We all know more than we think. Simple things, like how to put socks on, more complex things like how to wash them in the washing machine, and still more complex things, such as where to buy them or even how to knit the socks in the first place. We all have thousands — hundreds of thousands — of bits of knowledge taking up space in our brains. Some of it most of us share, such as how to speak and how to walk, and some of it is specific to us: how we like our socks folded in our drawers, and which ones we find most comfortable. None of that knowledge is innate, it had to be learned, and to be learned it had to be taught. At some point in our lives, some patient person had to teach us about socks. Some of that teaching is explicit: “Do it like this.” A lot of it is observed: “So that’s how you do that!” Some of this knowledge is individual, about my socks, but much of it is general, about the larger community: Canadians tend to wear socks when it is cold.
And while we rarely think about the things we know, taking most of our vast stores of knowledge for granted, artists are different. They tend to focus on things we overlook, and in so doing, reinvest these overlooked, unseen, or even forgotten things with meaning, revealing what has always been there, in the marvelous complexity that is too often missed.
You can learn about socks in Newfoundland artist Pam Hall’s Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge, but more importantly, you can learn a lot about generosity, about tradition, and about community. Her project, which is at its core a collaborative effort with literally hundreds of knowledge-keepers, exists in multiple formats: as individual artworks, as a website (https://encyclopediaoflocalknowledge.com/), as posters and banners, and as two extraordinary publications from Breakwater Books.
The first, published in 2017, contains excerpts from the first two chapters of Hall’s ongoing encyclopedia project. Each is the result of interviews with local people about the knowledge they have about their specific places, about hunting and gathering food, making and using tools, baking, and more. Chapter One is the result of numerous interviews in Bonne Bay and the Great Northern Peninsula of western Newfoundland, while Chapter Two is a compendium of research from Fogo Island and the Chance Islands on Newfoundland’s eastern coast. The third chapter of this project, Miawpukek | The Middle River, was created in direct collaboration with Mi’kmaw artist Jerry Evans and published as a book this year. It gathers knowledge drawn from the Miawpukek First Nation on Newfoundland’s Southern Coast. Intensely collaborative, both volumes of the Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge were created with the input from knowledge-keepers and their communities, and many of the interviews were carried out by local volunteers, often by school children in each community. For Chapter Three the artists were advised by a community editorial committee.
The artworks that make up the encyclopedia are created by combining images and text to create thematic compositions dealing with specific areas of local knowledge: “Roadside Gardening on the Great Northern Peninsula,” “On Partridgeberry Lassy Tart on Fogo Island,” “Fancy Regalia: Dressing Up for POWWOW.” These digital collages are visually engaging in their compositions and filled with rich interesting information and compelling stories. Most of the photographs were taken by the artists or their various collaborators, some have been drawn from sources such as government offices, museological research, community records, and more. The works in Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge: Excerpts from Chapters I and II are single pages, while in Eliaq | Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge: Miawpukek | Middle River the works are diptychs, one page featuring English text, the other in Mi’kmaw (translated by Ida Denny).
“Knowledge,” Pam Hall writes, “has always been well gathered by books and perhaps lives only within them.” But she also knows that knowledge is rooted in the knowers: “Yet books are made by bodies, and it is bodies that know. Before there can be any book, knowledge emerges in bodies learning to do and know through observation, mimicry, practice, experimentation, and experience.” Hall’s ongoing project engages in all these forms of learning, and in so doing, teaches us about the marvelous complexity of specific places. But more importantly, the project teaches us about being human, about what and how we know, and why it matters. Hall’s remarkable project matters too, and it is a profound addition to the visual culture of this region, preserving and furthering our knowledge.
Listening is central to learning and reading and absorbing these beautiful books is a way of listening. As the artists write in the introduction to Chapter Three, “the partnerships and collaborations that that produced the work in this volume relied on upon and emerged from the give and take, the call and response, and the open-ended questions of people in conversation.” What a privilege it is to listen in.