For the past 20 years a big portion of my art has revolved around the story of the MORATORIUM or cod closure in Newfoundland and Labrador which began in 1992. The recurring theme "Waiting for the Cod" has been the backbone and inspiration for my art, many times over. I have always wanted to do a big piece of art as a tribute to the codfish because of its importance to us a province and to me as an artist.
In 2001, I opened the MUSEUM OF WHALES & THINGS in my hometown of Port AU Choix. Its sole purpose was to attract more summer tourists to my studio. It did, but after operating for six summer tourist seasons, I decided to shut it down due mostly to time commitments I had to make in operating it with the help of three summer students. The hours of operation were from 9 to 9, seven days a week, from Mid-June to Early September. Closing it allowed me the freedom and more time to concentrate on my art in studio.
One of the exhibits in the museum centered around the COD MORATORIUM story and one of the center pieces in that exhibit was a foot-long hand carved codfish with one side fin broken off. The broken cod sat on an old backbone (vertebrate) from a whale and this was housed in a recycled watch display case from a local jewelry store.
The broken cod had been sitting on the shelf in my studio for years, awaiting repairs. But it never came. It was one of my first carvings so I decided to keep it for myself. Over the years, it had turned yellowish-gold after sitting there so long in the light of day without any protective coating. This crippled cod soon began to take on a story of its own, the collapse of the NEWFOUNDLAND cod fishing industry, the now broken cod fishery.
Shortly after locking the doors to the MUSEUM OF WHALES & THINGS, I moved the broken cod display into my studio, where I continued to work on it, hoping to one day turn it into my signature piece of 3-D art. Many years later after I accidentally broke the side fin of one my first carvings, I finished my masterpiece, THE GOLDEN COD.
Research soon led me to learn that there was indeed a Golden Cod in Newfoundland. A distinct species was identified by fishery scientist in Gilbert Bay on the Labrador coast. The species is reddish brown to golden colour. The more popular, the Northern Cod, on the other hand has a white belly and a dark spotted back. The Golden Cod over winter in Gilbert Bay. Their distinct color appears to be the result of their eating habits; confined to Gilbert Bay and just beyond, thus limiting their choice of food. This species is not in danger but the fishery scientist have asked local fishermen from that part of the coast to set their nets a couple of miles away from the mouth of Gilbert Bay to allow more space for the cod to swim in net-free waters.
The story behind THE GOLDEN COD is as follows. Within the glass enclosure, beach pebbles collected from Wakley's Cove, Gargamelle Cove, Jellyfish Cove and Tilt Cove surround a weathered whale vertebrate (backbone), above which hangs THE GOLDEN COD. So from top to bottom; The cod has always been the backbone of Newfoundland, The Rock. The broken side fin is symbolic of the troubled and collapsed cod fishery. Beneath the enclosure, the six marble uprights represent the six pillars of a semi-submersible drilling rig. It represents the financial and economic strength of our new offshore oil industry, now holding up a troubled and broken codfish industry. The fish hand-bar is there to remind us that once the liquid black gold is gone we must get back to basics and the cod fishery must be a big part of our future, especially here in rural outport Newfoundland. The hand-bar also reminds us that we must handle the oil and fishing industries of the future with utmost care and caution. We don't need a messy oil spill to bring our fish afloat. The two salt dry cod sitting on the hand-bar is there to remind us we must prepare ourselves for life after oil and the codfish must reign as king once again. The codfish is the reason why Newfoundland was settled by Europeans in the first place over 500 years ago. So we as a distinct people must look closely at where we came from if we are going to try and figure out where we are going.
The base for my masterpiece is the near extinct cod splitting table. Once the table from which many a man and woman carved a living from the cod fishery, only a few relics remain, either sitting on some idle wharf or stored somewhere in the corner of some abandoned fish store, covered with buoys and coils of rope; it's surface never to see a codfish and the sunlight of day again. The splitting of cod from these tables began with the cutting of the cod's throat, tearing out the cod's guts and liver and then ripping off the head with one quick jerk on the tapered edge of the table. It was then tossed to the opposite side of the table to the 'splitter' who worked with a curved blade knife called the 'splitting knife'. With this knife, the splitter removed the sound bone or 'backbone' and then dropped the split fish into a tub of salt water for washing. Next came the salting and eventually the drying of the cod. But many a fish merchant from Water St. and other streets in and around St. John's, also made a decent living from this table.
Beneath the splitting table on the wharf is where most baymen kids cut out their first cod tongues. Us kids sifted through piles of cod heads and guts, cutting out the tongues and tossing them in a bucket or pail. The biggest ones we prized and showed them off, but all sizes counted. During the summertime we sold them to the strangers in town, the tourist, for 10 cents a pound. It was our first pocket money, our first job. Today, cod tongues are like gold, scarce and expensive.
With the collapse of the cod fishery and the looming troubles in many of the other inshore fisheries, we fishfolk living outside the overpass feel the backbone has been ripped right out of us. Ever since the COD MORATORIUM went into effect some twenty odd years ago, we've felt the curve blade splitting knife slowly move down our backs in an attempt to remove our backbone, thus rendering us outport fishfolk crippled and useless, heading for an early extinction of a distinct species. A fisherman with no backbone is not much of a fisherman at all.
The bible tells us that The Arc of the Covenant was a wooden chest that housed a sacred agreement written in stone, The 10 Commandments, between God and his people. It was a promise to refrain from 10 specified actions, all beginning with Thou Shalt Not ... The Book of Exodus tells us that Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights with God on Mount Sinai. It was there he received the 10 Commandments written on two tablets of stone. But God also commanded Moses to build an Arc, a wooden chest, to house the two tablets of stone for carrying from place to place. The whole Arc was to be plated with gold and two secure shaves or poles were inserted for carrying. Once finished, the Arc was covered by a blue veil. This is my Arc of the Cod.
So how does an independent artist go about appraising and pricing one's own art? My pricing strategy for THE GOLDEN COD was quite simple. I went about searching the web to find out who were the top artists in the world today, and to see what type of art they were producing and what prices they were fetching. I soon learned that some contemporary artists were pricing their 3-D modern art in the tens of millions of dollars. But some art experts and critics were up in arms, contending what was considered 3-D contemporary art, was not art at all. On the other hand, the artists were saying, "So What? There were buyers out there for this type of art and they are buying".
So this got me to thinking, what is art in today's world? It was no longer just paint on canvass in a frame. Art could be anything, anywhere. Seeing myself as an upcoming, outside the box, Canadian artist from Newfoundland, I wasn't about to underprice my masterpiece. If other worldwide contemporary artists were getting 10's of millions of dollars for their work, then my piece, THE GOLDEN COD, was worth at least one million Canadian dollars, without taxes.
So I went to see my accountant to ask him what I would have to sell THE GOLDEN COD for to come out on top with one million dollars to the good. He told me that any net yearly income of approximately 135,000 dollars or more, the government was going to deduct almost half of it on my personal income tax. Therefore I would have to sell it for at least $1.9 million if I was to pocket $1 million. Then there was the 13% Harmonization Sales Tax that I had to collect and submit to government as well, coming in at another $247,000. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out that the governments are to make more out of this sale than the artist himself. They will make 1.2 million and I will take home only 1 million. So, doing the math, I appraise my own piece of 3-D contemporary art, THE GOLDEN COD, at $2.2 million Canadian dollars, taxes included.
Besides that, a former premier of our province, Danny Williams, when he was in office, said to his people and the world,
"No more giveaways from NEWFOUNDLAND and LABRADOR!"
At the time, I supported my Premier.