Bill Male, painter of rural life in the La Prairie region of Quebec

William Male, also known as Bill or Willie, was born in 1918. He was an anglophone Quebecer who lived most of his life in or near Montreal, except for the war years which he spent in Europe, serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. After being wounded in Italy in 1944, Bill returned deaf in one ear, to Montreal, where he found employment as a furniture restorer with the firms of Henri Morgan and Alexandre Craig.

winter fun in Hemmingsford

In the 1970s, without any training of any kind, Bill Male started painting. Perhaps it was in response to certain voids in his life as a bachelor: “I never got married, the war got in the way of that” he said. Perhaps his solitary life prompted him to fill his paintings with images of people enjoying various social activities – viewing a show, sitting in a bar, picking fruit in an orchard, playing cards… In any case, these images speak of joy, friends, love and family. There are also, however, expressions of melancholy and loneliness in Bill Male’s work, especially the solitary portraits which often feature a woman sitting alone and waiting.

a lady alone.

When Bill Male retired he opened his own little antiques restoration shop in the town of Hemmingford, Quebec. He worked in his shop every summer and spent his winters painting his dreams and reminiscences.

remembering Europe during the war

We used to see Bill’s work from time to time at the picker’s barns, and then in the mid-nineties a collector friend noticed one of his paintings in our truck and said “That’s one of Bill’s paintings.  I know where he lives. Would you like to meet him?”.  Sure thing.  So with directions in hand, and a phone call ahead we arrived mid-morning at a three story, 1940’s apartment block near the baseball diamond at the edge of town.  Bill buzzed us in and we climbed to the second floor and arrived at his door. He must have been standing right on the other side because the second we knocked the door flew open and there stood Bill, all smiles, peering through those thick glasses.  His small one bedroom apartment was that of your old bachelor uncle’s pad.  Tidy, but full of upholstered chairs, crochet covered tables, and  knick-knacks; with every square inch of wall space covered by his paintings in every type, colour, and size All in reclaimed frames of every type and colour.  The effect was a bit dizzying, but also warm and hospitable.  “Everything is for sale, and at reasonable prices”, and so we picked out our favourite twenty or so and paid him what he asked in cash.  Bill didn’t talk much, and he never offered to make us tea or anything, but over a few visits he did start to warm up and tell us some stories from when he was in Europe, and one funny story of how he almost got killed in his workshop.  Well, funny because no one got hurt.

apple picking in Hemmingsford

Bill rented a garage for his work from a very old neighbor lady. He was slowing down on accepting work but still doing the occasional project for a neighbor. So he was working away one winter day with the doors closed and the heat fired up.  He was standing at the side of the shop putting wood in the woodstove when suddenly there was a tremendous crash, and bang, and shattering of wood in every direction as an old sedan came smashing through the closed doors, raced the length of the building knocking everything asunder, and went smashing out the far wall into the back yard.  Turns out his old landlady had arrived at a day when she confused the gas and brake pedals, and she tried to slam on the brakes. “It happened so fast I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew I was damn lucky to be standing aside”.  “You’ve got that right, Bill.

We would go to see Bill another five or six times, always happy to see his new work, and to have a chance to get to know him a bit better.  We even wrote back and forth a bit. He would send me pictures of his new paintings and ask which ones he might put aside for me.  He was a lovely guy.  Then on one late fall day in 2003, we found ourselves in the area and decided to drop by.  He didn’t answer his phone but we knew he didn’t leave the apartment much so we took a chance and just arrived and rang his buzzer.  Someone answered but it wasn’t Bill.  The fellow explained that Bill had died suddenly a few months before, and he was the new tenant.  He didn’t have any information on Bill as he did not know him. With no living relatives and not knowing his friends we were struck with a sadness, made sadder somehow because there was no one to express our condolences to. We said a silent goodbye and left.

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Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator

The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”

“Finding Folk Art” at the Eva Brook Donly Museum

In 2005 I was the president of the Norfolk Historical Society, which was a small group of dedicated people working to keep the Eva Brook Donly museum open in our local town of Simcoe. The society was founded in 1900, and opened the museum in a lovely old home bequeathed to the town in 1946 by local artist and philanthropist,  Eva Brook Donly.  She and others had left some money to keep the place going but by the year 2000, and with the end of a lucrative bingo fund raising business, the museum and society was falling on hard times.  We had a very good curator in Bill Yeager who ran the place well with a very small staff,  but although Norfolk county looked after the building, we were independent of them otherwise. So it was up to the board to try to come up with interesting exhibits that would capture a good turn out and hopefully in the process make some money and gain new supporters.  With my background in folk art, I suggested that I would be willing to curate and mount a folk art exhibition as our major show of the year.  No budget to speak of, and based only on the knowledge that I knew a few large collectors well enough to lean on them for loans, I forged ahead. It was also something I had always wanted to do.  So I, along with Bill, and a half dozen other dedicated board members worked our butts off and called in a dozen favors, and we pulled off a first class folk art exhibition  which garnered a lot of attention and even ran a couple of weeks longer than planned due to popular demand.  We didn’t make enough money to save the museum, but  we were all happy and proud of what we were able to pull off.  Here’s a sampling of the local press reports at the time.  Some interesting insights.

Heritage Centre displays Folk Art – by Samantha Craggs, Simcoe Reformer

“Artist striving to be different would have nothing on Billie Orr.  Born in a log cabin near Purbrook Ont., Orr continued to live there after his parents died, without electricity or running water. Motivated to create, he made cement works of art including an elf and a cat with large paws. Phil Ross, owner of Shadfly Antiques used to travel to buy Orr’s pieces which the artist made him buy one by one.

Orr was a creator of folk art, a genre of visual art known for being produced by an untrained hand, individual visual expression by ordinary people who make it to continue traditions, turn everyday items into art, or simply document what they see around them. “

“I’m amazed that virtually everyone who comes through the door seems to love the colour and the humour, and the accessibility’ Says Yeager, director of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Folk Art Feast on display at Donly Museum –by Monty Sonnenberg, Times- Reformer

A definition of folk art that everyone agrees on is hard to come by, but people know it when they see it. Folk art in abundance is the order of the day this Christmas season at the Norfolk Heritage Centre at Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe. Curator Bill Yeager and his crew of volunteers are basking in the glow of positive reviews for their ambitious exhibit, “Finding Folk Art”.

All floors of the museum feature more than 150 old and new displays of folk art.  Examples date from the early 1800’s to the present. “ I wish more people would discover this exhibit.” Yeager says,”It’s a big show.  Everyone loves it. It’s the kind of thing you’d normally have to go to see in the big city.”

Finding Folk Art, Each piece of work is unique in its Creativity and also comes with a story that adds to the appeal –  by Lyn Tremblay, Port Dover Maple Leaf

“It is an exhibit worthy of showcasing at any of Canada’s most prestigious art galleries, but residence of Norfolk County do not have to travel to large cities such as Toronto or Hamilton to see it.  The Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Eva brook Donly Museum in Simcoe is currently featuring an impressive selection of Canadian folk art from past and present. Museum curator Bill Yaeger credits Port Dover collector Phil Ross who with his wife Jeanine owns Shadfly Antiques for putting the “Finding Folk Art” exhibit together. “He borrowed much of it from outside Norfolk County” explains Mr. Yeager. “Some of the more than 150 pieces have never been exhibited publicly before, and may never be seen again.”

Ewald Rentz cutting Norval Morrisseau’s hair.

And it’s true.  Thanks to the generosity and trust of a few good collector friends, we were able to put together a first class exhibit that was both comprehensive and well documented.   We had a lot of wonderful items.  An 1830’s singing book featuring lovely  hand painted sketches. An absolutely incredible, and important 1867 Confederation box created by Port Dover’s Captain Alexander McNeilledge. A hand painted candle box depicting flags and beavers and minute whimsical inscriptions along the border such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

A few Maud Lewis and Joe Norris Paintings.  Many works by all the greats, Ewald Rentz, Wilfred Richard, Leo Fournier, the list goes on and on.  All catalogued, with short informative labels, and all well-lit, and displayed effectively. It really was an enormous amount of work, but when all was said and done, and we walked through the galleries looking at the results of our efforts,  we all felt enormously happy and proud, even if it was all just for a local audience.  It would have been nice if we could have garnered some attention from larger places like Brantford, Hamilton or Toronto.  We tried sending press releases to all the larger media outlets, but heard nothing back.  That’s the way it is.  And you never know who you may have an effect on.  We may have encouraged some young local talent.  We certainly gave those who saw it, something to think about, and celebrate if they were so inclined.

 

Discovering the work of Essex County folk artist, George June

In the late fall of 2013 I was contracted by the Windsor Community Museum to produce documentation and an appraisal of a large collection of folk art by an Essex County man named George June.

The museum put the work on display for a couple of months, and I believe much of it is still available for viewing.  It is interesting work. Much of it quite simple, but elegant in line and form.  Mr. June created jewelry, canes, costumes, furniture, carvings of animals, people , and objects, along with carved and assembled vignettes of everyday rural life.  All with fine attention to detail.  Culminating in two extraordinary marquetry tables.

Here’s his bio.

George Forester June

1867 – 1944

George Forester June lived in Cottam, Ontario, a small town in Essex County.  A retired farmer, he was afflicted with sciatic rheumatism in 1929 from which he only partially recovered.  Used to working with his hands and keeping busy, he was in search of a hobby.

At his cottage near Lake Couchiching he first whittled a cedar cane.  It was the beginning of a hobby that would last the rest of his life.  He continued his hobby at his home in Cottam.  While his wife, Elizabeth, worked on her hooked rugs, he would shape wood pieces into works of art.

Soon these items became an attraction for residents and visitors to Cottam.  He built a log cabin to house the pieces and invited people in to view them.  Residents and family members recall that the large front room was filled with carvings he had made.

Upon his death in 1944, Mr. June’s collection of carvings and his log cabin were passed onto his grandson George H. Coote.

While raising a young family, George H. and his wife Mary began to look for a more permanent home for the collection.  They approached local Museums in their own area without success.

At the same time Huron County Museum founder, J. H. Neill, was collecting items to expand his own collection.  Mr. Neill approached the family and in 1956 Mr. June’s collection was loaned to the Huron County Museum.  In 1986 the collection of folk art was officially donated by George H. Coote.

 

Here is a description of the tables.

rooster table

Rooster Table

Made of walnut and white pine, this tabletop is made of 6000 pieces of 1/4 inch wood cubes.  These types of wood were chosen because they have little shrinkage and would therefore last a greater length of time.  The pattern was conceived by Mr. June and then drawn out on paper.  It took approximately 3 months to carve and lay the pieces.

dogs and dragons table

Dogs & Dragons Table

Mr. June spent approximately 6 months creating this inlaid table.  It is made from 52,600 cubes of walnut and white pine which are laid onto an oak tabletop.

If you get to the Windsor area, I highly recommend stopping by and seeing this work.  They also have quite a bit of supporting information like his old scrap book.  I don’t know how much of the work is easily accessible but I would think if you contacted them beforehand and explained your interest, they would be helpful. I enjoyed my time there, and their hospitality.  I gave a folk art lecture one night and was delighted to meet the local collectors. They are a nice bunch of folks.

Documenting collections is one of my favourite activities because it gives me a chance to look closely at the work, and get to know something about the artist.   I enjoyed getting to know the work of Mr. June, and it is satisfying that it has been preserved in perpetuity by the museum for future generations to experience.

Finding Lajeunesse

shadflyguy

“Chien Mechant”

You know how sometimes when you meet a person you feel a real connection to their inner spirit, and recognize in them something which represents basic goodness and beauty?  Something rare and special.  Well that’s the way I feel about having met Henri Lajeunesse, and I am grateful for having had the experience.

Over the ten plus years of regular buying trips to Quebec we would very occasionally run across a signed work of Mr. Lajeunesse,  and we began to covet them and seek them out because we really connected with his expressiveness and vision.  Although we asked everyone we knew, we could never find out much about him. Not in books or from other collectors. Then one day we bought the piece above, “Chien Mechant” or “mean dog” as it was titled in pencil along the base. I say “was” because unfortunately one day an overzealous housekeeper…

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Roger Raymond, Quebec carver of cigar store Indians

Jeanine’s brother and his wife arrive from France later today, and in our typical procrastinate until a couple of days before and then work like hell to try to clean the whole house style, we are still at it. Almost there, but still at it, so I have decided to reblog one of my earlier posts in the hope that if you haven’t read it, you will enjoy it; and if you have read it, you may have forgotten it anyway. Thank you for your patience.

shadflyguy

rr3By the mid 1980’s along with our antique business, we supplemented our income by  setting up a mail order business selling the carvings of Pierre and Claire Trudel, who we discovered had a workshop of about a dozen talented woodworkers making several lines of reproduction antique furniture, as well as copies of various decoys, and other Quebec folk art.  An average duck decoy would sell unfinished for about $15, and we would sell them finished for about $45. This commercial operation also carried a cigar store Indian which I knew was carved by a nearby artist.  I would come by every other week and buy about 50 or so carvings, including 4 or 5 Indians.

One day when I arrived Pierre said, “well I’m just going now to pick up the Indians, would you like to come along.”  “Well, of course I would”, and so off we went a few…

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