“living the dream”, a church full of great stuff in the middle of nowhere

int5

later on when most of the furniture was gone and it was largely folk art

I can remember standing in the partially dilapidated main hall of the old Wyecombe Methodist church for the first time, and thinking “this would make a fabulous antique store.”  It’s 1981 and Jeanine has read a classified ad in the London Free Press about a church for sale in Norfolk County for $21,000.  We decided to take a ride in the country and have a look just for the fun of it. Seemed harmless enough.  Well damned if we didn’t fall in love with the vaulted, 28’ patterned tin ceiling, and surrounding 14’ Gothic windows.  We loved the size, exposure and location of the place and saw the potential; and so in spite of all our friends and family advice against it, we bought the dream.  Thus along with our new alternative life style we began several years of hard labor renovating and maintaining the joint.  We soon discovered why these church halls are typically taken on by a community, and not individuals.  Everything is large scale.  Thirty gallons of paint rather than four.  We loved the challenge. We could see the phoenix rising from the ashes.int6

As life demands, simultaneous to the renovation we began to buy and sell antiques, to meet our needs, and so our main concern was to sell every weekend at the Toronto Harbourfront market. We didn’t think many would find us in the outback and we were happy with the income from the market.  But it wasn’t long before dealers and other customers started to make the trip out to see what we had at home.  At first it was more of a warehouse than a show room, but over the years we refined and added showcases, and shelving and by about 1990 it was usually quite full and fairly organized.  Of course everything had to be dragged up and down the wide, front steps, but we were young and stupid; and didn’t care.  Like many of us at that time who found themselves being full-time antique dealers, it was the alternative lifestyle thing that attracted us. It was more out of an aesthetic interest than any well thought out business plan that the sales room of Old Church Trading came about.  That and the natural tendency for things to pile up as you continue in this business, and thus the need to find some place to keep them.int4

In the fall of 1996 a Quebec dealer friend of ours started to bring huge loads of mediocre stuff to a Guelph auction every other week, and proposed that he also bring along some good things for us to sell for him. Things were changing in Quebec.  We had the room, and had done good business together over the years so we said yes.  It was great.  He kept bringing us wonderful things.  Not a lot at a time, but excellent quality.  We loved to see him pull in.  It was like Christmas.

Our Harbourfront days were now behind us, but with some good dealer trade and with a schedule of about twelve shows a year we continued to go through a lot of stock.  People who had not been by for a while often commented that it was amazing how much the stock kept changing.  That, and it just kept getting fuller.  Cupboards were now in rows and stacked one on top of the other.  I felt proud that it was looking like a Quebec picker’s barn. I loved to stand at the front of the big room and look over the variety of interesting things.  Although visitors were few and sometimes far between, those who made the trip usually were serious and went home with something, or often with lots of things.  We really didn’t advertise all that much, or encourage passing trade.  There was a small sign at the road but that was all.  Most who came were people we knew from shows.  Or people who learned about us through them.  I guess we could have pushed harder, but we like staying a bit out of the way.  Mysterious and a bit aloof.  Not in a “pearls before swine sort of way”, but just by saying “here it is.  We think it’s great.  If you think it’s great and want to take it home, we are happy to help you carry it out. Otherwise, we hope you had a nice time and it was worth the drive.”  You could be that cocky back then.int3

Late in 1997 our Quebec pal’s arrangement with the auction house ended and he stopped coming, so we bought about half the stock we had, and sent the rest home with him.  The market was changing, and so were we.  We were becoming more interested in the folk art, and although I loved the furniture, my back was just about pooched, and the furniture market was slowing, so we decided to downsize and focus on smalls. Oh how dismissive a young me and my colleagues had been watching the “smalls” dealers bringing in their boxes, and now I was one of them.  Less and less furniture came up those stairs.int2

Our daughter Cassandra had left for Queens a few years earlier, so by the year 2000 we started to think about ourselves in the not too distant future being old, and a bit crazy, rambling around the church in old patched sweaters, so we decided that a move into town and a new scene was the next project.  It took us three years to wind down the church and move on to Port Dover, and don’t get me wrong.  We’re happy we did.  But for a while there we were living our dream.  A great shop, in the middle of nowhere, which almost nobody knows about.   Looking back, I can see that it was almost like building a folly.int1

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The paintings of Barbara Clark Fleming

bcf1Artist’s Statement:

“All of my paintings reflect upon my country life. Paintings of rural landscapes and different animals, all of which are a link to my past. I was born in 1939 on a 150 acre farm in East Zorra, Ontario, where my father farmed with horses. My mom and dad had no boys, so I became my dad’s helper. As a result of these memories my paintings frequently reflect scenes of haying, threshing, fetching cows, and scenes of country villages.

I never took lessons in painting. I just wanted to put my feelings on canvas. I don’t like painting straight lines, I prefer curves and waves. I do all my painting at home in the country, and I use many different colours. I started painting in 1977 as I realized I had no pictures of my dad’s farm. To keep memories of that farm alive my first picture was painted, and it was entered into the Oxford County Juried Exhibition and won an award of merit. It still have that painting. I did not take my painting seriously until 1989 when an accident prevented me from working full time. I hope that everyone who views my paintings receives as much pleasure as I receive painting them.”

Barbara Clark-Fleming

 

As mentioned in my previous blog about the Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival, it was here in 1994 that we first encountered the work of Barbara Clark Fleming.   Shortly after we contacted her and made our first trip to her home near Woodstock, Ontario.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at her neat little hobby farm was the pony in a paddock at the rear.  Barbara met us at the door and although obviously very shy was none the less welcoming and told us about her pet horse and her love for all animals.  We then went in to the house to discover a turtle crawling across the kitchen floor, a couple of cats lounging about, and a little white bunny who would hide behind the furniture and hop by occasionally.  We were introduced to her husband Stan, who was stretched out in a recliner chair in the living room.  A very nice man who was by this point very ill and requiring her full time care.  She took us into a little room beside which was her studio. Here she painted on a flat school desk over which hung a large combination lamp/ magnifying glass.  Barbara explained that she is very near sighted and required this set up for the details. She said that the painting was a great escape for her, as she was required to be at home, indoors most of the time. She essentially remembers happy scenes from her childhood and paints them spontaneously. Although she is not conscious of it, this method was and is the essence of what gives her work it’s spontaneous energy,  strength and beauty.. She paints because she loves to paint with no concern for conventional form or perspective. She is fearless and direct and simply works until she is happy with the painting. We love this about her work. We bought about twelve paintings that day and thus began a long relationship with Barbara and her art.bcf3

She looked after Stan at home until his death a couple of years later, after which she got out and traveled around the nearby countryside, observing and documenting those elements of rural life that she still related to her upbringing.  Thus she began to paint Mennonite farms, and old feed mills that reminded her of her youth.bcf4

We believe that the first rule of dealing with folk artists is “Do not influence”.  It is always tempting to “suggest” painting more paintings in a style which you find to be most commercial, but ultimately it is this type of influence which kills the natural wonder and instincts which nurtures an artist’s development. If an artist starts to paint to please you, it is not long before they grow bored and resentful.bcf5

In 1995 we took fourteen of Barbara’s paintings to the summer Muskoka Antique Show and sold all fourteen on the opening night.  I seriously considered driving home that night to fetch more, but it was eight hours round trip so didn’t.  Barbara’s paintings sold well at every show including Muskoka the following year, and continued to be very popular for about another five years before interest waned.  Interest and sales have gone up and down since, but nothing like when we first introduced them to the Canadian market at that time.  She continues to paint excellent paintings. bcf6

Buying my “wreck” from Kojak

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

Kojak’s barn was located on the outskirts of Victoriaville.  You may be acquainted with Kojak from my previous blog “discovering the picker’s barns around Victoriaville”.  Jean (Kojak) Deshaies was thus nicknamed because he was bald and had a rough voice.  He also had a disarmingly direct way of expressing himself which reminded me of the t.v. detective.  Across the road from Kojak was an Esso station with a good little roadside restaurant.  All the pickers used to gather there about 7 am to have breakfast and exchange tips and gossip.  It was a good place to be to find out what had come in, and what was going on.

One particular summer morning Jeanine and I arrived to find an unusually high level of

excitement amongst the natives.  It was 7 am and the boys were drinking brandy, giving high fives, and generally celebrating.  What’s up?  Kojak who seemed to be the center of attention answered, “have a brandy on me.  We’re celebrating the delivery of my new truck.  There she is out front.  Isn’t she a beauty.”  Sure enough a massive, brand new, chrome covered, custom painted one ton, four door Chevy sat glistening in the sun.   “It’s a little early for us for Brandy, but congratulations Jean, that’s a real beauty.”   We took our place at our usual table and ordered breakfast.

This was at a time when I was becoming known as a “regular”, and the boys liked me in spite of my beat up old pickup with the simple bolted together oak board rack.  Actually, I could tell that they laughed a bit behind my back as theirs was an “express my macho through my big truck culture.”  That and the big roll of cash which they would pull out of their pants is what made them impressive to their clients and each other.  They could not imagine why someone would come from so far which such a small potential for hauling things back.  The first time I tried to tie down a load, they stopped me and taught me how to do it properly.  Making a loop at one end of the rope and then pulling the other end through and pulling hard to cinch with a reef knot and the load was in place.  I was getting pretty good at piling the stuff up a little past the height of the cab and onto the lowered tailgate to maximize my load.

So we were enjoying the laughter and light heartedness of the moment, along with some bacon and eggs, when Kojak slid onto the bench next to us.   “Hey Phil, you should buy mon wreck.”  Pause. “Buy your wreck” ???  It was first thing in the morning and I was struggling to find meaning in Jean’s “Franglaise”.  Perhaps the shot of brandy would have helped.  “Yea, mon wreck.  Mon wreck from my old truck.  It didn’t fit the new truck because my last truck had the small back space like yours so I had a new one made. But it would work great for you, and then you would have a real rig for hauling a decent load.”  The fog lifted.  “Well what are you asking for it?”  At this Jean looked me directly in the face and held up five fingers.  Let’s see; another puzzler.  I knew that it could have originally cost $5,000 because it was beautifully made with a deck over the cab which had a metal mesh walking surface that came right out to the front bumper, and handy sailboat type rope tie downs all along the sides.  But it seemed too high, so I ventured, “how much Jean?”  “Five hundred.”  “Give me five hundred and we can go to the welder’s place right after breakfast and he will put it on for you. That’s included in the price”.  I looked at Jeanine.  She gave me a wink, and so I said “Sure. Sounds good”.  Thanks Jean.  We’ll go for it.”  Jean’s big smile displayed his satisfaction with this.  His old rack was sold and he knew I could buy a lot more from him with this new equipment.  It was a good investment on his part.

We finished our breakfasts and followed Jean about five clicks out of town to the home and shop of his welder buddy.  Jean had called ahead so by the time we arrived he had it suspended up above the bay ready for us to drive in.  Twenty minutes later our old oak rack was on the burn pile, and our new front to back rack was bolted into place along the sides and on to the front bumper.  The old truck dropped about two inches under the new weight, but it drove fine, and we were off on the hunt with oodles of more space for purchases.  The rack survived two new trucks and served me well for the rest of my time hauling big loads out of Quebec.  I was happy that we had been there for breakfast the day Kojak’s new truck had arrived.

My new metal rack bought from Kojak.

My new metal rack bought from Kojak.

Nobody wants to tell a mother that her baby is ugly

I got a call the other day from a local woman who was interested in having me do an appraisal.   The lady, who was elderly and spoke very politely, told me that she was downsizing and it was time for her to let go of a special item that she had inherited from her grandmother.  Something she cherished but had no further use for.  An item that reportedly her Grandmother had turned down an offer of $3000 some years ago. “Sounds interesting.  What do you have?”.  “Well it’s a collection of playbills and related records collected from all over the world.”

 Playbills and related records that she turned down $3000 for. Hmmm. I began to imagine that perhaps she was a regular theater goer and had built up a collection from plays she had seen. Perhaps it included rare autographed pictures of past stars, or was so comprehensive in nature that someone would offer such a sum.  If this was the case, I would suggest to her that she get in touch with someone who would be more familiar with such an item.  Someone like Ed Locke for instance who deals in nostalgia.  My imagination kicked in and I started to get a bit excited.

“O.K. Mam, you may have something here.  Is the portfolio handy, so that you can give me more details?”  “Yes, I will go and get it.  ”Grandma was very meticulous. It’s always been kept in a dry closet and it is in perfect condition.” More reason to be encouraged.  A few moments passed and she was back.  “As I said, this was her prized possession and she once turned down $3000 once from a person who was very interested in acquiring it.”  Evidently, I thought.  That’s a lot of money to offer for a collection way back when. I was now imagining letters from the authors and composers, perhaps some personal photographs.  The excitement was mounting.  She had the book in front of her.wgm4

“So please describe it for me.”  “Well it is in a box and there are over a dozen records, and a booklet that tells you all about each piece of music.”  What! I thought it was a personal collection. This doesn’t sound good.   She went on and my heart sank, “The title on the cover is Webster’s Basic Library of the World’s Greatest music.”  All the records and the book are in excellent condition.  “But Mam, what about the playbills?  I thought we were talking about something your grandmother has collected, but what you are describing is a commercial product.” “Oh well I haven’t looked at it for years and I guess I remembered incorrectly as there are no playbills.  However, it is full there of information on every piece of music.”  wgm6

I was on-line as we spoke so I googled Webster’s Basic library of the World’s Greatest music, and up popped a dozen examples.  E-Bay listings, and otherwise.  I went to the first E-Bay listing.  So there are 24 records, correct?  The first record is Bach, the next four Beethoven.   The sleeves have several pages of documentation included of the recordings called “The Listener’s Guide to Album 1” then in Volume 2 “The Listener’s Guide to Album 2″…and so on.  “Yes, that’s exactly right.”  That’s it exactly.  wgm5

“Ah, and this boxed set was released in 1958” It states here that there were several editions produced over a few decades, and you say you have volumes one and two.”  “Yes, that’s what I have.”  And there is no additional material.   No collected photos or playbills, or anything else.”  “That is correct.”  “Well, then I’m afraid I have some bad news for you Mam because the copy I am looking at here on E-Bay which is in excellent condition just like yours, is being offered for $62.99 plus shipping.”  The mood turned suddenly ugly.  “Well that just can’t be.  You don’t know what you are talking about.  My Grandmother was nobody’s fool and she turned down $3,000 back then so it has to be worth a lot more now.”  “I’m sorry to give you this news, but unless there is something else with that box of records, what I am looking at right now in front of me suggests your Grandmother should have taken the $3,000 when she had the chance.”  “No.  that’s just wrong. It’s worth at least $3,000, and you can’t fool me.”  I tried to reassure her that I had no interest in trying to fool her, or in acquiring her grandmother’s treasure.  I was simply trying to let her know that as it so often happens in families, myths get started and can easily be perpetuated until someone comes along and bursts the bubble.  Nobody likes to have their hopes dashed, and having to do so in all honesty is the worst part of the job, but the truth must come out eventually.  I apologized once more, wished her luck, and hung up the phone.wgm4