A friend and fellow folk art enthusiast came by yesterday, and while we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee the conversation lead to an exchange questioning what is it about certain objects that make us like them more than other objects? Any conversation about personal aesthetics is at best subjective, and at times downright obscure, but it is better than talking about the weather. So as an attempt to get down to defining the source of the desire to possess I asked my friend, “Hypothetically, If I were to let you take home one item from our collection that you can see from where you currently sit , What would it be”. After a pause and some reflection he said, “I would take that tiny fiddle hanging on the wall over there”. This surprised me, because we have a lot of flashier, obviously more expensive items around, but yet I understood, and might likely to have answered in the same way.
It is unclear if this 18” long, 4 string fiddle made from an old herring tin and carved wood was ever meant to be played, but my guess is it was playable when it was made. When I study it, I imagine that it may have been created as a gift to a child to encourage musicianship, but it is equally possible that it was created as a “gag” instrument to be pulled out for surprise at a strategic moment in a performance. Maybe the guy or gal just wanted to make something to put on the wall, or to give as a gift. It’s fun to think about, but in the end you get back to the object.
I remember finding it under a big pile of junk in Alan Chauvette’s pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec back in the early eighties. Alan was standing nearby writing down what we were buying and the prices. I held it up and said “how much for this” Alan glanced up and said “$45”. “O.K. write it down”. I don’t think he looked closely, or maybe he doesn’t share my aesthetic because I felt it was a steal. But then again I have come to realize that things of great esthetic value do not always get recognized monetarily.
Some people, or I would imagine many people would think that even $45 is too much for a rusty old tin can fiddle, but they are different from me. I love the thing. I brought it home from Quebec. I hung it on the wall, and to quote the late, great Charlton Heston, “ to get it, you will have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands. “ So what is it? Obviously, the colour and untouched patina are superb, and the form and hand carved neck and machine heads are beautifully executed in a functional, yet slightly primitive sort of way. The “F” holes are beautifully cut out, and the construction of tin, wire, and wood is wonderful. All these elements hit the pleasure buttons in my brain, but I think it Is the fact of the herring tin body that puts me over the top. I looked for a long while half consciously wondering how they got the herrings out of the tin which looks original and undisturbed save for the “F” holes, before I investigated and saw that there is a neat row of nails around the bottom attaching it back to the sides. Great care was taken to create this. A real labor of love. I love the way it is, but when I imagine it with it’s bridge intact, and the other three strings, I wonder what type of sound it would have made. One would assume, tinny.
I found my “sunshine” tractor in a little shop north of London, Ontario a long time ago. Again it was an item which went straight to my heart, and as I purchased it I knew it was something for me. Something I would never want to give up. I’ve bought and sold hundreds of hand-made toys, many more impressive in construction and scale, and yet it is this tractor which continues to sit in a glazed cupboard overlooking my work desk. I love it’s construction and form and colour, but the element that takes it into my top drawer is the little “sunshine” sign. I’m not an armchair psychiatrist per say, but it doesn’t take Freud to understand that my love probably has a direct route back to my mother singing me “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” while I lay sick in bed with the measles at the age of ten. That song is such a bittersweet tour de force isn’t it? I get emotional just thinking about it.
Lastly, we come to “Old 99” (see 99 painted on the door). To be honest I don’t love it nearly as much as I love the tin fiddle or “Sunshine”, but I do love the fact that someone with welding ability, probably a professional welder, took the time and effort to make his or her child an indestructible toy locomotive, with a space at the back to put an engineer. Is that an old bullet used to make the smokestack? I hope not. The poor kid could blow up.