1977 article on Canadian Folk Art

The following article was originally printed in “Antiques and Art” magazine, July / August 1977 issue. It was written by Nora Sterling and Jackie Kalman. This article serves as a useful introduction to folk art, and it is also interesting to note how much folk art has grown in recognition and popularity over the past thirty years.


CANADIAN FOLK ART
By NORA STERLING and JACKIE KALMAN

When the Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art Show opened its doors this year, waiting with the throng to enter were two people very significant by their presence. They were buyers from the Museum of Man and the National Gallery in Ottawa. The academically oriented National Gallery soon will be opening its folk art room and, in anticipation, has been collecting for the past few years.

By buying and displaying folk art, these prestigious institutions announce to Canadians what other more culturally secure countries have acknowledged for at least 50 years: folk art has finally come of age.

In the United States, as early as the 1920s, families like the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Whitneys had major collections of folk art, much of which now reside in three New York museums: the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.

In Canada, folk art is just being recognised as a viable and valid art form with qualities of freshness, inventiveness and vigour that make it exciting. What gives folk art its originality and charm is that, fortunately, the gifted artists who produced it are free from the dogmas and restrictions which the academic world imposes.

Folk art is not merely a quaint reminder of a nation’s manners and mores, a thing of the past with only functional or merely decorative purposes. It may indeed have all of these attributes, but like all good art, its expressions are powerful and compelling with an originality of concept, creativity of design, craftsmanly use of the medium and flashes of inspiration that are not surpassed by many academic artists.

Keeping in mind the similarities between academic and folk artists, the distinctive difference is that the latter is unschooled, while not necessarily unskilled. For example, a folk artist may have been whittling from his youth, creating bits and pieces for his own pleasure in his spare time. As an adult he may have become a white collar worker or perhaps a farmer, while still retaining his interest and further developing his skill.

Donald Hays is such a folk artist. Carving since he was five years old, he is .now in his early 40s and an engineer by profession. He carves bird decoys which he paints with the incredible expertise and attention to detail of an Audubon. With the true artist’s eye, he chooses those idiosyncratic stances and important characteristics that are peculiar to the bird he is carving.

On the other hand, Collins Eisenhauer, a folk artist who, like Grandma Moses, has “made it,” did not start intensive wood carving until 1964, when he was 66 years old. When asked what he did for a living in the ’30s, Eisenhauer replied, ” I wouldn’t like to tell you! ” He does admit, however, to being a farm hand, a logger and a sailor. His work has been bought by the Museum of Man, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Though carved from big hunks of wood, his figures still have a two dimensional look about them. They have the static and stiff quality which is characteristic of naive art – as if the artist does not want to risk a trial of skill to depict movement.

Charles Tanner, an ex-fisherman from Nova Scotia, approaches the task of carving with even a lesser degree of academic knowledge of the craft of sculpture than Eisenhauer. He solves his technical problems simply, by a complete disregard of detail and a disrespect for proportion which, in effect, enhance his work. One is struck by his bold personal style – exuberant, colourful and direct. His sculptures are now on tour with an exhibit of Canadian art assembled by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Generally studied in a category unto themselves, decoys have a significant place in the spectrum of folk art. Following the Indian custom of making lures to attract water fowl, the white man began carving and painting decoys.

These decoys were utilitarian. They were meant, through their likenesses, to attract birds to be shot. The early makers sold their decoys for 20 cents to 50 cents a piece. However, when market gunning was prohibited in 1918, decoy makers and factories went out of business, so the sportsman, by default, became his own decoy maker.

At this juncture, decoys became folk sculpture. The link with the folk genre lies in the carver’s craftsmanship and especially in his personal interpretation of the salient characteristics of his quarry.

Sculpture is only one way in which the power and beauty of folk art is expressed. Rugs, quilts, paintings, furniture and accessories are among the wide variety of objects produced by folk artists.

Much has been written on folk art, albeit not Canadian. Many art historians, curators and artists have concluded that the expressions of folk art are world-wide and that they state universal truths – realities which will always be voiced by untrained people with a creative urge.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Barber, Joel. Wild Fowl Decoys. New York: Windward House, 1934. Reprinted New York: Dover Public- ations, 1954.

Bishop, Robert. American Folk Sculpture. New- York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1974.

Folk Sculpture U.S.A. Edited.by Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. The Brooklyn Museum and the Los kngeles County Museum of Art. Catalogue- for 1976 show.

Folk Art of Nova Scotia. Art gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Catalogue for show, November 1976 through May 1978. Biographies of artists and illustrations of their works.

Gladstone, M.J. A Carrot for a Nose:, the Form of Folk Sculpture on America’s City Streets and Country Roads. New York: Charles Scribner’s Song, 1974.

Hooked Rugs in the Folk Art Tradition. Museum of American Folk Art, New York. Catalogue for 1974 show.

Lipman, Jean and Winchester, Alice.The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876. New York: The Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.

People’s Art: Naive Art in Canada. J. Russell Harper. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Catalogue for, show, 1973-1974.

The April Antiques and Folk Art Show. Mel Shakespeare. Catalogue for the 1975 Bowmanville, Ontario, show.

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How I gained an appreciation of painted furniture

mid nineties at the church.
lots of painted furniture

Some people are brought into an appreciation of antique painted furniture by encouragement from a relative or friend who is  a collector.  Some come to it through self-discovery and research.  Some, perhaps most, don’t come to it at all.   It depends on how you’re wired.   Early antique painted furniture is relatively rare and so you don’t even see it all that often, so many people do not know it even exists.

corner washstand in original butter yellow paint over blueberry stain from Thamesville, Ont.

In my case,  I was brought up in a house with several antiques inherited from my mother’s family.  I had a great uncle in Chatham who made furniture so we had a few of his pieces.  All either cherry or walnut and all in original varnish.  I enjoyed going with my mother and uncle to antique shops and  auctions, and occasionally they would buy something.  Although these were mostly of the decorating or serving dish variety.  My father didn’t seem to care much about the furnishings as long as he had a comfortable chair to sit in and was happy to leave it up to my mother.  It wasn’t all about antiques. If we needed a new couch or bed,  my parents would buy a new item.  If they needed a chest of drawers they would go for an antique, but they were practical people.  Antique beds are 5 1/2 feet long for heaven’s sake, and antique settees are almost universally uncomfortable. I think the reasoning was, if the seat is uncomfortable the guest will leave sooner, and of course nobody was stretching out trying to be comfortable watching t.v.

early chest in red stain with remnant of white overpaint

As a teenager I enjoyed the social scene of the rural auction.  My tastes ran more towards an appreciation of old advertising, and household objects, but I also had an interest in older hand made furniture.  Most of the furniture that I would encounter in those days was either in dark varnish, or faux painted to make a cheaper wood such as maple, look like oak, or overpainted with thick oil paint, most often white or similar trim colour that they had laying around.  I’d say an overwhelming percentage was like this, like 80 percent.  But occasionally I would see a piece (usually older) in a bright painted colour, darkened, thinned, and untouched over the years.  I instinctively gravitated toward these pieces.  I didn’t know anything about patina,  but I knew they excited me. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dealers in the crowd would be right onto these pieces and they would draw big money.  I didn’t stand a chance of owning one with my budget.

Then when in the early eighties we started to make a living by selling antiques, with a truck and a strong back I began buying lots of antique furniture at local auctions.   At the time, the biggest part of the market was for stripped furniture in light wood.  You could buy a chest with several coats of paint, strip it down to the wood and refinish it, and make a good buck for your trouble.  I didn’t mind doing this in ninety nine percent of the cases, but every once in a while I would get a piece which as you stripped it down, would reveal a beautiful colour under all the other layers.  Instinctively I would try to save this paint.

a Quebec blanket box in blueberry paint with remnant of white over-paint

We used a relatively gentle water-based stripper called PVR, that if your timing was right, would “pop” one layer at a time.  It took a bit longer but you had more control and the fumes were not as bad. Well, still bad but I always worked with a big exhaust fan which is why I still have a few brain cells left.  I can tell you stories of others, but they are sad, and that’s another day.  In any case, some of this older furniture, the ones with the beautiful original colours were painted in milk paint.  In the days before oil paint.  These paints would stay put fairly well stuck to the surface, and if your timing was right you could take all the top layers off to reveal this original paint, and you could stop there and just wash it down with a little Murphy’s oil soap and it would look good.  Then later I learned about dry scrapping.  I bought myself a good Lee Valley scrapping knife and learned how to control the pressure and retain the concentration to take the top layers off without effecting the original surface.  it is a very satisfying feeling when you get this right, and you sit back and admire the finished piece brought back to it’s original glory.  Of course, on the rare occasions you will come across a piece that has never been touched, or abused, and is perfectly wonderful the way it is, and with knowledge you realize how precious these pieces really are.

sideboard with mustard paint over dark stain

Over the years I have developed an appreciation for the ge3nerally finer made, formal “brown” furniture that many love for their city homes, but I have developed a passion for the early country pieces in beautiful colour.   Once you have this love of painted furniture there is no turning back.  It’s like being in love.

Good pieces are not all that easy to come across but they are worth the search.  Go to a good Tim Potter auction, or the Cabin Fever show coming up February  3rd and 4th in Kingston, Ontario, or the Bowmanville show on Good Friday and you’ll see some.  You might even take something home with you. You’d be wise to.  It will enrich your life.

early chest with original, untouched blue and white paint.

Living in the church in winter

 

First up, I’m not a winter whiner.  I like all the seasons.  I dress for the weather, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than  being out for a walk on a crisp, sunny winter’s day.  I even enjoy a bit of snow shoveling when the snow is not too wet and heavy. I’ve got one of those scoop buckets that you run across the surface and then dump, thus not having to lift the snow and throw it.  My shoulders are messed up.  I can’t do that anymore. I take my time. I rest when I’m tired, and I get it done.  My doctor friend Barclay tells me to be careful of the old ticker.  He’s seen lots of guys go that way.  I tell him that I figure if I don’t overdo it, it’s good for me.  He looks at me dubiously.

I like the feel of being in a nice warm house, with all provisions on hand, and looking out at a big snow storm, knowing I don’t have to leave the house for a couple of days if necessary.  I like to hunker down.

Right now, I am at my desk, looking out the window at a bright blue sky with big fluffy white clouds, and just a little spot of open water far out on the otherwise frozen bay.  It’s been open water until just a couple of days ago when the week or so of extreme cold took it’s tole and when I looked out one morning, it was a frozen lake almost as far as the eye can see.  Today it is sunny and gorgeous to look out at, but it’s minus 20C and there is no one out walking around.  I’ve got a proper parka and long-john’s and the rest but minus 20 is my limit for wanting to be outdoors.  I cut my walk short this morning.  They are forecasting that we have another week of this “true Canadian winter” and then it will be going back up to around zero and staying there for the foreseeable future. Suits me fine.

We live in a double brick Victorian with storm windows and a boiler and rads for heat, and we’re toasty warm.  I love rads.  No blowing hot, dusty, dry air around constantly with all the noise that suggests.   We’ve got an outdoor sensor on the thermostat so we set the temperature once fourteen years ago when we got here and we haven’t touched it since.  We have an enclosed sun porch on the south wall and it heats up like a greenhouse in the afternoon. After lunch,  I like to lay on the couch in there soaking up the sun and reading stretched out on the old sofa under a thick wool blanket.  Typically I read about twenty minutes then fall asleep for another twenty minutes.  Then I’m ready for the rest of my afternoon.  It’s something I always look forward to.

It wasn’t like this when we lived in the old church.  I’ve spoken of it  before, but to encapsulate we bought an old Methodist church in Wycombe Ontario in 1981 after reading a small ad in the London Free Press.  We bought it for nothing but it was in rough shape, with much investment needed, but we were young, and strong, and foolish enough to buy it, and figure we could do all the work on it ourselves.  That’s more or less what happened, but like the settlers that arrived here from Europe all those years ago in the fall, we had a rough time getting through that first winter.

The old coot that owned the place had built a Styrofoam wall halfway across the ground level interior and had an old forced air gas furnace  which (sort of) heated that half.  The other side was as cold as outdoors and so that first winter instead of a refrigerator we just kept perishables on a table on the cold side of the dividing wall.  When the wind blew it would ruffle the curtains.  Because there was no basement and just  a crawl space under the floor boards, with the furnace blowing in from above, the cold would come up through the floor and your legs would be numb from the knees down.  We took to wearing legwarmers and layers of under-cloths and sweaters.  In the evenings we would have to gather our legs up onto the couch, and cover ourselves to be warm.   That winter of 81 was bitter cold, and we suffered.  The one thing that saved us was that one of the first things we did was insulate the bathroom wall which faced the rear entrance. There was no window and with the addition of a big electric wall heater we were able to keep this room toasty warm.  If you were cold, and just couldn’t get warm you could go in there, have a hot bath and luxuriate in the tropical air.  Before the second winter hit we replaced the old furnace with efficient, through the wall type gas heaters. We reconfigured the space to use the entire floor, insulating outer walls and repairing the windows, so it was much more hospitable.

A couple of years later we bought some out buildings, so I had a big insulated workshop with a powerful wood stove which allowed me to get the space warm enough for the refinishing chemicals to work, and the finishes to cure.  We kept in warm in there.  You could work in your shirt sleeves.  At night I would fill it with wood and there would still be enough hot embers in there in the morning that I just had to throw in a bit of small stuff and a couple of logs and it would come right back.  One of my favourite times was first thing in the morning, sitting with the door of the stove open.  Sipping on my coffee and staring into the fire. My front and face almost hot, my back still cool.  Another fine winter day.

I believe that to enjoy winter, you must embrace it.  Put on the proper cloths and get out there for a walk on the days when it is sunny and the wind is not blowing.   At the church we could cross the road, take the path through the woods and continue along fields and through more woods, eventually passing three irrigation ponds and then more woods and fields before returning home.  We called it the three pond walk, and it took about 45 minutes on a good day.  It was also possible to take a detour and pass by two more ponds, but that five pond walk took over an hour and was generally too much to consider in the winter.  I remember the second pond was spring fed and there was a little patch of open water there where it flowed year round. There was a nice big log by the spring and I would always pause there and take it in for a while before moving on.

I have fond memories of winter at the church, but I can’t overstate the joy I felt when moving into the house here and having the bottom ten inches of my legs not feel cold.   There’s no going back.