Discovering the work of Essex County folk artist, George June

In the late fall of 2013 I was contracted by the Windsor Community Museum to produce documentation and an appraisal of a large collection of folk art by an Essex County man named George June.

The museum put the work on display for a couple of months, and I believe much of it is still available for viewing.  It is interesting work. Much of it quite simple, but elegant in line and form.  Mr. June created jewelry, canes, costumes, furniture, carvings of animals, people , and objects, along with carved and assembled vignettes of everyday rural life.  All with fine attention to detail.  Culminating in two extraordinary marquetry tables.

Here’s his bio.

George Forester June

1867 – 1944

George Forester June lived in Cottam, Ontario, a small town in Essex County.  A retired farmer, he was afflicted with sciatic rheumatism in 1929 from which he only partially recovered.  Used to working with his hands and keeping busy, he was in search of a hobby.

At his cottage near Lake Couchiching he first whittled a cedar cane.  It was the beginning of a hobby that would last the rest of his life.  He continued his hobby at his home in Cottam.  While his wife, Elizabeth, worked on her hooked rugs, he would shape wood pieces into works of art.

Soon these items became an attraction for residents and visitors to Cottam.  He built a log cabin to house the pieces and invited people in to view them.  Residents and family members recall that the large front room was filled with carvings he had made.

Upon his death in 1944, Mr. June’s collection of carvings and his log cabin were passed onto his grandson George H. Coote.

While raising a young family, George H. and his wife Mary began to look for a more permanent home for the collection.  They approached local Museums in their own area without success.

At the same time Huron County Museum founder, J. H. Neill, was collecting items to expand his own collection.  Mr. Neill approached the family and in 1956 Mr. June’s collection was loaned to the Huron County Museum.  In 1986 the collection of folk art was officially donated by George H. Coote.

 

Here is a description of the tables.

rooster table

Rooster Table

Made of walnut and white pine, this tabletop is made of 6000 pieces of 1/4 inch wood cubes.  These types of wood were chosen because they have little shrinkage and would therefore last a greater length of time.  The pattern was conceived by Mr. June and then drawn out on paper.  It took approximately 3 months to carve and lay the pieces.

dogs and dragons table

Dogs & Dragons Table

Mr. June spent approximately 6 months creating this inlaid table.  It is made from 52,600 cubes of walnut and white pine which are laid onto an oak tabletop.

If you get to the Windsor area, I highly recommend stopping by and seeing this work.  They also have quite a bit of supporting information like his old scrap book.  I don’t know how much of the work is easily accessible but I would think if you contacted them beforehand and explained your interest, they would be helpful. I enjoyed my time there, and their hospitality.  I gave a folk art lecture one night and was delighted to meet the local collectors. They are a nice bunch of folks.

Documenting collections is one of my favourite activities because it gives me a chance to look closely at the work, and get to know something about the artist.   I enjoyed getting to know the work of Mr. June, and it is satisfying that it has been preserved in perpetuity by the museum for future generations to experience.

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This is all – the work of Steve Sutch

We first encountered the works of Steve Sutch in the late 1980’s at the tobacco museum in Delhi, Ontario.  It came as a total surprise.  Although we lived nearby we had never visited the museum as we were busy setting up house, and when we finally got to it one sunny summer afternoon we were amazed to find a large display of delightful carved/constructed work by this self-taught local artist. It was a show/sale and sadly for us, most of the pieces had already been bought.  It was easy to see why considering the quality and charm of the pieces presented, all at relatively low prices.  We bought everything that was left.

His sense of humour and invention was evident in all of the works presented, but the show did not include any drawings.  Over the next few years we occasionally ran across another construction, but it wasn’t until 1995 when we bought Barbara Brown’s collection that we were delighted to discover a package of about thirty Steve Sutch drawings. His constructions, and occasional piece of original furniture are good, but his drawings are amazing.

Steve Sutch’s Hungarian parents emigrated to Canada in 1905, and homesteaded in Saskatchewan where Steve was born in 1907, near Regina. He also homesteaded in that province, near Spiritwood, where he made a living working in logging camps and sawmills.

In 1937 he moved to Ontario, eventually settling down in Brantford where he remained until his death in 1992. He found employment in various areas of industry and agriculture, working on the railroad, factories, and tobacco fields. It is only after he retired from his very laborious life, raising two sons and three daughters, that he took up carving and drawing.

table designed and made by Steve Sutch

As stated, Steve Sutch did not limit himself to the carving and painting of wood. Most of his sculptures incorporate some mixed media feature, such as clothes made of actual pieces of fabric, and yarn used for hair. His pieces are constructed as much as carved. In his last few years Steve Sutch concentrated more on his drawings, which are mostly crayon and markers on the back of cereal boxes, or any scrap of paper or cardboard available. It is in the drawings that he let his imagination run wild, very often writing captions to explain the contents. These captions, if she judged too daring, were erased by his wife. She missed a few. 

We framed and took the drawings we bought from Barbara to the April Bowmanville show, and the following January to the Outsider Art Fair in New York. They sold like hot cakes and were bought by many serious collectors.  This confirmed our belief that Sutch was a top drawer artist of the cartoon persuasion.  His drawings are edgy, sometimes outrageous and even at times profound. They all contain humour and insight.  A lot of them deal with fate, and the food chain. “Make all chicken’s happy, eat pork” etc.  In the May/June 1992c edition of the Upper Canadian, folk art collector and scholar Michael J Hennigan wrote an excellent and insightful four page essay on Sutch’s drawings. If I can gain permission to do so,I will post it here in a future blog. 

Steve Sutch’s work demonstrates a very strongly individualistic interpretation of a full life’s experience; a commentary on relevant current events (such as portraits of political figures), as well as imaginative tellings of fantastic and sometimes wicked or naughty stories. Steve Sutch approached his work with a great sense of humour which permeates every piece.  I will close by reproducing a short autobiography written in his own hand which Barbara Brown had the insight to ask him to produce in 1989, shortly before his death in 1992.    As Steve says there, “This is all.”

A World populated with animals – The work of Wilfred Richard and his family sculptors

Damase and family in front of their house about 1910

Bernard Genest’s  excellent 109 page booklet on the four generations of the Richard family carvers, published in 1986 by the Museum of Civilization begins with a quote from the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine -“Inanimate objects do you have a soul which attaches itself to our soul and forces it to love”.  A quote which applies in spades to the work of the Richard family.

a bear by Damase Richard,

The Richard family has lived in Quebec since Pierre Richard arrived from France in 1670. Six generations later Damase Richard was born in 1852.  Although he lived on a farm, Damase was not interested in farming.  He was interested in art, so as a young man he left home to seek work as an artist.  His natural talents landed him a job painting carriages, first in Quebec city and then in the U.S., and eventually in Montreal. Then he got a job with a furniture manufacturer carving and painting decorations on the finer pieces of furniture.  It was during this time, about 1871, that he met and was influenced by master carver, Louis Jobin.  He continued for about ten years before buying a piece of  wooded land near Saint-Ubalde de Portneuf. It was ten years before he had cleared the land and built a house.  At 39, in 1891 he married Elmire Frenette, and they went on to produce seven children.  As stated, Damase was not a farmer by nature so when his oldest son Wilfred became twelve he passed much of the responsibly of the day to day farm work on to Wilfred and he began to sculpt seriously.  He started with pipes, sugar molds, ashtrays and other small items that he could sell easily.  One of his sculpted pipes would sell for 60 cents, about ten cents more than a regular one.  He did not often repeat a pattern, preferring to invent designs.  He also produced toys for the children, and crucifixes and other religious articles for family members.

He used very few tools. Three gouges, two pocket knives, a plane and an axe.  He was very talented and precise. After a while he became interested in sculpting the animals and birds he saw around him.  He not only carved them, but unheard of at the time, painted them in polychrome colours. At this time there really wasn’t a market for these pieces, but he continued to produce them to satisfy his creative urge.  Of course as is often the case, nowadays  these are his most sought after and valuable pieces.  He was prolific and carried on until his  death at the age of seventy in 1922.

Of Damase’s seven children, three became carvers. Wilfred, Alfred and Joseph all carved animals and birds as their father had before them, but only Wilfred sold his work. Although he was smart, and quick to learn Wilfred only got about five years of schooling due to his family obligation. But he seemed to readily accept this destiny, and thereafter rarely left the family property.

horse by Wilfred Richard

Like his father, Wilfred showed a natural affinity to carving.  He became his father’s apprentice at an early age and was soon producing work alongside his father during the long winter months when he was not busy with farm work. He stated that he was never really interested in commercializing his work, and would actually discourage people from coming to buy.“Me. I’m not proud. When the pride was passed out I was not there. I’ll say one thing though that pride in the work has a good place. I have always been proud of this. but to dress me up fancy, to go to a formal service, or that kind of business,  I would go dressed as I am now. It would do me nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m like that. “

owl by Wilfred Richard

Wilfred married Marie Darveau, and they lived their lives together in the home Damase had built. They had fifteen children, but only six survived, and of these six, three have become carvers – Marie Jeanne, Fernand, and Maurice.  Marie Jeanne married Lucien Lavallee, and they produced two sons, Paul-Emile and Dominique who also became carvers, and carry on the tradition to this day.

Wilfred Richard was born in 1894 and he died in 1996.

Wilfred Richard in his kitchen

The graphic appeal of old games boards

Quebec game board, 2nd quarter, 20th cent. offered by Martin Osler on the Collectivator site

The board game called “Checkers” in North America and “Draughts” (pronounced as “drafts”) in Europe is one of the oldest games known to man. The history of checkers can be traced to the very cradle of civilization, where vestiges of the earliest form of the game was unearthed in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq.

Draughts (British English), or checkers (American English) is a group of strategy board games for two players which involve diagonal moves of uniform game pieces and mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces.

Octagonal sided game board, late 19th cent.,Waterloo, Ontario, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

The most popular forms are English draughts, also called American checkers, is played on an 8×8 checkerboard; Russian draughts, also played on an 8×8; and international draughts, played on a 10×10 board. There are many other variants played on 8×8 and 12×12 boards. Canadian checkers and Singaporean/Malaysian checkers (also locally known as dum) are played on a 12×12 board.  I have found that what is referred to as Canadian checkers, might better be called Quebec, or French Canadian checkers, because after years of buying and selling both 8, 10 and 12 square variations of the board, I have found that it is pretty much accepted that if a board has 12 squares across it is from French Quebec.  With 8 or 10 spaces, it is assumed to be Ontario or other “English” culturally based province.  How did this variation get started? Maybe folks in Quebec just liked a bit longer game.  After all, the winters are cold in Quebec so what’s the rush to get outdoors.

Circa 1820, Lunenburg Cty, Nova Scotia Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 216 of Canadian folk art to 1950, by John A. Fleming, and Micheal J. Rowan.

Chess may be considered the game of kings, but Pachisi is the game of emperors. Long before the American game of Parcheesi was first played in the late 1860s in North America, Pachisi, the Royal Game of India, had made its way around the world.

You won’t find nearly as many parcheesi boards out there, which illustrates that many more people went for the simpler game of checkers, but the boards are particularly sought after for their more complex graphic pattern.  And let’s face it, not a lot of people are buying old game boards to occupy their time on a Friday night.  For the most part, People buy old game boards to put them up on the wall as a graphic focus.  And who can blame them.  A checker board  is  inherently interesting.  We like looking at contrasting squares.   The orderly rows of squares suggest discipline, and harmony.  It’s peaceful and it draws the eye.

Quebec, mid 19th century Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 40 of the Price’s book “Twas ever thus”

I have bought and sold many game boards over the years although we have never added one to our collection.  I’ve found many that attracted me, but I think the reason I am happy to appreciate them and then find them a good home is because we like paintings so much that we want to donate all our wall space to them.  It’s the same reason we don’t collect old advertising.  I love looking at a great old sign, and some of it is as exciting visually  as a good painting, but they rarely turn my crank like a good painting will.  It’s true that some boards and ads do transcend into the realm of fine art, but they are few and far between, and such a thing has never fallen into my hands.

late 19th cent checkers board, Waterloo, Ont, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

Unlike most antique furniture or accessories, a game board can fit into many room décors be it traditional, or modern because of it’s graphic nature.   They also look fabulous grouped together.  We have friends with about 14 game boards placed carefully  over a very tall and wide wall in their living room and the overall effect is breath taking.   They are all different, while also being similar in that they all have the graphic checkerboard as the main component.  Some are primitive.  Some refined.  They all say something about who made them.  And of course patina can be a large factor.  The wear on some old game boards can beautifully tell the story of usage and age.  You are struck visually with the pattern, and at the back of your head you can’t help thinking about all the happy hours spent talking and playing the game together by countless individuals over the years.  You think about how when these boards were being used regularly, there were no game boys, television, or U-Tube to occupy your “down” time.  You could read when you wanted to be solitary, or if you wanted to have some entertainment and commute with others you would  find the local checkers or parcheesi game.  Or I suppose if you wanted a bit more of an intellectual work out you may play chess.  You still needed the board.

Because gameboards offer many interesting variations on a similar theme they are a natural and fun thing to collect.  I love looking at them.   If only we had more wall space.

Circa 1880 Quebec Parcheesi board, offer on Collectivator by Croyden House.

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.

Antiques I love, and why I love them – part 2, a tiny tin fiddle

 A friend and fellow folk art enthusiast came by yesterday, and while we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee the conversation lead to an exchange questioning what is it about certain objects that make us like them more than other objects?   Any conversation about personal aesthetics is at best subjective, and at times downright obscure, but it is better than talking about the weather.  So as an attempt to get down to defining the source of the desire to possess I asked my friend, “Hypothetically, If I were to let you take home one item from our collection that you can see from where you currently sit , What would it be”.  After a pause and some reflection he said, “I would take that tiny fiddle hanging on the wall over there”. This surprised me, because we have a lot of flashier, obviously more expensive items around, but yet I understood, and might likely to have answered in the same way.

It is unclear if this 18” long, 4 string fiddle made from an old herring tin and carved wood was ever meant to be played, but my guess is it was playable when it was made.  When I study it, I imagine that it may have been created as a gift to a child to encourage musicianship, but it is equally possible that it was created as a “gag” instrument to be pulled out for surprise at a strategic moment in a performance.  Maybe the guy or gal just wanted to make something to put on the wall, or to give as a gift.  It’s fun to think about, but in the end you get back to the object. 

I remember finding it under a big pile of junk in Alan Chauvette’s  pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec back in the early eighties.  Alan was standing nearby writing down what we were buying and the prices.  I held it up and said “how much for this”  Alan glanced up and said “$45”.  “O.K. write it down”.  I don’t think he looked closely, or maybe he doesn’t share my aesthetic because I felt it was a steal.  But then again I have come to realize that things of great esthetic value do not always get recognized monetarily.

Some people, or I would imagine many people would think that even $45 is too much for a rusty old tin can fiddle, but they are different from me.  I love the thing.  I brought it home from Quebec.  I hung it on the wall, and to quote the late, great Charlton Heston, “ to get it, you will have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands. “ So what is it?  Obviously, the colour and untouched patina are superb, and the form and hand carved neck and machine heads are beautifully executed in a functional, yet slightly primitive sort of way.  The “F” holes are beautifully cut out, and the construction of tin, wire, and wood is wonderful.  All these elements hit  the pleasure buttons in my  brain, but I think it Is the fact of the herring tin body that puts me over the top.  I looked for a long while half consciously wondering how they got the herrings out of the tin which looks original and undisturbed save for the “F” holes, before I investigated and saw that there is a neat row of nails around the bottom attaching it back to the sides.  Great care was taken to create this.  A real labor of love. I love the way it is, but when I imagine it with it’s bridge intact, and the other three strings, I wonder what type of sound it would have made.  One would assume, tinny.

I found my “sunshine” tractor in a little shop north of London, Ontario a long time ago.  Again it was an item which went straight to my heart, and as I purchased it I knew it was something for me.  Something I would never want to give up.  I’ve bought and sold hundreds of hand-made toys, many more impressive in construction and scale, and yet it is this tractor which continues to sit in a glazed cupboard overlooking my work desk.   I love it’s construction and form and colour, but the element that takes it into my top drawer is the little “sunshine” sign.  I’m not an armchair psychiatrist per say, but it doesn’t take Freud to understand that my love probably has a direct route back to my mother singing me “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” while I lay sick in bed with the measles at the age of ten.  That song is such a bittersweet tour de force isn’t it?  I get emotional just thinking about it.

 

Lastly, we come to “Old 99” (see 99 painted on the door). To be honest I don’t love it nearly as much as I love the tin fiddle or “Sunshine”, but I do love the fact that someone with welding ability, probably a professional welder, took the time and effort to make his or her child an indestructible toy locomotive, with a space at the back to put an engineer.  Is that an old bullet used to make the smokestack?  I hope not.  The poor kid could blow up.

Les Patenteux du Quebec, the “bible” of Quebec folk art

In 1972 three young Quebecoise, Louise de Grosbois, Raymonde Lamothe, and Lise Nantel began research on Les Patenteux du Quebec.  Patenteux is an idiomatic Quebec word that roughly translates into Inventor or Creator.  The book was published by in 1978 with assistance from the Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and The Canada Arts Council.  For six years, the women sought out “Patenteux” across Quebec, documenting their words, locations and creations for posterity and to as they suggest in the introduction,  to be a “monument to our culture”.  You know how certain books become “the Bible” of a subject? Well this is “the Bible” of Quebec folk art.  A work of great importance now, and in the future for anyone interested in understanding and appreciating Quebec culture.

In the introduction they state, “We started research in 1972 at a moment when our culture interest was to return to the source, born from a feeling of sharp Nationalism which succeeded a long period when we were easily dazzled by everything foreign. We perceived that the Quebecois people, who had survived 300 years of systematic humiliation and dispossession,  was not a people without culture and history. The ingenuity that our ancestors applied to adapt to the climate, and to conquer their isolation testifies to this. They had to survive.  They had to reinvent their architecture, their tools, their ways of feeding and clothing themselves, as well as their celebrations.  This process of rehabilitation of our history and culture, which was an attempt at decolonization has given us a new image of ourselves, and brought us to search for our identity.”

 The book records seventy five artists broken into nine geographical regions.  It is a treasure of information which is out of print and now hard to find. It has never been translated into English.   There’s a Canada 150 project I would like to see.  A hardcover version in both official languages.  But it seems the money is going to fireworks and giant rubber ducks.  But I digress.

I love this book even though I struggle to understand the accurate recording of the patois of the subjects.  There’s lots of wonderful pictures.    In my February 18, 2013 blog  “My happy time with Mr. Joly’s whirligig” I recall our first encounter.  “Fast forward to the next summer and we are enjoying a weekend in Quebec, our favourite North American city.  We had heard of a bookstore where it was possible to buy a rare book, Les Patenteux du Quebec,  which we knew to be the “bible” of Quebec folk art.  Published in 1978, it is the work of three young Quebec women who spent  a summer or so traveling all over Quebec documenting, and recording the stories of every Quebec folk artist they could trace.  We found the shop and bought the book, and when we cracked it open, it opened to page 19, and behold there was our whirligig. With a picture of it in it’s original location, and a statement by the artist.  Extraordinary.”

The love and respect shown to the artists is clear by “ the letter to the Patenteux”  which begins the book

“You encouraged us to make this book by telling us that you would like to know what the others are doing.
We wanted everyone to recognize you.
We hope that we have been faithful to what you have told us, and that you will recognize yourself. We apologize in advance for the errors which may have crept into the information we give.
A wonderful memory of you is guarded. Your great vitality has given us the taste to live for a hundred years, to get to do things as extraordinary as you do. “

Over the years I have been able to identify the unsigned works of many artist by thumbing through this book.  Every time this happens I thank the authors, and I inevitably linger, trying my best to decipher the comments, and just letting myself imagine meeting and experiencing the environments the artists create.  It has also helped us track down many artists who  continued to live and work in the places they were recorded.  Folk artists tend to stay put.

For all these reasons I salute and give a heartfelt thank you to the authors for their dedication over the six years it took to produce this book.  You have made a valuable contribution to the Quebec cultural identity, and further to our Canadian Identity.  A book worth having. Try to find yourself a copy.