Smiling blond haired woman

Ann Mortifee: Coming Home To Cortes Island

Conclusion of a 4 part series.

Hollyhock brought Ann Mortifee to Cortes Island. She was one of Vancouver’s leading singers, but had no previous teaching experience when they invited her to do a workshop. That was 40 years ago. 

“Martha Abelson convinced me to give it a go. I remember the first workshop I did. I went into a wild panic because I’m not a teacher, I’m a singer. I went to the library to find out how I could teach,” she explained.  “At the end of the first session in the morning, I told  Shivon Robinsong (a co-founder and Director of Hollyhock), ‘I can’t do this. I’ve used everything that I was going to use in the five days in the first morning. I have no idea what I’m doing for the rest of the week. I have to give them the option to leave. I’ll pay for everything that Hollyhock would lose.'”

View from the eastern shore of Cortes Island – courtesy Ann Mortifee.com. The broadcast opens with a clip from ‘Healing Journey,’ which is played in its entirety from 18:33 to the end.

“They agreed to give the guests back their money if need be and that I would cover it, or they could switch to another workshop.”

“So I went back to the class and told everyone, ‘I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I just love to sing, and I don’t know how to teach you to sing. I don’t know how to run a workshop. I’ve never even done a workshop with anyone else.  I’ve arranged for you to get your money back, or you can change to another workshop. If you choose to stay, then you have to know that you’re going to teach me how to do this by helping me. That’s all. I’m going to leave the room for five minutes. If you want to leave, take your stuff and go. Thank you so much for coming. I’m very touched that you have, but this is what the truth is.'” 

“So I left the room going, ‘Oh my God, I’ll come back. It’ll be an empty room and it’ll cost me a fortune.’ I went back. Everyone just stood up, cheered and laughed. That was it, they stayed.” 

“From then on, I did a workshop at Cortes for many years, but never in a million years thought I’d live here. My life was definitely in the city and I was doing what I had to do.” 

“What happened is that when my son Devon turned 10, I felt I had to get him out of the city. He’d got into some trouble at one of the schools and I just felt, ‘no, this isn’t working.’ I had no idea where to take him and was looking for a really good school.” 

She found the answer at one of her Hollyhock workshops.

AM: “Denise Wolda was there. We got chatting and she told me about the school that her son went to. Paul was Devon’s age, and so I said, ‘I’d be interested in seeing this school.'”

So Mortifee spoke with Donna Bracewell, principal of the Linnaea school on Cortes island. 

AM: “I told her what was happening and she said, ‘bring him, we’d love to have him.’” 

“Devon was having none of it. He was not coming  to an island. He was not leaving Vancouver. I was a single mother, totally overwhelmed and I just couldn’t have one more fight. I just couldn’t do it, so I just said, ‘okay.'” 

“That night he went to stay with a friend. It was on a Saturday night.  The parents dropped them at a movie and said they’d pick them up. They were a little bit late and an older set of guys started fighting. Devon ended up hiding In a garbage dumpster and the police found him. The first thing out of his mouth is, ‘we should have moved to that island.'”

“We had a conversation with the policeman. He asked, ‘what island’s that Devon?’ I told him about Cortes Island. He said, ‘oh my God,  I was brought up on Quadra. I loved it. You should go.’ And Devon said, ‘okay, okay, if I’m supposed to go, okay, Mr. Policeman.’ He was only 10 and it was fairly dramatic.”

“So I said, ‘okay, we’re going.’ I had to get there on Sunday because the school was opening on Monday. So I called Denise, ‘we’re coming. Could we stay the night with you tomorrow night and I will look for a place to rent?’ She says, ‘it’s really hard to find rental places.’ And I responded, ‘I’ll buy a camper, whatever, we’re coming.’ So she said, ‘Yes, absolutely. You can stay as long as you want.'” 

“I then informed Donna, ‘we’ll be there Monday morning.'” 

“She replied, ‘wonderful, good. Thank you.'” 

“I spent the whole night packing clothes and I had a little trailer that I could put behind my truck.”  

“In the middle of the night, about 10:30 or 11:00, I got a call from Sunny, who was living in a house with some girls and was really upset. She said,  ‘they’ve just sold the house and we have to move out.’ And I said, ‘where are you moving?’ ‘We have no idea.’ And I said, ‘how much do you pay?’ They told me. I said, ‘would you like to live in my house for that?’ And she said, ‘yes, where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m moving to Cortes. The house is going to be a mess. I can’t clean it up.’ And she said, ‘just leave the key under the mat and I’ll clean everything up.'” 

“Next morning, I woke Devon up. I hadn’t slept a wink.” 

“On the ferry, I ran into Erin Robinson, Shivon’s daughter. She said, ‘what are you doing on Cortes? It’s going on winter, Hollyhock’s closed.'” 

“I’m taking Devon to Linnaea School.” 

And she said, ‘I just got off the phone from mom.  She’s trying to rent our house.’ So I ran upstairs to where they had a dial phone and called Shivon up. She said, ‘Oh my God, I just called some guys back to say they could have the house, but the line was busy. Yes, I’d love for you to live there.” 

“How do I get in?”  

“‘The door’s open.'”  

“So I called Denise and Ron Wolda, ‘we’re not coming, we’re moving to Shivon’s house. I just found out I can rent it.'” 

When I arrived, Denise was inside cooking dinner. Ron has a fire going, and has put some extra wood there. Paul Wolda was there, and Devon and Paul helped carry in the bags. Then we sat down to dinner. Denise and I made up the beds. We unpacked everything. They went home and we went to sleep.”  

“The next morning, we got up and Devon went to school. That’s how I ended up here, it was just miraculous.  Denise and I became dear friends and now we’re neighbors.” 

“It has meant so much to me being here.  It was what I needed all along and didn’t know it. I needed a community. I was out in the world,  on my own. In the city, you don’t get that closeness.” 

CC: What year was that?

AM: “It was about 1996, because Devon was 10. We lived beside Rex Weyler and Lisa Gibbons. Their eldest son, Jack, became Dev’s best friend for a while. Oh, they got into so much mischief, those two, and my friendship with Rex and Lisa was really solidified through that.”

“How I got to Tiber Bay was again another miraculous story.  

“I remember the first night I was in Shivon’s house. I looked out and they had this pasture in front. And I said, ‘the only missing is a horse!’ Two days later, I was talking to Donna at Linnea and she said, ‘Ann, I understand that Erin used to keep a horse there. We need someone to take one of the horses for the winter. Would you be interested?'”

“Suddenly I had a horse and I became friends with Barb Vosper, and she had horses. So we started riding together. It was just like the beginning of a whole new life.  I would go away to do work and Dev would go and stay with the Woldas.”

“After we’d been renting her place for two years,  Shivon told me they had to sell the house. I asked how much, but it was too expensive. I couldn’t possibly buy that. So I was thinking, where are we going to move?  It’s so hard to get winter rentals. 

“My mom called, ‘I’ll lend you the money  to get it started. You pay the mortgage. Then, in two years when Devon has to go to the larger school,  we sell and you move back to Vancouver.'” 

“I said, ‘okay.'” 

“So I called Shivon back, and she said, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe this, I just sold the house.'”

“So I felt like, ‘oh God, really? Okay, well, that’s what’s meant to be.'” 

“Five minutes later, Denise called me, ‘Anne, you have to come over. Duane and Yvonne, who were their neighbors, are selling their property. It would be perfect. You could move there.'” 

“So I jumped in my car, drove over to their house. I couldn’t have lived in their house, but it was so inexpensive compared to what I would have had to pay that I realized I could buy it and build something.  I was thinking of a yurt or something.  I bought it. Then I went home and said, ‘I can’t believe it. Now I’m going to have to build a house.'” 

“That started this grand journey of Devon and I living in a circus tent down by the ocean in the summers, and me working with Ron Wolda and Bill Friedel to build my house. We just dove in. I loved it. I just loved it. I loved going out in my kayak and bringing back logs that would be perfect to be put in the living room or driftwood that would be the staircase. I had chickens by then.  So the first thing we built was a chicken coop and I put my office in the chicken coop.  It was sometimes the only warm place in the whole area.  Anyway, it was a grand adventure. Now I live in this beautiful community of 13 families in Tiber Bay, and I just felt like it was coming home.” 

CC: Weren’t you and Denise both musicians back in Vancouver?

AM: “We were both in the  folk movement during the early years, playing in little coffee houses and things.  We knew of each other, but had never met. I remember looking at one of  her CDs and saying, ‘that looks like a barn I used to have.’ On my first CD, I had a photograph of Chief Dan George and myself in the front of the house. In her second album, Denise has a picture of herself in front of the barn that I had sublet for many years.” 

“Denise told me then that she had been given my first album, ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Jo,’ when she was unhappily living in Washington, D. C.  So she moved back to Canada because of what she felt around ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,’ and then she ended up working in the house I was subletting to her bass player.”

“We travel in pods through lifetimes, I’m sure of it, and we recognize each other as we move along.”

CC: Tell me about your performances while you’ve been on Cortes. How has that grown? 

AM: “I really have not performed much on Cortes. I did do one concert. It could have been 1983 or ‘84 because Devon wasn’t born. And in fact, I saw it recently, that concert that George Sirk recorded. When he did his movie night last year, I went to that and I was able to watch myself in 1983 singing my little heart out.  That was probably the only full concert I ever did on Cortes. I’ve done bits and bobs and I’ve certainly sung in other people’s concerts.”

“I remember when I went to India, there was a man there, Shankarananda, whom I learned Kriya Yoga from. He looked at my palm and he said, ‘you have a very difficult palm. You have the nature of a hermit, but you have the destiny of one who will be in front of thousands of people. You’re going to have to learn to take your world into the hermitage and your hermitage into the world.’” 

“That’s what Cortes has been for me. It’s been a place where I could be quiet and feel close to nature.” 

“I was brought up on a farm in South Africa. We lived miles away from the nearest village, so I learned how to be alone a lot.  I loved being in nature. I loved it. My grandfather helped to build the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. It was very close to where we lived and so we used to go there a lot. I spent my life with animals and alone in the bush with my grandfather and my dad.” 

“I felt at home here in a way I hadn’t felt at home since leaving Africa. I needed to be in nature and I needed to have a lot of solitary life.  Living in Tiber Bay has been such a blessing because Denise and I used to get together and sing harmonies to all her songs  and we did a couple of concerts together.”

“I can’t even remember if we did one here, but I wrote two musicals here, and I’ve produced CDs from here.” 

“So I go out into the world and then I come back to my hermitage, which is not so much a hermitage as a place of deep friendships and common shared energies.”

“Very quickly after I moved into Shivon’s house, Denise asked me if Kristen Schofield-Sweet could use the house to do a rattle workshop.” 

“I remember how I met Kristen. Again, we travel in pods. I had been coming home from somewhere, and I’d been having to wait for something, and I went into  a lovely shop that sold paintings and I saw this huge painting on the wall of an Arbutus. And I went, ‘oh my god, that is so beautiful.’ I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’ve never bought myself a painting in my life, but I wanted to have that painting near me, and  I couldn’t afford it, so I let it go. And I came back, and I was doing the workshop the following week, where in my house, and I met Kristen for the first time.”

“On a tea break out of the blue, I just mentioned I saw this painting and it keeps haunting me because I was using a piece of Arbutus to build my rattle. And I said, ‘it impacted me so deeply and I can’t get it out of my mind. It was a big painting of an Arbutus tree, like about four by five or six feet. It’s haunting me.’ And she said, ‘Oh, was that in a gallery called da, da, da, da?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s my painting.’ I got on my knees in front of her. I remember this distinctly. And I touched her feet and I looked up and I said, ‘You have to be my friend.'”

“It turned out that  for years over in the East Coast, when she was teaching painting, she had been listening to ‘Reflections on Crooked Walking,’ which was a musical I wrote for children. She loved it,  and knew all the songs. And she said, ‘Oh my God, you have to be my friend.’ That has started this extraordinary friendship we have.”

“I found I was doing other creative things here. I started using my hands. I built a drum with Kristen.  In my studio, I have all sorts of things I’ve built and created.” 

“It was Kristen who opened me to a world that I was already living in but didn’t know I was living it. It’s funny, I met someone last night and he said, ‘if you ever write your book you should call it The Last One to Know’ because that’s how my life has been. I’m a singer, and I’m saying what am I going to do with my life?”

“Well you’ve been doing it for 10 years, you’re a singer,” he said. 

“But you can earn a living forever.” 

“Aren’t you earning a living?” 

“Well, yes, I guess I am a singer – last one to know. So my singing has been in my studio.  It’s been opening up to different things. I did ‘Into the Heart of the Sangoma,’ I wrote the songs here, which was the last CD I wrote. I wrote my first book here.” 

“I married Paul Horn here. We’d known each other for 37 years, we’d worked together off and on. He and I spent  the whole first year in my house here on the island, and all we did was listen to each other’s music and get to know the depth of one another. He and I spent our 10 years together here and in Arizona (Paul Horn passed away in 2014), so I had that incredible home here where he got to live in the country in my world, and I got to live in Arizona in his world, and  we went away to do our concerts. We’d been talking of actually putting an evening together here on the island when he got sick.”

“So a lot of the time I was either building my house or creating new things. Devon and I lived for almost three summers in a circus tent down at the bottom. Then my studio turned into a recording studio, and the boys from Linnaea did a mentorship with me, Paul Horn and Sasha.”

“It’s been a  unbelievable blessing to be here. The summers are so busy and active with so many fascinating people coming in from all over the world and the winters have been closer and more personal.” 

Links to the other posts in this series

Top image credit: Ann Mortifee – courtesy Ann Mortifee.com

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: