Folk art arrives at the door – The Barbara Browne Collection

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drawing by Liz Barrett-Milner

It was a sunny, August day in 1995, and we had just finished our lunch when there came a knock on the back door.  We weren’t expecting anyone, and it was rare for anyone to visit without calling ahead.  This, because we were so often on the road that our friends knew to give us the heads up before coming by.  We opened to find a small elderly lady standing there with a big smile and a portfolio under her arm.  “Are you the folks who buy folk art?”  “Well yes, we have been known to do so.  How can we help you?” “My name is Barbara Browne, and I live down the road in Port Rowan, and I have a collection of folk art which I would like to sell.”  “Come right in and tell us about it.”

She explained that she was an artist who had collected Canadian folk art for the past twenty years, and she was about to buy a smaller house in Simcoe, and thus needed to downsize, and recoup her investment to help with the purchase.  “What is the nature of your collection?”  She reached into her portfolio and produced a twenty-page booklet of meticulously hand drawn illustrations of folk art with dimensions, which we later learned were produced for her by her niece, well-know Norfolk artist Liz Barrett-Milner.  “It’s all in here.  There are 185 pieces all told, and I am only interested in sell the whole thing.  No picking and choosing.”  There was some mind blowing stuff, including works by Nova Scotia artists Charlie Atkinson, Charlie Tanner, and Everett Lewis; as well as many Ontario artists such as Clarence Webster, Joe Lloyd, Steve Sutch, and Robert McCairns.  Most pieces were smaller in nature, but there was also a big wall-mounted cow’s head, a couple of 8’ totem poles, a full size deer, and last but not least, the best folk art hooked rug I had ever set eyes on, depicting a fat man and dated 1916.

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head by Robert McCairns

“We won’t beat around the bush.  It’s all of interest, but of course it depends on your expectations” She then produced an itemized price list of what she felt would be current list prices.  “I understand you need to make money, so this is what I think it is worth, and I would therefore expect half”.  “In principle that sounds fair so let us go over it and get back to you.”

What followed was four or five meetings at her house where we viewed the items and discussed the prices.  It became a bit complicated as each time we arrived we she had decided that there were a few more items that she felt she needed to keep, but it came to pass that we arrived at a final list and a final price, and so a date was set to complete the deal and pick up the pieces.

On that day, she informed us that she didn’t want to be there as we removed the pieces as it would be sad for her, so she wanted to go for a walk and return when we were finished.  We weren’t at all comfortable with this, but agreed on the condition that we would line up the pieces outside by the truck, and she would review the load before we left, and that’s how we did it.

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Barbara Browne and Cassandra by the truck

Barbara was an excellent artist in herself, and continued to be a friend and inspiration until her death several years later.  The collection sold well, and the fat man rug was featured prominently in the John Fleming/ Michael Rowan book on Canadian folk art.

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the fat man rug

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Sometimes you just have to buy it – the birdcage

bcage2Right up front, I must apologize for the quality of the photos.  I loaded these from scans back at home and did not realize until now that there was a problem.  I am here in France for a month without access to my original photos.  I will correct this when I get home.  For now, this will have to do.

Even from this lousy photo, I hope that you can see that this is a substantial birdcage. It stands about five feet tall, and is about three feet wide.  It is in two pieces.  It has carved hearts and diamonds, roof tiles and decorative trim.  All precisely made by someone who really knew what they were doing, and really loved birds.  There is even a little platform on the bottom which you assume was a place for the cat to sit to watch the birds.  It is magnificent in it’s design and construction. Built in the 1940’s.  A killer bird cage if ever there was one.  Something I couldn’t imagine even existed until I saw it.  So here’s the story.

My wife Jeanine is from the south west of France, and for years we would supplement our trips back and forth to visit her family by bringing over two very large suitcases full of fine linens which were easy to find in the Delhi area where we lived.  This because the area was settled largely by Belgians, Germans, and Hungarians coming to grow tobacco.  They brought a lot of beautiful stuff with them.  You could pick it up at yard sales and auctions for next to nothing.  Upon arrival in France we would go to a shop called “Au Bain Marie” near the stock market in Paris, and sell everything to them.  They always gave us good money because they would get top dollar.  It kind of blew our minds when we saw a very fine hand embroidered bed set of sheets and pillow cases for upwards of $1,000.  We would then take the money from the sale, and buy items we knew would be popular at home.  Mostly pottery, art, and forged iron items.   This was before all the repros hit the market and ruined everything.  Our two large suitcases would always pay for the trip and more.  It was a good system.

We saw lots of larger items that we knew would be popular back home but refrained from buying them, due to the hassle of arranging transport.  We would occasionally mail back a big box, but in general we stuck to things we could handle ourselves.

And so it came to pass that on one fateful trip we decided to take in one last antique show in the city of Bayonne the day before heading home.  We had a little space left in a suitcase and thought that perhaps we would find a couple more smalls.

Upon entering the hall, my jaw dropped as I saw this thing at the end of an row.  I couldn’t quite believe it was real.  At least I was hoping it wasn’t because I knew that if it was, I was in trouble.  My heart was already beating fast.  Damn if it didn’t just keep looking better the closer we came. In spite of myself, it quickly became one of those, “I must buy it no matter what” moments. Jeanine loved it too but was quick to point out that as it was so fine, it would be almost impossible to get home without damage.  I couldn’t accept this.  After a lot of pleading and persuading I was able to convince her that it would be worth any trouble we would have to go through.  The clincher was that we knew the dealer, and she said her husband would be able to make a box and arrange the transport.  We laid down the money which was substantial, and left feeling both elated and terrified.

A couple of days later, after getting home we got the call that we feared, that they were “terribly sorry but she had spoken out of hand, and there was no way they would be responsible for shipping.”  She offered to return our money, but we said no, keep it for us , and we will pack it and ship it ourselves on the next trip. bcage1

So it was six months later that I borrowed Jeanine’s cousin’s pick up and brought it to the house.  My future son in law Anson was there with our daughter Cassandra and his engineering skills came in handy as we constructed the box that we hoped would bring it back in one piece.  Surprisingly, because it was light, it didn’t cost all that much to have it flown over.  We were full of apprehension as we arrived at the Toronto airport shipping warehouse, but there it was, looking just the same as when we had left it at the Biarritz airport in France. O.K. so we got it home.  Now the question was is anybody going to pay the hefty price tag which we would have to put on it.

The Port Carling show was the next week so rather than wait months for Bowmanville we thought we would give it a try.  Sure enough, on opening night some wealthy South Africans who had just bought a local cottage walked in, took one look, and said we’ll take it. No negotiation. They even bought a half dozen Wilfred Richard birds we had displayed in it in spite of the fact that they were about $600 each. Big sigh of relief.  Sometimes when you stick your neck out things work out.  Gratefully this was one of those times.

An old truck dies, a “new” truck is born

Loading the old Bell truck in Quebec

Loading the old Bell truck in Quebec

After our old Ford pick-up died I spotted the used Bell Telephone line truck pictured above and beside, at our local used car dealer. It was well maintained and had low mileage, and was equipped with dual wheels, 350 Chevy engine, solid rack above with ladder, and a directional spot light that I knew would come in handy when looking for house numbers while on delivery, .  It had lousy seats, but I could replaced those.  My dealer pal Ozzie gave me a good deal on it, and thus it became my second home. Back and forth, back and forth to Quebec.  On the plus side it was easy to load, reliable, and reasonably comfortable with the Volvo seats I had found. On the negative side it was quite noisy, and my bagged lunches would sometimes freeze in Quebec in the winter, in spite of the heater being on full blast.  I wore layers of long johns, and pants just to sustain.  I was a lot younger then.

So back and forth, back and forth, for about five years until one day early in September, just before school was going to start I left solo for a three day trip to Quebec, planning to return the night before our daughter Cassandra’s first day of school.  I believe that it was her last year, and I had managed to take a photo of her standing by the mailbox waiting for the bus every year since she had started Kindergarten.   “See you Sunday night”, “Safe trip”.

Everything went well in Quebec.  I bought a nice load, the weather was great, and it was a lovely Saturday morning as I started the ten hour trek home.  Everything was going along tickity-boo, until suddenly  just before Gananoque, Ontario the engine started to overheat. Damn. Not good, but at least I was able to get off soon and get into town where I pulled up in front of a rad shop.  They said they could put in a new rad for $400, and have me on my way pronto.  I was suspicious that I may have bigger problems than just an overheating rad, but they assured me that the old one was shot and the engine seemed fine otherwise.  ‘Okay, go for it, I’ll grab some lunch and be back in an hour.”  So a nice sandwich at a nearby cafe, and I return to find it ready. I had a bad feeling in my gut that I knew wasn’t my lunch , but I paid, and was doing my best to feel positive about still making it home as I jumped back on the 401. Well, wouldn’t you know it.  Not fifty miles down the road, RATS there it goes again.  This time I knew I was in trouble because it was a good ten miles to the next garage which would be in Kingston.

I drove on. I knew in my heart that the engine was toast so all I was hoping was to make it  to a garage where it could be pronounced dead and I could arranged for a proper burial. If I made it without a tow it would be great, and I may even be able to rent a truck and still make it home. Ever optimistic.  Pressing on.  So, it’s getting worse quickly.  The cab is full of steam, it’s starting to chug and lurch, putting out a plume of black smoke, in spite of my slow speed.   But at least I can see Kingston ahead, and there just on the other side of the tall bridge which I am about to climb I spot an Esso station with a big parking lot.  Yes, I think I can. I think I can. I’m going to make it because if  I can only get over the hump I can glide down with the help of gravity if necessary.  Then it happened.

There goes the damn warning bell, and the lights start flashing, and to my horror the gates are coming down and the bridge span is going up to allow the oncoming sailboat to pass.  A  final backfire that sounded like a shotgun blast, and she dies.  Right there, ten feet from the apex.  A classic so close, and yet so far.  I close my eyes and think about happier places, and when I open them the gates are up, the bridge span is back down,  and the traffic oncoming is moving . Meanwhile everybody who is behind me starts blowing their horn and swearing at me.  I mean I couldn’t hear them swearing but I could feel the burn. I sat there for a couple of minutes to compose myself, and then slowly got out and went to the car behind me, where the guy was frantically rolling up his window and locking his doors.  “Listen, I’m terribly sorry about this, but you can either sit there and blow your horn which accomplishes nothing, or you can get out of your car and help me push it over the hump, so I will be able to coast down to that parking lot”.  “Oh, O.K. buddy, we’ll give it a try” . Happily, the guy behind him was also a sport and so we soon had it over the hump and I was rolling madly down the steep decline, hoping to God that I didn’t have to stop for anyone while pulling into the parking lot.  I got lucky, and soon found myself  harboured safely in the parking lot, and I was on my way by foot to the phone booth I spotted by the Esso station.

“Hi Jeanine, listen I’m sorry to tell you that you are going to have to take that shot of Cassandra tomorrow morning, because the truck has died here in Kingston, and I will have to stay overnight to make arrangements, and rent a truck etc.”  “I’m so sorry.  Tell me how did this happen.  Are you O.K.? ”  Just then I spot a pick up truck stopped at the lights, which I recognized as Cellar Door Antiques with my friend Gary Dawdy at the wheel.   “Oh, gotta go, I’m fine.  I’ll call you later.” Click, and I’m off on a sprint to catch up to Gary before the lights change.  This was in the days when I could sprint.  Gary was noticeably surprised to see me banging on his passenger side window, and immediately opened the door.  “Hey, how’s it going Gary.  Listen I’m just wondering if you might be able to drop me at a truck rental place. You see my truck just died.”   “Sure, hop in but first I have to to pick up my daughter at school  because I just dropped Gale at the hospital as she’s gone into labour.” “Oh wow, Gary you’ve got bigger things on your mind.  Don’t worry about it, I’ll walk”  “No, no it’s fine, ride along with me and after I can take you to the rental.  This is planned and I am not needed back there for a little while.”  “Great, as long as I’m not stopping you from doing what you need to do.”

We road along happily, while I told him my tale of woe which suddenly seemed quite small in the overall scheme of things. “So what’s next, repair it or get a new truck?”  “Oh, a new truck for sure. It’s been good to me but I’m tired freezing in the winter. I want to get something like this actually. A pick up with a crew cab”  ” Really, well that’s interesting because I just ordered a new truck and so I guess I’ll be getting rid of this one.” “Hmm, well I guess I’m interested if you decide.”  “I’ve decided already and I’ll sell it  to you for what they offered me as trade in.  It’s been a great truck so I don’t mind selling it to you. Just let me call Gale to make sure she agrees”. “”Oh, I wouldn’t…”   Too late. I could hear Gale expressing quite clearly that she didn’t give a hoot what he did, and didn’t he realize that she had more important things happening right then, etc.. I paraphrase to protect the innocent.  Big smile.  “Well, she’s fine with it, so why don’t we pick up my daughter  and then we can go to your truck, and if you like we can transfer the load to this truck and you can drive it home, and try it out for a few days.  Next week is the Kelso show, so you can either bring it back to me if you choose not to buy it, or bring me the $4,000 and keep it. I’ll be fine, I’m taking my cube van anyways.”

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Gary’s old truck, which became my new truck. The rack came later which is another story.

This is one of the strongest examples of serendipity I have experienced in my life, and a true testimony to just how decent people can be.   Within two hours we had picked up Gary and Gale’s daughter, gone back to my truck,  and after selling a couple of things to Gary we were able to load the rest on my “new” truck”, and he had called the tow truck to have the old girl towed away to it’s final resting place.  What a guy.  I was so grateful for his kindness, and to be on my way again.  I called Jeanine and lied that I was resting at the hotel and not to worry. I would be home sometime later the next day, so she was really surprised when I walked through the door five hours later.  Here’s the picture I took of Cassandra on her final first day of school.

cassmailOf course I loved the truck, and was happy to bring the money to Gary the following week.  My first experience with cruise control.  What an invention. I swear that if I had had this earlier I wouldn’t have screwed up my right leg, which I always said was due not  to the driving ten hours in a stretch, and then loading heavy objects, but rather the result of pushing on that dastardly stiff accelerator all that time.  And boy, once you’ve have a truck which is warm and cozy no matter what the weather;  you question just how daft you had to be to put up with freezing all those winters.  I never looked back.

 

It came with this topper

My favourite truck came with this topper.

Finding Lajeunesse

“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 scrubbed the words off while cleaning it.   There’s a cautionary tale for you.

showing the bottom of “Chien Mechant”

So it happened that one day shortly after buying the piece, in a rare mood of domesticity, and in preparation of Jeanine’s imminent  return home from visiting her mother in France,  I was cleaning, and I happened to turn the piece over.  There it was.  Not only his signature but his address and phone number.  Well Hallelujah.  As it happened we were just about  to go on a  Quebec buying trip so we figured what the heck , lets give him a call.  Jeanine dialed he number, not expecting much; but suddenly Henri Lajeunesse was on the line.  After establishing that he was the Henri Lajeunesse we sought, Jeanine told him of our love of his work and our imminent trip, and asked if it might be alright to drop by on him.   “Of course, I’d be delighted”.  When should we come?. “Oh anytime is fine, I am always here.”  We are coming on the fifth, and perhaps we should call that morning to check that you will be in?  “It’s not necessary.  Just come anytime, but I’ll expect you on the fifth.”  

We stayed overnight in Montreal on the fourth, and then in the morning,after breakfast we headed out on the two and a half hour drive north east to the village of St. Melanie.  When we arrived at 611 Chemin du Lac Sud, we looked at each other and laughed because of course he was going to be home; he lived in a retirement lodge.

Bluebird

Bluebird

The front desk soon confirmed that he was waiting for us in his room.  We were taken there and sure enough after knocking, the attendant opened the door and there he was sitting in his rocking chair surrounded with pieces of his work on every available surface. We counted over forty carvings.  Mostly birds, animals, and people, and all of a small or medium size.  What a wonder to behold.  His eyes lit up as he explained that in anticipation of our visit he had his son bring everything he had left in storage, and also his carving tools, because now that someone was showing interest again, he felt he had a few more carvings in him, which he wanted to explore.  We had a lovely talk about his life, and work.  He and his wife had eleven kids, he had spent his entire life in St. Melanie, etc.  While he spoke my eyes kept scanning the room, taking in all that was before me.  Wonderful examples of different periods of his work.  We noted that the little bluebird above was his most recent piece and there is an obvious difference between this later piece and the earlier pieces like the leopards below.

an earlier leopard

He exuded  warmth and humility while answering our many questions, and telling us a few of his life’s stories.  Then eventually , almost timidly, he suggested that we could buy a piece if we wanted something to remember our visit by.  “well of course Mr. Lajeuness, . Could you please tell us your prices.”. He went around the room quoting prices from memory.  Everything was from about $15 to $65 dollars.  Then he offered,  “So is there a piece you think you might like to have?”. Jeanine and I threw each other a knowing glance, and said  “Well actually , we’d like to take all of them”.  The depth of his smile cannot be described as we started a list of the pieces and their prices. Soon I was heading out to the truck where we had prepared ourselves for a possible happy outcome by bringing many cardboard boxes and.0

paper.

another example of a leopard. This one bought from Jean Lacasse many years later.

another example of a leopard. This one bought from Jean Lacasse many years later.

He told us that many of his fellow housemates had suggested that he would be lucky to sell even one piece, so we shared in his delight observing the dropped jaws and wide eyes of the residents in the lobby as we hauled out  box after box of carvings.  Eventually, we shook hands and told him we would try to get back for a visit in a year or so, but  sadly soon after his family contacted us to inform us of his passing.  Eventually his daughter sent us a multi-page biography  in which we learned that legendary collector dealer Nettie Sharpe was a regular visitor in his productive years, and I find it strange considering this, and the excellent quality of his work, and the uniqueness of his vision that so little has been written about him.  The only major publication where I can find any mention is “Les Paradis du Monde, L’art populaire du Quebec” by Pascale Galipeau which includes a full page photo of his carving of Maurice Duplessis on page 111.

Maurice Duplessis, circa 1970

Maurice Duplessis,
circa 1970

footnote:

“Chien Mechant” is the French warning for “Beware of dog” as you would see on a sign.

“Lajeunesse” is the French word for “youth”