Even more on Beardmore Folk Artist Ewald Rentz

yard2Last week I told the story of recently meeting up with Ewald Rentz’ niece Alyss, and I reproduced an article on the artist from the local paper from 1978.  This week I will finish by presenting some more of her observations, and additional photos taken by her of his home and barber shop in Beardmore. I am also going to reproduce an article written by the Thunder Bay Chronicle- Journal on the occasion of his retrospective show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 1993.

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Emma and Ewald on their 60th wedding anniversary

There’s a few nice shots of Ewald’s back yard and shop interior, along with a great shot of Ewald and his wife Emma on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  When you look carefully at the shots of his barber shop you can see that it was fairly full of his carvings, and a little chaotic.  Alyss pointed out that although his sign indicated $5 for a haircut, $4 for children, it was also well known that if you didn’t have the money he would gladly cut your hair for free.  He had many takers, but he did not mind.

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Rentz performing at his opening

 

Also, at the drop of a hat, if you had time to spare he would also sing you a song or two accompanying himself on mandolin and dancing puppets.  He made these by attaching some of his carved dancers onto recycled bass drum pedals.  He even played for the crowd at the opening of his retrospective in 1993.  I would have loved to have been there for that.  As it happened his son Ernie did ask me if I wanted to go with him to the opening; and I would have loved to, and should have, but it conflicted with an antique show and sale I had committed to.  Also, at the time I was working on curating a show of Ewald’s work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and things were looking good, so I hoped to meet him then.   It turns out the show got postponed, and Ewald died two years later so it never came to pass. I never did meet the man.

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barbershop interior

There are many tales of Ewald’s generosity in the community.  He was always ready with a free haircut, or plate of food for anyone in need who came by, and he even carved wooden headstones for those who died up there without relatives or arrangements made for a funeral.  You can see how in much of his work he laboured to uplift people with humour and warmth. He was truly a sweet man.  Here’s the newspaper article from 1993.

Animator of the Inanimate – Everything 84 year old Ewald Rentz of Beardmore carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush.  Thursday, September 16, 1993

By Bob Hearn – The Chronicle-Journal

At age 64 Ewald Rentz is still a little bemused over being a celebrity in the local art community.

“It’s something new for me,” he said with genuine modesty, and a hint of amusement at having his completed wood carvings on display for public consumption at the Thunder Bay Art gallery.

That’s because the Beardmore bush-worker/prospector/barber/musician/outdoorsman has only been able to add “artist” to his list of titles in the past twenty years. And he never expected his funny wood figures to attract any attention beyond the walls of his Beardmore barbershop.

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1993 Chronicle-Journal article

Rentz made his first wood figure, a bird suspended from the ceiling by a spring which moved up and down and flapped its wings when it was pulled. He made it to soothe children who came into his barbershop for a haircut.

“I still have it in my shop too,” Rentz said. “But I never thought about being an artist before that. Never thought of it at all.  I was just too busy.” Although he’s had no formal training Rentz has managed to perfect his completed art works out of piles of wood in his back workshop. He’s since made tons of elaborate animal and human figures and has attracted the attention of not only paying customers to his shop, but art connoisseurs as well.

In 1983, some of his pieces appeared at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull Quebec. A collection of thirty of Rentz’ most recent pieces are on display now at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until October 31 in a collection entitled “The completed Work of Ewald Rentz”

It is his second showing in Thunder Bay.  His first professional showing was back here in 1981 at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre.

He’s been described as an animator of the inanimate. Everything he carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush around his home, whether it is a tree branch, burl, or type of fungus.

“I see something. A figure in the trees or branches and I have to create it, make it come to life,” said Rentz. After carving the figure out, he touches it up with a coat of regular house paint, festooning it with hats, buttons, collars or other old discards he finds around the area. He prefers making animals, but sometimes makes satirical political figures or other people.

The tree form suggests what the figure will be, so if the branch is forked he will make it look like an animal standing on hind legs. Rentz says the outdoors supplies an endless supply of inspiration for his subjects.  Most of his life has been spent working in the bush and he’s even manifested some of his experiences in his art.

It’s the folksy nature, lack of pretense, and perpetual good humour which has made Rentz’s work popular. Tourists from England and Germany have bought his work, and her regularly gets phone calls from all across Canada from people asking him to save a certain figure for them for when they pass through Beardmore.

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barbershop interior

Rentz is pleased but nonplussed by the fuss.  He says living in Beardmore keeps everything in perspective.  “In this town people just say “ah that old guy with the carvings,” he chuckled. “He’s probably a bit off”

Rentz was born in North Dakota and moved to Woodbridge, Manitoba.  He dropped out of school in grade 4 to cut wood and work on the farm. He also attended barber school in Winnipeg before moving his wife and two kids to Beardmore in 1939, to work as a bush-cutter. At 65 he retired but he has kept busy ever since. His artwork takes up only as much time as he wants it to.

“Life is very short and you’ve got to try everything,” he said. “Pretty well everything I’ve touched in my life has worked.  You’ve got to keep active and enjoy things.”

And if his show proves to open the door for future success and fame, Rentz still won’t be tempted to leave Beardmore.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.  “It’s God’s country.  We’ve got fish and moose and beautiful clear water.  What else do you need in life?”

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looking through the front window of the barbershop

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More on Beardmore folk artist, Ewald Rentz

moose2I love it when good things fall out of the blue, right into your lap.  It had been a long time since the cosmos had flipped me a lucky card, and I remember thinking about a month ago that perhaps things were quiet because I had been out of the circle for so long (my last show being Bowmanville in 2014) that collectors had basically forgotten about me. It seemed a reasonable assumption, even after 30 years in the business, because it can be a case of what have you done for me lately.  But then two things happened. First,  I had a call from a Montreal folk art collector I have known for years, but had not heard from for at least ten.   He explained that his wife had died recently and it had come time to downsize and disperse the collection.  He has some great things so I am looking forward to starting this process.  Then the following day I got a call from a lovely woman from Thunder Bay named Alyss Rentz.  She was married to Gary Rentz who was Ewald Rentz’ nephew.  I am a huge Rentz fan, and it had been a long time since anyone from the family had contacted me. Alyss explained that her husband had died and she too was downsizing; and she has five pieces by Ewald that she would like to sell.   As it happened she was coming to Hamilton the following week to visit relatives and she could bring the pieces with her.  She described the pieces and after seeing hundreds of Rentz’s over the years I knew from her description that I was interested.  She told me she would call when she arrived in Hamilton.  Great! I was immediately looking forward to it.

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Alyss and the work in Hamilton

Good to her word, Alyss called me a few days later and we set up a time the following day for me to come and see her, and the work.  We had discussed the price and arrived at a figure that worked for both of us.  Sight unseen, but of course I had the option of opting out if they were not up to expectation. She had described them fairly well, and they were even better that I had expected.  There are three paintings, and two carvings.  I’m a sucker for the paintings. I call them paintings because they are essentially two dimensional, except even here Rentz cuts out and paints all the components and sticks them on the background so they do have some dimension.   There is a hunting camp along a stream with wildlife, a humorous scene of a hunter up a tree with his rifle on the ground.  A bear to his right, and a bull moose to his left.  Two bear cubs higher up the tree.  And finally a serene composition to two bull moose on the tundra.  For its serenity, balance, and subject matter this one has somehow become my favourite.

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Alyss and Gary wedding gift, 1992

One of the carvings is an old man leaning on a cane. The final and most charming piece is a wedding scene complete with the groom hanging a ring below his hand.  The bride has a plastic orange onion net covering her head as a bridal veil, and there is a tiny flower girl offering them an enormous bridal bouquet.  Wonder and innocence. Rentz had it in spades.  Of interest,  is that this was a wedding gift from Ewald to Alyss and her husband Gary on the occasion of their wedding in 1992.  Gary’s father was Rudolf, one of Ewalds five brothers.  The others were Julius, Gustave, August, and Herman.  We had a nice chat and Alyss brought me along several photos and clippings that they had collected.  She said that they would visit Ewald quite often as they passed by Beardmore on the way to see their daughter.  She remembers him as a warm, and uplifting individual.  I always hear this about Rentz so it must be true.

One clipping is from the Thunder Bay Times-News from December 1978 and has some interesting insights so I reproduce it here.

articleGnarled Branches, Knots, made into Objects of Art, by Gerry Poling

Beardmore: (Staff)

Some people just can’t see the figures for the trees (to paraphrase an old saying) but not so in the case of Ewald Rentz of this community. The 70 year old barber/ prospector who was born in Wales, near Minot, North Dakota, left the United States at age two to move to the community of Emmerson, near Winnipeg. His interest in odd shaped tree limbs and branches came with his move to the Beardmore area, where he engaged in operating a bush camp for Domtar, and practicing his hobby of prospecting.

Rentz also had some training in barbering and over the years came to turn it into a profitable sideline, whenever he was not out in the bush looking for precious minerals.

During his prospecting days, he began finding odd shaped limbs and knots of trees, and being somewhat of an artist; he saw things in them which people would normally overlook.

Thus he began collecting the odd piece of wood, and after adding a few touches with the paint brush, converted them into unique carvings. “I don’t think you could really call them carvings, because I don’t carve them as an ordinary sculptor would” he said.head

SEES BEYOND

“Take this for example,” he said holding a spiney piece of spruce wood, which until he turned it up for a better look at the bottom section, appeared to be just the limb of a tree. “I just painted a couple of eyes on the bottom piece and laid it on its side and there was a porcupine.”

Over the years Ewald has collected more than 100m pieces which have been turned into a variety of figurines, ranging from rabbits through to Santa Claus, and moose.

One of his pride and joys is a limb which when turned one way, represents the figure of a young man with a cane, and when reversed becomes an elderly man with the same cane.

For forty years Ewald has practiced his barbering trade and now semi-retired, he continues to operate a small shop adjacent to his home on the main street of Beardmore where he cuts hair and pieces together his object-de-art.

Married, Ewald and his wife Emma have a daughter, Ann Fraser, who resides in Ottawa, and a son Ernie in London, Ontario.

Ewald loves his life in Beardmore for, while it is a rather quiet life, he enjoys the people he meets and works with each day, and also enjoys getting out into the bush to look for minerals.

So far his stakes have not paid off, but one claim is in the throes of being investigated as a possible gold source. However, even if his claim fails to bring forth any great find, it has provided him with the type of lifelong activities which have kept him young of spirit and in good physical shape.

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Gary and Ewald Rentz in Ewald’s shop

Maple Sugar Time

251-detail2In the mid 1990’s we did what turned out to be a one time show in the Laurentians ski area north of Montreal.  During ski season in the club house of a popular ski hill.  The assumption was that the multitude of skiers would come off the slopes and couldn’t help themselves from wandering through the show and selecting a few prime antiques for their ski chalets.  Turns out this assumption was wrong, and we spent three days watching people ski, and then going directly to their cars and leaving.  We rented a chalet with friends and so when we were not busy doing nothing at the show we at least had some good food and laughs in commiseration.   It turned out to be a pretty expensive venture which didn’t really pay off, if it was not for the fact that in being there we came across one of the best and most important pieces of Quebec folk art we had ever encountered.

Upon loading in we were struck by an incredibly detailed diorama, about three feet wide by two feet deep and high, on the table of Quebec dealer/collector Serge Brouillard, whom we knew quite well from previous dealings.  What a wonderful thing to behold.  Looking into this tiny word of snow and maple forest with little finely carved people, instruments, buildings, horses,  and even tiny squirrels in the trees, you just loose yourself in the details.  A masterpiece which would have taken an amazing amount of time and patience to realize.  Completely over the top.  We had to have it.  It wasn’t cheap as Serge knows his stuff, but it was spectacular, and in the end, how often are you offered a chance to buy spectacular.   We made a deal and sold it directly to our best customer and most serious collector of folk art.  She loves it and continues to be it’s guardian. We visit it once and a while just to go back to that magic place.  Fortunately it came with full provenance which is kept with the piece.  It’s a fascinating story.  I recount it here in English.

251-detail“Maple Sugar Time”

This scene of Maple Sugar Time was realized by Adelard Bronsseau, from St Jacques de Montcalm, Quebec in 1930.  He was an exceptionally creative man, very active in many trades (contractor, jeweller, stone carver), when he was suddenly struck by an unknown sickness. The main effect of this sickness, apart from its painful condition, was to keep him from sleeping at night. In order to occupy himself while his family was sleeping, he started carving one by one the figures, the tools, the animals. Which were going to make up this wonderful rendition of a traditional rural scene.

The village priest, M. Piette, seeing how his parishioner’s health was declining, took the bull by the horns and declared a “novena” (period of communal praying, usually nine days) for the return of the man’s health.  Probably inspired by the words of Voltaire “Work protects man from boredom, sickness, and need”, the priest offered Adelard the following deal, “My dear Adelard, if you regain your health, you will have to give your Maple Sugar Scene to the parish”. Adelard Brousseau agreed, but it was only after many months of prayers and care that he got better.

As agreed the scene was completed and turned over to the parish, and it’s new priest Angelus Houle, who was a good friend of the artist, decided to exploit the commercial potential of such a gift, by displaying it for a fee at various fairs, and public exhibitions of the district.

Adelard Brousseau’s daughter, Madam Dion, remembers that when she was a little girl her father’s Maple Sugar Scene was a great attraction at the fairs, and people would line up to view it, in spite of the high entrance fee for the time: (10 cents for children, 25 cents for adults).

Madam Dion relates that sadly she did not have the means as a child to view “the masterpiece that her papa had created at night, in his dark little workshop”.  She had seen the miniature figures dressed in woolen cloths, the horses, the carts, the buildings, but never the whole scene in its actual presentation.

Many years later in June 1992, the Maple Sugar Scene is only a vague childhood memory for Madam Dion, when suddenly it is brought back into her life by a telephone call from a nun named Sister Therese who explains that she had bought the scene from Angelus Houle, a long time ago, on the understanding that she would eventually return it to the artist’s family.  The time had come to fulfill this promise, and she was ready to deliver the piece to Madam Dion. And so it is that Madam Dion recovers a wonderful part of her personal heritage, which she can now admire at her leisure.

Madam Dion kept her father’s masterpiece for three years.  When she decided to sell her house and move into an apartment, she also had to sell the Maple Sugar Scene, which was too large for her new space.251

All the usual suspects

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, we spent every Sunday for much of the 1980’s attending the Toronto Harbourfront Antique market.  It was a very lively market in those days, and you could rely on hundreds of people to attend.  Most of them serious buyers looking for a special decorative object, or piece of antique furniture to decorate their homes, as was popular at the time.   Also, it was a time when several Toronto people had already bought and furnished their house in the city, and they were all going out into the hinterland and buying up the low priced rural properties which would become their country week-end homes.  For these in particular, they were looking for antique country furniture, most often in refinished pine, or similar.  For an antique dealer these were heady times.

So eventually, within this continuous flow of humanity you would soon learn to recognize the specialty collectors or  dealers who would arrive every Sunday to scan the market for their select products.  Some smaller Toronto dealers would set up to sell, and to advertise their shop but there were several more dealers who had established shops in the city, and they would come by to add to their stock.  You got to know these people as regular buyers, and you would get to know what they are after, and try to supply it.

One fellow would buy any refinished pine chest of drawers I would bring, and at a price close to what I would get from the public.  Another dealer only wanted original paint pieces, and he would be there every week as you pulled in, hopping alongside the truck and pointing at anything of interest with the same question, “how much for this”, followed by a “ yes, I’ll take it, hold it for me and I’ll be back to settle up.  He would then run off to follow the next truck in.  Generally there would be five or six of these alfa type dealers to deal with right off the top so it made for an exciting first hour.  Although you had to be on your toes especially when you brought in something really good, and there was a frenzy to determine who of the group was the first to commit. Get this wrong and people got offended. Guys would get pretty mad at each other over lost treasure.

Then as the day wore on many other dealers and collectors would make their way to your booth, most often looking for specific items.  There was the pen guy.  At some point he would slide up beside you and say quietly “got any pens for me?” If the answer was no he would just keep walking.  However, if you did have something it wasn’t a certainty that he would be interested.  He was after top end Parkers, etc, so once in a while I would come across something he liked, but for the most part I gave up after a half dozen failed attempts.  Still he appeared like clock-work every week.

Then there was the defrocked priest couple who would always turn up seeking Catholic items. Extraordinary looking guys with extravagant wardrobe and hair down to their asses.   As I was so often in Quebec, I usually did have something to show them.  They really knew their stuff and would explain to me the symbolism and meanings of the pieces. They bought only occasionally, and I always looked forward to the little theology lesson in the middle of the day.

Later in the morning, preferring to get up at a civilized hour, along would come MonsieurTaschereau , a possible candidate for anything spectacular I might have.  He had wonderful taste, and a highly respected shop in the Four Seasons tour.  A relatively small space, but full of good things.  He was very dry and came across as haughty at first, but when you got to know him he was down to earth, and a good guy.  When he bought something from me, no matter how small he would always ask me to deliver.  Then he would grab a ride so he didn’t have to take the transit back.  I didn’t mind because we always had interesting conversation on the way, and I loved looking at his shop.

Another in this category was a lady named Susan Miller who had a wicker shop on Mount Pleasant for years.  She was an institution with all the upper crust for their supply of white wicker furniture.  All the rage for your patios and sun rooms, and Susan could be relied on for the best, and the whitest.  No matter how good I would think the white paint finish was on a piece she would always say, “well, off course I will have to have it repainted”.    It was part of her negotiation technique, but just the beginning.  She was a lovely, refined lady always decked out in top end white and beige clothes with highly coiffed white hair adorned with a beige, wicker looking, basket-weave hair band. To top it off. It was her costume.  Susan was lovely, but she was tough as nails. She had a special technique. For instance, if she liked a chair, but didn’t like the price she would simply sit in it, carry on pleasant conversation, ask for the occasional glass of water, and wait until you couldn’t stand it any longer and would say “O.K. you win Susan.  It’s yours for what you asked, and of course I am happy to deliver it today.  And of course she would always grab a ride.  Again, I really didn’t mind because the conversation was good.  I got to know a lot about Susan. How she took all her meals at Fran’s. How she couldn’t stand the smell of garlic and wouldn’t touch the stuff.  It is what she disliked most about taking the transit.  How she met her husband when she was a hairdresser at Eaton’s. Ah, so that’s the reason for the perfect hair all those years later.  How her husband was an accomplished accountant and had written the Canadian tax code.  Unfortunately he had died young, so she used some of her capital to set up the wicker store, and as it turned out she was really good at it, and enjoyed it, so it became her life until she retired (I think) at about age 70.

Being such divergent people I have to say we got along very well, and over the many trips up Mount Pleasant to deliver her and her wicker I got to know her.  “One day we were riding along when she looked over and said “You know Phil I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve worked hard, and you want to know what I can tell you about life?”  Pregnant pause while I imagined she was going to go on about family, or good friends or the like, but then she said “In the end Phil, you know who your best friend will be? “  Please tell me.  She looked at me squarely and said, “a couple of bucks in your pocket”.  When you get older and need some help, that’s what it comes down to.  A couple of bucks in your pocket.”   It surprised me, and puzzled me for a moment, but I could see from her expression that she was right.harbour1