Billy Orr meets Phyllis Kind

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Billy in front of his cabin

Learning of the death of New York art dealer Phyllis Kind a couple of weeks ago got me to thinking about Billy Orr.  I mentioned the exchange in a 2016 blog I wrote on Billy.  Reproduced here:

“When I did the Outsider Art fair in New York City, I brought pictures of Bill’s place, along with many other examples of Canadian folk art, and showed them to the renowned art dealer, Phyllis Kind. She passed over much of what I showed her, but paused and really had a hard look at Billie’s work. She said “This is interesting.  I’d like to know more about this artist.”  When I got home I sent her photos, a bio, etc, and after a couple of weeks she phoned me to  say that she would be interested if Bill would sell all of the work and she could show it as a reconstruction of Bill’s installation. Naturally she was concerned about the cost of moving all that concrete to New York.   I got in touch with Bill but he wasn’t at all interested. I could tell that for him it would be like selling his family.  Still, Phyllis is no slouch when it comes to art, and her interest reaffirmed my belief that Bill Orr was an exceptional individual and artist; and he was a lovely man to boot.”

bil2In retrospect, “no slouch when it comes to art” sounds a bit flippant, when I was meaning to suggest that “no slouch” is an understatement.  I had and have great respect and admiration for her taste and instincts, and her contributions to the world of folk art.  She was also very nice to me when I was a stranger in the midst of the dealers at the Outsider Art Fair in 1996.

I remember seeing Phyllis Kind standing in a group of five or six other heavy- hitting art dealers in front of a Henry Darger painting in the booth of Carl Hammer.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that something heavy was going down.  She was quite small and slight; in her sixties, wearing blue jeans and a punk rock, sleeveless black t-shirt, and holding her own in whatever they were talking about. I was struck that she had very thin and wrinkly arms, and I respected that she was strong enough and had the self- respect to put them out there. She was the epitome of cool.  She had grace and presence.

Later that day, which was set up day, I was able to finish my work and have time to look at some of the other booths.  I had brought a few dozen photos of work by Canadian folk artists in case there was some interest with the U.S. dealers.  Mostly, there was not.  Some of them were downright rude.   But when I showed them to Phyllis Kind, after talking for an hour or so on various topics, she looked and passed on them all, but stopped when she came to Billy Orr. “Now this is interesting.”

She reacted immediately to the work, but became more interested when she heard Billie’s story and circumstances.  The opening was drawing near so there was no more time to talk but she asked if I could come by her gallery the next day after the show.   How great, I thought.  Of course I will.

I haven’t had that many, but I have great fondness for those moments in my life where I say to myself, “how cool is this” “Here I am going into Phyllis Kind’s Soho gallery in New York city to show her pictures of Billy Orr’s zodiac sculptures.”  I wish Billy were here.

Can you imagine?  I flashed on Billy in his kitchen telling the mother raccoon who had walked through the front door that “she would have to wait for dinner as he had company”, and I imagined Billy standing next to me in the gallery talking to Kind, and I just tried to make note of everything around me, and everything that was said, and going on.  Now twenty-two years on I remember some of it.

bil5.jpgPhyllis was interested in the fact that Billy had created his own “wooden” version of Stonehenge in his back forty, and that he occupied it with many Irish leprechauns, and zodiac figures he had created in cement.  She imagined having all the work in her gallery, in a type of recreation of Billie’s world.  We excitedly talked on about it a bit more, and we agreed that I would look into it when I got home in terms of interest on Billie’s part, and the logistics of getting all that cement to New York.

I could tell that her interest was sincere, but I could also see a lot of reasons why it would probably just remain a lovely thought.  Billy, predictably wasn’t the least bit interested, and of course the cost of getting all those heavy and fragile pieces to New York was prohibitive.  The end.

Still. It is something to behold. Something that will live on in my head.  Billy Orr shuffling up and muttering “hello” to Phyllis Kind at the opening of his solo exhibition in New York.bil6

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The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers

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cover of the 1991 McMichael Canadian Art Collection catalog by John Hartman

As explained by the McMichael Gallery’s Chief Curator, Jean Blodgett in the forward to the catalogue accompanying the 1991 solo exhibition of the works of Gilbert Desrochers, entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers” plans for a folk art exhibition had been underway for several years.  He states “folk art seemed eminently suitable for display at the gallery, and an appropriate subject for an institution dedicated to Canadian art.”  He explains that they asked artist John Hartman to guest curate based on his interest and knowledge of folk art.  At first it was planned to be a group exhibit, which was then narrowed down to a few artists, and finally it was decided to focus on the work of one artist, Gilbert Desrocher, whom Hartman had come to know when he was attracted by a sculpture displayed on a fence post he spotted while driving down a back road in Tiny Township on the southern end of Georgian Bay in Ontario. He stopped, and made his acquaintance, and quickly this developed into a strong friendship.  In September of 1990 John took Mr. Blodgett to Gilbert’s house to discuss the dates and arrangements for the exhibit to be held the following year.  It was devastating then when they learned a week later that Mr. Desrochers had died suddenly.

artistGilbert Desrochers was born on May 2, 1926, in Tiny Township.  The fifth child in a family of six boys and one girl. His father Thomas owned a farm on the eighteenth concession, overlooking the bluffs of Thunder Bay Beach. He only attended school for two years when his mother died, and he went to work with his father and brothers on the family farm. “I wasn’t much good in school” he recalled. “I didn’t learn much. I went to school only to smoke. And I slept.  I was always so tired that I fell asleep. I had no notion about school. I had only work in my head. I figured that work was easier than school.”  Our father couldn’t read or write either and said “it’s just as well that you are like me. Come work with me in the woods.” “My father had two hundred sheep, and we took care of them. Also nine cows, three horses, chickens and pigs. In the winter we would cut wood all the time. We didn’t have a power saw so me and Joseph would cut wood all winter. It was a lot of work with cross-cut saws and Swede saws.

In 1941 at fifteen, he and his twelve year old brother Gabe took the money form three cords of wood that they had sold and began walking to the home of their sister Aurore who lived in Toronto. They caught a ride with a group of soldiers and got dropped off near their destination.  Gabe stayed to attend school but Gilbert returned home to cut wood with his father which is what he continued to do until he was twenty five.  Not satisfied with his life he began to wander, returning home only when his money ran out. He would leave and return unannounced, and often no one in the family knew his whereabouts.horse

In 1952 Gilbert was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Kingston for stealing a barge. There he worked for a while in the carpentry shop, until he overheard other prisoners saying that they would “get him”. He refused to return to the shop and eventually became uncontrollable and was put into solitary confinement. He had a nervous breakdown and, according to his brother Gabe he was given shock therapy.  His stay in Kingston was two years.   While there that he had his first religious experience, when God appeared to him on the walls.

The day his parole was up he headed north to work in the lumber camps near Kapuskasing.  In 1953 Gilbert’s father died and he became close to his brother Gabe. For the next twenty years he continued to work seasonally in the tobacco fields of southern Ontario, and the bush camps in the North. Occasionally returning to live with Gabe and his wife Lucienne, and to work with Gabe as a roofer.  lizard

In 1975 he was working in Toronto and while looking in the garbage in an alley something struck him from behind. When he turned around no one was there. He concluded it must have been God. After his religious experience in Toronto, Gilbert moved to his brother’s farm near Perkinsfield, where he lived in a small trailer and attended church regularly.

It was here that Gilbert started to carve. He continued to have visions and said that he began making sculpture because God came to him in a dream and told him that he had to make something, then gave him visions of things to make. The dream recurred, and after the third time Gilbert started making carvings.

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Gilbert at home

During the period that he was active, Gilbert created hand carved depictions of the people, animals and events from Christian bible stories. He would often harden the high gloss paint, used to colour and give the necessary details to his sculptures, by heating his workshop, located in the same trailer that he slept, to 120 degrees F. All of his work was created for installation in and around his living space, or on his tractor.

“I promised myself that never would they catch me again to lock me up. That’s why now I’m always alone” he confessed. I’m always watching myself, just in case someone blames me and returns me to jail.  That’s what I think about steady. Never, never do I forget that. I’ll never forget. When I die, why then I figure I’ll be saved. I watch myself because they’ve tried to blame me for all sorts of things and I’ve saved myself every time. That’s why I’m prudent and I’m always in my hymns and I stay close to the good Lord.  It’s a boring life, but I have to live it anyway. That’s why I started to carve all sorts of things, to pass the time and to stay at home.  It’s a sad life but I manage to survive it.”angels