for Bernadette Rule

Living away [from Newfoundland] means I can focus on the memories more easily, there’s less distraction. The years I spent growing up in Newfoundland, that’s where all these images come from.
Conrad Furey, 1987

By J.S. Porter

I don’t know exactly why the image of a man alone in a boat haunts me, but it does. . I like to sing to myself lines from the Dublin band The Waterboys’ “Strange Boat:” We’re sailing on a strange boat/Heading for a stange shore…We’re living in a strange time/Working for a strange goal/We’re turning flesh and body/Into soul.

Maybe I go back in my mind to my mother’s north Irish fishing village, Portavogie, or I remember my great-grandfather Mahood as a boat builder or I remember my grandfather taking me fishing at Donaghadee Harbour or my sister’s love of the sea and the vessels that sail upon it. The image of a boat floating aimlessly on the sea feels like home to me.

When I think of “a man in a boat,” I think of a Conrad Furey painting. I think of Johnny Depp lying down in a canoe, bundled up warm and looking up to the stars in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. I think of John Terpstra’s Skin Boat in which Irish monks like Saint Brendan launch out into the deep without knowing where they’re headed. They drift in faith, boat made of wattles and covered in hides.

Did Brendan look up as the figures in Conrad Furey’s paintings often do?

A refrain murmurs throughout Skin Boat: “The world looks green to us, but at any moment could tear us to shreds.” What we have is a big sky above us, a big sea around us, and each other, tethered together in a fragile craft

When I think of a man in a boat, I think of the words of Marcel Proust’s narrator from In Search of Lost Time:

How often have I watched, and longed to imitate when I should be free to live as I chose, a rower who had shipped his oars and lay flat on his back in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky gliding slowly by above him, his face aglow with a foretaste of happiness and peace.

What did Proust dream of? What would I dream of if I found myself lying flat on the boat’s floor looking up at the stars on a windblown night?

I think of the Stanley Kunitz poem, “The Long Boat” and these particular lines:

He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.

I think of Joào Guimaràes Rosa’s short story “Third Bank of the River” where a man launches himself out to the middle of a lake without thought of destination or purpose. “Father got into the boat and rowed away.”

I think of buying small wooden boats for my eldest grandson Kaizen when he was very young and remember the great care he took in preserving them. I think I got into the habit of buying him wooden boats because I once bought a wooden boat for my father when I was studying French in a small village on the St. Lawrence, Trois Pistoles, and thereafter bought him a small boat whenever I was away from him for an extended period of time.

I think of Conrad Furey’s “Oarsman” and poet Bernadette Rule’s long poem about Furey’s art on boats and men looking up. She calls the poem “Lines for Conrad Furey.” Her first two stanzas read:

A rowboat on a glassy sea

A rowboat on a glassy sea
& a man who’s looking up

What is the man in the boat looking up at or looking up to? It’s a mystery and Furey’s power as a painter resides in his honouring the mystery in primarily acrylic paintings on canvas or plywood.

He was born in 1954 in the fishing and mining town of Baie Verte, on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. He was the seventh of eleven children and his father worked as a fisherman, logger, trucker, and miner. Much of Furey’s artwork is based on the people and scenes from his childhood, simple, rounded figures which owe a debt to Picasso, and Chagall’s whimsicality.

Furey left home at 18 to study commercial art at the College of Trades and Technology in St. John’s. After a year, he moved to Ontario in 1974 to attend the creative arts program at Sheridan College. He settled in Hamilton, where he worked as curator of the Canvas Gallery, a set designer for television, and became involved with the Hamilton arts community.

His artistic signature is a man in a boat with an upward or side gaze.


Conrad Furey painting, Skulling, 20 X 16 inches.
Conrad Furey painting, Skulling, 20 X 16 inches.

Furey’s strong presence in Hamilton includes artwork at McMaster University Medical Centre, the Juravinski Cancer Centre, Hamilton Public Library and St. Joseph’s Hospital. His work is also held in public galleries, including The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection in St. John’s, Memorial University Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He died of colon cancer in 2008 at the age of 53. The Conrad Furey Estate has donated many of his artworks to health-care facilities and charitable causes since his death.

For more on the man and his legacy, please see:

Conrad Furey – Building Cultural Legacies Hamilton

Conrad Furey (1954-2008) was a self-taught artist, with his work bordering on a naïve art style. Originally from the fishing and mining town Baie Verte, Newfoundland, Furey