About shadflyguy

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

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.

rentz article

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.

shopinterior

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?”

shopwindow

looking through the front window of the barbershop

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.

alyss

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.

husband

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

Looking into the private world of Fenton Dukeshire

d6Back in the 1990’s I would occasionally get a call from a friend, Marty Ahvenus, who owned and operated the Village Book Store on Queen St at the time.  He was a book seller by trade who also enjoyed folk art and making periodic trips to the East Coast.  When he returned from a trip he was in the habit of phoning me, and selling me the folk art which he had acquired enroute.  We would meet at a French restaurant on Baldwin Street which offered fish soup, a favourite of both of us, and I remember that the owner/chef would always come out to see who had ordered the soup as so few did.  But that’s another story.duke1

One day I met Marty and he had a dozen or so small and interesting fantasy buildings that he had just acquired from a very elderly gentleman from Wolfville Nova Scotia, who was living with his son in Toronto at the time.  I guess he had heard about him when he was out East and found out that he was living with his son who was teaching law in Toronto, so he arranged to go over and meet him.   Fenton Dukeshire’s son made it clear that Marty was welcome to come over and see the work, but that it was very unlikely that he would meet the artist. Fenton was a very private, and shy man who liked to keep to himself in a back bedroom of the house where he would spend hour after hour creating intricately detailed miniatures of buildings, bridges, locomotives, etc out of bits of found wood, matchsticks, and cardboard.  These all bore the mark of his individual imagination, and the patience required to bring such detailed pieces to realization.  Time was not a problem for Fenton.  He was in his element working, and he did so hour after hour, day after day.  Along with the individual sculptures of buildings, etc. he liked to create dioramas which involved people in dramatic situations.  Gunfighters facing each other down on the street.  A church scene with choir and unnoticed urchin with a sling shot about to hit the minister in the back of the head. Another church scene with a mother reaching out to save her baby who was teetering on the edge of the balcony banister.  All his people had a humorous, comic book aspect to them.  They are crowd pleasers. duke2

This intensely shy and unassuming man was born in Maitland Bridge, Annapolis County in 1917. He was a woodsman, sawmill worker, and farmer during his working life and only took up carving and model making in his 60’s.  His wife of 39 years died in 1985, and he has no other brothers, sisters, or other children.  He lived with his only son in Wolfville, then Toronto, and then back to Wolfville with his son when the work concluded in Toronto.  He lived there quietly producing his art until he died.  I cannot find the date of his death on-line but I know he was very old.

I like the fun of his dioramas with people, but I admire most the simple architectural elegance of his buildings. You can tell he created these to satisfy his own love and fascination with architecture, and had no commercial intentions.  duke5

So when Marty arrived at the house, he admired and agreed to purchase many recent works, but before he left he asked once again if he may at least meet the artist who was working away in his back room.  The son agreed to ask, and sure enough a few moments later a small grey man slid into the room.  Came up to Marty and put out his hand.  “how do you do?”.  They shook hands and Marty barely had time to say “what a pleasure it is to meet you” when Mr. Dukeshire spun on his heels and headed back into his room, closing the door behind him.duke4

In appreciation of Canadian Outsider Artist – Philip Melvin

Martin Luther King Jr.

Outsider art is like Rap music in that you’ve got to have “street cred”. If you’re just a weird guy who doesn’t like people much, lives at the edge of town, and you paint, you aren’t necessarily an outsider artist.  It is about the lifestyle you live, and the visions you present.  The line between folk art and outsider art is a blurry one, but basically outsider art is a term applied to art made by someone untrained, who lives outside society.  Sometimes outsider artists are institutionalized;  some outsider artists live on the streets.  Philip Melvin is such an artist.

a 20 pound Salmon

I met him once in Toronto.  I was taking the streetcar down Queen street when I noticed someone had set up a bunch of crazy looking paintings along the curb in front of a CIBC bank on a busy corner. They looked interesting so I jumped off at the next stop and went back to see them.  They were mostly portraits of well know people and although they really didn’t look at all like the actual people, they all had energy and humour, and I quite liked them.  I did not know of him at the time, but it was Philip Melvin. Looking pretty disheveled with an impressive beard, and quick eyes.  I asked him if these were his paintings, and if they were for sale and he said “yes, and you can have any one of them for $60”.  So I bought one.  He introduced himself and we had a really odd but quite interesting chat, and shortly the next street car came along, and I had to say a quick good-bye and jump on.  Appointments to keep.  That was it.  I could see that trying to get a contact number would be pointless.

the Irish Mountain Ram

Philip Melvin was born in 1938. He lived all across Canada, but his last known residence was in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Not much has been recorded about him. He was born in Lamanche, Newfoundland. From there he travelled to Toronto Ontario, and once described himself as ‘the biggest fool that ever hit Toronto’ and as ‘the man from Lamanche’. Finding himself in continual trouble with the law and at the periphery of society, he spent a good deal of time in correctional facilities or rehabilitation centres. In 1980 he began carving religious plaques and subjects, as well as painting Toronto landmarks and familiar sights. Spending time at the Lakehead, or in Toronto, often at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Philip Melvin would sometimes turn to carving in hope of selling a few pieces as a means of minimal survival. Philip Melvin moved to Vancouver where he continued to get into trouble with authorities. He made the news when he was found wandering around Stanley Park with a power saw. He was just looking for deadfall for his sculpture but the authorities thought otherwise. His work was included in the 2000 Canadian Museum of Civilization exhibition “Under the Sign of the Cross: Creative Christianity in Canada”.

As far as I know he is still alive but I haven’t heard anything about him for a couple of years.

“I’m a green deer from Belfast”
BIG RED
“We got enough green in this country”

My Meeting with Morrisseau

Man changing into Thunderbird,
Panel one

In 1976 I was making multi projector slide presentations with a couple of other guys. The kind of thing you would see at Expo 67 or the 1970’s Ontario Place, if you are old enough to catch the reference.  We called ourselves the Awes Studio, and we were based in London Ontario.  We specialized in shows about culture or art, and created works that were an artform in their own right.  There was not nearly as much money in this area as there was in creating commercial industrial or business presentations, but it was a lot more fun, and we were creating a lot of work.

Norval Morrisseau

So it came to pass that in 1976 we pitched Ontario Place on the idea of creating a multi-screen slide/ sound spectacular of Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau’s interpretation of the Ojibway legend of The Man who changed into a Thunderbird.  After a bizarre late night meeting in the executive board room of Ontario Place which I will save the telling of for another time, we had a go-ahead and some development money,  so the first thing we wanted to do was to contact Mr. Morrisseau and run the idea by him, hopefully for his blessing and in the best case scenario his involvement.   At this point Morrisseau was out of the public eye and reportedly living on the street in Northern Ontario somewhere.  It didn’t look good, but we started the process.

The one thing we knew was that he had been represented since the beginning of his artistic career in 1962 by legendary Yorkville gallery owner Jack Pollack, and although Mr. Pollack was by this point very ill and reportedly about to close his gallery, we contacted him anyway with the hope of a meeting.  He agreed, and what a lovely person he was. He made us feel most welcome, listened to our story, and suggested that although he did not know where Norval was, and could not guess what his response may be, he would do his best to contact Mr. Morrisseau and set up a meeting.  He had family contacts that he could send a message through, but he was quite concerned that no one had seen Morrisseau in quite a while and that reports suggested he was not doing well.  We crossed our fingers and waited.  We set about contacting various native organizations for input and approval.   People didn’t think about Cultural appropriation in those days, but we were serious and committed to the idea of employing as many Native artists as possible, and of studying the story and consulting until we felt certain we were presenting it as accurate and sympathetically as possible.  It  quickly became tough sledding as we came to discover that there was a vast difference in the opinions of the many scholars contacted.  We learned that Norval Morrisseau had received quite a bit of condemnation within the Native community itself for his telling of the story in book form.  Many believed that it was only to be passed on verbally and within the tribe.

The more we consulted, and learned the harder it became to see our way forward  . To find a spiritual core to hang on to, and build from.  It was all looking rather bleak when we got a call from Jack Pollack that Norval Morrisseau had been found, and very surprisingly to all of us, he had agreed to come into Toronto for a meeting to hear what we had to say.  We were equal parts ecstatic, and apprehensive.  What if he rejected us totally?  On the other hand we held great hope he may co-operate in the fact that he agreed to meet us.

We told Jack Pollack before the meeting that we would describe the project to him, and then ask Mr. Morrisseau if he would be willing to paint six large panels to depict the stages of the man turning into Thunderbird.  We would then photograph the works and use them in the production as the main, integral “sign posts” in the progress of the story.  We would also ask him if for the duration of the show, we could display the paintings along the long corridor leading to the theatre because as the line was usually quite long, and slow people would have time to contemplate them as they waited to move forward.  Mr. Pollack suggested that if Norval agreed to go ahead, he would rent him a studio for a period of months and provide him with the stretched canvas’, a budget, and the supplies necessary to produce the works.

We weren’t even commissioning him.   He would own the paintings. There would be money for allowing us to use them of course, but  we were basically just asking for him to create them,  and allow us use them for this purpose.  Preposterous when I think about it now. All we could offer other than the money was that thousands from all over Ontario and beyond would see them, and a faithful depiction of the story he told in his book.  The date for a meeting was set for a cold  February Wednesday at eleven o’clock, at the jack Pollack Gallery.

My work mate, and friend Ford Evans and I piled in my old Volvo and made it through  blizzard conditions on the 401 from London to Toronto with only moments to spare before the arranged meeting.  We had to park a few blocks away because of the snow. Time was running short so when we arrived at the gallery we burst in all red faced from the fast walking and strong wind;  with our, as it was at the time, long hair blown every which way, and snot frozen to our facial hair.  And the kicker was, that as it happened we were both wearing full length antique fur coats.  Mine was racoon, and Ford was wearing his grandfather’s buffalo coat.  Good, practical garb for February.   We never considered any implications.

So we burst into the heat of the gallery space and there before us stood Jack, whom we knew, and the great man himself. The great Anishinaabe artist, sometimes known as the Picasso of the North, Norval Morrisseau.  Or as he signed his paintings and called himself. Copper Thunderbird.  Long haired, and bearded with a clear gaze and knowing face.  You could feel his greatness. He was very still. We gathered ourselves up and approached with hand’s extended to give and receive a traditional hand shake.  “Mr. Morrisseau, we can’t tell you how honored and happy we are to meet you,  and we are so grateful that….” He held up his hand in a stop gesture. Looked right at us, and said “wait a minute, I’m talking to your coat.”  We paused.  He waited for another moment, then he closed his eyes for a moment, and then finally said, “ O.K. I’m pleased to meet you. I’m here. So what is it that you ask of me. We looked over at Jack who just smiled and looked away.  There was nothing left to do but lay it out as plainly and directly as possible so we did so in about a three minute rap leaving out many of the details and just portraying to the best of our abilities our passion and devotion to the story, and our desire to produce it for a large public.  We got to “and so, that’s about it in a nutshell but we imagine that you may have a lot of questions.” Long silence.  He just looked at us.  We began to feel he was looking through us.  We all stood there in silence for what seemed another eternity, when suddenly he said brightly “ O.K. I’ll do it.

That was it.  No questions. No comments. No reassurances. Jack stepped in and said “that’s wonderful Norval, I’ll take you over to see the studio.  We’ll let you fellows know when the paintings are finished. We thanked them both, and left wondering “what the hell just happened.”

Ago installation of
Man changing into Thunderbird

And that was the last I ever heard from or saw Norval Morrisseau or Jack Pollack.  Jack died not long afterwards, and the “thunderbird project’, although innocent of any wrong doing got caught up in a very large scandal that wiped out many departments and projects of Ontario Place.  You might remember it from the papers.  It was a big deal.  People went to jail.  But for us it was just sad that the project died on the table,  and there was nothing to do but move on to other projects.

About four years later I picked up a copy of MacLean’s and low and behold,  there are on the cover is a photograph of the six panels by Norval Morriseau  entitled “Man changing into a Thunderbird”  It was on the cover because it had sold to the Esso oil collection for some huge amount of money.  A few years after that, I walked into the Art gallery of Ontario, turned a corner and there they were in the flesh.  Magnificent. I sat  down and looked at them in awe. I was incredibly moved.  Not only did he do what he said he would do, but in doing so he had created a masterpiece.  I can only hope that Jack lived long enough to see their completion.  When I think back I am truly grateful for my brief, but brilliant moment with Norval Morrisseau, and it makes me feel good to have been even a tiny part of the story of the creation of such a magnificent and important work of art. I never did figure out what he was saying to my coat.

panel six of
Man changing into Thunderbird

Richard, the wood carver

Different carvers have different motivations, and different approaches.  There is an interesting moment in a CBC documentary made in the 60’s when Richard Thompkins who was then living in Nova Scotia , is asked by the narrator how he evolved into full time carving. Richard who answers questions simply and honestly said  “I used to work polishing automobile bumpers, and when I got into carving I liked smooth lines and surfaces.  I started with a nude and did some abstract sculptural things before I went commercial and started to produce my own version of small animals and birds. I developed a style for each,  and continued to make them in bulk”. When the narrator then  asked him if he like many carvers found the act of carving relaxing, he answered, “No, not really. When I get a big order to fill it can make me quite tense.  Richard was a straight shooter. For Richard, it was not about accolades or great profit.  He developed a simple, minimalist style using mostly butternut, which he then rubbed down with linseed oil and lacquered, until it was slick and sleek, almost resembling midcentury Danish Teak furniture. His work was highly finished, with a straight forward elegance, and his prices were very reasonable.  You could buy a nice little beaver carving in his shop for $2 – $3.  He worked on volume.  His work was not only sold in the towns he set up shop.  He would also fill orders for hundreds of bears and raccoons, etc. from gift shops in Ottawa, Toronto, and British Columbia.   Many thousands of his works have found their way into homes as souvenirs and gifts.  He would wood burn his signature “Richard” on the bottom of the pieces, followed by Canada.  Thus many people believed that was his actual name, Richard Canada.

Richard Thompkins was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1930.  He did a stint polishing chrome automobile bumpers in Sudbury, and spent a short time in the Canadian Navy.  He then suffered a back injury and moved to Cookstown, where he bought some woodworking tools and started carving. He opened a shop selling and repairing antiques, and there began to sell his carvings as he developed them.

In 1968 he moved his family to Upper Port la Tour, a fishing town in Nova Scotia, where he had a small shop selling his carvings. During this time he would come back to Ontario twice a year to collect his preferred woods – butternut, walnut and basswood. Nova Scotia was not as good financially as he hoped for, so in 1972 he packed up his family and moved to Port Dover.

Things picked up. He joined up with local folk artist Lois Garrett, and potter Dona Matthews to sell from a rented shop in what had been an old net Shanty, and called it the Red Heron.  It was a small work space, about 100 square feet with additional retail space on the main floor and living quarter upstairs.

In 1986 Richard moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he continued to carve in spite of advancing arthritis.  He died of cancer in 1995.

There is an excellent small exhibition of Richard Thompkins works on at the Port Dover Harbour Museum until June 23, 2018.  You should pop in if you are by this way.  Assistant curator Katie Graham has even made a small but effective 20 page catalogue which accompanies the exhibit and is for sale for $15.  Thanks to the museum, and photographer Marcia MacKinnon for allowing me to use their photographs.

How an old cupboard front gets re-purposed to become an “antique” queen size bed

finished headboard

Anyone familiar with antiques knows that there are no old queen size beds.  They just didn’t make them.  People slept differently in those days, partly sitting up; and they must have valued floor space because most century old beds are no wider than a contemporary ¾ size, and are shorter by a couple of inches.

Not that comfortable by contemporary sleeping standards. How many of us have struggled through a night in a friends guest 1840 rope bed, which when you attempt to get in sinks by inches and caves towards the middle because the ropes are loosening. Aesthetically beautiful as the bed may be, it doesn’t make up for a sore back. So what is an antique lover to do if they want to provide a comfortable queen size bed for their guests, but also want that bed to fit in and sympathize with an otherwise antique setting?  Some people will buy a good looking reproduction, some will modify an old bed which lends itself to being enlarged; or in the case of friends and collectors Paul and Cindy Beischlag, they saw the potential for an interesting head and foot board in a set of old cupboard fronts, and went on to design and make their own.

It started when they bought an old cupboard front from me.  A beautiful, circa 1840, series of 6 doors framed in and hinged, saved from a long ago dismantled built in the wall cupboard.  I had bought it years ago thinking I I might build a work table using them as a series of doors to storage underneath.  It never happened, and so many years later Paul and Cindy spotted them at our clear out sale.

as found full-length doors and four cut-off bed posts

They could imagine them running side by side, as is, to make up the front of the headboard. They then came up with a design by studying other old beds, and set about trying to find four posts for the corners. After looking far and wide they found a nice set of four from Port Hope dealer Clay Bensen, with the only problem being that years ago they had been cut off about half way up, and the original tops were lost.  They liked them though and bought them,  and set about trying to find something that could replace the missing top part.  Within a short time they found four old thick table legs at another local dealer and realized that turned upside down and attached they would finish off the posts nicely.  Talk about serendipity.  The only thing they knew that they were never likely to find was a blanket rail, and a turned top rail, so they drew out the designs for these pieces and had them turned from reclaimed timber at C.J’s antiques and restoration near Simcoe Ontario.  They did a wonderful job.

Scott Fletcher getting ready to match up some paint.

Paul and Cindy are lucky enough to have an artistic friend named Scott Fletcher who was willing and happy to work with Paul to create this unique piece as a winter project.  Even better, Scott has a large, fully equipped workshop.  So they went into the shop, and worked on it, and worked on it, on and off for a total of about 100 hours; and what they emerged with after all that time is a unique, sympathetic, and “beautiful in it’s own right” queen size bed.  They did an excellent job.  Here are some photos they kindly provided me with, along with some explanations.

template showing how top board was to be cut out.

table legs had to have the paint stripped so they could be matched up with the posts.

finished foot board showing turned blanket rail

You can pay anything for anything these days.

here’s a really old picture of me.

It’s 4:30 pm April 20, 2018, and I am declaring it spring.  I just had to run out to my friends place on the edge of town to deliver a painting I had cleaned for them, and when I got out of the car, I thought,  “Hallelujah. at last, it’s spring.  What a long wait it has been for us here in south-west Ontario this year.  But it’s like being beaten over the head with a two by four, it feels so good once it’s over. I point this out to say it took a lot of will power to reject the offer of a beer and sitting on the porch for a spell for me to write this,  but I met a guy at the market last week who pointed out he noticed I was getting a bit irregular in writing every Friday as I was until recently, and he gently encouraged me to get with it.  It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty apparently.  But what does this have to do with economics you ask.  Well nothing, but the arrival of spring could not go without comment.

What got me to thinking about economics this week is a new pair of blue jeans I bought at Costco.   I buy clothes only when necessary which at my age is rarely.  I’ve got a lot of clothes and not many occasions when I need to dress up,  plus I am not much of a shopper.  Anyway, seventeen bucks.  I got a really nicely made jeans of quality fabric that fit me and look good for less than the price of a coffee and a snack at Starbucks. I also had the occasion that day to be in the Bay and I saw some designer jeans for about $240.  I didn’t like the fancy stitching on the back pockets but I suppose it was there so people knew you hadn’t bought your jeans at Costco for seventeen bucks, and that’s fine with me. I’m not going to diss anybody for wanting to make a statement with their clothes, if that’s what makes you feel better.  It just doesn’t do anything for me.  I also know that if I looked around I could probably find a pair of jeans for $5, but if you want them to last you’re better off to spend a little more.   My point is you can spend $15 or you can spend $245, or more for a pair of men’s jeans. You can pay anything for anything these days

Next example.  We were at our daughter’s house and over breakfast she said to her husband “when you go out to get the groceries I would like you to go to a hardware store and get a new drip coffee maker.” This was the direct result of having to listen to me once more mutter under my breath when I tried to pour myself a cup of coffee and inevitably, no matter how hard you tried, the stupid spout of the carafe was so tiny that you ended up spilling all over the counter.  That, and the fact that it no longer had a lid and she doesn’t like the smell of coffee.  I find this hard to relate to because I love the smell of coffee, but I did agree with her that the spilling thing was a pain in the ass.  Of course it is not in my nature to replace anything that still works so I objected. I would have put up with that stupid carafe until the thing died a natural death.   Also, the fact is that neither of them drink coffee so the coffee maker is just there for us or other coffee drinking guests so is rarely used.  But she showed great determination so I headed out with my son in law, figuring that I would jump in at the last minute and buy the device as a hostess gift. As it turns out he wouldn’t let me do this but I digress. We went first to the local Loblaws for the groceries on our list, and low and behold, there in the middle isle was a very nice little coffee maker on sale for $22.   Amazing.  It has a spout that pours, a lid, a cleanable filter so you don’t have to  buy and dispose the paper filters, and I can tell it makes a much better cup of coffee than the old one.  I think I may have learned something from the experience. Spending $22 to not have to wipe up spilled coffee is a good move.  When I got home and looked at the Canadian Tire catalogue I noticed you can spend anywhere from $12 to about $350 for a drip coffee maker.  You can pay anything, for anything these days.

This seems to be the case for most items these days thanks to diverse world economics, and the modernization of manufacturing, and I think it’s a pretty good thing overall.   The frugal or poor can buy pretty good things for not much money, and the wealthy have an ever increasing selection to choose from.  However, I think it also makes people suspicious of their understanding of the monetary value of things.

This has always been an issue that antique and art dealers have had to deal with.  When you are asking $350 for a  100 year old rocking chair, there is no price in a catalogue to refer to.  There is just your knowledge of antiquity and markets which the buyer either believes in or not.  I believe that a lot of established, knowledgeable dealers do a good and fair job of pricing, but it is also the case with the way the markets are now that you see prices all over the place.  Recently, a painting by a folk artist that I represented for years sold at auction for $870.  I sold that painting in my shop for $495, and I know of other auctions were similar paintings by the same artist have sold for less than $100.

I once overheard a couple of old time dealers haggling over the price of a chair.  “Well I agree that it is a very nice chair in original paint and great condition but why is it priced at $600.” The other guy looked him strait in the face and said “because I paid $5 for it”.  Ha. They both laughed, and the questioning fellow knew that his negotiation technique was failing but you get the point.  You can pay anything, for anything these days. He may have only had to pay $5 but his knowledge of antiques made him realize it was worth much more. I think this is the basic appeal behind the business. It’s a treasure hunt.  That, and a love for the stuff.  You need that too, or you will never be able to make a go of it.

And don’t get me started on how this affects you when you are trying to do a decent job of appraising items for fair market value.  That’s a topic for another day. I’ve gone on long enough. It’s sunny on the porch and I am dying to go out there and have a beer.  I’m not a big beer drinker mind you.  Don’t touch the stuff all winter, and really don’t drink much in the summer, but on the first day of spring, who would deny me?  Happy spring everyone.