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Marlene Creates - A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow

Location: Portugal Cove, NL
NLAC Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $5,480


Dates: November 15, 2013 to January 15, 2014
Artist Contact: Marlene Creates
Artist Website:
Artist E-mail:

Marlene Creates has spent over 30 years exploring relationships between human experience, memory, language, and land. Creates is an environmental artist and poet who moved to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1985, having previously lived in Montreal and Ottawa. Her mother’s family originally hailed from Lewisporte and Fogo Island, and now Creates is working out of Portugal Cove. Her thematically focused work started in the 1970s with a series of photo-landworks, Paper, Stones, and Water, which led to a number of years working with what Creates calls ‘memory maps’. The maps were drawn by elders who also shared stories throughout the process, and Creates sensed a connection between the land and language. The maps that were drawn for her by others informed two series: The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories in 1986-88, as well as Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land in 1989-91.

Her art practice incorporates her work as an educator, environmentalist and community arts activist. Since 2001, she has been leading multidisciplinary place-based art projects in Newfoundland schools. In these projects, students explore particular attributes of their local environment, community and heritage through field trips, drawing their own memory maps, photographing, writing recollections of their personal experiences, and interviewing elders in the community.


Since 2002, Creates’ work has focused on the six-acre patch of boreal forest where she lives. This study led to Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light, Blast Hole Pond River, Newfoundland 2002-2003, and two ongoing projects: The Boreal Poetry Garden (2005–) which uses words in situ, many inspired by Newfoundland vernacular, and takes the form of photo-landworks, live-art events, and a web-based virtual walk; and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand, Blast Hole Pond Road (2007–), which concerns the inter-relationship of individual native trees, their context in the collective of the forest system, and the human perceiver, as manifested by the gesture of the artist’s hand touching tree trunks.

She recently completed a documentary video-poem, which came out of her study of terms in the Newfoundland dialect for ice and snow, and was funded by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council. From the Ground Tier to a Sparrow Batch: a Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow, Blast Hole Pond River, Winter 2012-2013, with a running time of 26 minutes, combines poetry, photography, and filmmaking. It recently screened at the 25th St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, the ViDEOTExT Festival in Bramberg, Austria, and won the Grand Jury Award at the Yosemite International Film Festival.

Q and A with Marlene Creates...

NLAC: What inspired you to do a project focused entirely on Newfoundland dialect terms for ice and snow?

Marlene: I find these terms are not only poetic but also very practical. They arose from particular occupational activities in this climate and the need to identify specific conditions in the continuous modulations of winter weather. People used to spend a lot more time outside, both in the woods and on the water. It was important to be able to identify and communicate the weather conditions in order to know, for example, what kind of clothes and footwear were needed, or if the ice was safe to cross. The Newfoundland dialect is also important to me because some of these words would have been in the mouths of my ancestors.

NLAC: Were there terms you discovered you had not known previously? What else did you learn through this project?

Marlene: I discovered a lot more terms for ice and snow than the ones I knew. I actually found over 80. So I thought, “someone needs to do something with all these wonderful words.” Knowing them helps me actually see the different phenomena, and winter is no longer just a cold, white blur.

NLAC: What inspires you to work with multiple artistic disciplines in your work? What do they each add?

Brickle Ice

Marlene: Although I have been primarily a photographer, there are things my camera cannot capture — particularly in the other sense realms. So some of the other elements I’ve used include found natural objects, text, and what I call ‘memory maps’. The on-site public poetry walks in The Boreal Poetry Garden are multidisciplinary events that have included collaborations with natural historians, acoustic sound artists, and contemporary dancers — all serving to connect people to the boreal forest ecosystem through walking, listening, observing, touching, and exchanging knowledge. One of my goals is to extend my art to meet environmental realities. In consideration of this, my hybrid processes have been taking less material forms. Thus, video-poetry is a perfect genre for someone like me — a visual artist who loves language.

NLAC: How did you go about preparing to do this project? Have you been thinking about it as you’ve taken photos over the years since 2011, or did the theme emerge from the images you had been taking?

Marlene: During the winter of 2011-12, I read four books on the Newfoundland dialect and compiled a list of any term I came across that referred to the winter, plus its definition: Devine’s Folk Lore of Newfoundland in Old Words, Phrases and Expressions by PK Devine (1937), Dictionary of Newfoundland English by George Story, WJ Kirwin, and JDA Widdowson (1982), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador by Ron Young (2006), and The Newfoundland Tongue by Nellie Strowbridge (2008).

Then in the winter of 2012-13, I set up my tripod in front of the small waterfall in the Blast Hole Pond River and left it there all winter. The waterfall, with its many changes, is the refrain throughout the video-poem. During that winter I also took over 2,000 still photographs to match the terms, and wrote the long poem, which incorporates the terms. It was an extremely dramatic winter so I had to write my observations and experiences every day, because the next day it was completely different.

In the winter of 2013-14, all the finishing took place: editing the poem, selecting the images to match, recording the voices, and editing everything together. So the process spanned three years to make this 26 minute film.

NLAC: What challenges did you face as you were putting the project together?


Marlene: In a word, the weather. The video-poem proceeds chronologically through an entire winter, from the day before the first snowfall to the last snow in April. That winter, I spent a lot of time — as much as a couple of hours almost every day — observing and photographing the Blast Hole Pond River. Since I wanted to incorporate as many of the terms as possible, it meant I had to be out with my camera in all kinds of winter weather, including “a living screecher of a storm.”

NLAC: Who else has been involved with your project?

Marlene: First, there are my neighbours in Portugal Cove, who I’ve heard use some of these terms; then, the people who wrote the books on the Newfoundland dialect that were essential to my research. Don McKay helped edit several drafts of the long poem; Philip Hiscock checked my use of the terms and the images I was planning to use to match them; Jake Nicoll recorded the two voices — mine and Lloyd Brown’s (who is a cousin from Joe Batt’s Arm, and I wish I could pronounce the terms as beautifully as he does); and Christopher Darlington did the editing and put everything together.

I had a fantastic co-producer for this film — it was the winter itself. The winter of 2012-13, when I was observing and photographing the river, was very dramatic. It froze and thawed and froze again, and then again, in different formations every time. So I was able to use over 50 local terms in the video-poem.

NLAC: What has it been like to have your work screened at various film festivals? What did you think when you heard about winning your recent award?

Marlene: Each screening has been remarkably different — from academic conferences to popular festivals. The award? I’m flabbergasted, happy, and grateful — all three. I’m grateful that the jury was as attentive as they were and daring enough to give my quiet, experimental, mini-budget film the top award. When I received the news by email, I actually thought it was some kind of hoax. So I checked their website, probably three times, before I believed it. I’ll be receiving a certificate, but nothing that would fit in my wallet.

NLAC: Where does your interest and affinity for environmentally based work come from, and why is it important to you?

Marlene: I think that what the environment needs is a change in our culture — culture in the broadest sense — and art can be one of the important ways to point the way.

NLAC: How does the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC) funding from the Professional Project Grants Program help?

Ice Blink

Marlene: I received two Professional Project Grants over the course of the three years I worked on this film and they were essential to the project — in terms of both financial support and encouragement.

NLAC: Are there or will there be ways for the public to check out your film in the future?

Marlene: I’m still waiting to hear from some film festivals, and I’m continuing to submit it to others. There are two presentations scheduled in Toronto next May: at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention and in a solo exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art for the 2015 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

NLAC: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Marlene: Boulder Publications is planning to publish this work in book form, titled A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow. It will include the long poem that is the script for the video-poem, the images, and the definitions of the terms. I hope the film and the book can help keep many of these wonderful terms active.