Stacking fish for 14 years, a story of an artist
Fitting art into precious spare minutes of a day is a skill many of us seek to attain.
I’m intrigued with a rug hooker from Grand Bank, Newfoundland, Louise Belbin (1897-1999). She spent 14 years working on the beach as a “beach woman” arranging cod fish to dry in the sun -- and in addition, she was a recognized artist for her hooked rugs. She used every minute of her day.
In her beach work, she was especially skilled at stacking the cod fish to dry straight and evenly. And, I presume, a good stack would help with air flow around the fish to expedite drying.
For centuries, up through the first three-quarters of the 20th C, villages in Newfoundland and Labrador were “sustained by an inshore household-based fishery...women were viewed as the backbone of this industry.” The towns were dependent on fish. The men caught the fish. But the women spent from sunup to sundown managing the fish on the beach.
The women started the process of drying the fish in June when the first schooners began arriving with their catches. It continued until October or November.
I’m very familiar with fall weather in upper Illinois and Minnesota. It sounds miserable to be on a beach in Newfoundland in the bitter wind or snow, all day every day, turning and stacking fish. Not a dream day on a beach for me :-)
Louise Belbin was raised in a nearby village and moved to Grand Banks at 23 to marry. She asked her husband for a rug hooking frame so she would have something to do while her husband, a schooner captain, was at sea. He was away for 11-12 months at a time. He built the rug hooking frame and left within six weeks for his next voyage. This frame helped Belbin fill her spare minutes into her 90s.
Here I am hooking at a recent event with many other rug hookers. This is a frame I put in my lap to work on. The top tilts toward me. You keep one hand under the frame to guide the wool strip or yarn. The other hand pulls up the loop from the top. Some frames stand on the floor. Louise Belbin hooked on a frame that was horizontal on top and was a floor frame (see image below).
The couple had five children. Three of them were born while she was working on the beach.
“When I was going to have Emma, I was on the beach all that summer. I tell you, I used to be miserable sometimes. The man loading the cart would say, ‘Don’t give that woman a big Baffle of fish like you carries in. You got better sense than that.’ ‘Cause he see I was carrying a baby; hard to work on the beach like that, so much bending over. I always thinks that’s the reason Emma was the shortest one in the family. She was born the 10th of October and I was off the beach no time when she was born. perhaps two or three weeks.”
They had numerous grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In her senior years, she frequently hooked one rug a week, commenting that "the work is company." She sold her rugs and quilts to generate revenue to help provide for herself and her extended family.
Later in life Belkin had a confectionary (small convenience store) connected to her house on her longtime property. One resident who commented on his interaction in the store with her, said:
"You ever shopped in Cocky Browns?…Louie Belbins, (sic) is a lady who knew how things worked. I remember the big rock on top of the little wood and coal stove. She would put the rock in a galvanized bucket, fill with water. This would warm the water for cleaning the stove."
Grand Bank Memories
Louise Belbin hooking by her stove in her shop connected to her home.
She was an enterprising, clever woman. In the spare minutes of her day, and especially during the winter, she created an astonishing body of work in needle art. There is a quiet, intimate documentary film from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Digital Archives Initiative, about Louise Belbin. It’s about 10 minutes long and well worth the time to watch. She is about 80 years old in this video.
A biographer, friend, admirer of Belbin, and fellow rug hooker, Frances E. Ennis, describes what she remembers of Belbin from interviewing her on numerous occasions:
She had a hard but fruitful life. She had a sense who she is. She was a strong woman. Warm. Friendly. Upbeat. Always saw the bright side. She was not a complainer. She didn’t talk about her husband or her children; she had a strong sense of privacy. Her mats [hooked rugs] are unusual because of her designs, In her day for her time, she could be identified as one of the most creative in hooked rugs. Nobody did that type of design at that time.
From a phone interview conducted with Frances E. Ennis, June 16, 2022 by Jane M. Mason
What entrances me about her work is her design aesthetic.
She created her mats literally and figuratively out of whole cloth. She hooked them out of used, worn-out clothing that neighbors dropped off at her front door. The backing she used was primarily feed-sacks. (Today we generally use linen or some use burlap, for backing.)
This thriftiness is an underlying component of much of women’s art over the centuries and across continents: use what is left over, what's left behind, free, natural (like clay or natural vegetative material), and make it into a new practical item. A rug. A mat. A blanket. A quilt. Clothing. Pottery.
Rug hooked by Louise Belbin, Grand Bank, Newfoundland. she made many rugs with this horse stencil. She frequently used stencils for her main character in her patterns such as a horse, moose, or kittens. From "Hooked Rugs in Newfoundland: The Representation of Social Structure in Design." The Journal of American Folklore, vol 92, no, 365, 1979. Gerald L. Pocius. c
Provided by Frances E. Ennis. Designed and hooked by Louise Belbin, date unknown.
Belbin’s designs feature local scenes or objects: ducks, kittens, horses, moose, fishermen. They are simple and often carry a repetition in the pattern -- stripes, pairs of animals, or a floral motif repeated on two sides of the rug.
In my mental inventory of artists, her point of view has a similarity to Mary Cassatt: quiet, simple, and iconic depictions of common things.
Many of the hooked rugs in the 20th C were geometric designs or overall random patterns, like a mix of whatever colors or fibers one had on hand. Others were intricate patterns of flowers with ornate scrolls or ornamentation.
A portion of an unfinished rug resumed to be created in the 20th C. It is hooked by an unknown artist, as well as designed by an unidentified artist. The shading of the flowers features extremely fine details and the wool has been hand dyed in small batches to create each individual color. It is hooked in a #3 count width, which is equivalent to 3/32 of an inch wide.
This type of pattern with angular shapes is called an "Oriental" Pattern among rug hookers. This rug is designed and hooked by Sandra Brown of Ohio.
Belbin was an ingenious self-taught artist with a unique perspective. Looking through a different lens, she also reminds me a bit of Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe spent much of her time alone in the southwest. Her inspiration came from her surroundings, her imagination, her materials, and her moods. Although the locations are completely different, Belbin spent much of her time alone and sought her own counsel regarding her designs, as did O’Keeffe.
In the rug hooking world, the uniqueness of Belbin’s point of view, has a “wow” factor as do the points of view of O’Keeffe or Cassatt.
The history of rug hooking includes many creative, practical, thrifty, generous, and hard-working women, and some men. Many of them, like Belkin, tucked in her art-making time around everything else in her day. It reminds us that we all have those minutes in the day that are frittered away. Could that time be more rewarding it we committed it to creating art?
See my hooked rugs and textiles!
More about Grand Bank and its Cod Fishing Industry
Grand Bank is located on the southern tip of the Burin Peninsula in the province of Newfoundland, Canada. It’s on the part of the province that “sticks out like a boot.”
Settled in 1640, Grand Bank has a French heritage.
In July 1765, Captain James Cook sailed into the harbor, came ashore, and among other things, gathered buds from spruce trees around Grand Bank. He used them to brew beer for his crew for medicinal purposes. (Always a good use of beer or spirits.)
From 1890 -1940, Grand Bank, prospered by living the phrase "Cod is King.”
In 1992, the Cod Moratorium was declared by the government to allow time for cod stocks to replenish. It ended five centuries of cod fishing along Canada’s east coast.
Many of us from agricultural states in the US, or the industrial “rust belt” in the Midwest, can identify with the difficulties and suffering caused by this proclamation of moratoriums or loss of work due to changes in production plans. I think of changes in auto production, or changes in small farm operations into mega farms, etc.
It was a huge blow to Grand Bank, a community of about 2000 residents with an economic foundation based almost exclusively on cod fishing. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 30,000 people lost their jobs.
Although expected to last a couple years or so, the moratorium is in effect, still in place with cod slowly coming back to the area. The quota for cod fisherman is greatly diminished to this day.
Fish Drying Process
Once the schooners arrived in port, the next stages would begin of preserving and preparing the dried, salted cod for market. First the fish were gutted and cleaned. Then:
- Remove surface salt: Mops were used to scrub the salt from the fish as water flowed over them in an open crate.
- Fish were taken by horse and cart to one of the beaches and placed in large piles and left to drain.
- The “beach women” were responsible for spreading and managing the fish while it was drying. The fish were put on large flat stones on the beach. The women worked to keep the fish straight and flat while drying because those were worth more.
The fish were kept on the beach for a month. They were moved and turned every day. The beach women stacked them in piles and covered them for the night, or inclimate weather. The coverings kept the dew and rain off them, which could lead to mold and other disagreeable conditions.
During rainy times it was a valuable skill to figure out when to cover and uncover the fish to maximize the sun or wind, and avoid the rain or snow.
After it was dry, the fish would be salted and packed.
Now you are all up to date on the practices of drying and salting cod as performed in a small fishing village in Newfoundland up until the tail end of the 20th C!
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Mrs Belbin had very poor eyesight in her latter years yet kept making mats. She was a great bread baker too. We lived across the street from her daughter and family and Nanny Belbin would stay for periods with them.
Thank you Jane for your article. Louise Belbin was my grandmother. My mom Stella was her youngest child. As a child, I spent many summers in Grand Bank with Nanny. I have many fond memories of those times. It is nice to know that she is still remembered.
A lovely read! Thank you very much Jane. I’m sure Louise Belbin is smiling!
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