It was 1984 when I crossed paths with this whirligig; during the period when I was going to the picker’s barns of the Victoriaville area of Quebec every other week. The drill was to leave home at 4 a.m., drive the ten hours, buy a truckload of furniture as quickly as possible, and get on home. It was in late November, and I remember the trip well because the temperature dropped quickly, and the Drummondville bridge froze up before the roadway. When I hit the bridge, I did a perfect 360 pirouette the entire length, coming back on course and continuing as though nothing had happened; frazzled but undeterred. Soon, the snow had come on so strong that for moments which seemed like eternity, I became completely lost, with no sense of direction within a big white cloud. All you can do when this happens is to slow down and listen for when the tires hit the gravel, thinking the whole time that a transport will come out of nowhere and drive right through you. Nasty. This was followed by long periods of the dreaded “hypno” snow, which is when the big fluffy flakes swirl over and over in spiral patterns until you think you’re going to loose it. Tough sledding.
An hour later, when I finally arrived at Paul Prince’s place near Defoy it was dark and snowing hard, but I was just so damn happy to be alive. The lights were on but Paul had gone home. I was about to leave when a picker I knew named Jimmy pulled in behind me. A great guy, and a legendary picker, he had been at it since he was a teenager. On this night he was on his way home from picking around Montreal, and he was really excited by something “special” he wanted to show me. Jimmy was never a guy to suppress his enthusiasm. Under the yard light, there in the back of his truck I could just make out this funky metal rocking boat gig in vivid paint. All 4 feet in length of it. I got excited too. When he showed me how the window cranking mechanism from an old Ford provided the gears for the rocking up and down of the boat, and the turning of the steering wheel I was a goner.
I had to think hard and fast because it was a lot of money, but a really cool thing; and I knew if I didn’t go for it, Paul, or the next guy would. “O.K. Jimmy here you go, but put it on my back seat so it doesn’t get smashed by the furniture”. “I’m doing you a favour by selling you this. You’re gonna make good money”. “Ya right, if I wait 25 years”. At this point Jimmy punched me in the arm and laughed, and the transaction was complete. I was delighted, but I had that slightly sick feeling I get when I stretch beyond my comfort range to acquire something special. I loved it, but I could have bought 4 or 5 cupboards for the same money, and at that point cupboards were selling well, at a good profit. Oh,what the hey. You’ve got to trust your instincts, and great things don’t come along every day.
The next day was snowy and cold, and I filled the truck quickly, thinking all day of the money spent, and wondering whether Jeanine would share my enthusiasm. I arrived home about 2 in the morning, so I left everything in the truck and went straight to bed. The next morning, over coffee, Jeanine asked me about the trip. I replied, “Oh good overall, but pretty intense”. I told her about the bridge incident, etc. and then casually mentioned that I bought something special that I hoped she would lke. I find it better to give confession right away, as delaying only adds to the suffering. “Well, go get it, and let’s see what you’ve done”. The moment of truth had arrived. Happily she loved it too, and we decided there and then to keep it for a good long time so we could appreciate it everyday. “Too bad we don’t know who made it”.
Fast forward to the next summer and we are enjoying a weekend in Quebec, our favourite North American city. We had heard of a bookstore where it was possible to buy a rare book, Les Patenteux du Quebec, which we knew to be the “bible” of Quebec folk art, .
Published in 1978, it is the work of three young Quebec women who spent a summer or so traveling all over Quebec documenting, and recording the stories of every Quebec folk artist they could trace. We found the shop and bought the book, and when we cracked it open, it opened to page 19, and behold there was our whirligig. With a picture of it in it’s original location, and statement by the artist. Extraordinary.
We placed the piece on a low cupboard in front of the low wall which separated our kitchen from dining area, and there it sat for the next twenty years or so. We never offered it for sale but we had various offers over the years. The best was when a friend was returning to live in Italy, and he offered us his recent model Jeep in exchange. We thought about that one quite seriously, but refused figuring that the Jeep would rust out and be finished in a few years, where as the gig would just keep on going.
When we moved from the church to our current residence in Port Dover in 2003, we found it difficult to find the right place to display it. We considered mounting it high on a shelf above our front bay window, but that posed a risk of falling and crowning someone. It moved from place to place being a bit in the way, and ended up sitting on a ledge behind the couch, which is when we more or less forgot about it. I still noticed it, but it no longer “engaged” me, if you catch my drift. Jeanine felt the same. So it came to pass that last year in a mood of downsizing we decided that although we had really enjoyed owning the piece, it was time to pass it along. My friend, and serious collector Dr. Martin Osler had always coveted it, and had asked for first refusal, so I gave him a call. Because we can both be convoluted at times, and because there was no particular hurry, it took just about a full year to complete the transaction, but it now sits proudly on a high cupboard in the back of Marty’s office. A striking location in an important collection, and I am happy because I can visit it occasionally. Here is a photo of Marty, and his friend, contemporary artist Alex Cameron admiring the gig in it’s new home.
For me, after thirty years as a full time dealer I consider that I truly don’t own, or need to own anything. My job is to find it, to recognize it, and then to be a good custodian until I have found it a decent home, where it will be loved and preserved. It’s kind of liberating, actually.