In Newfoundland, a tin of sardines in the premier's office has something to say
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — While a large tin of sardines may be an unusual choice of art in a premier's office, Newfoundland artist Grant Boland says his painting's message is a perfect fit for a place of provincial power.
"Canned Fish" shows a metal can of sardines set aglow by an unseen light source. The tin's lid is peeled back by a key, just enough to reveal the silvery heads of the fish inside.
The painting hangs prominently in the office of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey, and it drew questions from curious onlookers last week when it showed up in pictures following a meeting between Furey and Quebec Premier François Legault.
"It's an interesting choice, for sure," Boland said in an interview Monday. "It's a bit of a commentary on the Newfoundland fishery. Because it moved on from family- and community-based food production to a corporate commodity. And that marked a big shift in Newfoundland culture."
Boland lives in St. John's, but he grew up in St. Mary's Bay, along Newfoundland's southern Avalon Peninsula, near the studio belonging to famed late painter Mary Pratt. "She was a maternal type of person and she'd let me come to her studio and she'd give me different assignments to do and things."
Pratt was known for precise, lifelike paintings of everyday household items, including fish with glimmering silver skin. She infused these objects with a radiant light, as if they beamed from somewhere within.
Boland's tin of fish has that same quality, as if its shimmering metal would cast a sharp light on Furey's books and papers.
"I'm sure some of that rubbed off, no question," he said of Pratt's influence.
"Canned Fish" is part of the provincial art bank, which is managed by The Rooms provincial gallery. A spokesperson for Furey's team said they worked with The Rooms to select art for his office and other spaces in the legislature.
"Boland also happens to be a friend of the premier, and of course fish/canned fish are a very Newfoundland and Labrador staple!" said Meghan McCabe in an email.
The sardine can was hard to miss in many of the pictures that came from a photo opportunity following Furey's meeting with Legault last Friday. The two leaders spoke about the 1969 Churchill Falls energy deal, which ends in 2041. Some on Twitter singled out the painting and wondered what it meant.
"I like it when people speculate," Boland said. "If it sparks conversation, then it's working."
Furey is a doctor by training, and he founded Team Broken Earth, a non-profit that sends medical workers to countries in distress. Boland donated a few of his paintings for their fundraising efforts and ultimately joined one of their missions to Haiti in 2010. He's not a doctor, but he helped where he could, pitching in to do odd jobs, including inventory counts, he said.
As Legault seeks a new energy deal with Newfoundland and Labrador in advance of the end to the Churchill Falls arrangement, Boland said he's glad Furey is negotiating on behalf of the province.
"I've seen him in action in Haiti," Boland said. "He's generous and altruistic. And he definitely wants the best for Newfoundland and Labrador."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press