Over 15 years ago, Barbadian artist and curator Virginia Trieloff took a two-week painting trip in Saint Andrew’s By-the-Sea and Grand Manan, N.B. There she met Libby Carew, who told her about her family’s tiny home village on Newfoundland’s south shore. Carew invited Trieloff for Thanksgiving weekend and, says Trieloff, changed her life.
An hour’s drive south of St. John’s, Renews-Cappahayden is a rural community of about 300 people. The textures of the place and its sense of wild lands home to long grasses, howling winds, and spirited people, immediately enchanted Trieloff. And most of all, the charming saltbox houses.
“I crawled all over the island in my car,” she says. “I had been over to the West Coast of Newfoundland, and up to see the Vikings. I went to Bonavista, but what I liked best about the southern shore was this unmanicured feel. The wildness.”
Born in Germany, educated in England and Toronto at OCAD University, Trieloff landed her first job when she moved from England to Toronto working for Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. She’s been following her love of design and art ever since.
The dramatic landscape appealed to the painter in her and offered respite from Toronto’s hot summers. Over the years, she bought and restored three houses, turning them into rental properties. She says the “Irish Loop” is Newfoundland’s best kept secret.
“You take things for granted, whether you are in an amazing bustling city, or a beautiful outport, you don’t see it,” says Carew, who lives in St. John’s. “Virginia brought a fresh perspective, the eye of an artist and a designer. She loved the rugged beauty, and the quiet. She opened up my eyes again to see what is unique and beautiful.”
Laying in the master bedroom of her restored two bedroom saltbox summer home, Trieloff looks up to the rafters and imagines how the ancestors lived. “You can just imagine in the old days when the old people went into the woods to cut down the timbers,” she says. “They were really well constructed.”
Named Butterpot, the house is painted white inside with traditional wooden floors, and a view of the Atlantic.
In 2016–2017, Trieloff restored the home originally built in 1952 by the Dunne family. It features a ground floor guest bedroom, and bathroom with a walk-in shower. An island in the kitchen modernizes the old bay house. The little library-dining room makes for a great reading nook. The Butterpot’s second floor master bedroom is a dream space, and a second bathroom with a big bathtub offers a view of the church built in 1876. Trieloff’s simple style and design is elegant yet chic, best described as Newfoundland meets Barbados.
Trieloff grew up on a Barbados sugar plantation with goats and chickens. She draws parallels of ways of life to the southern shore.
While the historical trading ties, and hardships of survival between Newfoundland and Barbados inspire Trieloff’s mind and memory, she draws from both distinct cultures in her design, colour, and style choices.
She uses old railway ties and wood from rotting wharfs as accent pieces and hangs oil paintings with more contemporary art works.
“I fell in love with these houses,” she says, looking out through the symmetrical window. “The sense of history. You get a real feeling of how people lived, and a respect for the ancestors.”
She restored three houses in Renews-Cappahayden with the help of local fishermen and offshore oil workers. Currently, she’s working on a greenhouse made from old windows with Don Kenny, a retired fisherman originally from Fermuse, a neighbouring community of 300 people.
“She likes to preserve everything,” says Kenny. “She’d restore every old house if she could. Virginia loves the heritage of the place. She wants to keep it going for the young people. People don’t know how we lived years ago. We had to leave the house to get a bucket of water to make a cup of tea. Nowadays you can have three showers before dinner.”
Trieloff’s love for the saltbox-style homes is tied to their Georgian-style architecture. “Lots of Newfoundland was settled in the 1700s,” she says. “The Georgian style is very elegant, everything being symmetrical, and the central staircases mimic the grander houses in England.”
At 67, she summers in Newfoundland, winters in Barbados, and lives the rest of the year in Toronto. After the greenhouse in Renews-Cappahayden is finished, her next big adventure is working on restoring a house in Barbados where Group of Seven painter J.E.H. MacDonald painted in 1931. She plans to turn it into an international artist exchange.
“People say I have a restless spirit, and I say, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ As artists we need curiosity to keep us going. It can be in the form of a darling little flower or figuring out how things work. Curiosity keeps us alive.”