Artist returns to her roots
It’s one thing to return to your hometown for short, nostalgic visits; quite another to return to your early stomping grounds, after an absence of almost forty years, to live there. Annie Abdalla, who grew up in Coaticook until the early 1970’s when she moved away to pursue her education,
has been Coatic’Art’s Artist in Residence for the past five months and seems to be thoroughly enjoying re-discovering her hometown. “I arrived here at the beginning of October and the residency was supposed to end at the end of December; I’ve had two extensions,” explained Ms. Abdalla in an interview in Coatic’Art’s apartment/ studio above the Coaticook library. “When I first left here, I went to school in Europe, in Ontario,” continued the artist who studied engineering, sociology and environmental studies before discovering her interest in art.
“In my thirties I went back to school to do graduate work and, in a course on critical thinking about the media, our professor taught us how to shoot and develop film. I had never done art before; I learnt how to slow down and really see, which changed my relationship with the environment,” explained Ms. Abdalla about what motivated her to study art. decided to do a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Halifax to help me with my Masters. Halifax really pleased me so I stayed there.”
Over the years she often came back to the Eastern Townships region with her siblings to visit her parents, the late Louis Abdalla, who ran several pharmacies in Coaticook for decades, and Joan Abdalla who now lives in North Hatley. “We would always swing by Café Central. We weren’t allowed to go there as children. But it’s very different to be living here again.”
She continued: “I lived here during the Quiet Revolution. My mother was a war bride from England; we weren’t allowed to speak French at home. I’m trying to make sense of things. My memory of this place was like a subway map: I only knew about a few of the stops. Now I’m trying to embellish my map.”
When asked why artists choose to do residencies, Ms. Abdalla said: “There’s nothing like living in a new place to change the way you work. I’ve done a residency in Iceland and one in Maine. It’s very good for sharpening the eyes. And living in another language is even better – that heightens my awareness.”
This residency also fits well with Annie’s annual ritual, since 2008, of spending several months of the year living near enough to visit her mother, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, on a daily basis.
After spending only five short months living and practicing art in Coaticook, I was surprised by how much the artist has discovered about the area. “This town has a tremendous arts program for a community of only nine thousand: an artist’s group and an arts and culture centre. It also has a dynamic industrial base that I’m studying.” She has explored Mt. Hereford and she “loves” the Pioneer Trail installations. “I like to listen to the recordings in French,” said Ms. Abdalla who is pleased that she has been able to learn French, thanks in large part to finding a French tutor soon after her arrival. She is also involved in the Coaticook History Society and a French Book Club at the library. “This town is more accessible to me now that I am an adult and I speak French. I’ve met many people, sometimes just walking along the street, who say nice things about my Dad and my Mom; this is the only place in the world where I would hear that.”
Ms. Abdalla has also rekindled her love of Quebec winters, cross-country skiing on local trails, preferring our abundant snow to the winter rains of Nova Scotia. Even her little dog, Maddie, is adapting, now sporting little booties to protect her feet from the salt when she accompanies her master on her long walks around the town.
“I’ve been to a Dynamiks game at the arena, to Christmas Tea at the Beaulne and a Coaticook Harmony concert. The way the town kept the old bandstand at the downtown park and built around it, that’s an example of a town with good social capital.”
A multi-disciplinary artist who also teaches art at Vermont’s Goddard College, the absorbing art Ms. Abdalla has been creating since her arrival has a very ‘geographical’ look. “My father was a navigator in the war so I grew up reading maps and have always been fascinated by them. I’ve occupied my imagination here thinking about territories and maps; there were zones around here that we never visited as children or even thought about, like the whole area past the eastern ridge,” said the artist who even uses maps of the town’s underground water systems, helpfully supplied by the town’s Department of Public Works, as inspiration.
Examples of Annie’s Coaticook-inspired art can be found on her website and is definitely worth a look.
Asked whether this exploratory artist will mount an exhibit based on her Coaticook experience, she answered: “I’ll need time to let it all soak in. I’m still experimenting and asking questions. I’m hoping to, one day, do an exhibit at the Beaulne which will be based on the experience.”
Annie Abdalla poses with one of her Coaticook-inspired can“Ivasses in Coatic’Art’s apartment/studio for resident artists.