Traditional arts and pride of place abound in a Québec oasis
Ears singing to the broken rhythm of the blacksmith's hammer, we are transfixed by the energy emanating from the forge on Québec's Île d'Orléans.
Clink! Clink! Blacksmith Guy Bel's hammering continues. His wiry frame curved over anvil and tongs creates a caricature impression of the craftsman, intent on his task. With moustache flaring, bushy eyebrows frowning in concentration, he suddenly peers up.
"Venez ici, madame," he commands, eyes twinkling "Ne faites pas peur! Essayez!" (Come here, madam; don't be afraid! Try it!) There's no retreat. I'm compelled to accept his invitation to try my hand at his craft.
Bang! The hammer, unwieldy in my amateur grip, slides off the glowing nail. Fearful of dropping it, I manage to plunge it into the waiting barrel of water. Hiss… steam swirls…
Happily, I've done my time and return tool and nail to Monsieur Bel. "Pas si simple," I acknowledge, "mais, merci." (Not so simple, but thanks!)
Grinning, he deftly shapes the nail.
This is what we love about Canada's économusées, specialty museums showcasing the traditional arts and trades. Onlookers experience precisely how an object is crafted - and are sometimes invited to try.
Here on Île d'Orléans, a pastoral island only fifteen minutes east of Québec City, La Forge Pique-Assaut doesn't disappoint. After observing Monsieur Bel in action, visitors wander the economuseum, learning how Vulcan's ancient craft has been practiced here for almost 400 years.
The forge's gift shop boasts candelabras, decorative grillwork - and the typical Quebeçois cockerel weathervane which perches on rooftops throughout this still-largely Catholic province. It recalls St. Peter who denied knowing Christ three times. After his third remonstrance, the cockerel called: ever since, this bird symbolizes faith.
But for now, our wallet remains secure. We have other plans for our tour of island studios. Next stop is at Ginet Leblond's 1831 "maison ancestrale" (heritage home) and studio. Her talent is decorating antiques with paintings recollecting Québec's "patrimoine," or historic past.
Old washstands, armoires and children's sleds become her canvas. Her partner, Marc Fortin, first carefully cleans each antique, revealing its original paint or stain. Madame Leblond explains, "The original colors reveal the object's soul, which speaks to me: Only then do I decide my subject."
While she chats, our gaze wanders. Her home is comfortable, its low tongue-and-groove ceiling a sunny primrose and cream. Doors, cupboards - name a surface, it's her canvas. Everywhere, her home is peopled by the past… with island folk tilling the soil, apron-clad women in simple homespun and kerchiefs performing their household chores.
All denote pride of the past. It's not surprising, for Île d'Orléans was one of New France's first settlements whose fertile soil and gentle southern exposure represented a haven for weary sailors. In 1535 French explorer Jacques Cartier landed, first naming it the Island of Bacchus because of the abundance of wild grapes. The majority of today's 7,000 or so permanent residents proudly claim descendency from 317 French pioneering families.
Somehow, we depart Madame Leblond's studio without a purchase. This is our usual pattern when meeting an artist for the first time. And, it's my personal motivation for a return visit after contemplation.
And so, this trip is a pilgrimage of sorts, for us. We are returning to visit a weaver whom we met in 1998: Noëlla Levesque-DeBlois. To get to her studio, Hang-art, we drive the island's pastoral roadways, heading to the north shore hamlet of Saint Pierre via Route des Priètres. Its name begs a story…
Long ago, residents of two of the islands seven parishes were bickering, breaking into one another's churches and stealing sacred objects. Annoyed, the priests forced their parishioners to walk across the centre of the island and meet halfway, to return the stolen goods, apologize and finish the feuding. The people obeyed and this road, called Route of the Priests, commemorates the tale.
Day-dreaming about the story, we arrive at Boutique Hang-Art, where Madame Levesque-DeBlois welcomes me. Until 2000, her studio was an economuseum… but now she's gradually retiring to spend more time with her husband.
So she claims.
But she's so passionate about keeping the traditional weaving techniques alive (like braided rag rugs made in the old way, or "ceinture flêchée" the arrow-motif "cummerbund belts" that the coureur-de-bois used and that are worn at Québec City's annual winter Carnival) that I'm convinced she'll never truly retire. And after hearing her stories and enjoying her work, we readily confess we hope she never truly stops.
For she possesses a rare commodity: an authentic voice. "I never went to school. I learned weaving at the feet of my mother. There were twelve of us. Only the oldest, my sister, went to school. She had to be good: She had to teach the rest of us! And we made everything ourselves. Braided rugs were made from rags. They were important: everyone needed them. It wasn't so long ago, you know, that we still had earth floors in our homes here. The braided rugs were simple, they covered the earth floors of our people's homes and even in the barns. It was a hard life, and cold."
And so now you share our secret: It's here we've returned to visit Madame Lévesque and to make a purchase. She patiently demonstrates braiding the rugs and how to hand-weave the colorful belts. So it is that traditional weaving comes alive beneath her knowing, patient hands.
Madame Lévesque makes a good sale this day. Her hand-woven table runners (chemin de table), placemats, and a braided rug now grace my Québec home as memories of her gentle ways, her passion for tradition.
Remembrance of things past woven with pride of place: it's the warp and weft of life on Île d'Orléans… and a great spot to visit to start your own arts and crafts pilgrimage.
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are freelance writers who telecommute from their farmhouse north of Quyon, West Québec. They are co-authors of Québec Off the Beaten Path (Globe Pequot Press, 1999). Katharine is author of Historical Walks: The Gatineau Park Story (Chesley House Publications), and Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa (McClelland & Stewart), which Eric designed.
Drive past Québec City. Continue on Highway 40 Est (east) which becomes Autoroute 138 East, and immediately watch for the signs for Île d'Orléans, near the exit to the Montmorency Falls. Turn right to cross over the bridge to the island.
Autumn is harvest time. Consider taking your bike and cycling around the island. Whether or not you bike, be sure to stop at the Tourism Information centre, which you'll find on the island-side of the bridge. Ask for the audio-cassette that you can rent and listen to either in your car else on your bike. It recommends a circuit of the island, pointing out the sites and history.
Guy Bel, La Forge à Pique-Assaut, 2200 Chemin Royale, St-Laurent, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 3Z0, 418-828-9300.
Ginet Leblond, Galerie d'Art, 1794, Chemin Royale, St-Jean, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 3Z0, 418-829-0406.
Boutique Hang-art, Noëlla Lévesque-DeBlois, 751 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Isle d'Orléans, QC, G0A 4E0, 418-828-2519.
Don't miss visiting the fragrant, organic soap shop where you can watch the soaps being made: Antiquités Aux Quatre-Épaules, 1551 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 4E0, 418-828-2644.
Ma P'tite Folie, Louise Lainé proprietor, 1822 Chemin Royal, St-Jean, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 3Z0, 418-829-3076.
Auberge La Goéliche, 22 Chemin du Quai, Ste-Petronille, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 3Z0, 418-828-2248; 1-888-511-2248; www.oricom.ca/aubergelagoeliche
Auberge Le Canard Huppé, 2198 Chemin Royal, St-Laurent, Île d'Orléans, QC, G0A 3Z0, 418-828-2292; 1-800-838-2292; www.canard-huppe.qc.ca
Website for Île d'Orléans: www.iledorleans.qc.ca
Tourist Information Centre: 490 cote du Pont, St-Pierre-de-l'Île d'Orléans, G0A 4E0, 418-828-9411; Fax: 418-828-2335; email@example.com