Last 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”