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.

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.

For the Birds

As I have mentioned before in this blog, my wife Jeanine collects folk art carved birds.  Our kitchen is full of them.  I miss them when we are away.

Birds, for the most part are a pleasant and relaxing part of our natural environment.  Except of course when they are dive bombing you for being too close to their nest, and then they’re not so relaxing.  Otherwise, we enjoy watching them fly, and chirp, and hop around the back yard looking for bugs. They are entertaining.  I suggest that this is the reason that it is one of the most commonly carved species, and often the first carving an artist will undertake.  Birds makes for an interesting collection because there are so many approaches and attitudes to the subject.  Some strive for accuracy.  Others a stylized approach.  Some are abstracted, while others are barely recognizable.  I tend to admire skill and craftsmanship, but it’s the crazy and primitive ones that turn my crank.  After my morning coffee I took a look around the room and photographed a few of my favourites .   With some little notations attached.

I hope that you enjoy looking at them.  I do.  Every morning.

sparrows in flight

Jeanine is keen on finding more of these little carved sparrows.  We may because I have the feeling that these although hand carved, were commercially produced and sold in gift shops.  Perhaps a little cottage industry item from Eastern Canada, where we found them.  Or even possibly overseas. If so, I would think Europe or England as opposed to Asian.

Red-winged blackbird by Yvon Cote

a Cote decal. Not used on every carving.

This Cote red-winged blackbird is typical of the Gaspe artist.  I will make him the subject of a future blog, but for now suffice to say that his work is easy to recognize because he used pencil crayons for colour and then lacquered over top, and even when a piece doesn’t have his decal, you can tell it is him by the form, colour, and little wire legs.

Here’s a new addition to the family.  this friendly little Carolina Wren was created by C. Bodley of Toronto.  He was good enough to name and sign it on the bottom.  It’s a good example of a work that looks like the species, but also contains personality.  He also created this wonderful diminutive owl

Owl bu C. Bodley, Toronto

 

 

 

 

What follows is a bunch of little birds with different approaches, by different artists at different times.  Most of them are from Quebec.  You can see run the gamut in terms of approach.  Although it is perhaps the piece that looks the least like an actual bird, I love the little beige bird by Cadieux.  His name is stamped on the bottom.  I also love the little blue bird which looks almost like a cartoon.  it is made very carefully. Those wings are thin wood, not metal.

Which one of these do you like the most?

Someone even decided to make a little bird using wicker. This little fellow somehow comes across as looking quite mad.  And last but not least we have this hanging black and white bird on a perch.  Interesting construction, and can anyone figure out why his wings are on backwards?   Could this really be intentional?  Perhaps dyslectic?  Go figure.

 

Folk Art Treasures of Huron County

It is a significant, and useful contribution to the appreciation of folk art, when an inspired and knowledgeable individual or individuals  put in the enormous effort necessary to survey and document the folk art and artists of a region. It doesn’t happen all that often.  Especially outside of Nova Scotia where folk art has become established, and is promoted as a significant part of the cultural mosaic. Read, tourist dollars. Follow the money.

So I was delighted a few years back to find in a used book store, a copy of the catalogue for the “Folk Art Treasures of Huron County” Exhibition, which took place in 1991 as a part of that county’s sesquicentennial celebrations.  The event had three components;  Contemporary  Folk Art at the Blyth Festival Gallery, coordinated by Bev Walker , Historical Folk Art at the Huron County Museum, coordinated by director Claus Breede , and as a third component  documentation and a map of the Immovable Folk Art of Huron County, coordinated by John Rutledge.  You can imagine it was a monumental task to pull all this together, but this group did an excellent job.  In the acknowledgements coordinator  Bev Walker thanks over 25 people for their contributions. She also thanks the Folk and Native Section of the Ontario Arts Council for generous financial support.  I hope the province can still find a few bucks for such things, what with the deficit and overspending, and all.

Mom and Dad at the Russell Fair
by Ray Bird

The Painter
by Bud Oke

The contemporary section along with several examples of the work, has three pages of artist’s bio’s  which is a great reference tool. I have bought many pieces by Bud Oke over the years and always appreciated his particular humor and talent, so I was delighted to know his story and see his picture.  I think Ray Bird’s “Mom and Dad at the Russell Fair” is somewhat of a masterpiece and I would love to see more by this artist.  His address is listed as RR#2 Brussels so he shouldn’t be that hard to find, but it also states he was born in 1929 so he’s 88 if he’s still kickin’. Could well be for that matter, and maybe painting better than ever. I’m pretty certain that Stuart Taylor, born in 1908 isn’t available for comment, but my goodness isn’t his Annie Oakley just the best? Yikes!

Annie Oakley
by Stuart Taylor

The historical folk art section of the catalogue  is also full of wonderful things dating back to the 1850’s. Of particular interest  are many working “models” depicting the lifestyle and technology of an earlier generation by Herbert J. Neill.  These “gems” are in the permanent collection of the museum, and so still available to be seen today.  It’s on my list.

Butter Churning
by J. Herbert Neill

However, I’ve got to say that of all these wonderful things Janis and Peter Bisback’s early 20th century weathervane really pushes all my buttons. Happy face on one side.  Sad on the other.   Peter and Janis still have a big barn full of wonderful antiques in Huron County, and are serious collectors. Worth a visit when you are in those parts.

For me, perhaps the most interesting and unusual part of this publication is the third section “Immovable Folk Art”. For the most part, we take outdoor folk art for granted.  Look at the picture of Tom Culbert’s Black Horses on Red Doors. If you drove by there every day it would pretty much look the same, but go away for twenty years, and you may come back to bare wood. Huron County winters are harsh.

Black horses on Red Doors
painted on his barn by Tom Culbert

You can see that Mother Nature has already erased about 40% of the paint.  In the photo notes it says that he painted the doors first in the 1960’s “even before I married my wife”, and has repainted them about five times. Remember this was 1991.  Is Tom still around and willing to put on a fresh coat?  Of course for many of us the wear is an integral part of the appeal.  That’s another reason photo documentation is so important.  Things fade away.  It’s either that, or you manage to buy  them from Tom and have a room big enough to display them in, and then of course you are completely taking them out of their original context.

Clipper ship
concrete sculpture by George Becker

Just look at that 2 ½ ton concrete clipper ship built by George Becker in the 1970’s, and owned by John and Wilfred Tiesma.  It stands at the end of their farm laneway, permanently dry-docked atop a fieldstone mound.   (12’x 3’ x 15’)  You don’t expect to see that when driving down a country lane.  It’s on the map along with 35 other points of interest.  And then, of course, inevitably we come to the cement work of farmer George Laithwaite (1873-1956). The Laithwaite Apple Park Farm near Goderich has, for three generations fascinated visitors with it’s many sculptures fashioned from cement, metal, fieldstone, and found materials, made mostly during the depression.   It’s still open to this day.  For the serious folk art devotee it is Mecca.  Admission is free and there is a farm market.

Do I hear “Road Trip”?

Man and Donkey
by George Laithwaite

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.