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.

wedding

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

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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

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”

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.

In appreciation of Nova Scotia artist Lorne Reid

It is rare, but sometimes you develop a deep relationship with an artist the first time you encounter their work. It’s like falling in love.  Immediately, a lot of your buttons are being pushed and it affects you personally.  It was like that for me with Nova Scotia’s Lorne Reid.  When we attended the Sutherland/ Amit auction in 1994 I was immediately taken by three of his works being offered there.  I had never seen his work. The first and most dramatic was a 5 1/2 foot high sculpture of a mother holding a baby, painted in a pointillist style. Amazing work. Then I found a 11’ x 14” pointillist painting of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.  I loved it because it was amusing and in your face.  Finally, and for me the most appealing there was a 6’x 3’ oil on plywood painting of a man eating a fish.  Absolutely haunting and powerful image. Not at all pretty. Actually  quite unsettling and not a favorite of my wife or daughter who were with me, but a painting that spoke to me directly.  I was fortunate in that most people sided with my Jeanine and Cassandra’s opinion,  so I was able to get it at a bargain price.  They were fine with the thought that it would go into our collection of stock for resale but they were not so happy when we got home and I hung it above the living room couch. No matter where you sat in the room he was staring at you.  His haunted look and the fish skeleton in front of him on the table suggest a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  It is not a cheerful painting.  I took a lot of heat for a few days but the controversy died down.  Before long he became a member of the family and is in the background of many family Christmas pictures.  I never grew tired looking at it.

Then in 1995, my stepson Brodie who is a musician and member of the excellent Canadian band the Corndogs, asked me if they might use the image for there up-coming CD.  I agreed to if I could get the permission of the artist’s mother, who was handling the estate. I got her number and called her out of the blue, as it were. What a lovely woman. I was nervous, but she was so immediately welcoming and friendly that my concerns quickly left me and we had a wonderful, and long conversation about Lorne. She was all too happy to give permission.  The CD was released on Immune Records in England and did very well there, but never found a Canadian distributer. Still, I think it is a masterful work and I am happy that the painting has become associated with it.  I think you can still buy it on CD Baby or one of those sites.  The juxtaposition of the image with the phrase “love is all” seems appropriate to what I know of Lorne Reid. 

He was a searcher. He hitch-hiked around North America for 15 years, and then went back to Nova Scotia and became a dedicated artist.  He painted and sculpted until his tragic early death by cancer at the age of 37.

Lorne dedicated himself to his work and the work of other local artists.  In 1989, along with artist David Stephens and Chris Huntington he was instrumental in creating The Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival and Picnic.  He is considered by many to be one of the most important and significant artists to come out of Nova Scotia. He was a member of what some refer to as the “new wave” of Nova Scotia folk artists. Younger artists who were influenced by the originals such as Sid Howard,  and then took the energy and style and made it their own.

It was difficult to find much information on Lorne Reid or to see many of his works publicly displayed until in 2010, when Audrey Sandford of the excellent Black Sheep Gallery of West Jeddore Village, Nova Scotia organized and executed a retrospective on his work in her gallery from July 27-August 29. She accompanied the exhibition with an  excellent 6 page catalogue which they make available on their website.  Here is a link  http://www.blacksheepart.com/lornereid1.html

Fellow artist and close friend David Stephens estimates that Lorne did fewer than 100 small folk art paintings and perhaps a dozen larger paintings during his short career.  He remains as one of my favorites, and I hadn’t thought about him much until this morning when  I saw a clipping from the Upper Canadian coverage of the 2004 Bowmanville show that Adrian Tinline posted in the Canadiana Antiques Facebook group.  There it is. “Man eating a fish” which sold the opening night.  I can’t say that what I feel is regret.  I owned it for ten years and sold it to a good collection, but it still makes me feel a little sad, and just a bit haunted.

Charlie Tanner 1904-1982

There are certain folk artists who’s work is so personalized, and exhibits such a distinct style, that once seen, you can recognize the work from across a room.  Charlie Tanner is just such an artist.  I loved his work the first time I laid eyes on it, and he has been one of my favourite folk artists ever since.

In Chris Huntington’s excellent essay published in the booklet that accompanied the 1984 retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, he writes

 “Stonehurst is a small fishing village that located itself about 200 years ago amidst the barren, rocky, coastal out-reaches about ten miles south of Lunenburg. Stonehurst is that much closer to the inshore fishing grounds so that, in spite of it’s inhospitable geology, it attracted the Germanic farmer-fisherman pushing out fom the hills of Lunenburg. Today every other mailbox proclaims that a Tanner is it’s owner. On February 15, 1904, another Tanner was born there and his name was Charles Enos. “We were common people them days. Everyone was.” Charlie spoke with the heavy Lunenburg-Dutch accent that is still often heard in those parts today. He recalled “Children were growed up before they had any age to them. They never had a chance to go to school. You had to start work when you were so young that you never really had much chance to develop any interests other than fishing”. One of 12 children Charlie started cod lining as part of the family livelihood when he was “eight, ten maybe nine”.  By 13 like other his age, his father took him to Lunenburg and put him on a schooner for the Grand Banks, where he earned $30.00 a month as a deck hand until he was 15, at which time he was considered a grown man. Charlie then took his place at the bow of one of the dozen dories that put out each dawn and afternoon to set trawl for codfish. There he labored under tutelage of an older, experienced fisherman as a part of a two man team, for which Charlie earned a share of the schooner’s take.  Between the long voyages to the banks, like other fishermen, Charlie mended gear, built boats, repaired houses, farmed, chipped out decoys and took them gunning, as he had ever since he was big enough to carry a gun. – “That was none too big either”.

After a dozen years or so of salt-banking Charlie contributed to the bootleg industry by schoonering cases of liquor from St. Pierre to outside the twelve mile boundary off of Block Island, New York, where the crew would wait for power boats evading the Feds to steal through the darkness to relieve the cargo. “That was good fun,” Charlie said. At the same time Charlie put his name in as a labourer at the New Mersey Plant. Though the job never materialized, he bought a boat and, between rum-running trips took up life as an inshore out of Mersey point near Liverpool. Stonehurst hadn’t been big enough for all those Tanners so Charlie settled into a forty year period of either fishing alone, or with one partner, in his 40 foot Cape Islander, jigging Cod, seining herring or mackerel, the latter of which was used to bait lobster traps during those seasons. ”Them times there was no money. When you went all  day out and got 2,000 pounds of fish and made $25 or $30 to fead the two of you.” The take was one cent a pound for cod and 40 cents for lobster. Charlie said he took by handline a much as 3,000 pounds of cod by himself in one day. It may have been a tough haul but it was what Charlie knew.  His hands after a life of such toil were an amazing testament to the life they lived. Work was like breathing; it was second nature. “Fishing.  It’s a damn habit, that’s all it is,” he said looking back. His wife Helen offered “He’s just an old alt, that’s all he is.” But of course that is not all that Charlie was, and this exhibition celebrates the other part of his life, for which he will ultimately be remembered; that is, the roughly eight years he spent making small carved and painted figures of living things.”

Charlie Tanner died in 1982. Two years after his death, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia honoured him with an exhibition of his work.

Reference: Charlie Tanner Retrospective, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1984. Folk Art of Nova Scotia, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia,