Until this year, Prince Edward Island had been one of the few provinces in Canada where I hadn’t yet gone on a local colour pilgrimage—looking for potential earth pigments in a community. The island is famous for its reds, so I was especially excited to take this trip and see the colours for myself.
My hotel during this stay was near the downtown of Charlottetown, and as I prepared for my pilgrimage I packed a bag with my shovel, small baggies, and a little food and water. After receiving a few recommendations of where to look from community members, I felt that I was more or less ready to head off in search of red the next day. But, one of the elements I’m not accustomed to planning around is the tides. Living well inland, the ocean’s coming and goings don’t factor into my planning. It wasn’t until hours later that I suddenly realized it might be worth looking up when low and high tide were predicted, and I’m very grateful for the inspiration! It turned out that low tide was happening around 8am the next day, and given that I had a long walk ahead of me, I set my alarm early.
Walking has become more and more important to me as I explore the idea of local colour. I think the same is true in any pilgrimage. Though I set out with a place and object in mind, walking is as much a part of the process of finding colour in a place as grinding it once I’m back in my studio. My experience has been that both these processes give me time to experience something I’d otherwise miss—a connection to a place—something that makes these local colours more that just another hue on my artist’s palette.
My walk began a little before the sun was up fully and in a light rain. With my map and some hand-drawn notes of where I was going, I headed east, leaving the beautiful stone buildings of Charlottetown’s downtown and eventually coming into a more metal, industrial area. When the sidewalk ended, I continued along the edge of the highway. Coming to a bridge busy with morning commuters did give me pause, but there was no choice but to simply walk on and cross it (and stay as close to the rail as possible!).
Once across the bridge, I reached the next town, Stratford. While regaining a sidewalk was very welcome, more exciting to me was a recently worked city garden that was bright with wet, red soil. I walked over to it, and for a moment I wondered if my pilgrimage was at an end. Picking up a few clods of earth, the soil stained my fingers and boots a brilliant red. But, while collecting this earth would have given me a usable pigment, walking was feeling good and I still felt Tea Hill beckoning.
I walked on. And, as I became convinced that the roads I was walking bore little resemblance to the ones on my map, I stopped in at a little convenience store to ask for help and directions. These experiences are also something that I love about pilgrimages—the kindness of strangers. After I explained my problem, the owner, a slight woman only speaking broken english, came around the counter with her tablet. Together we figured out the correct spelling of, “Tea Hill” and confirmed that I’d taken a wrong turn. Then she showed me the roads I would need to take to get to the park from where we stood. With a smile and a wave I headed back into the rain, but with a renewed step—I don’t think there’s anything more encouraging in a strange place than receiving self-less help on one’s journey.
In the end it took a lot longer to get to Tea Hill than I had thought. The tide was just beginning to come back in, but I was still early enough to see the vast, open, red space stretching out to the water. On this grey day, I was completely alone and spent the next couple of hours exploring. I walked out to the ocean, and watched it’s rather quick advance back to the beach (in fact, it was coming fast enough that it creeped behind me once, and cut me off, and I had to wade a little before regaining the sand!). Walking back to the cliffs, I also found the most beautiful strata of red mud—some of it hard cakes of colour, others soft enough to paint with.
After exploring this area for a couple of hours in solitude, I headed back to the road to wait for a class from Immanuel Christian School. Their teacher, Bridget, and I had met earlier in the week, and had subsequently agreed that her group of grade 5 students would join me in the afternoon for a time of exploring and painting. They arrived, on mass, and after a quick introduction we headed down the long lane to the park, with a group of boys running at full tilt ahead of us.
Instead of heading back to the cliffs that I had explored earlier, which were now buffeted by waves, we turned to the east and walked along the beach. While my bag was feeling a little heavy as we walked, I was confident that it already contained all the local colours from Tea Hill—I was very wrong. In my experience, children always find the best things on a treasure hunt, and this time was no different. A small group introduced me to a bowl of soft, red mud they had found (which I had read about but been unable to find) and another bunch of students brought me samples of a dark umber soil and even a little yellow ochre. It was amazing!
Afterwards we headed back to the school, and I began to work with the children around creating paint. Together we gathered around a desk and I demonstrated how to make egg tempera paint from the soils they had collected. The moment I enjoyed most of all was the resounding, “Oh-h-h-h …” when I demonstrated, with a single brush stroke, the paint we had created. I’d thought that the exciting on the beach would be the pinnacle, but it was now that things really got started.
The classroom became a creative, chaotic space. A small group of girls became fascinated with separating egg yolks. After giving them a personal demonstration I left, and it was probably ten minutes later that I finally looked back and saw their many failed attempts running off the table, and onto the floor. As the need to intervene dawned on me, another boy came up to me and said he had spilled his paint. I walked over to his desk and realized that his cup hadn’t simply dropped, but been sent flying—its contents now brightly coloured the floor all the way up his aisle. Even though I knew we were edging precariously close to the edge of disaster, the excitement and energy with which the class approached painting was amazing.
The art that the children painted was great, too. Landscapes, handprints, and words appeared—each one an experiment with paint, and passionately shared with the class and myself. Afterwards, with the children gone home and their artwork drying along one of the classroom’s walls, Bridget and I worked to put the room to rights and my day returned to the quiet with which it had begun. This time to reflect was perhaps the best possible way to finish my day of pilgrimage. And, as I worked to wash the tenacious red pigment from the classroom’s tiled floor, I found myself savouring the completion of this journey.
The next day I boarded a plane and flew away from PEI. I had checked a second piece of luggage, filled with baggies of the local colours from Tea Hill. And, as we gained some altitude in our ascent, I could see across other fields and beaches, to which I hope someday I’ll have opportunity to make pilgrimage.
All photos in the above gallery taken by Ms. Scott.
My thanks to Bridget and all the students in her class for their participation, as well as Matt, the principle at Immanuel Christian School, for his support. And thanks also to Rick, Laurie and Sandy from the community of Charlottetown, for their suggestions that led to finding such a wonderful place to look for red on PEI.