N.B. photographer Chris Donovan describes his homecoming

"Stay Solid or Move West." (Submitted: Chris Donovan)

Chris Donovan’s photography exhibition, “Stay Solid and Move West,” is an exploration of his coming of age and takes a close look at intergenerational trauma, love and sense of belonging.

Donovan was born and raised in Saint John, N.B. and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in photojournalism. He describes that move as his “moving west” moment.

“There’s a long history of people going west for work [in the Maritimes] … and I saw myself as part of that tradition,” said Donovan.

He often travelled back to the Maritimes, but once the COVID-19 pandemic began, he was not able to get back home.

At that same time, he began to read Allistair Mcleod’s No Great Mischief — a novel about a dentist from Toronto reconnecting with his home in Cape Breton, N.S. Donovan’s family is from northern Cape Breton and said the story reflected his personal family background.

“I read through it like three to four times,” said Donovan, “I would go down to Lake Ontario and sit by the water and read. I felt this connection with oceans sitting by the water and waves.”

Donovan said the novel was the starting point for his project. He noticed that he was only doing personal work on his trips back to the Maritimes. He decided he would carry a Kodak  disposable camera around Toronto and take photos whenever inspiration struck.

(Submitted: Chris Donovan)

The exhibit is anchored around 13 to 14 photos from the disposable film camera, a format he said was a perfect opportunity to marry his photojournalism skills and his personal artistic work.

“It was liberating that way, after so many years of studying photography in a formal way,” said Donovan.

“In my work, I always think of photographs as being stanzas in a poem rather than standalone things and I think not everyone thinks of photography that way.”

Donovan remembers being sheltered from alcoholism and addiction while he grew up. As an adult, he dealt with intergenerational trauma after learning about his family’s past.
He hopes his work helps others learn and work through challenges in their lives, which the project did for him.

“Life is complicated, [I’m] not trying to make villains out of anyone … but these experiences have made me who I am,” said Donovan.

To make his work more universal, he found old family photos from random families on eBay and at thrift stores and included them in his exhibit.

Donovan explained how even the drive back home is an experience that unites those who have moved west.

“I think about that drive going along the St. Lawrence, particularly at sunset … it’s just an extremely beautiful stretch,” he said.

“I always think about the other Maritimers who have made that drive over decades and centuries, and it’s this collective experience. That is, in some ways uniquely, as much part of Maritime identity as anything that actually takes place takes place in the Maritimes.”

Donovan initially released this project as a photobook, but he wanted to display the work as an exhibition. Christiana Myers is the curator of the exhibition who brought his photobook to life.

“He really wanted this one to be more like an installation,” said Myers.

This is the first time Myers ever worked on a solo show for an artist; Donovan has never had a solo exhibition in the Maritimes. Myers described this show as a “homecoming” for Donovan.

She believes that this exhibition is especially powerful for students who often have to deal with feelings of sadness and longing for home.

“The stories that you hear from the generation before yours, and the moments that get missed, are the secrets that get kept and all of that being wrapped up in this journey of growing up and moving away,” said Myers.

The exhibition will travel to multiple places, including the Saint John Arts Centre this spring.