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Kittiwake Economic Development Corporation

The eKubator Project

Pittman remembered for strong representation of the province's people
October 12, 2001
{Author: eBerg Staff}


Pittman remembered for strong representation of the province's people
By TROY TURNER

To some, he was an impassioned professor, squeezing each student's pen of its creative ink. To many, he was one of Newfoundland's most prolific writers, capturing the essence of its people and culture. And to most, he was stubborn yet persistent, kind yet courageous, and always honest.

"He will be remembered as a very distinctive writer who made his own mark as a Newfoundland writer," explained brother Ken Pittman. "He is respected for his writing ability as a craftsman and a creator, but he is also distinguished for being able to portray a very specific place in his writings."

The place was not in the classroom, the university, his apartment or social establishments, but rather Newfoundland itself, in its entire capacity.

"People could relate to him," said long-time friend and artist Gerald Squires. "He was open to everybody, and he wasn't just closed off to the arts community. He was a friend to anybody who would search him out. He established himself so well with the Newfoundland culture, that unless we all drowned, his voice will always be there."

Leaving one's mark on a province so rich in history, glowing of cultural solitary and etched with remarkable adversity and struggle, is not something witnessed in every generation. But tapping into that culture, and relaying the message to the remainder of the country and world, is something for which Al, as a writer, grew to exemplify.

"He was a very original person with an original voice as a writer," said friend and colleague Adrian Fowler. "It was really his achievement as a writer and a promoter of writing and the arts where his real influence was. He had a definite view of the world and that's associated with his originality."

PROUD NEWFOUNDLANDER
Mr. Pittman passed away Aug. 26 after a lengthy illness. A longtime advocate of Newfoundlandia, the former English professor was 61.

Born in the now resettled community of St. Leonard's, Placentia Bay, Mr. Pittman was the second of eight children. He spent most of his formative years in Corner Brook, a place he would call home for some time to come, settling in the west coast community, where he developed a career as a writer, and at the same time, teaching at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.

Al's brother Ken, four years his junior, remembers the early years in Corner Brook, as a time when life was simple, fun and typical of any small-town upbringing.

"There was enough of a closeness in age to do things with him in the earlier stages, spending time carrying on," said Ken, a film producer with Red Ochre Productions. "At one stage we carried on together in neighbourhood sports and all the self-entertaining experiences of a small-town neighbourhood. Then we went into a period where Al became a generic teenager, where he would hang out on West Street, drive cars and so on. At that point, we were standing back and watching our brother going about the normal things of being a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s."

Although Ken says the children were encouraged and supported with allendeavours, there was no pressure to be involved in the arts.

"It wasn't an artistic family in the ordinary sense," he explained. "We weren't a family that went to concerts as a group or sat around reading books or took art classes. There was a strong sense of heritage and family background, and there was a sensitivity about the world, and the way the world affects the way you speak and think."

MIGHTY WITH THE PEN
Al was affected by the written word at an early age, eventually publishing his first book of poems, The Elusive Resurrection, in 1966, nine years after graduating from high school. From there, he began to catch the country by storm with his literary prowess.

"In his own circle of literary people of writers, poets, playwrights and so on, he has quite a strong reputation across the country," said Ken.

After moving out and leaving the family home, Ken says he had the fortunate pleasure of moving in with Al again while both were school teachers in Montreal. It was in the Quebec city, the two became even closer friends and artistic cohorts.

"We worked together with other writers in publishing a little poetry magazine in Montreal," said Ken. "We would work in Al's basement on an old press, that we scavenged from somewhere, publishing a little poetry journal. There were times during my lifetime with him where there was a nice close time with him."

The two brothers eventually moved back to Newfoundland, where Al began work as an English professor, first at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's and then in Corner Brook.

Mr. Squires, a renowned visual artist, also left the country's mainland for home on the west coast of Newfoundland around the same time. After living in Toronto from the ages of 12 to 27, Mr. Squires set up a studio in old house in Shoal Brook, Bonne Bay. He was familiar with Al's work, but had never met.

"I used to knock around with a lot of his old buddies around the oldtrail (in Corner Brook), but I never knew him," said Mr. Squires. "I had also reada little bit of Al's work before we met.

"Al walked into my studio unannounced one day - in those days he was all hair and teeth with a skinny little face on him - and he came over and introduced himself. He brought a bottle of rum with him. We sat at the table and talked, I guess, for the next 35 years. We've been really close friends ever since then."

Although Al's canvas was the inked paper, both him and Mr. Squiresfound common bonds in their artistic outlook.

"I think I judged Newfoundland culture by Al's attitude, and whether he felt good about them or not," said Mr. Squires. "I really had to start learning about my culture I didn't know about and I got a lot of help from Al. In my opinion, he was the real voice of Newfoundland.

"When he was working on West Moon, I was working on a series of paintings called A Boat Length, which had to do with resettlement as well, so we had a lot on common in those days too."

Mr. Squires later moved to the east coast, where he continued to keep close contact with Al, and the two eventually joined forces on Al's play, West Moon.

"He asked me to do the set (for the premiere of West Moon) and I told him it was my first and I was scared to death to touch it," recalled Mr. Squires. "He told me 'don't worry about that - if it's your first one, it's got to be your best one.

"I was so happy that I had done it, because it was one of my best sets, and I went on after that to do a dozen or so theatrical sets."

West Moon and A Rope Against the Sun, two plays, are among Mr. Squires favourites of Al's works. He said Newfoundland was fortunate to have Al write of pivotal times in Newfoundland's history, particularly with resettlement, and it guarantees his role in the province's history.

"Newfoundland was fortunate that Al was born at that time because we do have something from that era," said Mr. Squires. "It had something to do with his charisma and understanding of the common man, that gave him the sense of power, particularly in his work. Al will always have a place with us, as long as there's a Newfoundland."

EDUCATOR
Al's place is this province's history will also include his role as an educator and promoter of Newfoundland artists, in all forms.

"He was a much-loved teacher, he had a strong presence in the classroom and because he was a writer, he had an instant credibility with the students," Mr. Fowler, principal of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. "What was remarkable about Al, is that he didn't impose his own particular views on his students when they studied literature."

Mr. Fowler met Al in 1972, when the two were teaching English in St. John's. For three years, they worked together in the department, and were brought close together from a common affection for creative writing.

"We got to know each other because he was a creative writer and I was interested in creative writing, after publishing some poetry of my own and editing other things," said Mr. Fowler. "When the college opened here in 1975, we came out here together as part of the original group that came out here to start up Grenfell College. I've gotten to know him even better since then."

Mr. Fowler says the college atmosphere in Corner Brook was always that of close-knit family, and a place Al always fit in.

"He found the courage to speak up about things, whether people liked what he had to say or not," said Mr. Fowler. "He was always the one in the group that would point out unfairness, or if someone was overlooked. He was a great champion of equality."

After retiring from teaching in 1998, Al continued to share his gift of penmanship, as writer in residence at Sir Wilfred Grenfell.

He also shone in the classroom, bringing the English department to the national stage.

"The main thing he brought to the English Department at Grenfell was a very strong interest in creative writing, and a credibility involved in writing," said Mr. Fowler. "Because of his contacts and energy in this area, we established relationships with creative writers across Canada. His whole interest seemed to be in helping (students) find their own way of looking at things and own way of saying things. I think that's a rare gift in a teacher. He will be remembered very fondly by those of us who knew him as a colleague."

WORLDWIDE RECOGNITION
Aside from the local recognition, Al has also built an international reputation over his 40 years of writing. He is the first recipient of the Arts Council's Lydia Campbell Award for Creative Writing, co-founded the Newfoundland publishing house, Breakwater Books, and past winner of the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, the Canada Council Arts award and the Stephen Leacock Centennial award. Some of his best known works include the Rope Against The Sun and West Moon, Boughwolfen and Other Short Stories, children's book entitled Down by Jim Long's Stage and his latest poetic compilation, Thirty For Sixty.

"He was very versatile, and wrote in several different genres," explained Mr. Fowler. "He will always be known for the considerable contribution to creative aspect of Grenfell in all the arts."

The arts spanned no boundaries for Al, who helped Mr. Squires recapture, what he came home to find in the 1970s.

"When I came back from Ontario, I had to relearn the culture," he said. "He made me closer to Newfoundland culture. I'm sure he had a love and hate relationship with Newfoundland like we all do. He was never pretentious in any way, shape or form. He was honest in everything he wrote. His work will always be there and we'll always feel comfortable that it's there."

SAYING GOODBYE
Mr. Squires said good-bye to Al a few days before his passing, a taskhe spoke of with some difficulty.

"I knew that he was going to die in a few days and I just chatted with him for a few minutes and wished him the best," he said. "I'm so sad to see him gone, because that voice will be missed here."

Al's brother Ken knows all too well how Al will be missed. After growing up, living and eventually working together on a film project, Ken says it's the meaning of Al's writing that is felt by all.

"His writer's heart was in capturing the root experience of Newfoundlanders in rural settings," said Ken, who cited Thirty for Sixty as one of his favourites. "For somebody in his era to be able to go back into the fundamental questions about being a Newfoundlander and living and growing up in rural Newfoundland, his work is quite an achievement."

"Al was an impossible romantic," said Ken. "And he was a man who could drive you nuts with his determination, stubbornness, and persistence in completing what he sets out to do. His warm generosity and openness to people will always be missed."

By TROY TURNER




Troy Turner is the editor of the Corner Brook-based Humber Log. He is the recipient of numerous Atlantic Canadian journalism awards and is active in theatre. Ironically, he recently won an International Drama Award for a monologue delivered during the Labrador-based Carrol Players performance of Al Pittman's West Moon.