The Art of the Grenfell Mission

The April  2000, Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art show was a special year in that it featured the show and sale of a large collection of the work created by artisans of the Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland.  The collection of about two hundred pieces was accomplished over a twenty year period of dedicated searching by Ontario collector Robin Moore, and the sale was organized by her friend and mentor, quilt and fabric specialist Carol E. Telfer.  A beautifully illustrated, 45 page catalogue “art of the Grenfell Mission, the Robin Moore collection” accompanied the show.  The collection was offered to be sold only in its entirety.

In her opening comments Robin Moore suggests “ Michael Rowan, an old antiques buddy, has always maintained that antiques are on loan to us – we are their custodians for a period of time.  It has been my pleasure to have been the custodian of this truly marvelous legacy of the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, which I humbly refer to as “my Grenfell collection.” The time has come to pass it on to the next custodian – to love cherish, and preserve.  My dream?- to have my collection return to St. Anthony, Newfoundland where it all began 100 years ago. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Well, wonderful things do happen, as the entire collection was sold on opening night to a Newfoundland museum.  A prime example of the importance and contribution to our national heritage that a dedicated collector can make.

There is quite a bit of information about Grenfell on line.  What follows are quotes from the heritage Newfoundland and Labrador site:

“The Grenfell Mission provided some of the earliest permanent medical services in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Before the mission opened its first hospital at Battle Harbour in 1893, almost no health-care resources existed in the area – hospitals were nonexistent. Alongside its medical endeavours, the mission sought to make other social changes, specifically in the areas of education, agriculture, and industrial development. To this end, mission workers built schools and helped establish lumber mills, community farms, co-operative stores, and a commercial handicraft industry to create alternative sources of income.

British medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell arrived at Labrador in 1892 to investigate living conditions among local fishers for the United Kingdom’s National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. Shocked by the area’s widespread poverty and almost complete absence of medical resources, Grenfell spent the next year raising money at St. John’s and England to establish regular health-care services in Labrador. The mission opened a hospital at Battle Harbour and began construction on another at Indian Harbour. It also acquired a second hospital boat, the Princess May, to help medical personnel service fishing stations and coastal communities.

Alongside providing medical services, the Grenfell Mission sought to improve living conditions in general for people in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. To stimulate industrial development, the mission established a series of co-operative stores near many of its medical stations. Mission workers helped to create a local handicraft industry that allowed residents to sell hooked mats, knitted goods and other items at North American retail shops.”

From Wikipedia we learn “The Grenfell Mission established a Village Industry Department prior to 1930. Artists came from abroad to support the artistic endeavors of the residents of northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Grenfell Mission was famous for its burlap rugs, which were sold to hospitals in the United States and Britain. Encouraged and promoted by Dr. Grenfell, the rugmakers of the mission sometimes used designs created by Mrs. Grenfell. Beginning in the early 20th century, the International Grenfell Association (IGA) hired Jessie Luther of Providence, Rhode Island, to set up and direct the Grenfell Industrial Department. Grenfell established retail shops in England and in several U.S. cities. These shops were staffed by volunteers and augmented by travelling salesmen. Following the death of Dr. Grenfell and the surge in machine-made rug production, the business gradually failed.”

Carol Telfer did an excellent job of summarizing the Grenfell history in the catalogue with her two page essay “a brief history of the Grenfell Mission”.  I suggest you buy the catalogue which is still available, but if you want to learn the complete history in precise detail you can go to http://www.grenfellassociation.org/who-we-are/history/   the international Grenfell Association site.

The dedication to the catalogue reads “Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived on the north shore of Newfoundland more than a century ago.  He was greeted by a shy, yet industrious people who inhabited a beautiful, but isolated land. They led a harsh existence.  This catalogue- a visual tribute- is dedicated to the men and women of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, for the incredible works of art which they produced through the Grenfell Mission.  May their legacy continue.

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Remembering the Pierre Laplante auction- a vast collection of Quebec folk art and antiques

We first met Pierre Laplante when he participated for one time in the 1997 Bowmanville Spring Folk Art and Antique show.  We set up just down the aisle from him and before the show was over we had gotten to know each other through many friendly exchanges, and also he bought a giant lumberjack that was our show stopper to put in his indoor pool area at his rural home.  Nice fellow.

It was announced at the show that Bill Dobson was managing an auction of Pierre’s collection on May 17 and 18th, with auctioneers Tim Potter and Cec Knight in Kingston.  It was exciting news as Pierre had a reputation as a very serious collector of Quebec folk art.   We had heard many stories from the pickers in Quebec of the dentist from Montreal that would buy almost everything that they would bring to him.  Often this was said in the form of an apology for not having anything to offer us.

cigar store Indian marked “Illinois”, late 19th cent. – $5,000

If you have the money and the will this is a very effective way to collect.  Once a few pickers know they can rely on you to buy almost anything they bring you, they will put in a special effort, offer everything to you first, and as they say be happy to “make hay while the sun shines”.  It was rumored that after a few years of collecting this way, the barn and out buildings at his weekend farm in the La Prairie region south of Montreal were chock full of wonderful stuff.   Folk art was still a very strong market in 1997 so when the auction came, we broke open our piggy bank, and went loaded for bear.

mounted wooden model of a steamship,early 20th cent. – $750

The catalogue has an interesting two page introduction by Pierre which explains his interest.  It begins:

“The wellspring of folk art lies in the heart, not the wallet.  It is an audacious mix of techniques and materials; a multiplicity of themes and genres.  Folk artists are not artists in the conventional understanding of that word, rather they are ordinary folk without pretense or grand artistic ambitions. Through Quebec folk art, we can glimpse the geographical, historical, social, and religious character of the province, and in that sense, the heritage of Quebec folk art ranks along with its architectural and technological history.”  He goes on to discuss the many factions of folk art and concludes; “ I have collected folk art for over 30 years.  It’s a past time – even a passion – that gives me the opportunity to meet people who live anonymously but have many things to say, and they do speak, in their own way.  Many of these talented people are not considered artists.  They should be. Perhaps if they had lived in another place or another time, they would be considered such. There’s so much great folk art there that deserves a place of honour in all art collections.”

Well said Pierre, and the massive, well organized, two day auction saw many such pieces make their way into some important collections, while realizing some pretty phenomenal sale prices.

Lucien Legare horse, buggy and rider

We were able to buy a lot of stuff. We paid relatively big money for some things like this Lucien legare horse, buggy and driver at $750, but with so much on offer we were able to scoop up many bargains as well.  Like this Felicien Levesque tableau of the Titanic sinking at $625. Well under the money.

The Titanic by Felicien Levesque

Things started out modestly with maple sugar molds, and smaller carvings and accessories going in the expected $200 t0 $400 range, and then people started paying attention when lot 161, a painted whirligig Mountie which is illustrated on the cover went for $900. Soon after a tin rooster weather vane in old white paint realized $1,250.  Then lot 195, a knife with carved wooden handles in the form of a fleurde lis with a man’s head brought $1,900.  Things were moving.

There were a few gasps when a beautiful Nova Scotia document box from 1914 with interlocking hands, hearts, stars, and leaves went for $1,900. Followed shortly after by an oil on glass painting of tugboats on the Saint Lawrence attributed to Captain P. Carbonneau which saw $2,500. An Alcide St Germain hanging flying goose achieved $1,000, and the tone was set.  Here’s a couple of the highlights.  There were many more.

We went on to establish a relationship with Pierre after the auction and were invited to visit him and his wife at their farm.  We had a wonderful evening of laughter,  good conversation and an excellent meal, and we even enjoyed the adventure of climbing up the tiny ladder to the second floor guest room of the century old farm house.  I made sure my bladder was empty though because I didn’t fancy climbing down in the dark to find the washroom.  We realized that for as much was sold at the auction, he had twice as much great stuff still in his collection.   We even had a chance to say a quick hello to our lumberjack friend in his new residence by the pool.

large pulpit decor from Grosse Island where Irish immigrants were held in quarantine, made as a greetings from French Canadians. – $3,100

Remembering the first major unreserved auction of Canadian Folk Art – the Sutherland/ Amit Collection

As with most cultural expressions, the Interest in folk art waxes and wanes over the years.  In 1994 when the announcement for the auction of the Ann Sutherland and Zalman Amit folk art collection came out, the market was hot.  The couple’s reputation as collectors, both doctors who ran a busy behavior therapy and research clinic in Westmount Quebec, was well known primarily  by their many published articles on folk art. They owned a seven bedroom house in Nova Scotia which they filled with a large, eclectic collection of folk art, assembled on collecting trips to Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Blake McKendry wrote in the catalogue “recently, when Ann and Zalman added another piece of folk art, Zalman had to put it in the wine cellar, saying that not another piece could be stored even in the basement. Much soul searching was required before a solution could be rationalized. The collection had become too large and valuable to be managed by two busy psychologists who wished to move to a much smaller house.  On the other hand, there was no desire to suppress the shared desire to collect.  A solution evolved: disperse the entire collection by auction and divert the collecting urge to a different but related field – Canadian drawings.  The result is the first major unreserved auction of Canadian folk art in all its forms.”    Mr. McKendry went on to say about the collection, “ The entire collection is in the auction.  More than forty identified Canadian folk artists, sculptors and/ or painters are represented, some by several pieces. A large number of these works are by Nova Scotia folk artists and no doubt these will be highlighted by auctioneer Chris Huntingdon’s witty and insightful remarks.”  Lord knows, that be true.  All who attended will remember the high level of theatricality not only in Mr. Huntington’s lively commentary, but also in the evening gowns and over the elbow elegant gloves worn by  the lady presenters, complete with hand gestures, making the whole affair feel a bit like “the Price is Right”.

The auction was managed by Bill Dobson. It took place in two sessions at the Bowmanville sports complex, where the Bowmanville Spring Antiques and Folk Art sale takes place annually. 196 items were auctioned off Friday, January 21 at 6 p.m. , the remaining 336 items went up at 10 a.m on Saturday.

We were very excited to attend. We made a little family vacation out of it when our teen age daughter Cassandra who was beginning to develop an interest in folk art, decided to come along. With Chris Huntington’s commentary and all those competing collectors, it was bound to be an education. I remember as we walked into the complex to the preview Friday at 3, that she looked over everything and landed her attention on a stunning, large mechanized sculpture of a hawk by Ralph Boutilier.  Then she said, “ I know you will be wanting to be buying things for resale, but if you want to know my opinion, I would just spend whatever is necessary to buy that hawk, take it home, keep it; and forget about the rest of it.”  I took her point, but as she observed,  we were primarily interested in buying as much as we could to resell.  We created a list of all the pieces that we were  interested in, and after consideration noted our top bid in each case.   When the auction started at six, we were ready with catalogues in hand ready to write down all the prices realized. We noted that Item # 14, a painting of an Ox team by Maud Lewis sold for $550, which was about what I was paying for them at auction at Waddington’s  in those days.  An erotic drawing by Collins Eisenhauer (1898-1979 )item #18 , which we have owned once, and appeared again at this year’s Bowmanville, sold for a very reasonable $175.  A nice early Merganser (#37) went for $850.  Chip carved crooked knives went in a range from $100 to $500.   We bought a very nice watercolour and ink drawing of the the ship Mauritania by Albert Lohnes (1895-1977) which still hangs in our living room. Also a hooked rug of confronting roosters and  three different roosters by different artist.  We were quite pleased with our take that first night, but knew that the bulk of what we wanted would be offered on Saturday.

Saturday morning the place was packed. Things started slowly with a lot of glass and decorative items.  You know that a Limoges dinner service for eight, nine pieces per setting is in the wrong place when it only brings $150.  People were there to buy folk art and early furniture. It started to get exciting when some early Quebec carvings by the likes of Louis Jobin (1845-1928) started to bring in four figures.  Then the  Boutilier hawk (#317) hammered down at $2,750.  We were the underbidder much to Cassandra’s disappointment, and yes, our almost immediate regret.  I like to say when people are himming and hawing about buying a piece, “You’ll never regret what you buy.  You only think about the pieces you let slip away.”  This hawk is a perfect example. 

Then we hit #343, a carved figure of a youth, polychromed and articulated, mid 19th century. Found in Nova Scotia.  A few jaws dropped when it realized $9,000. Some of the furniture was strong. A painted and paneled Wilno box (#357) went for $6,500. A hooked rug of a woman on horseback (#339) realized $3,400.  A continuous Windsor armchair (#353) saw $2,750.

And so it progressed, slowly. Very slowly.   Chris Huntington’s dialogue although informative and entertaining initially, eventually started to draw things out to the point where most were wishing for a more conventional, let’s get it done style of auctioneering.  Eventually, item # 384 arrived.  A large 205 x 143 cm painting described as a fisherman’s village by the legendary Lorne Reid (1954-1992). Our second most coveted item after the Boutilier hawk, and we won it at $850.  A lot more than we had hoped to pay, but it was ours.   We owned it for several years and loved it in spite of the fact  it was not an “easy’ subject to live with. What appears to be a starving man staring at a fish skeleton is not all that cheerful. There is a bigger story there. One which I will go into another time.

After a couple of more small purchases we packed it in and left for home, about 4 in the afternoon if I remember correctly. There was still about another 100 items to be offered, but we had spent a whack of money, bought a lot of stuff, and were grateful for the experience.  I still wake up occasionally thinking about that mechanical hawk.  What a thing that is.  I wish it were mine.

Collecting Japanese Biscuit Barrels

Are some people born collectors and others not?  I tend to think so.  I love to surround myself with beautiful  objects, and if I was asked to name what I collect I would generalize and say art,  but I am not a collector at heart.  I have never made a conscious decision to collect any one thing in particular, and then motivated myself to seek only that to build a collection.   My wife Jeanine is a true collector.  She’s wired that way. 

When we first started attending auctions, seeking to buy some inexpensive but interesting furnishings for our new home, Jeanine decided to collect enamelware, focusing on blue and white.  Over about a six year period this was her focus.  What drove her to get out early in the morning to go to the yards sales, shops and auctions. In the early 80’s we even planed a one week, two-lane blacktop holiday, where we drove across the Eastern United States looking for unusual blue and white pieces to add to her growing collection.   It was great fun, and exciting when we would encounter something special, and it provided us an excellent excuse for just getting out there and experiencing other places, and people. This was before we had a credit card.  We just took a chunk of money, drove wherever the wind took us in an easterly direction and when we were approximately half through the pile, we turned around and headed back home.  At least that was the concept.  When we hit the half way mark we were getting pretty close to the Eastern Seaboard so we decided to keep going to put a toe in the sea, and then drive directly home.  As it happened we popped into an Antique store on the coast in Maine as our last stop before the retreat,  and met a friendly, and trusting gentleman who had a big sign above his desk “Ask me about my motel”, so I said “o.k. I’ll bite, what about your hotel?” “Well you should stay there.  It’s right on the beach and it’s clean and inexpensive.”  “Sounds great, but we’re almost out of money so we will have to check it out next time.”  “Do you have a cheque?” Well yes, but would you want to accept an out of country cheque?”  “Why not? I can tell you are decent people.”  So we wrote a cheque for a couple more night’s accommodation.  He even tacked on a bit extra for some spending money.  We had a wonderful time there.  I remember it as a golden time, walking along the coast, and enjoying the beach with the then (probably) four year old Cassandra.  Eating clam strips in a little joint down on the beach.  Not a care in the world.  Then we packed up, said our good-byes to our new friend, and drove straight home in a marathon 20 hour drive. 

The natural evolution of collecting is to initially to buy widely, and of various conditions.  As a collection develops and you’ve got all the common stuff it takes longer to come across the rare  things and eventually the space allotted for your collection fills, and then if you are truly motivated to collect, you might move on to find something else interesting, and start the process all over again.

“Belleek” pattern Japanese biscuit barrel

This happened to Jeanine after about six years of collecting the blue and white enamel.  One day she decided that was it, she had enough.  She would sell off the enamelware,  and start again. Her next collection would be ceramic Japanese biscuit barrels. What interested her was that after WW2 the Japanese began to produce the then popular biscuit barrel inexpensively in many different styles, often imitating established pottery forms of Europe, and England along with some of their own culture.  They were not too large and fun to see gathered together in a hanging cupboard. Also, she was aware there were lots of them out there, and they were inexpensive to buy.  She set her objective at collecting 100 barrels of different styles.  It took her 20 years to accomplish this, but when she hit about 135 barrels about the year 2000 that was it.   We now have about twenty of her favourites, and the rest have found new homes.

Donatello pattern. First barrel bought from Marcel Gosselin

Her first buy was from our old friend, the Quebec picker, Marcel Gosselin.  This “Donatello” themed pot which she bought for five dollars.   She went on to usually pay from $25 to $45 for most.  The highest she paid was $145 for an elaborate, larger pot of Chinese design.  That was towards the end of her collecting about 2000. Then as before, one day she made the decision that that was it.  No more biscuit barrels.   We talked about photographing all one hundred pieces before she sold the collection with the idea of releasing a little coffee table book on the subject, but like so many good ideas, it came and went.  Still, we had great fun making the collection, and looking at them for all those years.

Japanese design with rows and rows of tiny faces

Our Encounter with the Golden Dog

Jeanine’s interest in, and knowledge of French pottery grew over the years as she bought and sold it at the shows and on e-bay.   She was mostly dealing in Quimper, as that was a hot ticket item at that time, but she was interested in all the pottery producing regions of France.

In our Quebec travels  she learned of a French pottery that was made specifically for the Quebec market with Quebec themes , marked on the bottom – C A.  It was quite possibly brought over for the 300th anniversary of Quebec in 1908, and most likely made by Alcide Chaumeil who operated out of Paris, but the jury is still out.  Many pieces include crests and mottos such as “Je me Souviens”, and some even have representations of the “Golden Dog” which is a very popular image in Quebec.

The golden dog is an image of a yellow dog lying down with a bone in it’s paws. The verse under the picture is as follows  “Je Suis un chien qui ronge lo.  En le roneant je prend mon repos. Un tems viendra qui n’est ps venu, que je mordray qui m’aura mordu.”  In English, “I am a dog who chews the bone.  While chewing I take my rest. A time will come which is not yet come, when I will bite the one who has bitten me.”

You can see the original plaque today over the main door of the Quebec General Post Office.  It had been moved there when it’s original residence was torn down. This was the 1736 residence of a  Dr. Roussell.  There are plenty of theories, the most popular being that it is likely referring to disputes and threats of revenge between the doctor and certain town officials, but you can see why it has a certain resonance with all Quebecers. In fact the original statue of the golden dog, circa 1650,  resides in Penzenas in southern France on the garden gate of a M. Delbousquet’s estate. It turns out Roussell originally came from this area, and probably he duplicated it as best he could recall as a simple remembrance of his native land.  This might explain why the words on the Canadian plaque are somewhat different than the original. It is most likely is a case of poor memory.

The factory also produced decorative items featuring emblems of the royal chateaus of the Loire valley for the tourist trade, and busts of royal figures, etc.

Years passed and in spite of our constant search, we found only a couple of C A pieces, and they were not of the Quebec theme.  We started to think that we would only see them in pictures.  Then one day we got a lead from a fellow dealer.  He knew of a lady in Kingston who had several pieces of the Quebec themed CA pottery she wanted to sell, and he was only interested in her Canadiana.  Great lead.  As it happened we would be going through Kingston in a couple of weeks, on our way to do the Eastman Quebec show, and wouldn’t it be great to turn up at one of Quebec’s premier shows with some extremely rare Quebec themed pottery. 

We made the call, and the very gracious lady on the other end of the line said she would be happy to accommodate us.  She sounded interesting. Her name was “Bunny”.  We arrived at her place on time and went straight into the dining room where, sure enough, the table was covered with several pieces of C A pottery.  Large serving bowls and plates with emblems and crests, salad servers, and there among them a plate with the famous “Golden Dog”.  There was also a nice little selection of Quimper and other French pottery, but of course our eyes were stuck on the golden dog.  “So Bunny it works best if you can just tell us if you have a figure in mind, and we will see if we can agree.”  Bunny thought for a couple of minutes and explained that she had bought most of the pieces years ago for not much money, but that she watches the Antiques Road Show so she knows these things have gone up, and then she hit Jeanine with what she thought was a big figure.  Jeanine knew she was low because she was unaware of the extra value of the rare pieces so she “talked her up” by $500.   Bunny was delighted, and we were happy because we would do well, and hadn’t stolen from her.  We went on to sell the entire collection within 15 minutes of the show opening to a collector who was over the top happy to have it.  Happy ending all around.

some of the C A pottery we brought to the Eastman, Quebec show

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

Bob MacDonald and the fantasy cities

I can’t remember how we met Bob MacDonald.  It’s most likely that he found us.  Bob was a full time antique picker who would pull in unexpectedly from time to time in whatever old wreck of a car he happened to be driving.  I don’t think he ever paid over $100 for a car, and he spent all his time in them, so they didn’t last long.  Bob was the type of character that kept me interested in this antique business, come lifestyle.

Bob was charming, intelligent, well read, and knowledgeable in the arts, and literature; but he also liked the bottle, and survived on almost nothing, occasionally being reduced to living in his car.  When he came by, we would make sure he got some food in him, along with his beloved black coffee.

Bob spent all of his time following up leads, and beating the bushes for valuable artwork and rare books.  He was good at it and would occasionally score big time. Then eventually the money would be gone and he may have to suffer through a fallow period.  Those where the ropes. When he found something in folk art, like a Maud Lewis painting or the like he would come to see us.  Sometimes to convince us to put some money up front, so he could actually purchase the object he had found.  We trusted Bob, and he always delivered. 

I was working in the garden on a fine summer day in the late eighties when Bob came roaring up the driveway, a big smile on his face, and a car full of what appeared to be aquariums. On closer inspection I could see that they were hand-made display boxes with plexiglass on the top and front.   There was a half dozen on the back seat and two beside him on the passenger seat. He popped the trunk and there were another four large ones in there.  “You’ll never guess what I’m bring you today”.  He could hardly contain himself.  “ I was up in Goderich and stopped in to the Chinese restaurant there for some lunch.  I got talking to the owners and came around to telling them I was looking for art and books, and the young woman there said “Well, I don’t know if you will consider them art, but my father when he wasn’t busy cooking would get out a key-hole saw, and spend hours making these fantasy city landscapes.  Would you like to see them?”  Of course he was delighted to look.  There in the back storage room were dozens of these boxes of various size and configuration. Every one similar with many layers of carefully cut out and painted balsa wood walls, towers, balconies; and courtyards adorned with little plastic trees and flowers. Most of them had a boarder of mini Christmas lights around the front, and occasionally there would be a plastic figure of a ballerina, or chicken, or duck perched atop a column making it appear to be  a giant statue in the courtyard.  The overall effect was mesmerizing.  I know Bob would play it cool, but I bet his eyes were popping out.  She explained that for a time her father would display them in the front window and occasionally someone would buy one, but eventually he became discouraged.  The family had all kept their favorites, and so when Bob expressed interest, they sold the rest of them to him for a song.  Really just wanting to find them a good home and free up the storage space I suppose.  Bob drove directly to us.

What can I tell you.  Jeanine and I both really liked them and felt they were strong examples of original folk art from a vivid imagination. Perhaps one looking nostalgically back on a childhood spent in China, although a China of the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” variety.  We felt and would continue to argue that they contained magic .   We weren’t sure if anyone would feel the same and we now had a dozen of them.  It’s the question you ask yourself when you invest your hard earned money in something that most people would find clearly crazy.  If you see it, and can recognize it, I think you are under some obligation to act.  Otherwise, why are you a folk art dealer, and not working at the bank. Or something else that rewards you with a pension, benefits and a regular “Johnny Paycheck”. 

We took them to a few Ontario shows where they were pretty much ignored, or met with a polite curiosity, or in some cases they produced downright hostility.   What is it about some folk art which actually makes people angry? I think it’s a combination of seeing something you revile with a big price tag.  It makes one question the value of money, which can lead to questioning one’s values in general, which can lead to all sorts of problems.  In any case, it soon looked like we would be owning them for a long while to come.  We didn’t have a lot of money wrapped up in them as Bob had passed them on to us very reasonably so we were happy enough to set them all up in  the showroom and plug them all in.  Then turn out the lights and enjoy  the feeling of being transported.  An exciting Friday evening out on the ranch.

Fortunately, the next January we found ourselves doing a show in New York city, and within ten moments of opening a man came rushing up to us needing to know everything about them.  He listened to the story and we soon settled on a price for all of them with the understanding that if any more were to become available he had first dibs.  Also, we were to find out anything more that we could about the artist.  Bob died not too long after, and we didn’t get a chance to ask him to go back.  Our lifestyle was such that I couldn’t take the time to drive to Goderich to see what I could find out, but it’s something I still think about from time to time. The trails pretty cold at this point.