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.
Gilbert 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.
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.
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.
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.”