Falling down the rabbit hole of Christmas memories

It’s  5:15 pm and it is dark outside my window. Above is a picture of how it looked at 3:00 pm.  Living on the north shore of lake Erie, we live in what Ontarians call the banana  belt,  and we are spared from much snow fall.  The prevailing winds blow from the north and typically dump snow on the American side, which we love to watch on t.v.   But we’re not laughing today.  It is rare when the snow comes in from the south west but when it does we get buried.  Today is such a day.  It started at about nine this morning and it hasn’t stopped since.  We took an early run for the supplies we would need and hunkered down.  I do look forward to a nice snow storm from time to time as long as we are home and the hydro is on.

About 11:00 am I set about working on my blog.  I had decided my subject would be folk art at Christmas time, and folk art created for Christmas.  I wanted to write about the effect that Christmas ideology has on folk artists, and inversely how folk art has effected Christmas ideology.   Folky, Grandma Moses like images of wintery villages, people skating,  and horse drawn sleighs still adorn many Christmas cards and Holiday biscuit tins.  But then again who sends Christmas cards anymore.  I think the polar bears drinking Coke actually figure larger in folk ideology, but in any case.  Within this context I wanted to show how some of my favourite Canadian folk artists interpreted Santa Claus, etc.   That’s where the trouble began.

Three Kaz Kizik Santas

I have documented several pieces of  Christmas folk art which we have owned and sold over the years,  and so I had to do was to go through my photos,  find some examples, and scan them.  Easy squeezy.  You would think, but no, not really because although I have managed to keep our photos reasonably organized: and when I say reasonably I mean that some are in books by subject and labeled, while others are in more randomly arranges in books.  But actually most  remain in photo envelopes awaiting  further sorting, and the labels are very general.  Us in France, Exterior church shots, Us with Friends, Christmas 1997, etc.  So at least I was able to skip several envelopes when looking for Christmas Santa Claus carvings.

Barbara Clark-Fleming
winter scene

But here’s where the soft, hypnotic snow fall outside the window comes in.  The feeling of being shut in for the duration. The sudden urge to do a 1000 piece puzzle, or as the case was today, to fall into hours of looking at old images of Christmas past, and places visited, and happy occasions remembered, and loved ones who have passed on.  I call it falling down the rabbit home.  It happens to me from time to time when I look at photos, or more often when I research something on the internet.  For instance, the other day I was reminded of the Talking Heads song “Same as it ever was”, and so downloaded the original video on You Tube.  I had never seen it and it excited me, so I watched the next video which was an interesting interview with David Byrne, and then came an amazing one hour video of the band performing live in Rome in 1980.  When I resurfaced three videos later, I came away with a deeper understanding of the talent and contribution of these fine musical artists, but the morning was shot.

night hockey game in Ottawa, circa 1945,
by Elmo Phillips

So that’s what happened. I found several of the photos I wanted to use right away, but a photo of a big Santa and Rudolph made by Ewald Rentz which we used to display by the back door of the church eluded me.  Strange, I thought it would be the easiest to find, but no.  At first I flipped quickly and efficiently through many books before the power of some of the images caused me to slow down and think.  Think about what I can remember of the moment. To observe how different we all looked.  To think about our relationships then. Before you know it, you are adrift. Down the rabbit hole.

Nostalgia is a bitter sweet mix which I rarely indulge in, but today I really let myself go.  I took a deep drink, and now I’m so filled with personal memories that for now I’ve lost the urge to talk about folk art. Another time.  I just want to go down to see what Jeanine is up to.  Knitting probably.  And finally, I want to wish everyone a very happy holidays and solstice; however you chose to celebrate, or not celebrate as the case may be.  Enjoy, and create some new memories to look back on some day. The snow continues to fall.  Tomorrow I’ll get out the shovel.

Santa and Rudolph
by Ewald Rentz

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A missed opportunity- My chance to meet Robert McCairns

I have found that sometimes, something, or someone can seem so available that you become casual and nonchalant about taking the time to go to them, and before you know it they are gone.  Thus was the case for me with Robert McCairns.  A few years after moving to Norfolk County in the early 80’s I had become aware that this noted folk artist was living nearby at Turkey Point.  I had seen a few of his bird carvings and liked the work, but at that time my life comprised primarily of trips to and fro Quebec to buy antiques and folk art, and then participating in antique shows to sell the stuff.  Also, aesthetically, I was pretty focused on the Quebec style of folk art and I was finding lots of it, and so although I found McCairn’s work interesting, it didn’t make my heart beat faster, if you know what I mean.  In short, time passed and the next thing I know I hear he’s pasted on. 

Then a few years later, we bought the Barbara Brown collection, and in it there were many, perhaps 60 or so of McCairn’s pieces.  Not only birds, and decoys for which he was mostly known, but also a few animals, and one sort of flat faced human head.  When you buy something you really look at it, and so I studied the pieces and came to appreciate his straight forward style;  slightly crude but with character, balanced, and with interesting paint.  He made carvings of the creatures around him. The birds and animals he was familiar with.

Robert McCairns at his workshop

Robert McCairns was born in Scotland October 9th, 1905. He came to Canada at the age of 18 and after travelling around the West Coast, he eventually found his way to Ontario, where he married and raised a family of two sons and a daughter at Turkey Point, on the North Shore of Lake Erie.

For more than forty years he earned his living at fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as managing tracts of the marsh.  He also carved decoys and worked as a guide during the hunting season.

After a severe illness in the mid 1970’s he retired from several of his enterprises and began to carve some of the birds he saw around the Long Point marsh; ducks, herons, shorebirds, and song birds.  Also fish, rabbits and turtles.  Eventually he added a few domestic animals such as cats, dogs and pigs.  People started to come to his place on the marsh and buy, and word got around, and by 1977 he had his first exhibition at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe Ontario. This was followed by shows  in Toronto  at the Merton Gallery, Claude Arsenault’s “Home Again”  folk art gallery, and the Harbourfront Community Gallery.  Some of his pieces were included in a travelling show sponsored by the Ontario Craft Council. In 1989, shortly before his death,  his work was the subject of a one man show at the Durham Art Gallery. This last show included a catalogue.

Robert McCairn’s produced what I consider to be good, honest folk art.  His birds are not literal  renditions of the various species, but rather they are his free interpretations of what he saw.  As much as a like many of these carvings,  it is his rendition of the human head which puts me over the top, admiration-wise.  It may have well been a “one off” for him, but to my mind as a piece of folk art, he knocked it out of the park with that one.  I felt my opinion was confirmed when I sold it at the Outsider Art Fair in New York to a well-known folk art dealer.  When I handed him a bio, he said “I don’t care who he is or where he’s from. I just love that he made this piece”.

The Captain who loved to draw – Captain Alexander McNeilledge

Born at Greenock in Scotland in 1791, the young Alex was introduced at an early age to life on the high sea. When only eight years old he accompanied his father, a sea captain, on an ocean voyage to Newfoundland. In subsequent years he worked his way up from cabin boy to log keeper and eventually captain by the time he was thirty. As a sea captain he travelled around the world. His exploits are the stuff of seafaring legend: he was shipwrecked on Long Island in 1807, saw the Duke of Wellington in Lisbon, and even caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1817. The captain covered huge swaths of the globe, sailing to ports as far afield as China and running a naval blockade off Buenos Aires. And, for good measure, he endured robbery and plunder at the hands of pirates on the storied Spanish Main.

At the prodding of his brother Collin, McNeilledge came to Port Dover with his wife Mary Ann in 1832 to work as a bookkeeper at his mill, and he purchased a farm a few years later. But the mundane life of clerking and farming was nothing compared to his high seas adventures. You can you imagine how exciting farming was to him after that life? So he basically left the farming to his wife and headed down to the docks to captain the boats. McNeilledge became a fixture at the docks and was involved in many operations around port.

In the 1840s he began to produce a series of charts and maps for navigating Lake Erie. The document was widely used until the early 2oth century. In Lake Erie – a pictorial history by Julie MacFie Sobol and Ken Sobel, they quote the captain from the preface of his 1848 “Chart and Sailing Instructions for the North Shore of Lake Erie” , ”All the Lake Ontario Captains on both sides and the Lake Erie captains on the American side are afraid of the North Shore.”  His journal filled a need, for without the captain’s well observed navigational instructions and maps, many more vessels would have joined the underwater fleet”.

In his later years he began to make drawings of ships which he presented as tokens of friendship to captains of visiting vessels , as well as relatives and neighbours.  The drawings were often personalized by naming the ship after the wife, the master after the husband, and smaller vessels after the children. Most were accompanied by captions depicting fanciful and fictitious voyages, and many were inscribed with humorous autobiographical comments such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”

He maintained a diary over the last 37 years of his life, recording not only routine daily events but also many personal feelings of frustration, loneliness and non-acceptance. The captain was found by his wife on August 21, 1874, having taken his life in the ravine behind the house the previous day.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

But rather than his sad ending, I prefer to think of all the joy he has given people over the years with his charming drawings, water-colours, and of course the exquisite 1867 Confederation box. It is fitting that in that year, McNeilledge fired off his cannon to mark the start of the Canada Day Parade in Port Dover. The first in Canada, and a tradition that continues to this day.