Tom Forrestall’s Islands in the Ice
Tom Forrestall has described his work as magical realism. His 1987 painting Island in the Ice has an aura of mystery and was inspired by an event so rare as to almost qualify as magic.
In April 1987 an unprecedented series of meteorological circumstances brought ice from the Gulf of St. Lawrence down the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and filled the Halifax Harbour for the first time in recorded history. Halifax is often credited as having one of the North Atlantic’s largest ice-free natural harbours, but the ice of April 1987 brought most marine traffic to a halt. Forrestall painted Devils Island at the mouth of the harbour as it was completely trapped in ice during this event.
The painting is immediately remarkable for its elongated capsule shape with rounded ends. Forrestall began making shaped paintings in the 1960s and it has been a signature of many of his works since then. Painters and sculptors of that time started challenging the orthodoxy of rectilinear art works and Forrestall joined them, but uniquely as a realist painter. Forrestall has experimented with a wide array of different shaped masonite painting supports since the 1960s. The shaped paintings heighten the fact that we are looking at a “thing” in this world and at the same time a window into another heightened world.
The top quarter of the painting is grey sky. It’s the kind of low cloud that hints at the sun above it and diffuses the light below creating gentle shadows. The side-lit ice and buildings suggest it is early in the day. The bottom three-quarters of the picture plane is a jagged landscape of ice and sea with buckling shards tilted upwards like fantastic mountains. The island of the title is a thin strip imprisoned between ice and sky on the horizon line. On the left side of the island is a lighthouse. The middle of the island is dominated by a two-story house and several other structures. The right side of the island shows the gabled ends of a semi-collapsed wooden building. It is unclear if the ice has caused this collapse or if the two events are coincidental. It is a small detail in the painting and is dwarfed by nearby ice spires but it adds a compelling narrative mystery to an already enigmatic painting.
The painting’s flat treeless island has a dream-like quality but is in fact a real place. Devils Island sits in the mouth of the Halifax Harbour about 500 metres from Hartlen Point on the eastern side of the shore. The true origin of the name Devils Island is unclear. Some histories mention a French resident named Deville or Deval while others cite the deadly shoals around the island that have claimed numerous ships within sight of Halifax. Once named Isle Verte for its trees, it is now completely deforested. It stubbornly faces the open North Atlantic with no protection from its fury. The lighthouse is a reminder of how risky approaching Nova Scotia’s rocky shoreline was in the age of sail. The lighthouse was maintained by keepers who lived on the island with their families. In 1909 there were eighteen houses and a school on the 12-hectare island. The residents would also be the first to respond to a ship in distress on the shoals. During the 20th century, automated lighthouses, radar and satellites allowed ships to accurately position themselves. Forrestall is bearing witness to this disappearing history. Devils Island’s last resident, a Norwegian artist, left in 2000.
This work began with Forrestall making numerous sketches from Hartlen Point in April 1987, several of which are part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's collection. Forrestall has expressed a preference for drawing over photography as source material for his paintings. He finds the subjective choices of the artist’s hand produces something closer to the truth he seeks than a photograph can capture.
Forrestall studied at Mount Allison University in the 1950s under renowned realist painter Alex Colville. He is grouped with Colville and Christopher and Mary Pratt (also students of Colville at Mount Allison) as the four principal Atlantic Realists. All four have varying degrees of overlapping artistic concerns. Like Colville, and the influential mid-century American painter Andrew Wyeth, Forrestall chose to pursue egg tempera painting which is a slow and deliberate technique and demands the artist work on tiny details rather than broad brush strokes. Egg tempera does not lend itself to the rich saturated colours that oil painting does. Its colours are muted in comparison but more durable over time. In Island in the Ice the small, semi-submerged slushy ice floes in the immediate foreground are rendered with the same detail and fidelity as every other part of the painting. Whether painting a sea of ice or a field of grass, in a Forrestall painting every detail is rendered as if it were the primary focus.
Tom Forrestall was born in Middleton, NS, in 1936. His family moved to Dartmouth during World War II which enabled him to take art classes at the Nova Scotia College of Art which was then on the corner of Argyle and George Street. After Mount Allison, Forrestall was a curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton before returning to Dartmouth to work as a practicing artist for over fifty years. He was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2008.
Island in the Ice, 1987.
Egg tempera on Masonite, 72.5 x 214.5 cm.
Acquisition made possible with funds provided by Christopher Ondaatje, Toronto, Ontario, 1994. 1994.19