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Charis Cotter - The Ghosts of Southwest Arm Bookmaking Project

Location: Little Heart's Ease, NL
ArtsNL Program Funded Under: ArtSmarts
Amount Funded: $5,500

ghost illustration

Student illustration from the book.

Project Dates: October 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017
School: Southwest Arm Academy
Artist: Charis Cotter
Artist Website:
http://www.chariscotter.ca
Artist E-mail: chariscotter@gmail.com

Award-winning author and storyteller Charis Cotter experienced such success with an earlier ArtsSmarts project in 2013, that she was approached by another school to lead a similar project.

Using her own publishing company, Baccalieu Books, Cotter had published the resulting hard work of students from her ArtsSmarts project with Bay de Verde’s Tricon Elementary in a collection of short stories called The Ghosts of Baccalieu. In early 2016, Southwest Arm Academy in Little Heart’s Ease contacted Cotter to explore the possibility of doing a similar initiative there.

Cotter had gone beyond expectation the first time around and donated a considerable amount of her time to produce the initial publication. That hard work paid off, and the public libraries of Newfoundland and Labrador bought 100 copies of The Ghosts of Baccalieu because they wanted to have a copy in every library in the province. Parents, teachers, and librarians all agreed it was a valuable record of provincial cultural heritage.

The publication was also made available to the public for purchase through the school, and Cotter directly. Charis covered the print production and shipping costs to publish copies for direct sale, and the school covered printing costs for those they wished to sell themselves. Any copies sold though Tricon had its full proceeds support the school, and Charis also donated a portion of the proceeds from her copies to the school as well.

student and teacher image

The oldest student in the school, Marissa Seward, Grade 12, and the youngest student, Isaak Stringer, cut the cake at the book launch.


So, to embark on a reprisal of the project for Southwest Arm Academy, the community engaged in fundraising activities to supplement what they hoped would come through ArtsNL’s ArtsSmarts program. The community quickly mobilized and planned bingo events and raffles, and Cotter also did a storytelling evening, sharing ghost stories from Conception Bay North called The Ghosts of Grates Cove.

After their hard work, and receiving an ArtsSmarts grant from ArtsNL, the project at Southwest Arm Academy proceeded. The project saw 90 students in all grades from Kindergarten to grade 12 collaboratively work on a publication of their own. The students collected ghost stories from members of their local community and over a number of classroom days Cotter led a series of workshops to assist the students through the process of writing, illustration, editing, and publishing.

The book launched Monday, June 5 with much fanfare at the school. Every student was involved – drawings came from students in Kindergarten to grade three, along with stories and illustrations from those in grades four to 12. The new 198 page book, The Ghosts of Southwest Arm,will be available on a similar model to the publication created at Tricon Elementary.

The traditional tales have been passed down through generations of residents in the community and include ones about a ghostly schooner, ghosts of men who died in the wars, and ghost lights seen out over the water.

In our latest feature, we chat with Charis to learn more about the ArtsSmarts project and the new book!

Q and A with Charis Cotter...

ArtsNL: How many workshops did you ultimately lead over the course of the project, and how did you manage and focus them for each grade or class?

Charis: For all the classes from kindergarten to grade 3, I did ghost story drawing sessions. I talked about ghosts and ghost stories, and showed them my illustrated book, A World Full of Ghosts. Then I asked them to tell me some of their experiences with ghosts, and gave them paper and pencils and had them draw ghosts. The teachers and I went around to each student and asked them what their picture was about and wrote captions based on their answers.

For grades 4 to 12, I did a writing workshop, an editing workshop, a cover design workshop, and a publishing workshop. I did more or less the same workshops for each grade, but modified them for the younger classes, and used more sophisticated examples for the older students.

ArtsNL: What kind of reactions do you get from students? It probably varies from grade to grade…

Charis: The younger children were immediately drawn into the world of the imagination and quite serious in their contemplation of the world of ghosts. They were very suggestible and many of them were convinced they had seen the ghosts I talked about. From grade 4 to 6 they were enthusiastic and got a lot of fun out of the idea of ghosts. Grades 7 to 9 were also enthusiastic, but looked more to each other for approval and jokes. And, grades 10 to 12 sat back and made me work pretty hard to get them interested. But ultimately, all the students were interested in the project and put a lot of hard work into their stories. Up to grade 10, they loved the artwork the best and showed a lot of creativity in their drawings and cover designs. The older students, for the most part, weren’t as interested in the art. Also, kids under grade 7 loved to use paint, while the older students preferred coloured pencils. It was definitely challenging for me to have to switch between the different age groups.

student reading

Haley Peddle, Grade 7, reads from her ghost story at the launch.​


ArtsNL: Who else did you work with for this ArtsSmarts project?

Charis: Krista Gregory, the high school English teacher, worked really hard right from the beginning on making the project work, talking about the students’ abilities and helping me with the scheduling. Lana Rowsell, the grade 3 teacher, also helped a lot with the project at the planning stage and in the school. All the other teachers were cooperative and supportive.

ArtsNL: Can you talk a little bit about what goes into the development of an ArtsSmarts project?

Charis: It takes a lot of preliminary work. I find that the application process forces the artist and the teachers to think through each step of the project and plan it carefully. The idea of a bookmaking project was one I’d done before, so I had the basic structure of the project in place, but I modified it because this time it was with older students as well as elementary students. I also learned from the one I did before (The Ghosts of Baccalieu) what worked and what didn’t, so I applied that to this project. One of the most important steps is to get a school that is enthusiastic about the project. It does disrupt their schedule, so you need them to be 100 percent behind the project. Once you have one person at the school who wants to do it, you’re in a good position to proceed. The bookmaking project is a good one because it resonates on a few different levels: heritage, writing, art and design.

ArtsNL: What are the curricular connections your particular ArtsSmarts project aimed to make?

Charis: English Language Arts, Visual Arts, Social Studies (Heritage – Newfoundland Studies), Art and Design.

artist and teacher photo

The two teachers who made the ArsSmarts project happen in Southwest Arm Academy: Krista Gregory, English teacher, and Lana Rowsell, Grade 3 teacher.


ArtsNL: Why and how do you think ArtsSmarts classroom projects are important?

Charis: It’s a practical, hands-on experience of arts and how they relate to everyday life and learning. Exposure to an artist is enlightening for students, who can see that it’s a viable way of life. It brings together students’ creativity and community involvement in a learning experience that they can’t get anywhere else. It’s also wonderful for an artist to be in the classroom and learning from students. Art brings a sense of celebration and joy to learning, and in this particular project (as with many others), it is a celebration of Newfoundland and Labrador culture and heritage, as expressed through the arts.

ArtsNL: What kind of partnerships were established to support this ArtsSmarts project?

Charis: The fundraising that the school did in the community at the Lion’s Club brought a lot of people together to work for and support the project. The Southwest Arm Historical Society also gave us their support. Peggy Hogan provided accommodation for me in her rental cottage at a big discount, and the school hopes to sell the books in local stores.

student illustration

Student illustration from the book.


ArtsNL: How did the students find each of their ghost stories?

Charis: We sent a form home at the beginning of the project, advising parents that the students needed to find a ghost story. They asked parents, grandparents, extended family members and neighbours for stories. They seemed to have no trouble getting stories!

ArtsNL: Can you share a little more detail about the launch; what took place, how it went, and so on?

Charis: We had the launch on Monday, June 5, at the school. The teachers spent three hours the week before making a display in the school lobby, using all the students’ artwork.  All the students and teachers attended the launch in the gym, as well as parents and members of the community. The principal, Leon Porter, said a few words, and so did I, thanking the ArtsSmarts sponsors and the people who did the fundraising in the community. We had a slideshow of all the student’s art, including illustrations and design covers. We had cake! Jonathan Parsons, a reporter from the Clarenville newspaper, The Packet, was there, and plans to write an article about the book for the paper. We also had an interview on WAM on CBC on Sunday with Heather Barrett who interviewed Jesse Smith, a grade 11 student, and me. Ken Murphy from ArtsNL made the trip from St. John’s through the rain to attend, and he got up and talked about the project in the context of ArtsNL and ArtsSmarts, and that was good for the kids to realize they were part of something bigger. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the book and the school sold out all of their books! They had ordered 150 but now they want more. It felt really good to celebrate our accomplishment with the community.

ArtsNL: What are some of the challenges that you had to overcome as you went through the project?

Charis: The first challenge was the fundraising, because we needed additional money to pay for the production of the book. Krista Gregory, Lana Rowsell, and Madonna Shaw at the school put a lot of effort into that. I did a ghost storytelling presentation last June, and that was fun and went really well. Once the project began, there were challenges with scheduling my time with each class, and most of the classes were split, so sometimes I had to teach the same workshop twice in a row to each section of the class.

I remember my first morning at the school when I went into the kindergarten class to work with them, and I was somewhat daunted looking at all these very little people. I’m used to working with grades 4 to 6, so anything outside of that puts me a little off-kilter. Each grade had its own character and I had to adjust accordingly. It was all a lot of fun, but as I switched from grade 3 to grade 11 in the same afternoon I had to summon a lot of energy and change my approach. I love working with kids of all ages, so it worked out in the end, but they certainly kept me on my toes.

Then when it was all done and I brought all the material back to my house, I had no trouble with the editing, because of my experience in publishing, but then I had the challenge of design and layout for the book. This was the first time I’d done layout. I used a very simple software program, and it went well. I learned a lot, and I learned how to touch up and edit pictures. That was fun too. Publishing is all about the details, and the book production took many hours over the winter. Then planning the launch and getting some media coverage took some time. But of course the highlights for me were working with the kids at the school and seeing their reactions when they saw the book for the first time.

ArtsNL: How can people pick up a copy of the new book?

Charis: If you’re in Little Heart’s Ease during school hours, you can buy a copy at the school office. Or you can write to me at chariscotter@gmail.com, and I can send you a copy through the mail.


book cover image

Cover of the book, The Ghosts of Southwest Arm.


ArtsNL: How does the ArtsNL funding from the ArtsSmarts program help you develop your project, your professional career, and achieve your goals with students? And, why is it important?

Charis: ArtsSmarts is great because it is flexible and allows for a lot of different kinds of projects. I could never do these books with schools without the funding from ArtsSmarts. It provides a loose structure and I can tailor the project to fit the school and the granting program. The budget provides for accommodation, travel, professional fees and materials. It’s a great starting point for this kind of ambitious project. The school could never afford it, and it’s difficult to find corporate sponsors for these kind of short-term projects. In terms of my career, it helps put me in the schools relating to my readers, as well as exposing me to very particular pockets of Newfoundland and Labrador culture in the schools and locations I work in. This kind of exposure helps me write about Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s important to have these ArtsSmarts grants available to stimulate both students and artists, and help us interpret the world around us through our artistic expression.

ArtsNL: What will be next for you in terms of upcoming projects?

Charis: I have a new novel coming out in September called The Painting. It’s set on Newfoundland and in Toronto, and I have incorporated some Newfoundland and Labrador ghost stories in it. The story is about a young artist in Toronto named Annie, and how she discovers she can travel through paintings to visit a lighthouse on the island. It’s spooky!

ArtsNL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Charis: I really enjoy working with students, and I love their enthusiasm about art.