How to Make a Home on Fogo Island
A wave of artists migrating to Newfoundland’s Fogo Island are taking a modern approach to preserving local traditions.
“On Fogo Island, it takes more than a house to make a home,” says Kingman Brewster. The architectural consultant moved to the remote Newfoundland outpost from Brooklyn 10 years ago with his wife, Erin, an artist, and their children. Now very much entrenched in the community, Brewster has married his contemporary sensibilities with an appreciation for the Island’s vernacular architecture. He’s earned a reputation for respectfully transforming old buildings—and constructing new ones—to suit modern life.
In this offshore Maritime community of 2,300, resourceful local people have long found a way to build everything they need to support the work that feeds their families. Fishing has been at the heart of daily life there for centuries, and islanders constructed what are known as “rooms,” leading from the ocean to their main dwelling.
The rooms consisted of a stilt-legged wooden structure over the ocean called a “stage,” which was used for “splitting” (cleaning and gutting) fish and tethering your punt (wooden boat), and a “flake”—a platform for drying cod.
There would also be a shed for fishing, hunting, and gardening gear, as well as for gathering with friends and neighbours; a turf-roofed root cellar for overwintering vegetables; and a coop or a barn for livestock. Collectively, the family house, along with the various rooms, are referred to as one’s “premises.”
While many Fogo Islanders still use their rooms very much as their forebears did, others are repurposing them in creative ways—notably a new wave of “come-from-away” artists who, like Kingman and Erin, have made their homes here.
Fogo Island has become a magnet for artists and makers seeking time and space to focus on their practice. A surge in tourism, boosted by the arrival of the international-award-winning Fogo Island Inn a decade ago, has showcased local heritage crafts to the world. Two artist residency programs, Tilting AIR and Fogo Island Arts, have also helped build an artistic community comprising both local people and mainlanders.
On a warm spring day, Brewster showed us around the homes of a few artists, pointing out the many ways that these new residents are engaging with local culture and architecture, both in the design of their premises and in their creative practices on Fogo Island.
Sarah and Peggy, Town of Fogo
As the daughter of a diplomat, potter Sarah Fulford had a nomadic childhood. She called places such as France, Korea, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Japan, England, and Ottawa home, before moving to Fogo Island in 2021, to open Fogo Clay Studio—a teaching centre, workshop, and pottery retreat. Her partner, Peggy White, lived in Almonte, Ontario for two decades, before joining Sarah on Fogo Island. Peggy builds acoustic guitars and mandolins by hand. The couple love hiking, jamming, and hosting friends and neighbours at their kitchen table.
Scale and balance
“The main buildings on Sarah and Peggy’s original property were a massive shed, formerly for making barrels, and a small house,” explains Brewster. “They transformed the shed into Sarah’s clay studio, but opted to rebuild the house, because of its dilapidated condition. The new house occupies the same footprint as the old one and emulates its saltbox form, only it has been sized up to accommodate guest bedrooms for clay retreats, and the ceilings were raised to give a little more headroom to the average 21st-century human. You have to be careful here not to supersize your home or you risk alienating your neighbours and detracting from the harmony of the place. But I think Peggy and Sarah got the scale right.”
The wraparound comeback
“Wraparound decks were popular a century ago, because they added a massive amount of space to houses packed with kids. They fell out of fashion as families got smaller and people started buying lumber off island, rather than just chopping down trees in the forest. But they’re seeing a revival now. The weather changes rapidly here, so it’s nice to have various microclimates on different sides of your home. Wraparound decks allow you to be outdoors more and connect with your neighbours.”
Connecting with people and place
“Sarah and Peggy have made a public hall of sorts out of their shed. A transformation like that is not just about architecture, it’s about care for the community they’ve joined.”
M’Liz and Don, Barr’d Islands
M’Liz Keefe came to Fogo Island as an artist in residence, and now resides there in the house she built with husband, Don Paul. The New Jersey-born artist has lived in many wild places, including Nebraska’s Great Plains and the desert in Taos, New Mexico. Originally from British Columbia, Don Paul fell in love with M’Liz at the Partridgeberry Festival, while visiting Fogo Island. After the couple married, he moved East and became Fogo Island’s first beekeeper. M’Liz and Don have a house and outbuildings for beekeeping and home maintenance on one side of Barr’d Islands and M’Liz’s studio on the other. They are partners in a new art gallery, J.K. Contemporary, which launched in July 2022.
Windows on the world
“In houses on Fogo Island you often get small windows that create framed views. M’Liz and Don’s house is partially built into the rocks, so some of their framed views end up looking like vertical planes of texture—it’s really neat and abstract.”
“M’Liz loves the traditional ochre of the fishing stages, and there’s a relationship between them and the exterior finish of the house, even though she’s gone with a slightly deeper hue. Her studio has that same colour, which ties it in as part of their ‘premises,’ even though it’s on the other side of Barr’d Islands.”
Saving the story in the flaws
“Like many buildings here, M’Liz’s studio building was moved from another community. But instead of launching it across the water, as was typical, the past owners cut out the corners and moved the walls, roof, and floor by land, as separate pieces to reassemble. This created all kinds of weird lines, and window and chimney holes. M’Liz likes the layers of history that show up in quirky details like that. Instead of replacing the odd boards, she worked with a local carpenter, Barry Nichol, who cut out little squares of wood to fill in the missing pieces. M’Liz painted those, so there are colourful shapes all over the walls.”
Fraser and Lee, Barr’d Islands
Adventurer-turned-ceramist Fraser Carpenter was born in England and has lived all over the world—often on the ocean in the steel sailboat she built. Fraser met Lee Danisch on Fogo Island, through a mutual love of hiking and wildlife. They now live with their dog, Jack, in a 70-year-old house they transformed together. Lee is a potter-turned-engineer and entrepreneur. Several years after retiring and moving to Fogo Island, he returned to ceramics. In June 2022 the couple co-founded Steel and Stone Gallery with metal artist Marc Fiset and his wife, Pauline Payne.
Working with local people
“Lee and Fraser were very hands-on with the construction work, but it was also important to them to work with Fogo carpenters, Rex Leyte and Keith Gill, who possess indispensable local knowledge.”
“The couple kept the frame of the old house they purchased intact, but added the greenhouse, porch, garden area with its rocks, pools and firepit, and their kitchen-dining-living space. They’re active in the community and love to share things they grow. They often have people over for meals, a bonfire, or tea by the wood-fired stove. They curated these different spaces to have every weather scenario covered.”
Productivity on fire
“They use one shed for traditional home and boat maintenance purposes, and converted the other to house the saltfire kiln that Lee built. Breathing new life into that building has allowed them to explore ceramics—a past pursuit of Lee’s and a new one for Fraser.”
Janet and Bruce, Deep Bay
Originally from Gander, NL, Janet Langdon worked with the CBC as a costume designer before launching an upholstery business in Vancouver. She is now the Textiles Lead for Fogo Island Workshops and designs contemporary quilts. Janet’s partner, Bruce Pashak, is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist from Vancouver, whose work has been exhibited across Canada, the US, and Europe. The couple divide their time between their Fogo Island and Gander homes.
Modern yet discrete
“This is one of the most modern-looking homes on the island—aesthetically it has more in common with the Todd-Saunders-designed Fogo Island Arts studios and Inn—but it fits in with the more traditional neighbouring properties because it is designed to be discrete: pulled back from the road and dark enough to disappear into the background.”
Weathered by design
“The graphite finish allows the black spruce exterior boards to weather and have character. But it also creates a harmonious and unified look from a distance. Those boards are really quite beautiful, and they remind you of the weathered stages and sheds in the community, even though this property is of a different time and intention.”
A tub with a view
“The deep bath set in front of the large window looking out to sea in the bathroom seems super modern, but again those windows remind me of the vast openings looking out over the ocean on fishing stages, and it was common here on Fogo Island for years to have a big deep tub. You can still see some in the house museums. It was practical when families were larger and there was no electricity or running water. You could fill up a bath, and then all 10 kids could get in and out before the water got too cold.”
An old-school studio
“Bruce’s studio building next door has not only been a school, but also a place for screening movies, and a church in past lives. Local people come in and tell Bruce stories, like how each kid had to bring a log for the woodstove at the start of every school day. You can feel the years of use.”
Claudia and Noel, Fogo
Four decades ago, US-born Claudia Brahms and Noel Mount, who is originally from Ireland, co-founded a home textiles design and manufacturing company, Brahms Mount, in Maine, weaving natural fibres on antique looms. They shared a passion for nature and camping, and when they came to Fogo Island in summer 2013 for an arts residency, they fell in love with the island’s rugged beauty. Upon their return in November of that year, they’d planned to rent for a few months but ended up buying a saltbox house and its premises. They moved in with only the belongings they could squeeze into one van and one car. Noel now focuses on wood carving, photography, and digital art, and Claudia on mixed-media art and textile design.
The family legacy
“Claudia and Noel bought their house from Dale and Abel Payne, after Abel’s father, Doug, passed away. After Claudia and Noel moved in, members of the Payne family would sometimes show up to pay tribute to their late patriarch and tell their stories over a cup of tea. One relative described seeing a pile of 100 turrs [large seabirds] on the floor in their kitchen, after a hunting party. Stories like that helped them connect with their new home’s past lives. It happens a lot on Fogo Island: if you get an old house, you inherit the family too.”
Other people’s doors
“There’s an eclectic collection of old doors in this home. One came from the church in Barr’d Islands that belonged to a long-time resident, Cheryl Blake. One came from Winston Osmond, an artist and farmer in Shoal Bay. Claudia and Noel wanted to have character-filled old doors in the house that connected them with people they’d become friends with across the island.”
His and hers sheds
“Claudia and Noel have a shed each. Claudia paints and weaves in hers and Noel does woodwork in his—he carves wooden spoons, sculptures, and vessels. They’re determined to breathe new life into those old spaces without transforming them beyond recognition.”
Peeling back the past
“Under a floorboard at the front door, there was a newspaper dated to about 1914—a hundred years before he unearthed it. When you’re restoring an older property, you discover treasures like that, and it makes you feel deep respect for the history of your home—and the people who called it home before you.”