Sitting on a remote constellation of rocks on the eastern edge of Newfoundland and Labrador, Fogo Island is Canada’s most alluring destination. The rural area would have been an unlikely global retreat – especially for the likes of international vacationers like actress Gwyneth Paltrow – if it weren’t for Zita Cobb and the Shorefast Foundation.
After leaving an impressive post as a tech executive, Zita returned to her hometown and made it her mission to revive the outport community.
Through the Shorefast Foundation and Fogo Island Inn, Cobb has revitalized the island’s cultural and artistic industries – and turned the far-flung haven into one of the world’s most exciting geotourism destinations.
Now as part of Uncrate Canada, Fogo Island Shop, which captures centuries of handcrafting knowledge in artful and modern home décor, will be popping up at Holt Renfrew Bloor Street from April 7th to May 5th.
Alexandra Weston: You once described Fogo Island to me as a “Salty Narnia”. There is a sense of fantasy, something almost dreamlike about the island. Is that what brought you back to Fogo Island?
Zita Cobb: Musician Alan Doyle deserves all the credit for the “Salty Narnia” label. He also said that Fogo Island is like a place you can’t believe, but always hoped existed. That’s a pretty perfect description, too. I came back to Fogo Island after retiring from my business career in the early 2000s. As an eighth-generation Fogo Islander, the pull towards the magic of home was strong. Having a career in high-tech when I did, I ended up with more money than I needed to live. The natural thing to do seemed to be to find a way to invest in the island’s future.
AW: What was it like growing up within a community so entwined and dependent on the fishing industry? You were a young child when the inshore fishery collapsed, culminating in the moratorium of 1992. Do you feel that experience molded you?
ZC: I had a perfect childhood. By today’s standards, we didn’t have much, but at the same time, we had everything. I can’t imagine a more idyllic place to grow up. I sometimes say that I have lived in three centuries – until I was 10 it was as if we were living in the 18th century. We had no running water or electricity. Around the time I turned 10, in the late ‘60s, the worst of the 20th century came crashing down on top of us when the international factory draggers showed up off our shores. It didn’t take long to bring the cod to the brink of extinction, and to ruin the inshore fishery that had sustained Fogo Island for centuries. I decided to study business to understand the system that had lead those people on those big boats to catch all the fish. And finally, my career encompassed the race into the 21st century as I worked in the fibre optics industry.
AW: You’ve been quoted as saying, “Every human being has special gifts and it’s our job to figure out how to use them for the society we live in.” Tell us about the incredible work you’ve done for the Fogo Island community.
ZC: Our work on Fogo Island began around 2003 when two of my brothers, Anthony and Alan, and myself formed the Shorefast Foundation, using the principals of asset-based community development. We asked the community, and ourselves, what do we have? What do we know? What do we love? And what do we miss?
We started with art, because art in the form of the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program had been so instrumental to helping Fogo Island hold on as a community when the fishery was in serious decline. Fogo Island Arts was established as an international artist-in-residence program to bring in contemporary artists. We could learn from them, and they could learn from us. Now we have a series of social businesses including the Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island Shop, and Fogo Island Fish, as well as charitable programs including Fogo Island Arts, the New Ocean Ethic initiative, and geology and academic residency programs.
AW: The architecture and aesthetic of Fogo Island Inn is really striking and unique. Can you tell us about the design?
ZC: We hired Newfoundland-born architect Todd Saunders to design the Inn. We knew that Todd would feel the same responsibility to “get it right” that we did. He was tasked with helping us create a geotourism destination by designing buildings that retained the richness of our outport traditions while also speaking the visual language of contemporary design. The goal was to “find new ways with old things” in order to both preserve and stimulate cultural production and to create restorative spaces for guests. One of my favourite poems is by New Zealand poet, Glen Colquhoun. A fragment of one of his poems that guides our work is, “the art of walking upright is the art of using both feet. One is for holding on; one is for reaching out.” Our goal in everything we do, including design, is to help us do exactly that – hold on to who we are and in the same gesture to reach out and be a part of the world.
AW: The same design and architecture have been applied to a handful of artist studios you have built as part of your artist-in-residency program. Can you tell us a little more about this program?
ZC: The studios came before the Inn and were the first time that Fogo Island’s craftsmen were tasked with building contemporary architecture. They acted almost as pilot projects for the building of the Inn. These studios are workspaces for the artists who come to the Island under the Fogo Island Arts artist-in-residence program. The artists work in the studios but live in restored houses in the community, allowing them to have the privacy to work but also allowing them to become immersed in our life and culture.
The Shop’s pieces are handcrafted and produced on Fogo Island, employing local artisans and contributing to the promotion of economic resiliency.
AW: I remember enjoying a chat with a young chef at Fogo Island Inn, he was saying that a decade into his successful, international career, he couldn’t believe he was back home, utilizing his globally renowned talent and incorporating local ingredients such as reindeer moss into his dishes. Are you seeing more young, talented individuals coming home and finding opportunities?
ZC: Absolutely. There are so many talented and passionate Newfoundlanders in the diaspora – most of them longing to come home. We have a long history of leaving home to find work. It’s such a great feeling when we can create meaningful work at home.
AW: Can you tell us a little bit more about Fogo Island Shop and the products you carry?
ZC: Due to the Island’s relatively isolated geography, we have a history of making nearly everything by hand. It fosters a culture of self-sufficiency because the things you needed to survive were not available – you had to make them yourself. The furniture of Fogo Island Shop is the result of a collaborative process between artists and designers from away and the skilled artisans of Fogo Island. Contemporary designers worked side-by-side with our craftspeople to create furniture and textiles that embodied a “new outport aesthetic” by weaving the new from the fabric of the old. The pieces created were used within the Fogo Island Inn, but so many guests were asking to purchase them that we sort of “backed ourselves” into the furniture business which became Fogo Island Shop. The Shop’s pieces are handcrafted and produced on Fogo Island, employing local artisans and contributing to the promotion of economic resiliency. It’s a social business and all products are priced to create a 15% net surplus, 100% of which is returned back to Shorefast Foundation to support our ongoing charitable programs.