Meeting Aime Demeules , folk artist from St. Paul-de-la-Croix, Quebec

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Speckled horse by Aime Desmeules

In an earlier post I recall our meeting Felicien Levesque in the early nineties while touring the Bas -St. -Laurent region of Quebec.  Well, the very next day we rose early and made the half hour drive From Cacouna to St Paul de-la-Croix, knowing it was the hometown of the well-know carver Aime Desmeules.  We had been buying his animals for years from Victoriaville picker Marcel Gosselin, and we had always wanted to meet him.  It was not hard to get directions to his house in this small town of 367 people, and we were soon pulling in to the driveway of a neatly kept, small ranch style home.

moose by Aime Desmeules

moose by Aime Desmeules

Jeanine and I rang the bell, and were soon greeted by a puzzled looking older lady we took to be his wife.   We explained that we had come from Ontario and being big fans of Mr Desmeule’s work, we had made the trek to their home with the hopes of meeting him.  “Oh no, that will not be possible.  He doesn’t like to meet new people, and he has no work for sale in any case. No, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”Just as she was about to slam the door in our faces, Jeanine added sweetly, “Well we don’t mind if there is no work for sale,  but please we have come a long way and we would be very grateful just to have the opportunity to make his acquaintance.”  She looked us up and down.  Long pause. “Very well, he’s not here right now as he is fetching wood, but I suppose if you come back in an hour he may be willing to talk to you.”  Whew, nice work Jeanine.  “Great, thanks, we’ll be back.”  So we went into town and had a delicious big breakfast, and lingered over our coffee to fill in the time.

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

One hour later we were greeted at the door by Aime.  Surprisingly, he was as friendly as can be, and invited us in to his work shop which was fairly full of finished carvings.  “Pardon us for saying, but your wife gave us the impression that you had no work for sale, so I suppose these pieces are commissioned.”  He Laughed.  “No these pieces are for sale, it’s just that when you arrived unexpectedly with your accents, she was worried that you may be from the tax department.”  I was starting to think that this would be the standard greeting we could expect arriving unannounced at Quebec carver’s homes, and upon reflection, I understand where they are coming from.

The next hour was pleasantly filled by Aime telling us the story of how he was 64 years old before he took up carving and at that time he was taught by his father to create the various animals in his father’s repertoire to be precisely like his father’s work.  It was only after his father’s death in 1986 at 95 years of age that Aime developed a few new animals of his own, along with some pieces depicting people such as the blacksmith shown here.

"Blacksmith" by Aime Desmeules

“Blacksmith” by Aime Desmeules

 

 

Mrs. Demeules joined us after awhile and expressed that she was sorry for the rude greeting, but that she could see now that we were truly fans and not inspectors, and she was happy that we came.  We bought a lot of his work, about twenty pieces or so, and we spent a pleasant morning getting to know each other, before loading up and heading out of town.

 

 

 

What I find interesting about Aime, is how he was content, to the point of taking pride in creating exact copies of his father’s work.  He even signed the pieces with a stylized “A” “D” with the “A” looking very much like a “G” as his father had signed.  It is quite difficult to distinguish the father’s work from the son’s, and you are pretty much dependent on patina and provenance. My understanding is that George quit working in the early 70’s, but then Aime only lived on until 1997.

Aime's signature on cat

Aime’s signature on cat

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f you consider other carving families, such as Damase Richard and his son Wilfred; although there is a similarity to their work, when you study them closely you can see quite a few differences which make them easy to distinguish.   When considering father and son carvers, Aime and George’s bond seems unique.

"brown Cow" by Aime Desmeules

“brown Cow” by Aime Desmeules

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Finding Fournier – how we met the acclaimed Quebec folk artist, Leo Fournier

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo Fournier has always been one of our all time, favorite folk artist for his whimsy, elegance and balance. Leo’s sculptures cover a wide range of subjects from the religious to the erotic, as well as animals and everyday life scenes.  The work is composed mostly of figures and animals in various forms of shared or confrontational activities.  .

pig, by Leo Fournier

pig, by Leo Fournier

He had a keen eye for detail, a great sense of fun and a love of life.  You can recognize a Fournier from across the room, and we would purchase the work when we came across it, in picker’s barns, shows, or auction.  It was always our desire to find and meet Leo, but of course the pickers were not anxious to have us contact him directly so would not provide information, and his address was not listed in the reference books.   All we had to go on was that  he lived in the town of La Prarie (pop 23,000), on the south side of the St. Lawrence River, across from Montreal.

last supper, by Leo Fournier

last supper, by Leo Fournier

Sometimes our trips to Quebec were straight there and back affairs, but on other occasions we would take a few days to meander and explore, and it was on one such occasion in the early nineties that we found ourselves in La Prarie late in the afternoon with some time to kill before we hit one of our favored road side motels.  I pulled up to a phone booth, and said to Jeanine “let’s see if we can find Leo Fournier in the book.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  Our hearts sank a little when we realized there were over thirty Fourniers listed in town and only one L. Fournier.  Of course we tried this number first and it was not Leo, and furthermore they did not know of him, but we were not so easily discouraged and just started with the first listing and kept dialing.  Jeanine was getting a little tired after about a dozen dead ends, with not everyone being delighted to participate in our little search, but she persevered, and low and behold after about another six calls she spoke to someone who was a relative, and she was happy to provide his number.  “Well that was sort of easy.” I quipped. “O.K. well not that easy, and yes it was you doing all the calling”. In any case we dialed him up directly. and spoke to his wife Jeanette who said he was out momentarily but would be home soon, and he would be happy to meet us.  She gave us good directions to their house which we soon found on a quiet little street right across from a Depanneur , or variety store.

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Leo met us at the door and warmly invited us in to the sunporch, where he liked to entertain visitors.  Leo was a very charismatic storyteller, and he launched right into some great stories while sit ting in his rocking chair sipping on a big can of Molson Export.  “ I like my beer but I only buy them one at a time.  That’s why I’m happy there is a depanneur right across the street” he laughed.” I noticed there were four empty cans next to his chair, but then again it was getting on in the day.  Jeanette arrived directly with some coffee for us and we spent a very pleasant hour or so listening to his stories.  He was a retired auto body man of good reputation, and was involved in the scrap business.  He told us about and showed us his first carving which was a crucifix done  in 1967 when he was 43 yrs. old.  Since that time until his death in 2007 he continued to be a prolific carver, selling to friends and the occasional picker, Nettie Sharpe among others who would come by to see what he had been up to..  He was aware that his work was included in books and exhibits, but he never felt he was really appreciated until sometime in the nineties when the Quebec government commissioned him to produce a series of about a dozen sculptures on food production.(See the butcher with hog’s head below) With this big pay cheque he chose to go to Leningrad on his own where he spent two weeks at the Hermitage studying the art there, rather than fix the roof on the house which was what the rest of the family was pushing for.  Leo was that kind of guy.  He lived his life the way he wanted to and never thought twice about convention.  We bought the six or seven pieces he had available that day and his house became a favorite stop on subsequent trips.  We always took the time to stop and listen to his stories. According to his pal Andre Laport who phoned to tell us of his death in 2007 “he lived his life just the way he wanted to right to the end, with no lingering illness, and a beer in his hand”.  Like so many others who knew him, we really miss him , and his infectious spirit.  One of the greats.

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government

“Your Cat is on Fire” – adventures with Albert

Our adjoining shed workshops

Our adjoining shed workshops

We were just on the phone with our daughter Cassandra, and she reminded me it’s Friday.  Somehow with the jet lag I was thinking it’s still Thursday.  It always takes me a couple of days to get back in to swing of things.  So as not to tax my tired brain too much, rather than going into something more serious, I turn to a little tale of barely averted disaster from back in the days when we lived and worked at the old church in Wyecombe Ontario.  Back in the days when we were called Old Church Trading.

albert

Albert

This story involves our faithful, for the past thirty years, assistant Albert.  Albert is a wonderful guy.  We continue to be good friends.  He is actually more a member of the family at this point,  and at 70 years old he is still happy as a clam to come over from time to time to help us with the garden or whatever, and  he can still out work a man half his age.  We met him early on after moving to the church when we bought some children’s yard chairs that he was making and selling from his trailer home in nearby Courtland.  During the conversation over the chair purchase he became aware that we had lots of work to do on the property and asked if we would be interested in hiring him.  He seemed like a nice fellow and his price was right so we said “sure let’s give it a try.’  Well Albert turned out to be a real blessing.  He would come on time very morning and work hard with enthusiasm and dedication, without ever a complaint.  I have always been more likely to say to Albert to slow down and take it a little easy, rather than to hurry up and get on with it.  Salt of the earth kind of guy.  We soon noticed that he never brought or ate a lunch, and so asked him why, and expressed our concern as to his well being.  He said, “oh I eat a good breakfast and then have dinner when I get home so it’s o.k.  That’s when Albert started having lunch with us.   Albert we came to find out, was a ward of the court and had never learned to read or write. He had lived almost as a slave on a nearby farm until he was 18 and legally able to leave.  I will not denigrate him by suggesting that he is unintelligent because  in spite of his lack of education he is very creative in finding ways to do things his own way, and very capable at many things.  Let’s just say that he is an original thinker, and because he is always working so hard to please, everything is great as long as you don’t leave him too long unattended, because sometimes he is a bit overzealous.  So understanding this, we come to our story.

It was an unusually hot, and windy spring morning, and I had spent it working indoors, while Albert on instruction raked up the leaves and limbs that had fallen on the yard over the winter.  At noon Jeanine had prepared some delicious soup and so we called Albert in for lunch.  As usual we had enjoyed our lunch together and conversation and was just  finishing a cup of coffee when there came a frantic knock on the door.  We opened it to find a local farmer shouting “your cats on fire, your cat’s on fire”.  We looked across the room and saw our cat Elvis sleeping there so we were puzzled to say the least.  “He’s  o.k. he’s right over there.”  We had misunderstood.  “Oh, our shack is on fire” What the…?

We ran out and indeed one of our three little out buildings was indeed engulfed in flames along one wall.  It didn’t take long to realize that Albert had piled up the refuse at the edge of the property, and had taken the initiative to light it.  Then when called him he had then come in for lunch, assuming I guess that it would be fine. Well the wind had picked up and it wasn’t fine. The fire had run along the dry weeds and caught under the edge of the little building. The dry hot wind had fanned it, and it was already burning pretty convincingly all along the wood siding.  Yikes! Crap.  Albert get out the hose and shovels and get over here pronto.  Albert is pretty darn fast when he needs to be so within seconds he was back and we were throwing dirt on the fire and spraying the side of the building with all the water that our little well pump could muster.  It didn’t take a minute to realize it was a losing battle so  Jeanine ran in and phoned the fire department.   Albert and I continued to fight the blaze as best we could but it had now jumped on to the pile of one hundred year old pine barn planks which we had stacked neatly with two inch spacers in between so they would not rot.  Well let me tell you, when that hot dry wind blew the flames across that dry stacked wood, whoosh, up she went like a match shooting flames into the sky. Holy Crap!  Our main effort at this point was to just stop the flames from reaching our two adjoined work shop buildings which were a mere three feet away. All we could do was to spray the walls to try to keep it from igniting.  Of course the work shop was full of valuable antiques and combustible chemicals, and also was just a few feet away from the church so things were beginning to look pretty bad. Just when it seemed hopeless the entire Langton volunteer fire department arrived with both their trucks because they had understood from Jeanine’s frantic call that the whole church was on fire.  They got out one of their big hoses and within five minutes extinguished the burning pile of boards and the burning shack, and left us with a cautionary note and a bill for $175.  Whew, thanks fellows for coming out so quickly and getting this situation back in control. I lost my two big pile of pine boards and we had to restore one side of our little shack but we were so grateful that things had not been worse that we just took a moment to thank our lucky stars and the brave men who volunteer to fight fires.   Albert, of course felt bad enough as it was without reprimanding him further, so we just got on with cleaning up the mess.  However, we all learned a valuable lesson that day.

Let’s visit a French antique market

FullSizeRender (2)The first Sunday of every month, there is an antique market in the town of Soumoulou, 10 km from the city of Pau in the South West of France. It goes from 8 am until 6 pm, and on average has about 100 dealers in attendance. Twice a year, in the spring and fall they have a large show which brings in about another 100 dealers. In this it is roughly equivalent to the Aberfoyle antique market held near Guelph, Ontario. Because my wife Jeanine is from this area, we have been visiting this market from time to time over the past thirty years, and like Aberfoyle we have seen changes. Primarily, a rise in interest and prices until about 2008, followed by a precipitous fall. There is still good attendance and sales taking place, but the packages being carried are smaller and fewer in number.
Still, it is a wonderful way for a person of my persuasion to spend a morning and so it was with great excitement that I woke, had breakfast, and got everyone underway, determined to get first dibs on anything special that may arrive. You’ve got to be on your toes. I remember a few years back being very disappointed missing out on a 100 years old terra cotta bust of an aristocratic French gentleman because I was still trying to figure out the exchange while a more astute dealer stepped in and bought it. Another time I almost cried because I was a few seconds behind a man from Provence in committing to what remains in my mind the most beautiful wrought iron butterfly panel which had graced the entrance of an old restaurant. IN A GADDA DA VIDA baby, indeed.

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Pictured here are confit pots. They are a local redware which are glazed on the inside, and part way down the outside. They were used to preserve cooked duck in goose fat before the days of refrigeration. As long as the pieces did not touch each other they would keep for about three years like this, getting more tasty all the while. To my mind Duck confit is one of the most delicious things you will encounter on this earth. Be sure to try it, if you get the opportunity. Today, these beautiful pots are used mostly as patio pots.  At one point about twenty years ago you would do well to find one available because they enjoyed such popularity in the States that all of them seemed to end up there. These were offered from 45 to 65 Euros. Hard to transport or I would have been tempted. For the scores of them that we have carted back over the years , we have kept only a few for ourselves.

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These little birch-bark storage boxes were very tempting ranging from 35 to 45 Euros each. The dealer said he bought them in Biarritz, and thought them to be local, but I was uncertain as I have never seen other examples here. Lovely patina and in excellent condition. Looking at the picture I wish I had bought them.  I find I never regret the things I buy, only the things I pass on.

 

 

FullSizeRender (5)I have brought back several of these wine bottle drying racks over the years. People made and bottled their own wine here so the bottles would be cleaned out and dried to be reused.

I love the exchanges here between dealers and potential customers. It’s a more in your face, and no bars held. I overheard a woman who was negotiating the purchase of a vase say, “what, did you wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming that price”. The dealer laughed and a deal was made. We had a wonderful morning looking at everything. Most of it very different than the things offered at home, and we managed to find a half a dozen things that we could fit in out suitcases and bring back as gifts. There’s nothing I enjoy more that an antique market on a crisp spring morning. You never know what you will find.

 

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Opening doors – a view from France

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the village of Amou

Now, after three weeks in this little town of Amou, in the south west of France, I can offer that my perspective on antiquity has changed, and developed by being here; and I find it invigorating. So much of this place remains essentially the same as it has been for a hundred years, and more. Old here is medieval, not circa 1900. Taking daily walks around town, you absorb the subtleties of age. You notice the details, and you feel that minus the cars, things might look much the same as they were in your grandfather’s time, or even his grandfather’s time. People just don’t change things unless they need to. A different perspective.

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door to a shop which sold horse meat

I would offer that this is a good argument for travelling to one place and staying put for awhile, as opposed to the way we travel these days which is the seven cities in seven day’s concept. Take a selfie in front of the Arc de Triumph, and move on to Brittany. Tomorrow we will be in Vienna. For example, you will see people in the Louvre walk by a monumental 18th century painting of a shipwreck; stop, take a shot on their I-phone and move on to the next. It seems the concept is just to document that you were there. What’s the point? Stop and smell the roses.

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17th cent. door in Amou

There are many opportunities to buy antiques in France. Now in spring “Vide-greniers” or “Empty the Attics” occur at the weekends in several small towns and cities. If you go on-line and google “Vide-Greniers – les Landes” which is the name of this region, you will get a list of what’s happening around here. These are typically on a Sunday, and everybody participates, much like the town yard sales at home. There’s a lot of junk, but you can also find some real treasures if you are there early enough. Bigger cities often have a weekly “Marche d’antiquites”. We have found fantastic things by arriving about 6 am Thursday morning in nearby Bayonne . Again get there early or forget about it. By noon the bottles of wine and lunches are spread on the tables, and then it’s pack up and go home. Again you can find them listed on the internet. “Depot-Ventes are the French equivalent of consignment shops. Hey were very popular a few years ago, but I notice there are less around these days. A” Brocante” is a shop which offers antiques and vintage items. A bit of everything or anything which is collectable. There are also “Shops de Antiquity” which offer only older and usually more upscale items. Last but not least you have the “Salle d’expositions” which are the French equivalent of our Antique shows. Held either indoors in a hall, or outdoors like the Christie show. There is one this weekend in nearby Somoulu which we plan to attend. I’ll give you a report next Friday.IMG_1144