“Before the Fires” exhibit by Nancy Cole

this town is small presents an exhibition of new work by Nancy Cole consisting of hand quilted textiles and BIC pen drawings. On view at Receiver Coffee Co.’s Victoria Row location from May 17 through June 20.

This exhibition series is generously supported by Innovation PEI through the PEI Culture Action Plan.

Nancy says about the work:
“I arrived at the international residency in rural Portugal, October 2, 2017. The first two weeks were filled with exploring, interacting and drawing the beautiful people of the area. We travelled the narrow, winding roads up into the high mountains discovering tiny villages with few inhabitants. Experiencing the culture of an area virtually unchanged was cathartic and had already supplied me with a wealth of material.

Sunday, October 15, was an eerie day with restless farm animals, a red sun and ash showers from distant fires fell like flakes of snow. It hadn’t rained since June. We joked about Armageddon. We could hear the wailing of distant fire sirens and the undulating mountain horizon glowed red.

I settled into a restless sleep. Fires broke out at 2:00 am in the village. I awoke to the screams of the villagers. When I looked out the window of my room, the smoke was as thick as a Nova Scotia fundy fog. I could see sparks skipping through the murk. The wind was ferocious. My fellow artists were scrambling. I grabbed tea towels and tablecloths and soaked them in water to wrap around our heads. As I waited for the others in the courtyard, I saw the flames and live embers bouncing along the narrow, cobblestone lane. I couldn’t wait any longer and ran. My plan was to head to the church. Embers brushed my legs and burdened with my sketchbook and laptop, I told myself, quite frankly, that I was going to die.

I made it to the village square. A steady stream of cars was leaving the area. My instinct was to flee but none of the cars would stop. I hooked up with my fellow artists and we huddled together with our heads wrapped in the wet cloths. Londoner Liam, 22, kept asking if we were going to die. I said I didn’t know. I found a house with a large, in-ground swimming pool and we settled near the pool. The fires raged all around us. Houses burst into flames as the incendiary gas bottles exploded. The villagers were all stunned into silence. We waited for hours. No fire trucks arrived, no alarms, no emergency measures, just a few of us huddled, waiting and wondering. I sent an SOS to Global Canada so at least I could be found.

The 500+ wildfires destroyed 1/10th of western Europe’s forests. The mountains around Coimbra were a scorched badland. Forty-four people died that night. Three people perished when they fled by car and got caught between two uncontrolled fires. Countless others lost their homes, livestock and crops. This area is populated with poor, subsistence farmers and the lack of a comprehensive census means Portugal may have lost so many more than officially recorded. I am tormented knowing that perhaps the lovely, old mountain couple that welcomed us into their home and offered us bread, wine and cheese, may not have survived. The images I took of the people and the bric-brac inside abandoned houses is perhaps the only and last record of what was once. “