Colette Urban: Jan 29, 1952 – June 16, 2013
Last week I saw on my Facebook wall that it was Colette Urban’s birthday. I wrote about Colette’s work, mostly in Newfoundland, as an inspiring, environmentally conscious artist, teacher, small-scale farmer and host of eco-tourists for my book, Eco-Innovators. But she wasn’t much of a Facebook user, so I was surprised, and very saddened, to find she’d died of cancer over a year ago. A great spirit, who had a profound impact on so many, was lost.
There’s a lovely Globe and Mail memorial piece about her, which is well worth a read. But I wanted to also share what I wrote about her in my book, about what pulled her to Newfoundland, perhaps the only province as wild as her. Here it is, with fond memories of hearing her tell the tale:
Just as her name might suggest, Colette Urban is a city girl at heart. So how did she end up on a twenty-five-hectare farm in the wooded hills of western Newfoundland?
It’s been quite a journey for the artist-cum-farmer. She came to Halifax in the 70s and attended the Nova Scotia College of Art andDesign, living on a boat in the harbour for her first Canadian winter.
She had just defected from her American homeland in protest against her government’s war on Vietnam. “Don’t tell,” she jokes. She and other conscientious objectors/illegal immigrants were eventually given amnesty.
Early on Colette developed an interest in using found and recycled materials in her art. She’s always appreciated the efficiency of recycling and it’s a part of Newfoundland culture she’s fallen in love with. “They re-use every scrap of wood,” she says. That interest in second-hand materials led her to start a second-hand goods store in Toronto, though she never stopped making art.
One of her favourite projects is called Consumer Cyclone, a piece of second- hand fashion performed in southern Ontario malls. The outfit is comprised of various articles of clothing sewn to a black spandex suit; Colette has small mirrors Velcroed to the outfit to represent surveillance. She would don the outfit and stroll around malls saying, “Look at me, look at you.” Kids loved it and adults usually averted their eyes from the crazy person commenting on their consumption habits.
After decades of creating performance art and receiving critical acclaim, Colette landed a job in London, Ontario, teaching art to college students. The job soon became too routine for her, though. She never bored of the students but the administrative side of things drove her nuts. The longer she stayed, the more she felt like the university was a big brain factory.
Her life changed in 2006 when she made a trip to Newfoundland. She’d been to the province many times, but on this visit she discovered an old farm—the most gorgeous piece of land she’d ever seen. It was being sold for use as a mink farm. Mink farms are notorious fortheir heavy use of chemicals, which can contaminate the soil and the groundwater underneath it. “It would have destroyed the land,” Urban says. She had a chat with the farmer who owned it.
She was three years from a pension and a chance to work on her art full time. But the farmer wanted to sell her his property and she had already owned a historic house in Newfoundland for seventeen years. Newfoundland was a sort of spiritual home for her and it kept pulling her back. She loved the community and she knew she had to take a chance on it, and bail out of Ontario.
So she became a chicken farmer. But her place is more than a farm. Full Tilt Creative Centre houses an exhibition space complete with media projection equipment. Colette based the name on a common Newfoundland structure: a tilt refers to a temporary shelter, and a full tilt is one that is occupied. Colette later learned that full tilt is also gambling term. It’s appropriate because in moving here she rolled the dice and gave up a steady paycheque.
The centre also plays host to visitors, namely artists and WWOOFers, people participating as volunteers with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. WWOOFing is a low-impact way to learn and travel—usually from April to late fall—while contributing to the green economy. WWOOFers get free room and board in exchange for twenty to thirty hours of labour per week. They also learn about organic farming practices, permaculture, farmers’ markets, and the practical challenges of modern organic farming. There are nearly nine hundred farms in Canada that host WWOOFers, from bed and breakfasts with organic gardens to larger market operations.
Colette takes one or two WWOOFers at a time, all year round. They become active in the little community of artists and farmers she has created and are given a culturally immersed active learning experience. “WWOOFers have been a great addition to my life here,” she says. They work four or five hours a day, taking on a portion of the farming burden including planting, harvesting, and renovations. They also help out at the Corner Brook farmers’ market on Saturday, where they have a chance to get to know the locals.
WWOOFers spend the rest of their time exploring the rugged island trails and beaches, as well as making twice-weekly trips to Corner Brook. Colette tries to make sure everyone gets out to Gros Morne National Park at some point during their stay. But her visitors tend to come with open minds, unworried about rushing to see landmarks during open hours. As is necessary on a farm they adapt daily to changing routines. “The weather here can quickly determine the activity for the day,” Colette notes.
Although WWOOFers often arrive with a basic understanding of sustainable living, or at least a keen interest, the exchange of knowledge that happens at Full Tilt enriches them, and Colette. For her, their presence isn’t just a practical one. She enjoys the company, the relationships that develop and continue by email long after her visitors have left.
She took a risk in opening up her home and farm to other people when she was still getting used to it herself. But she acknowledges that there is risk for the WWOOFers too, entering a stranger’s world in a remote location. Many of them are coming from abroad and dealing with differences of culture, language, politics, and generation. The investment is one of trust. The emotional labour involves respect and openness to learning. The risk, investment, and work usually pays off in spades. “It has been a very rewarding experience so far,” Colette says.
The WWOOFers get energized amidst Full Tilt’s hive of activity. Colette recently hosted a conference on organic food production and housed two German artists who were creating paintings for a Free Tibet exhibition in Toronto. They travelled by bicycle.
At first Colette was concerned about how the WWOOFers, who tend to be in their twenties and thirties, and artists, who are a little older as a rule, would mix, whether it would create a clash of cultures or personalities or goals. But instead they have all meshed together, sharing the cooking and eating of meals, and telling and listening to stories, creating a positive learning experience in a quiet environment—an adjustment for visiting urbanites, Colette says. Occasionally the WWOOFers and artists will collaborate on a creative project. And some of the artists dig in and help out with the gardening.
Colette, being both a farmer and an artist, enjoys the lively discussions between visiting artists and WWOOFers, both of whom are immensely curious about what motivates the other’s choices. The trick, then, becomes integrating this temporary community into McIvers, the small town of seven hundred people nearby. Colette makes a point of introducing the artists and WWOOFers to local shop owners and neighbours.
The community members are “open and interested in chatting,” she says. She hosts art exhibitions, workshops, and weekly yoga sessions at the farm so that community members can get to know the visitors in a more intimate setting. As a result, visitors aren’t just learning about raising chickens and growing vegetables. They are participating in a form of cultural tourism and going home with a fuller understanding of diverse ways of living.
Colette was careful to avoid being just another “come from away” herself. She made a special effort to embed her new community within the existing community. For Full Tilt’s first art event, Colette invited five nine- and ten-year-old girls to sing the Newfoundland anthem in her fields with their parents and grandparents. The community embraced the project and Colette followed it up with a huge barn dance. Her life has become all about making connections. It is these “organic relationships,” as she calls them, that give her hope for the future.
Colette’s organic relationships extend to her WWOOFers, however long they stay. Teaching them what she knows about sustainable living feels good, Colette tells me, because it’s based on finding a shared vision for a better world.