A rooster for Sue

roost2People who are creative have a need to create.  It’s in them, and it needs to come out.  For some, it manifests in the way they lead their daily lives, for others it takes the form of performance, or composition, or the manufacturing of an object, be it painting, drawing, sculpture, or other media.  They get up in the morning, put their thoughts and intuition in motion, and they create something.

My wife Jeanine is such a person.  She was active as a fine artist through the seventies and early eighties; exhibiting and teaching sculpture and other art making forms at Beal Art School in London, and for the University of Windsor art school in Chatham Ontario.  She was the head of that school for a couple of years actually, and made the one hour trip (each way) three days a week from our home in Delaware to the Chatham campus.  She sold lots of work, won awards, had one woman shows, and received grants. She was well respected, and completely involved in the contemporary Canadian art scene.  In 1981 when we both quit our jobs and moved to the old Methodist church in Wyecombe, Ontario, she also stopped her professional life as an exhibiting artist.  She had had enough of the game, and had developed new priorities; but that doesn’t mean she stopped being creative.roost4

In a previous blog I talked about Jeanine’s decorative painting of furniture.  Today I am conveying a little tale of the time she made a special gift for a friend.

In the late eighties, we were doing a lot of antique shows with the same dealers, when one day an exciting new dealer came on the scene.  She was young, well in her thirties which is young for an antique dealer, had good taste in all things Canadiana and folk art, and was honest and dedicated.  She bought widely from the community and soon developed a sterling reputation.  We did some good business together, and quickly got to know and like Sue; so before long we were hanging out together, back and forth between our places, always having as a common bond a strong appreciation, and enthusiasm for folk art.  It came about one year that Jeanine wanted to make something special for Sue’s birthday.  Sue loved roosters.  She loved a lot of folk art, but she really loved roosters. So Jeanine decided to make a rooster for Sue. She confined herself to the workshop and set about with wire, paper-mache, and oil paint, and presto, several hours later emerged with a dandy of a large, cross-eyed, black and white rooster.  A fine specimen who portrayed the confidence and insolence of a truly fine cockerel.  We loved him, and were fairly confident that Sue would love him too.  At least we hoped so.  Giving people folk art, even to a folk art lover, can be a tricky business.roost3

And so Jeanine was feeling shy to present the work as her own for fear that Sue may not like it, but feel compelled to say she did because the artist was standing right there in front of her.  Thus we decided to create a folk artist to go along with the folk art.  Ah yes, now  M. Rooster was created by a previously unknown 65-year-old folk artist from the Baie St. Paul region of Quebec named Benoit Rotisserie.  Or something to that effect.  I honestly can’t remember. Then we dressed up Jeanine in old dungarees, fake mustache,a scarf and hat, and took a photograph of the artist next to his work.  We created a bio of the artist,document of authentication, and photo which all went into the box along with the sculpture.

Sue’s birthday came.  She opened the box and hooray, she was delighted with what she found inside; and we got to enjoy several minutes of snickering and grinning at each other before she began to put two and two together and started  to question the authentication.  Great fun was had by all, and Jeanine had the reassurance she desired.roost1

 

 

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Four favourite folk art pieces by “unknown” artists

It is the day before Christmas eve, and I will soon be going downstairs to carve up apples for pies.  Here’s wishing you dear readers, a very Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays as the case may be, and the best to all in 2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out 2016.  I think we will all be glad to be done with you.

So rather than go into a researched account of things past, or detailed description of some refinishing procedure, I am simply going to show you four of my favourite pieces in our collection, whose maker is unknown, and talk a bit about them.  I think it will be fun, and I will be able to get to the kitchen quicker.

Much folk art is unsigned.  Many who make folk art do so for their own gratification and therefore don’t bother to sign.  Others are perhaps unsure as to whether they want to own up to it. For whatever reason, it can be frustrating to a collector when you come across something you really like, and then can find no clues as to how to find other pieces by the same hand.  Sometimes you continue to find pieces you recognize are by the same maker in the same places, so you know you are getting close, and eventually you may be in the right place at the right time to have someone tell you who made them. Other times you may find a piece which totally blows you away, and never, ever see another piece like it.

Walking around the house I have chosen these four pieces for your consideration.un3

  1. Elephant on a fungus

We came across this unsigned piece on the second floor of Alan Chauvette’s pickers barn in St. Valere Quebec, in about 1985.  I remember the excitement I felt as I pulled it out from underneath a pile of blankets, and immediately fell in love.  Obviously local, the creator was dreaming of exotic, far-off Africa, with palm trees carved in relief against a blue sky.  I have always had a thing for the tree fungus you come across in the woods, which seem to scream out “do something with me”, and after finding lots of pieces involving fungus, I realize that there are many who share my enthusiasm.  For a while there I collected fungus folk art.  That was before Jeanine expressed that she found many of the pieces ugly,  and she developed a theory that they may be releasing spores into our environment,  so she would prefer that I move on.  This piece however, because she loves it as much as I do, and because the fungus is painted clearly falls into a different category.  I cannot logically explain why this piece falls into as Chuck Heston so famously put it, “if you want it, you’ll have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands”.  But it truly delights me every time I look at it.un2

  1. Chief Sam Goose

This piece was again found in Alan Chauvette’s barn about the same time.  All we could learn about it was that it was picked in New Brunswick, and had stood at the entrance to a Mi’kmaq reservation for many years.  Oil paint on plywood, it is a wonderful example of how time and nature can have a hand in making a truly unique piece.  If I were to see it new, I would enjoy it for it’s graphic qualities, but it is the fact that the paint has deteriorated into the grain of the plywood in such a beautiful way that it  looks as if the chief is looking at us through the fog of time.   I bought this piece for next to nothing, and actually put it out at three or four shows with a price tag of about $175. Then one day when packing up I took a good look at it and thought “are you crazy. This is a wonderful thing.  They’ve had their chance, and now it’s mine.”un4

  1. A couple of stout fellows from New Brunswick

Again, it was love at first site.  This time it was in the early nineties and I was having a quick look around the Inside/Outside show held near the Toronto airport before the crowd was let in. I came across these fellows in the booth of Cathy Constantino, of Timber River Farms.  Cathy is a sweet woman and you can always count on her giving you a good deal so I simply asked for her best price.  She knew they were very good, but she gave me a reasonable price in any case based on her purchase price, which makes Cathy a “class act” in my books.  I put them in my case and didn’t show them to anyone for fear they would offer me “stupid” money, and I may be tempted by the bottom line.  You can’t eat art, but you can’t live without it either.  She actually did have the name of the artist, which I actually did write down in my day book which is how I kept track of everything in those days, but it would take me hours to go through those books to retrieve it now, and as I mentioned I am anxious to make pies. I will do it one day, and write it on a note underneath them but these fall into the category of “I never found another piece by the same artist.” So, it can wait.  Aren’t they just the greatest figures of manhood that you can possibly imagine.  They hit all my buttons.un5

 

  1. Two facing off Magpies

Last, but not least, we have a couple of Magpies facing down each other over a worm (missing). We acquired this at last spring’s Aberfoyle show, from the booth of Craig Gamache.  Jeanine has a large collection of bird carvings, and we knew right away that these fellows would have to be added, so it was with some relief that he offered them to us at a decent wholesale price.  He had no information on the artist but mentioned that there had been a twig, looking like a worm, between their beaks when he bought them; but the worm was broken when he found it, and had become lost.  One of these days I’ll get around to putting a new worm between them so the tug of war can continue, but in the meantime, it just looks like they are having an animated conversation.  As Magpies will do.

A Retrospective of the work of Ewald Rentz at the R.O.M. (almost)

rom1Most folk artists don’t see much recognition for their work during their lifetime.  To most it would never occur to them to expect it.  So it is particularly satisfying to note that two years before his death, the Thunder Bay Art Galley gave Ewald Rentz a major exhibition called “The “Completed” work of Ewald Rentz “.  This was not far from his village of Beardmore so many of his friends made it. His son Ernie told me that it meant a lot to him to have this recognition.  Rentz wasn’t at all interested in the commercial aspect of his art. He just wanted to please people. He was a modest man.rom4

Nova Scotia does a wonderful job of promoting it’s folk art and artists.   I think it is fair to say that this is largely due to the tireless work of Bernie Riordan during his long tenure as the director of the Art Gallery of Nova scotia, and to Chris Huntington who has sold and promoted Nova Scotia folk art since he arrived in Eagle Head in 1974. n 1988, Chris was instrumental in helping to establish the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival which is held in Lunenburg during late July or early August of each year.  There are many others of course, but these two really got the ball rolling.

My home province of Ontario on the other hand has done little to promote this type of artwork, and so it was of great interest to me when in 1988 I was contacted by our friend Susan Murray whom at the time was a powerful lobbyist (since retired) and dedicated folk art collector.  She had set up a meeting with a person she met from The Royal Ontario Museum who expressed an interest in Canadian folk art.  Susan was and is a dedicated promoter of Canadian Folk Art. The someone in question was Dr. Howard Collinson, head of the department of Art and Culture for the museum.  This is what can come of rubbing elbows with the right people at the right parties, and having a very persuasive nature. rom3

It was a very exciting potential that we considered on the way over to the meeting.  I took to Howard immediately.  He was friendly and personable, but direct. He got right to the point, that the basement galleries of the museum needed to be changed. For decades it housed a rather uninteresting, and frankly in some cases incorrect representation of furnished rooms of Canadian homes of various periods.  It needed to go, and in it’s place he wanted something vital and relevant.  What he had in mind was a show of some sort on Ontario Folk Art.  We looked at pictures of several Ontario artist’s work, thinking this initial exhibit might be a cross section of artists, but when we got to the work of Ewald Rentz, he said “That’s it.  I want it to be a solo exhibition of this man’s work”.   Well alright then. I could see his reasoning.  Rentz’s work is very friendly and approachable, just like the man himself.  Let’s keep it simple and direct.  We went down to see the basement space and then agreed to meet again in a month or so. The timeline for the show was for late the following year, and he had a lot on his plate to deal with before he could dedicate any time to the project.  It all felt very positive and I began to look forward to getting started.rom5

Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, the next thing I knew I was being contacted by a pleasant-sounding woman who informed me that the museum had a new director, and that Dr. Collinson was no longer with the gallery. She had taken over his position.  She stated that she was still interested in the project, but was currently unable to devote any time to it, having inherited many other more pressing issues.  My heart sank. I could sense from her description of the current situation at the museum, and from her tone that the chances of an Ewald Rentz exhibition at the R.O.M. was quickly becoming slight or most likely not at all. The one that got away.  I was right. She got back to me a few weeks later and said that the new director had imposed a completely different agenda for the department and that she could not see anything happening for the foreseeable future.  I was disappointed of course, but still held the desire to push for an exhibition of Canadian folk art somewhere, at some time.  I did realize this years later in 2005 with the Finding Folk Art exhibition at the Eva Brook Donley museum in Simcoe Ontario.  Admittedly it was not nearly as high profile, but it was a very good exhibition of which I am still proud.  But that’s a different story, for a different day.rom2

On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

Frozen hard boiled eggs – Recollections of Quebec in the winter

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

It is December 1st and we are still enjoying mild temperatures and no snow here in Port Dover on the “south coast” of Ontario, which is how they promote the region around here.  In actuality, it is not a coast at all but rather the north shore of Lake Erie.  You need an ocean to have a coast, and I bring this up because I am not about supporting the deterioration of the language. In any case, the forecast is for temperatures to drop at the weekend to normal values and then if we believe what we are told we are in for a rough winter.  I was looking at the old Bell line van pictured at the top of every blog and thinking about how cold I used to get traveling in that van to Quebec in the winter.winter1

I did my best to fit trips in between snow events, but it goes to say that when you are back and forth every couple of weeks you are going to get caught.  I can remember white outs on the four lane #20 highway when looking out the windshield was like looking into a snow globe. Everything is white snow swirling and dancing in the headlights; everything is hypnotic and there is no hint of an edge to the road, or white line to guide you.  You are lost, and afraid to stop for fear that a transport will run straight over you, but also afraid to pull over because you have no idea where the highway ends and the ditch begins. A total white knuckle scenario which lasts for minutes that feels like hours.

You know those “bridge freezes over before highway” signs you sometimes see on northern bridges.  Well I can attest to that being true.  Late one December night I headed through Montreal, and on to the south shore with the temperature dropping steadily, and the rain starting to glaze up and turn to snow. By the time I reach the Drummondville bridge it was cold enough that indeed the road before the bridge was fine, but the second I hit the bridge that big old truck thought itself a figure skater and decided to pirouette the entire length of the bridge, spinning gracefully all the way across until it hit the dry pavement on the far end, and miraculously I had completed a turn and  the wheels were aligned so I just stabilized and kept going as if nothing had happened.  Good thing I bring a change of underwear.winter6

Another time when I picked up Jeanine at Mirabelle airport after her spending a few weeks in France, we were so happy to see each other and getting caught up that we hardly noticed the ever increasing magnitude of the snow storm which was coming in.  It just kept getting heavier and heavier but we continued to crawl along in the tracks of the transport ahead of us. We made it like this as far as the Ontario boarder before the front bumper of the van was literally plowing snow and that’s when we decided to call it a night.

The old Bell line van held a lot of gear and you could rely on the 350 Chevy engine to start and get you there and back, but the body wasn’t built for traveling for a long time in sub- zero weather, with it’s non insulated sliding side doors. It was meant to be a delivery van after all   I would wrap up in long johns, two pairs of pants, a pair of insulated cover-alls, and a blanket over my legs but even with the heater blasting full it could get damn cold.  I remember one -30 degree morning when surprisingly the engine fired up after turning over so slowly you would think it was being hand cranked.  After leaving it to heat up for 15 minutes I set off to get on with my day of visiting the picker’s barns with my lunch box on the engine cover.  I got hungry about an hour later and decided to have a hard- boiled egg, only to find that it was frozen as hard as a rock.  It’s amazing what you will put up with when you are young and have lots of blood flowing through your veins.  I could not believe the feeling of absolute luxury when the old van finally died and I started traveling in a pick-up truck.  What was I thinking?winter5

Of course the flip side to this potential discomfort and hardship is just how wonderful and special it is to be in Quebec on a , crisp sunny morning with the snow piled as high as the rooftops. Quebec city in particular is absolutely magical in the winter. To look out your hotel window and see the people below hustling along narrow paths between buildings, with every other inch of space being covered with deep,deep snow is unforgettable, and quintessentially Canadian. “”Mon pays, c’est l’hiver” or “My country. It is winter” is more than a popular Quebec expression. It’s a concept to understand and cherish.

I leave you with one last recollection. That of the Northern lights dancing magnificently overhead as I drive the lonely distance between Quebec city and Trois Riviere late at night listening to the CBC, and thinking about what my loved ones were doing at home.  Loving what I was experiencing with the light show and all, but also thinking about my family and bed and wishing I was home.  winter4