The Sunken Villages Project

A short history.

Three paths converged with the Sunken Villages art project.

The first path was in the air in 2009 when, flying over the St. Lawrence River, I spotted, quite by chance, a rectangular outline in the clear, blue-green water. At first I didn’t quite believe what I thought I was seeing – I had never heard of such a thing as houses, let alone whole communities, under water in Canada and the United States.  A few turns later, I found a road and some more foundations; it snapped into place with a sidelong glance at the dam in the distance. The dam between Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and Massena, New York, USA.

The second path began on the ground in Cornwall in early 2010 when I summoned my courage and put one of my blue-green images – Downtown Aultsville – in front of someone affected by the flooding. I knew the image had power, that it carried emotion; I was worried, however, that it carried too much, that I was perhaps meddling with the sacrosanct, ignorantly plodding into something I did not know or understand.

It turned out that I need not have worried. Encouraged - with enthusiasm -  I ploughed forward and mounted an exhibition in 2011 which garnered considerable attention. Carried both by the general fascination with underwater worlds that once were - echoes of Atlantis, Turtle Island and Biblical floods - and the act of uncovering an episode in Canadian and American history that is almost unknown the exhibition garnered considerable public interest.

This imagery from that first exhibition plus those from several further shows is ‘exhibited’ on 39 pages on this site. Each has a caption of varying length that describe the image and sometimes verge into some of my views and ideas about the destruction of the lost villages and protagonists involved. My editorializations include some observations about what this episode might tell us about about ourselves and how we process (or do not process) history.

The most compelling reactions to that first exhibition came from those affected by what I had by that time learned was called the Inundation. That this set the Sunken Villages project in yet another direction, a third path to gather representative voices - both literal and figurative - to speak for what my aerial photographs seemed to prompt.  I received letters, phone calls, emails and visits from people who had lived through the destruction of their communities and, in some cases, had never spoken publically about their experiences and emotions before. 

The next exhibition in 2013 at the Marianne van Silfhout Gallery in Brockville, Ontario brought together these voices with my images. The exhibition was set to a 58 minute sound track distilled from many hours of interviews around Ontario. Some of this can be heard (and seen) on the 27 interviewee pages on this website.

This was further distilled into a 15 minute video which I developed for a presentation at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and which I have since used as an introduction when asked to speak about this project. This video is also on this website. 

The more I learn about the lost villages with their layers of history, human drama, politics, and tragedy, the more incredible I find it that their story is virtually unknown.

Canadians often complain that their history is not interesting. I beg to differ. Canadian history is as interesting as we let it be; if we free our imaginations and mobilize our convictions, there will no end to interesting stories that we can tell each other about ourselves and, in so doing, better understand and define who we are.

The audio-video on this website, the voices of twenty-seven people affected by the loss of these communities, provide ample evidence of just the kind of fascinating, meaningful narratives around which to build and define a history. They put the villages and what they represent, if not back on the map, at least firmly back in our imagination and with that into our history.

Dickinsons Landing Church | N 44.59.40 W 74.54.4 | Dickinson’s Landing, Ontario, Canada

Dickinsons Landing Church | N 44.59.40 W 74.54.4 | Dickinson’s Landing, Ontario, Canada

Aultsville Side Road | N 44.57.27 W 75.01.49 | Aultsville, Ontario, Canada

Aultsville Side Road | N 44.57.27 W 75.01.49 | Aultsville, Ontario, Canada