Joan Jonas on Cape Breton, Her Island of Wonder and Inspiration

Joan Jonas on Cape Breton, Her Island of Wonder and Inspiration

The view never ends from the weathered porch of Joan Jonas’s summer home on a hill in Cape Breton Island, on the tip of Nova Scotia. Just beyond a thicket of treetops, the Gulf of St. Lawrence sways in a gradient of blues, a cobalt horizon line hovering where sea meets sky.

For decades, the vista has served as the summer backdrop for New York City artists, including Richard Serra, Philip Glass, Robert Frank and June Leaf, seeking rugged beauty, anonymity and temperate weather.

For Jonas, who arrived with friends in the ’70s, it has been a canvas.

“I performed in it” she said of the landscape in a recent interview, her voice gruff and blunt but not unkind. “It inspired me. What can I say?”

Many honorifics have been heaped on Jonas in an attempt to sum up her trailblazing legacy and elusive spirit: vanguard, mystic, stalwart, pioneer of ecological feminism, canonical video and performance artist. A new exhibition, “Good Night Good Morning,” at the Museum of Modern Art, brings these genres into a sweeping retrospective of the 87-year-old artist’s multimedia career, and includes still images of “Nova Scotia Beach Dance” (1971), one of Jonas’s first performances in Cape Breton, which audience members reportedly viewed from the vantage point of a cliff.

She also drew from the island’s imagery and regional lore. “They Come to Us Without a Word,” her installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale, featured gauzy projections of Jonas, animals and bees layered with narrated ghost stories in the oral tradition of Cape Breton.

Jonas’s nephew, the London-based photographer Toby Coulson, had heard stories about Cape Breton. As a budding artist, Coulson, 39, who grew up in Britain and whose father is Jonas’s half brother, delighted in visits to his aunt’s loft in SoHo, Manhattan, where relics of the Canadian wilderness filled the walls and crevices. He took portraits of Jonas in 2018, when she had an exhibition at the Tate Modern, but he couldn’t shake the urge to make pictures of her in the oceanfront environs he’d seen in her work. So he set out to capture what he could — Jonas’s vigor and playfulness; her home-as-studio and its surrounding wild beauty.

Plans were discussed for a summer visit but Covid delayed things. Finally, in July 2022, Coulson, his partner, Clarisse d’Arcimoles, and their two young children, made a 10-day trip to Cape Breton.

They took a seven-hour flight from London to Halifax, drove four hours northeast and eventually onto a winding dirt road making their way to Jonas’s home on the coast.

“It felt like a newly discovered land,” he said. The sounds of nature and silence washed over him.

The two-story home was rickety, Coulson recalled, and the hot water fleeting. Celtic bric-a-brac decorated the interior, reflecting the island’s Celtic roots. Strands of shimmery kelp, grooved seashells and smoothed stones were strewed throughout.

“She’s an artist that is in her work,” Coulson said. “Even the way she dresses, even her knife and fork and her plate, everything.”

Much of the décor was found at “Myles from Nowhere,” a local antiques shop with no heat, no lights and no water.

“When it gets dark I go home,” Myles Kehoe, the owner, said in a phone interview.

The shop, where cellphones are prohibited, is filled with vintage wares. He and Jonas, friends for more than 30 years, share a love for rustic, handmade objects.

“I had the ugliest airplane you’d ever seen in your entire life and, well, I knew who would love it,” Kehoe said with a laugh.

“I sort of know what she wants,” he went on. “So if I find something I just put it aside for her and wait till she comes the next year. And she usually takes it all.”

That was the case for a collection of miniature wooden houses Kehoe found at a yard sale. Some had cellophaned windows to look like stained glass; all were made with salvaged materials.

“She flipped over them,” Kehoe said.

One of those wooden structures, a small-scale pagoda, is on view in the MoMA exhibition.

“He collects very unusual things,” Jonas said. “And I often find props and objects. It could all be for my work, or it could be just for display. I don’t differentiate.”

In addition to handmade objects, sea themes and a fixation with wind appear as central motifs in Jonas’s work, including.

in “Waltz” (2003), a series of totemic rituals with masks and mirrors on a shore near the woods in Nova Scotia, and “Moving Off the Land” (2018), a meditation on the ocean and its fragile, life-giving ecology.

Coulson set out to capture the island’s deeply rooted influences on her work. Most days, Jonas, Coulson and his family trekked to the beach, cooked in the modest kitchen where skillets hang from steel nails, and in the evenings hid from the mosquitoes and horse flies behind the screened-in porch.

“It’s just blue and green and sky and it’s kind of liberating,” Coulson said. “You could see where her work comes from and what inspired it.”

Not that Jonas would put it in those terms. “There’s always an overlap and an influence but I can’t really say what it is,” she said. “It’s mysterious.”

All the while Coulson had his camera, observing: Jonas, who is barely five feet tall, walking across hot sand in slow motion; collecting stones; lying in the shallow water; swimming — these days it’s breast stroke only, easier for mobility.

“Every day I was working up to the moment to ask her to take a picture,” he said.

For decades, Jonas, a serious swimmer, descended the cliffs twice a day. The steep bluffs are harder to negotiate now, she said. She drives down when the water isn’t too rough.

“I would go every day if I could,” she said. “I used to shower at the beach.”

Jonas first went up to Cape Breton in the early 1970s with a group of friends, to visit the nearby farm of the Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks.

“It was really beautiful and magical,” she said. “And I liked the other people up there, so that was an added asset.”

She acquired the land for her ocean-facing hilltop in 1975 and worked with a local builder to construct the wooden house. In the beginning, the home had no inside walls, and only kerosene lamps. A summer resident, she made do without electricity or plumbing for the first five years.

“I lived in it when it was just a bare shell,” she said. “I slowly made it into a comfortable place.”

Built like a local farmhouse, with shingles, it originally stood at 20 by 24 feet. Then came the porch: long and timbered. And in the early ’90s, a 20 by 12 feet studio addition, flooded with natural light.

Although the island has long attracted avant-garde types — writers, performance artists, photographers and composers who spent their days making art, the evenings do-si-do-ing at a town square dance or hosting each other for dinner — it wasn’t an artist’s colony, Jonas was quick to note. Geography alone stretches the definition of neighbor (it is common for friends to live some 20 miles apart). Most fill their days with generative work — in solitude.

Jeri Coppola, a photography and installation artist, first came to Cape Breton as an archivist and house sitter for Lynn Davis, Rudy Wurlitzer, Helen Tworkov and Philip Glass in the early ’90s. She became friends with Jonas a few years later.

“It’s not a tourist destination,” Coppola said. “There’s nothing to do but work on your work.”

With 9 p.m. sunsets in the summer, the days are trippy with light, luxuriously long.

Coppola (no relation to the filmmakers) recalled a day at Jonas’s house when Hendricks and the artist Sur Rodney (Sur) were over. Jonas started filming the two men wandering through the grove trees behind her house, which Coppola calls “the fairy forest.” It turned into a spontaneous performance of Geoff and Sur responding to the landscape.

“I can work in a more expansive way than I can in New York,” Jonas said. “It’s a little more bare, a little more empty. I like that.”

Coulson’s shots caught the mundane and the magnificent: hazy coastal landscapes, an artist’s scattered materials; portraits of Jonas and her curled-up poodle, Ozu; golden hour hues and playful mirrors, riffing on Jonas’s own fascination with reflections.

“It felt like a really pure form of photography,” Coulson said. “We only did a few pictures each day.”

One of his photos on view at MoMA features Jonas towering above the miniature village, her stature staggering, her presence sublime.

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