Thursday, January 1, 2015

Artist residency at Elizabeth Bishop House

A new year has begun, and so it is customary to reflect on the year just concluded. For us, the major highlight of 2014 was a week-long artist residency in July at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. The house was the childhood and spiritual home of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), former poet laureate of the United States (1949-1950), and winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1956) and National Book Award (1970). Bishop spent much of her formative years here in her maternal grandparents' home. The rambling house and the village around it would feature prominently in Bishop's writing.

"EB's Room" by James G. Mundie

It was in this house in 1916, that Gertrude Bulmer Bishop - recently widowed mother of then five-year-old Elizabeth - lost her grip on sanity. Gertrude would commit herself voluntarily to the Nova Scotia Hospital which later declared her permanently insane. Elizabeth Bishop never saw her mother again, but the tragedy figures prominently in her later writings, particularly In the Village in which she describes her mother's scream as remaining recorded in Great Village itself, to be released by tapping the lightening rod atop the steeple of St. James.

"Built, Burnt, Built" by James G. Mundie

"A scream, the echo of a scream, hangs over that village in Nova Scotia... Flick the lightening rod on the top of the church steeple with your fingernail and you will hear it." 
- from In the Village by Elizabeth Bishop

In the late 1990s, the house was designated a Provincial Heritage Property. In 2004, group of Bishop enthusiasts purchased the house and opened it up to artists as a place for quiet reflection. These artist residencies - held under the auspices of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and facilitated by the wonderful Sandra Barry - continued for ten years, but are now in limbo as the house was put up for sale during the last few days of our stay (but as of this writing, the house has not yet been sold).

"Vesuvius in Eruption (newspaper fragment glued to ceiling of attic room)" by James G. Mundie

A new volcano has erupted,
the papers say, and last week I was reading 
where some ship saw an island being born: 
at first a breath of steam, ten miles away; 
and then a black fleck—basalt, probably—
rose in the mate’s binoculars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still 
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books has ever got it right.

- from Crusoe in England by Elizabeth Bishop

We felt honored and privileged to spend time in this special place. For our family it was a time of rejuvenation and exploration. Kate drew and painted, while I prowled with my camera and the kids played in the yard and out in the barn. Most days we would venture out to experience the magnificent landscape along the Bay of Fundy, often stopping at a beach to hunt for fossils and skip stones across the iron-tinged waves. Evenings were spent exploring the house's wonderful library and the writings of EB herself. It was a time of unhurried reflection that was a welcome relief from the stress and routine of our life in Philadelphia.

"27 Drawers" by Kate Kern Mundie

More of Jim's photographs from Elizabeth Bishop House may be seen on Flickr.   

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