In appreciation of Sid Howard

You know how with some artists you just love their work the first time you see it; recognizing that there is something genuine and authentic in it which places it above the work of others?  Something which goes directly  to your gut, bypassing the analytical brain cells. Well for me that’s Sid Howard.

Especially his early work.  His approach is direct, joyful, strong, and not at all self-conscious.  Simple lines.  A primitive elegance. I always get a lift when I look at his work.  I would see it on rare occasions over the years but did not become fully conscious of his life and work until I saw the NFB film “Folk Art Found Me” in 1993.  The fellows who made it set up and sold copies at the Bowmanville show that year.  A great film that you can see by following this link http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpk3q0

Sid Howard sitting amongst his creations singing “Pretty Robin Redbreast” is such a treat in itself, and then he goes on to talk about getting started.  This would be about 1945.

“Well one day I sat down and I said, I’d like to make a fish, and I’m going to try it. I never made one before.  Well, I worked on it slow and easy and it come out good; and so from then on I liked it and I never stopped since.”

We are lucky that the film makers got this on film.  He died shortly after.

Kobayashi/Bird “A compendium of Canadian Folk Artists (1985) states,

Around many odd tasks and carpentry work (Howard) managed to find opportunities for pursuit of his wood carving interests, particularly after 1945.  His earliest carving, a deer, was inspired by a drawing in his daughter’s colouring book. He continued to carve cats, fish, birds, and human figures.  Many of his works were destroyed in a fire in the late sixties. He eventually began to undertake the ambitious project of carving life-sized figures, including his interpretation of Cape Breton’s legendary “McAskill Giant”. He also carved various low-relief plaques with nature scenes, such as a beaver in a marsh setting, or scenes with stags, horses, seals, fish, and sailing vessels.  Inspired also by popular culture, he carved large sharks modelled after the villain in the movie “Jaws”.  He also carved political figures and an RCMP officer.  By the 1980’s he was turning increasingly to television programmes for subject matter.”

An early Sid Howard full-sized figure.

I have bought and sold Sid Howard works occasionally over the last thirty years,  but as I was buying largely in Quebec I did not encounter them very often.  Then at one of the Bowmanville shows in the late 1990’s,  Toronto art dealer Av Issacs and I were talking about Sid, and he said “you know, I have a Sid Howard piece that I bought years ago, that I could part with. “  Of course I was interested, and so true to word, the next week I received from Av, a photo and come on letter.  “No reasonable offer refused”.  Ya right Av, I’ve known you for too many years to fall for that.

On the phone the next day when we set up the appointment Av said   “You are going to love this piece. It’s so strong.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should even be selling it.”  I could feel the price rising.

I felt “cool” going into his rented digs in that old factory full of artists on Richmond Street.  I’m not sure that it hasn’t been made into up-scale condos by now, but at the time it had a real scene living there.  Av had closed the gallery and retired, but rented this for storage and an office space.   On the way in you could see that the young artists loved him.  We reached his space, unlocked the door, and there was the Sid Howard sitting on an easel in the light of the north facing window.  What a knock out.  Av was right.  I didn’t even try to play it cool, or barter.  Av was far too seasoned and would spot it right away anyway, so I just said “You’re right Av, it’s amazing.  I want it. So how much do I have to pay for it, bottom line.  Prix d’ami.  I always try the Quebec term prix d’ami, or “friend’s price” because it puts a friendly, positive spin on it.   Av’s price was by no means a giveaway, but it was fair and so I counted out the cash.

I brought it home and Jeanine loved it, so we hung it in the dining room, and there it remains.

After concluding our business, Av and I were looking around at some of his things under the pretense that there might be something else I would like, so I asked him.  “you wouldn’t have any William Kurelek drawings or paintings laying around that you want to get rid of at a cheap price?”  Av smiled, “well no, I’ve sold every painting and drawing that I had for sale, but I could sell you this.”  He went over to a storage rack and pulled out a fairly large plywood packing crate.  He flipped it around and on the back was quite a beautiful pencil drawing of a western village.  Along with an elaborate colorful frame around the name and address area.  “He sent me some paintings in this case from out West,  and he took the time to make it beautiful.”  Wow.  Simply wow.  Of course even Av’s friend price was way more than I could afford.  But I still think about it once in a while.  And I still love looking at the Sid Howard eagle.

our Sid Howard eagle

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Bill Male, painter of rural life in the La Prairie region of Quebec

William Male, also known as Bill or Willie, was born in 1918. He was an anglophone Quebecer who lived most of his life in or near Montreal, except for the war years which he spent in Europe, serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. After being wounded in Italy in 1944, Bill returned deaf in one ear, to Montreal, where he found employment as a furniture restorer with the firms of Henri Morgan and Alexandre Craig.

winter fun in Hemmingsford

In the 1970s, without any training of any kind, Bill Male started painting. Perhaps it was in response to certain voids in his life as a bachelor: “I never got married, the war got in the way of that” he said. Perhaps his solitary life prompted him to fill his paintings with images of people enjoying various social activities – viewing a show, sitting in a bar, picking fruit in an orchard, playing cards… In any case, these images speak of joy, friends, love and family. There are also, however, expressions of melancholy and loneliness in Bill Male’s work, especially the solitary portraits which often feature a woman sitting alone and waiting.

a lady alone.

When Bill Male retired he opened his own little antiques restoration shop in the town of Hemmingford, Quebec. He worked in his shop every summer and spent his winters painting his dreams and reminiscences.

remembering Europe during the war

We used to see Bill’s work from time to time at the picker’s barns, and then in the mid-nineties a collector friend noticed one of his paintings in our truck and said “That’s one of Bill’s paintings.  I know where he lives. Would you like to meet him?”.  Sure thing.  So with directions in hand, and a phone call ahead we arrived mid-morning at a three story, 1940’s apartment block near the baseball diamond at the edge of town.  Bill buzzed us in and we climbed to the second floor and arrived at his door. He must have been standing right on the other side because the second we knocked the door flew open and there stood Bill, all smiles, peering through those thick glasses.  His small one bedroom apartment was that of your old bachelor uncle’s pad.  Tidy, but full of upholstered chairs, crochet covered tables, and  knick-knacks; with every square inch of wall space covered by his paintings in every type, colour, and size All in reclaimed frames of every type and colour.  The effect was a bit dizzying, but also warm and hospitable.  “Everything is for sale, and at reasonable prices”, and so we picked out our favourite twenty or so and paid him what he asked in cash.  Bill didn’t talk much, and he never offered to make us tea or anything, but over a few visits he did start to warm up and tell us some stories from when he was in Europe, and one funny story of how he almost got killed in his workshop.  Well, funny because no one got hurt.

apple picking in Hemmingsford

Bill rented a garage for his work from a very old neighbor lady. He was slowing down on accepting work but still doing the occasional project for a neighbor. So he was working away one winter day with the doors closed and the heat fired up.  He was standing at the side of the shop putting wood in the woodstove when suddenly there was a tremendous crash, and bang, and shattering of wood in every direction as an old sedan came smashing through the closed doors, raced the length of the building knocking everything asunder, and went smashing out the far wall into the back yard.  Turns out his old landlady had arrived at a day when she confused the gas and brake pedals, and she tried to slam on the brakes. “It happened so fast I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew I was damn lucky to be standing aside”.  “You’ve got that right, Bill.

We would go to see Bill another five or six times, always happy to see his new work, and to have a chance to get to know him a bit better.  We even wrote back and forth a bit. He would send me pictures of his new paintings and ask which ones he might put aside for me.  He was a lovely guy.  Then on one late fall day in 2003, we found ourselves in the area and decided to drop by.  He didn’t answer his phone but we knew he didn’t leave the apartment much so we took a chance and just arrived and rang his buzzer.  Someone answered but it wasn’t Bill.  The fellow explained that Bill had died suddenly a few months before, and he was the new tenant.  He didn’t have any information on Bill as he did not know him. With no living relatives and not knowing his friends we were struck with a sadness, made sadder somehow because there was no one to express our condolences to. We said a silent goodbye and left.

Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator

The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”