About shadflyguy

Owner/ operator of Shadfly Antiques, and resident antique at Collectivator.com.

Falling down the rabbit hole of Christmas memories

It’s  5:15 pm and it is dark outside my window. Above is a picture of how it looked at 3:00 pm.  Living on the north shore of lake Erie, we live in what Ontarians call the banana  belt,  and we are spared from much snow fall.  The prevailing winds blow from the north and typically dump snow on the American side, which we love to watch on t.v.   But we’re not laughing today.  It is rare when the snow comes in from the south west but when it does we get buried.  Today is such a day.  It started at about nine this morning and it hasn’t stopped since.  We took an early run for the supplies we would need and hunkered down.  I do look forward to a nice snow storm from time to time as long as we are home and the hydro is on.

About 11:00 am I set about working on my blog.  I had decided my subject would be folk art at Christmas time, and folk art created for Christmas.  I wanted to write about the effect that Christmas ideology has on folk artists, and inversely how folk art has effected Christmas ideology.   Folky, Grandma Moses like images of wintery villages, people skating,  and horse drawn sleighs still adorn many Christmas cards and Holiday biscuit tins.  But then again who sends Christmas cards anymore.  I think the polar bears drinking Coke actually figure larger in folk ideology, but in any case.  Within this context I wanted to show how some of my favourite Canadian folk artists interpreted Santa Claus, etc.   That’s where the trouble began.

Three Kaz Kizik Santas

I have documented several pieces of  Christmas folk art which we have owned and sold over the years,  and so I had to do was to go through my photos,  find some examples, and scan them.  Easy squeezy.  You would think, but no, not really because although I have managed to keep our photos reasonably organized: and when I say reasonably I mean that some are in books by subject and labeled, while others are in more randomly arranges in books.  But actually most  remain in photo envelopes awaiting  further sorting, and the labels are very general.  Us in France, Exterior church shots, Us with Friends, Christmas 1997, etc.  So at least I was able to skip several envelopes when looking for Christmas Santa Claus carvings.

Barbara Clark-Fleming
winter scene

But here’s where the soft, hypnotic snow fall outside the window comes in.  The feeling of being shut in for the duration. The sudden urge to do a 1000 piece puzzle, or as the case was today, to fall into hours of looking at old images of Christmas past, and places visited, and happy occasions remembered, and loved ones who have passed on.  I call it falling down the rabbit home.  It happens to me from time to time when I look at photos, or more often when I research something on the internet.  For instance, the other day I was reminded of the Talking Heads song “Same as it ever was”, and so downloaded the original video on You Tube.  I had never seen it and it excited me, so I watched the next video which was an interesting interview with David Byrne, and then came an amazing one hour video of the band performing live in Rome in 1980.  When I resurfaced three videos later, I came away with a deeper understanding of the talent and contribution of these fine musical artists, but the morning was shot.

night hockey game in Ottawa, circa 1945,
by Elmo Phillips

So that’s what happened. I found several of the photos I wanted to use right away, but a photo of a big Santa and Rudolph made by Ewald Rentz which we used to display by the back door of the church eluded me.  Strange, I thought it would be the easiest to find, but no.  At first I flipped quickly and efficiently through many books before the power of some of the images caused me to slow down and think.  Think about what I can remember of the moment. To observe how different we all looked.  To think about our relationships then. Before you know it, you are adrift. Down the rabbit hole.

Nostalgia is a bitter sweet mix which I rarely indulge in, but today I really let myself go.  I took a deep drink, and now I’m so filled with personal memories that for now I’ve lost the urge to talk about folk art. Another time.  I just want to go down to see what Jeanine is up to.  Knitting probably.  And finally, I want to wish everyone a very happy holidays and solstice; however you chose to celebrate, or not celebrate as the case may be.  Enjoy, and create some new memories to look back on some day. The snow continues to fall.  Tomorrow I’ll get out the shovel.

Santa and Rudolph
by Ewald Rentz

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A missed opportunity- My chance to meet Robert McCairns

I have found that sometimes, something, or someone can seem so available that you become casual and nonchalant about taking the time to go to them, and before you know it they are gone.  Thus was the case for me with Robert McCairns.  A few years after moving to Norfolk County in the early 80’s I had become aware that this noted folk artist was living nearby at Turkey Point.  I had seen a few of his bird carvings and liked the work, but at that time my life comprised primarily of trips to and fro Quebec to buy antiques and folk art, and then participating in antique shows to sell the stuff.  Also, aesthetically, I was pretty focused on the Quebec style of folk art and I was finding lots of it, and so although I found McCairn’s work interesting, it didn’t make my heart beat faster, if you know what I mean.  In short, time passed and the next thing I know I hear he’s pasted on. 

Then a few years later, we bought the Barbara Brown collection, and in it there were many, perhaps 60 or so of McCairn’s pieces.  Not only birds, and decoys for which he was mostly known, but also a few animals, and one sort of flat faced human head.  When you buy something you really look at it, and so I studied the pieces and came to appreciate his straight forward style;  slightly crude but with character, balanced, and with interesting paint.  He made carvings of the creatures around him. The birds and animals he was familiar with.

Robert McCairns at his workshop

Robert McCairns was born in Scotland October 9th, 1905. He came to Canada at the age of 18 and after travelling around the West Coast, he eventually found his way to Ontario, where he married and raised a family of two sons and a daughter at Turkey Point, on the North Shore of Lake Erie.

For more than forty years he earned his living at fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as managing tracts of the marsh.  He also carved decoys and worked as a guide during the hunting season.

After a severe illness in the mid 1970’s he retired from several of his enterprises and began to carve some of the birds he saw around the Long Point marsh; ducks, herons, shorebirds, and song birds.  Also fish, rabbits and turtles.  Eventually he added a few domestic animals such as cats, dogs and pigs.  People started to come to his place on the marsh and buy, and word got around, and by 1977 he had his first exhibition at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe Ontario. This was followed by shows  in Toronto  at the Merton Gallery, Claude Arsenault’s “Home Again”  folk art gallery, and the Harbourfront Community Gallery.  Some of his pieces were included in a travelling show sponsored by the Ontario Craft Council. In 1989, shortly before his death,  his work was the subject of a one man show at the Durham Art Gallery. This last show included a catalogue.

Robert McCairn’s produced what I consider to be good, honest folk art.  His birds are not literal  renditions of the various species, but rather they are his free interpretations of what he saw.  As much as a like many of these carvings,  it is his rendition of the human head which puts me over the top, admiration-wise.  It may have well been a “one off” for him, but to my mind as a piece of folk art, he knocked it out of the park with that one.  I felt my opinion was confirmed when I sold it at the Outsider Art Fair in New York to a well-known folk art dealer.  When I handed him a bio, he said “I don’t care who he is or where he’s from. I just love that he made this piece”.

The Captain who loved to draw – Captain Alexander McNeilledge

Born at Greenock in Scotland in 1791, the young Alex was introduced at an early age to life on the high sea. When only eight years old he accompanied his father, a sea captain, on an ocean voyage to Newfoundland. In subsequent years he worked his way up from cabin boy to log keeper and eventually captain by the time he was thirty. As a sea captain he travelled around the world. His exploits are the stuff of seafaring legend: he was shipwrecked on Long Island in 1807, saw the Duke of Wellington in Lisbon, and even caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1817. The captain covered huge swaths of the globe, sailing to ports as far afield as China and running a naval blockade off Buenos Aires. And, for good measure, he endured robbery and plunder at the hands of pirates on the storied Spanish Main.

At the prodding of his brother Collin, McNeilledge came to Port Dover with his wife Mary Ann in 1832 to work as a bookkeeper at his mill, and he purchased a farm a few years later. But the mundane life of clerking and farming was nothing compared to his high seas adventures. You can you imagine how exciting farming was to him after that life? So he basically left the farming to his wife and headed down to the docks to captain the boats. McNeilledge became a fixture at the docks and was involved in many operations around port.

In the 1840s he began to produce a series of charts and maps for navigating Lake Erie. The document was widely used until the early 2oth century. In Lake Erie – a pictorial history by Julie MacFie Sobol and Ken Sobel, they quote the captain from the preface of his 1848 “Chart and Sailing Instructions for the North Shore of Lake Erie” , ”All the Lake Ontario Captains on both sides and the Lake Erie captains on the American side are afraid of the North Shore.”  His journal filled a need, for without the captain’s well observed navigational instructions and maps, many more vessels would have joined the underwater fleet”.

In his later years he began to make drawings of ships which he presented as tokens of friendship to captains of visiting vessels , as well as relatives and neighbours.  The drawings were often personalized by naming the ship after the wife, the master after the husband, and smaller vessels after the children. Most were accompanied by captions depicting fanciful and fictitious voyages, and many were inscribed with humorous autobiographical comments such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”

He maintained a diary over the last 37 years of his life, recording not only routine daily events but also many personal feelings of frustration, loneliness and non-acceptance. The captain was found by his wife on August 21, 1874, having taken his life in the ravine behind the house the previous day.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

But rather than his sad ending, I prefer to think of all the joy he has given people over the years with his charming drawings, water-colours, and of course the exquisite 1867 Confederation box. It is fitting that in that year, McNeilledge fired off his cannon to mark the start of the Canada Day Parade in Port Dover. The first in Canada, and a tradition that continues to this day.

In appreciation of Sid Howard

You know how with some artists you just love their work the first time you see it; recognizing that there is something genuine and authentic in it which places it above the work of others?  Something which goes directly  to your gut, bypassing the analytical brain cells. Well for me that’s Sid Howard.

Especially his early work.  His approach is direct, joyful, strong, and not at all self-conscious.  Simple lines.  A primitive elegance. I always get a lift when I look at his work.  I would see it on rare occasions over the years but did not become fully conscious of his life and work until I saw the NFB film “Folk Art Found Me” in 1993.  The fellows who made it set up and sold copies at the Bowmanville show that year.  A great film that you can see by following this link http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpk3q0

Sid Howard sitting amongst his creations singing “Pretty Robin Redbreast” is such a treat in itself, and then he goes on to talk about getting started.  This would be about 1945.

“Well one day I sat down and I said, I’d like to make a fish, and I’m going to try it. I never made one before.  Well, I worked on it slow and easy and it come out good; and so from then on I liked it and I never stopped since.”

We are lucky that the film makers got this on film.  He died shortly after.

Kobayashi/Bird “A compendium of Canadian Folk Artists (1985) states,

Around many odd tasks and carpentry work (Howard) managed to find opportunities for pursuit of his wood carving interests, particularly after 1945.  His earliest carving, a deer, was inspired by a drawing in his daughter’s colouring book. He continued to carve cats, fish, birds, and human figures.  Many of his works were destroyed in a fire in the late sixties. He eventually began to undertake the ambitious project of carving life-sized figures, including his interpretation of Cape Breton’s legendary “McAskill Giant”. He also carved various low-relief plaques with nature scenes, such as a beaver in a marsh setting, or scenes with stags, horses, seals, fish, and sailing vessels.  Inspired also by popular culture, he carved large sharks modelled after the villain in the movie “Jaws”.  He also carved political figures and an RCMP officer.  By the 1980’s he was turning increasingly to television programmes for subject matter.”

An early Sid Howard full-sized figure.

I have bought and sold Sid Howard works occasionally over the last thirty years,  but as I was buying largely in Quebec I did not encounter them very often.  Then at one of the Bowmanville shows in the late 1990’s,  Toronto art dealer Av Issacs and I were talking about Sid, and he said “you know, I have a Sid Howard piece that I bought years ago, that I could part with. “  Of course I was interested, and so true to word, the next week I received from Av, a photo and come on letter.  “No reasonable offer refused”.  Ya right Av, I’ve known you for too many years to fall for that.

On the phone the next day when we set up the appointment Av said   “You are going to love this piece. It’s so strong.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should even be selling it.”  I could feel the price rising.

I felt “cool” going into his rented digs in that old factory full of artists on Richmond Street.  I’m not sure that it hasn’t been made into up-scale condos by now, but at the time it had a real scene living there.  Av had closed the gallery and retired, but rented this for storage and an office space.   On the way in you could see that the young artists loved him.  We reached his space, unlocked the door, and there was the Sid Howard sitting on an easel in the light of the north facing window.  What a knock out.  Av was right.  I didn’t even try to play it cool, or barter.  Av was far too seasoned and would spot it right away anyway, so I just said “You’re right Av, it’s amazing.  I want it. So how much do I have to pay for it, bottom line.  Prix d’ami.  I always try the Quebec term prix d’ami, or “friend’s price” because it puts a friendly, positive spin on it.   Av’s price was by no means a giveaway, but it was fair and so I counted out the cash.

I brought it home and Jeanine loved it, so we hung it in the dining room, and there it remains.

After concluding our business, Av and I were looking around at some of his things under the pretense that there might be something else I would like, so I asked him.  “you wouldn’t have any William Kurelek drawings or paintings laying around that you want to get rid of at a cheap price?”  Av smiled, “well no, I’ve sold every painting and drawing that I had for sale, but I could sell you this.”  He went over to a storage rack and pulled out a fairly large plywood packing crate.  He flipped it around and on the back was quite a beautiful pencil drawing of a western village.  Along with an elaborate colorful frame around the name and address area.  “He sent me some paintings in this case from out West,  and he took the time to make it beautiful.”  Wow.  Simply wow.  Of course even Av’s friend price was way more than I could afford.  But I still think about it once in a while.  And I still love looking at the Sid Howard eagle.

our Sid Howard eagle

Bill Male, painter of rural life in the La Prairie region of Quebec

William Male, also known as Bill or Willie, was born in 1918. He was an anglophone Quebecer who lived most of his life in or near Montreal, except for the war years which he spent in Europe, serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. After being wounded in Italy in 1944, Bill returned deaf in one ear, to Montreal, where he found employment as a furniture restorer with the firms of Henri Morgan and Alexandre Craig.

winter fun in Hemmingsford

In the 1970s, without any training of any kind, Bill Male started painting. Perhaps it was in response to certain voids in his life as a bachelor: “I never got married, the war got in the way of that” he said. Perhaps his solitary life prompted him to fill his paintings with images of people enjoying various social activities – viewing a show, sitting in a bar, picking fruit in an orchard, playing cards… In any case, these images speak of joy, friends, love and family. There are also, however, expressions of melancholy and loneliness in Bill Male’s work, especially the solitary portraits which often feature a woman sitting alone and waiting.

a lady alone.

When Bill Male retired he opened his own little antiques restoration shop in the town of Hemmingford, Quebec. He worked in his shop every summer and spent his winters painting his dreams and reminiscences.

remembering Europe during the war

We used to see Bill’s work from time to time at the picker’s barns, and then in the mid-nineties a collector friend noticed one of his paintings in our truck and said “That’s one of Bill’s paintings.  I know where he lives. Would you like to meet him?”.  Sure thing.  So with directions in hand, and a phone call ahead we arrived mid-morning at a three story, 1940’s apartment block near the baseball diamond at the edge of town.  Bill buzzed us in and we climbed to the second floor and arrived at his door. He must have been standing right on the other side because the second we knocked the door flew open and there stood Bill, all smiles, peering through those thick glasses.  His small one bedroom apartment was that of your old bachelor uncle’s pad.  Tidy, but full of upholstered chairs, crochet covered tables, and  knick-knacks; with every square inch of wall space covered by his paintings in every type, colour, and size All in reclaimed frames of every type and colour.  The effect was a bit dizzying, but also warm and hospitable.  “Everything is for sale, and at reasonable prices”, and so we picked out our favourite twenty or so and paid him what he asked in cash.  Bill didn’t talk much, and he never offered to make us tea or anything, but over a few visits he did start to warm up and tell us some stories from when he was in Europe, and one funny story of how he almost got killed in his workshop.  Well, funny because no one got hurt.

apple picking in Hemmingsford

Bill rented a garage for his work from a very old neighbor lady. He was slowing down on accepting work but still doing the occasional project for a neighbor. So he was working away one winter day with the doors closed and the heat fired up.  He was standing at the side of the shop putting wood in the woodstove when suddenly there was a tremendous crash, and bang, and shattering of wood in every direction as an old sedan came smashing through the closed doors, raced the length of the building knocking everything asunder, and went smashing out the far wall into the back yard.  Turns out his old landlady had arrived at a day when she confused the gas and brake pedals, and she tried to slam on the brakes. “It happened so fast I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew I was damn lucky to be standing aside”.  “You’ve got that right, Bill.

We would go to see Bill another five or six times, always happy to see his new work, and to have a chance to get to know him a bit better.  We even wrote back and forth a bit. He would send me pictures of his new paintings and ask which ones he might put aside for me.  He was a lovely guy.  Then on one late fall day in 2003, we found ourselves in the area and decided to drop by.  He didn’t answer his phone but we knew he didn’t leave the apartment much so we took a chance and just arrived and rang his buzzer.  Someone answered but it wasn’t Bill.  The fellow explained that Bill had died suddenly a few months before, and he was the new tenant.  He didn’t have any information on Bill as he did not know him. With no living relatives and not knowing his friends we were struck with a sadness, made sadder somehow because there was no one to express our condolences to. We said a silent goodbye and left.

Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator

The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”