in order to keep the peace on this small island. Indeed, in order to capture the Island’s humour, storytelling, history, and (he says, sometimes provocative) commentary on everyday life on the Island, Weale started a magazine called RED: The Island Story Book in 2010. Its slogan is “The Island is red, and RED is the Island.”
When I first came to the Island I had a cat with white paws. They didn't stay white for long. They turned that lovely ochre colour for which we're famous – and stayed that way til she died. There is a shop at Peake’s Quay in Charlottetown called "No White Dogs" – probably for the same reason. And then there's the shop selling PEI Dirt Shirts just around the corner from “No White Dogs.” Their trademark washing machine sits out front – in it, white T-shirts are washed – on purpose – with PEI’s red mud.
You get a hint of it as you drive to the Island through New Brunswick. After a while you start to notice the purple hue of the pavement as you get closer and closer to the Confederaton Bridge that crosses the Northumberland Strait. Our sister province shares some of the same soil – and combined with tar and other ingredients that make asphalt, you inevitably get burgundy pavement.
As you drive onto the Island over the Confederation Bridge, you see the magnificent cliffs that drop into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Scraggly spruce trees cling to the clods. Up close you can see the layers of sandstone that were pounded by glaciers about 10,000 years ago to create the Island. Against the backdrop of blue sky and azure sea, and green fields that sometimes turn white with potato blossoms, or yellow with ripening grain in the late summer, the red cliffs are stunning – especially in the evening when they’re bathed in a golden light. Along with the red-headed orphan girl, Prince Edward Island is famous for its potatoes – apparently spuds thrive in red sandy loam, too.
The sandy beaches that encircle the Island range in colour from dark ochre to a lighter pink. There are only a few places that have almost-white sand – probably brought by currents “from away.”
Mi’kmaq legends tell the creation story of the Island, or “Abegweit,” which means “cradled on the waves.” The Great God Glooscap, creator of all the world, picked up his paintbrush and painted the Island red.
A couple weeks ago I opened my e-mail to find a note from the artist from Ontario who wanted to know about red soil. Turns out Symeon van Donkelaar came to visit in early October 2015. We didn’t actually get to meet, but he braved the deluge that hit the Island that day and made his way – on foot, as it turns out – to Tea Hill Beach, about a 10-kilometre walk from downtown Charlottetown. My friend Sandy Kowalik, a local sculptor, had suggested this particular beach as it is close to town and has lots of our accessible trademark soil and red cliffs. When he asked if there were artists on the Island who used the red soil, she told him that the clay found on the Island is a low-firing clay, not really suitable for pottery, but she added that many artists use it to decorate their pots. Others, she said, throw it right into their paintings for texture. If you check out Sandy's website, you'll see her scultpures - some of which are red, too.
Symeon documented his pilgrimage to Tea Hill (walking, as you’ll read in his blog, connects him to place), and his day spent there, first in solitude exploring the beach and the cliffs, then later showing children from a local school how to gather the red dirt for art projects. Afterward he returned with them to the classroom and showed them how to make paint from the soils they collected. You'll see some of the wonderful creations.
Here’s the link to his remarkable blog post, "Tea Hill Red" – which incorporates photos and video – illustrating how red mud from Prince Edward Island makes beautiful art.
(PHOTO by Symeon van Donkelaar)