Walk a New Canadian Pilgrimage

When Eryn Foster walks around Prince Edward Island this summer, going for a walk becomes a work of art.

If you drop by Eyelevel Gallery on Gottingen Street, chances are you'll find its director, Eryn Foster, sitting behind the high-walled desk down at the end opposite the storefront windows---the source of the gallery's brightly lit space. Amid a clutter of printed matter---administrative and creative---she appears totally at home. In her three years of work as the artist-run centre's director, Foster has spent enough time here on both Eyelevel exhibitions and its financial stewardship, not to mention north end community events (the Go North! Studio and Gallery Tour, for example) that you'd be forgiven if you thought she never left.

She admits to feeling at times exhausted by work at the gallery and by living in the city. "When you live somewhere where the culture isn't set up for walking, like in a lot of places in Canada, and you have to drive, it makes for what I would say is a verydisconnected culture," Foster says.

But she does get way out and about. An artist in her own right, Foster's a roamer, a walker---and bipedal mobility finds its way into her art. This summer she heads for PEI for a second installment of her New Canadian Pilgrimages project.

Last summer, she undertook the first in her walking art series. In mid-July, Foster and two friends, a father and son, walked from Halifax to Sackville, New Brunswick. The roughly two-week journey covered a couple hundred kilometres. The sites where they stopped, the people they met along the way (curious strangers, other friends and fellow artists who joined the walk for part of its route) are all documented at newcanadianpilgrimages.blogspot.com. After a couple more ventures, Foster plans on compiling her experiential research into a studio-based art project.

This year's walk will see the artist and any like-minded volunteers in PEI from July 26 to August 16, at the same time maintaining a connection to last year's destination. A treadmill will be set up at Struts Gallery in Sackville with a hands-free phone so the stationary walkers can call Foster on her cellphone and to remotely synchronize with the pilgrimage. Foster is also, at the time of this writing, working on getting cellphone minutes donated so she can widely publicize her number; that way people anywhere and everywhere can call while walking wherever they are to create a sense of shrunken space and time.

The PEI trip continues the quest to find the new and contemporary "sacred" sites, the ones participants approach, and that dawn on them, slowly, as on foot and not in a car. Furthermore, the goal is to let the mind settle and open, while the body moves; in other words, to create the exact opposite physical and mental conditions of working behind a desk. Day to day, Foster says, "People aren't weaving in and out of each other's spaces as often. And you're also much less likely to experience or encounter spontaneous situations---the unexpected. Walking allows you to have those kinds of run-ins with the unexpected."

Foster first discovered the power and influence of walking while living in Toronto years before, during a period of unemployment. "I had difficulty structuring my day. So I'd just say, 'OK, I'll just spend the day walking and I'll go this way.' And I'd come back home and I would've run into people or I would've experienced things or seen things that stimulated my mind and my body."

Foster and those who choose to join her this time will start by taking the ferry at Wood Island from Nova Scotia to PEI. Once there, the walkers will follow a counter-clockwise direction "around the island towards the western point and then to Charlottetown as the final destination point." The journey will measure approximately 500 kilometres and will keep to the perimeter of Canada's smallest province.

"I was interested in the idea of walking the perimeter of an island," Foster explains. "In a way I find it funny because you're not really getting anywhere; you're just going around for the sake of going around.

"It's not like when I went to Sackville: the end point was far away from the beginning point. Walking around PEI, the end point is almost at the beginning point."

Keeping tight to the shoreline, "where sand and water meet," will also let Foster and company contemplate the idea of borders, physical and psychological, what it means to walk the edge, to cross and not cross lines drawn because, after all, this is a world where lines are constantly drawn.

For info and to sign on for the New Canadian Pilgrimages on PEI, July 26 to August 16, contact Eryn Foster at eefoster@gmail.com.

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