The Bourgault family of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli

Bronze by Jean-Julien Bourgault

Last week I noticed this small article posted twice to Facebook by two different renowned Quebec antique dealers Michel Prince and Karin Belzile. It is a short history of the Bourgault family who started the well known wood carving community of Saint-John-Port-Joli. Even if you know little of Quebec carving, you have probably run across a carving or lamp created by one of these traditional artists.  Perhaps at the cottage of a friend.  Many people who have visited the community over the years have picked up a memento, and many of these are destined for the rustic summer home.

Medard, Jean-Julien, and Andre Bourgault

For years I didn’t really gravitate to this work, finding it more craft than art, but I eventually began to see some pieces that I really admired.  Mostly family or village scenes from Medard, who would on occasion paint the carvings in fine detail. I recall a scene of a Sunday dinner, complete with turkey, and a completely set table. The family looking on as father was about to set to work carving.  Both the expressions of the people, and over-all integrity of the depiction made it live for me. Since then I have considered the work more closely. 

Medard Bourgault in his studio
Jean-Julien Bourgault in his studio

So here is the article, translated to the best of my ability, which serves as a “starter” to the famous Bourgault family, and the carving town of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.  If you google their, or the town’s name you will come up with lots of stuff. Or better still, swing by there and see for yourself.

Andre Bourgault in his studio

The importance of the Bourgault Family in the world of sculpture in Quebec.

Since the 1930s, the Bourgault family of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli has been world renown for wood crafts.

The son of a carpenter from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Médard Bourgault (1897-1967) began working with wood at a very young age using a simple pocket knife. Like many other young men in his parish, he worked on ships, and his interest in sculpture increased with the leisure hours spent at sea. In 1918, he began to manufacture furniture and sculptures in the paternal workshop. The following year, he transformed an old shed into a workshop and often visited Arthur Fournier, a woodworker, who would guide him. During the 1920s, Medard made mostly furniture, but he also made crucifixes and other religious objects. He earns his living working alongside his father.

figure by Medard Bourgault

Starting in 1929, Medard’s sculptures became increasingly popular among collectors, who discovered them through the ethnologist Marius Barbeau and the man of letters and politician Georges Bouchard. They are the ones who encourage Médard to revive the local scenes. In the midst of the economic crisis, Medard, for whom carpentry work was rare, opened a craft counter on the side of the road. In 1931, he invited his brothers Jean-Julien (1910-1996) and André (1898-1957) to work with him, and he began to participate in exhibitions in Quebec and Toronto. The Government of Quebec began to buy from the brothers.  Without planning it, the Bourgault brothers had revived Quebec crafts.

relief by Jean-Julien

From 1933 on, the three brothers specialized. Medard devoted himself above all to religious sculpture.  He made statues for religious communities and carved the ornamental woodwork in many churches. Jean-Julien and André continue for their part to portray the rural peasant culture. Soon their sister Yvonne also joins the company, as well as nephews and other young people from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.

bust of Christ by Medard Bourgault

In 1940, the Quebec government transformed the Bourgault brothers’ workshop into a sculpture school, whose management was entrusted to Médard. André became the director in 1952 and Jean-Julien in 1958. From 1964 to 1986, it was the turn of Jean-Pierre, son of Jean-Julien, to assume the direction.

Saint-Jean-Port-Joli now bears the name of “capital of sculpture” in Quebec. With the years and the increasing number of local sculptors, the art has diversified and is renewed, as evidenced by the creation of works in resin, stone, granite, clay and bronze. Other forms have been added, including painting.

Checker playing scene by Andre Bourgault

Source, https://sites.ustboniface.ca/francoidenti…/…/texte/T3086.htm

Searching for Marya Zajac

For those of you who follow my blog, you may have noticed a long pause since my last installment. Please excuse my absence. My hiatus was brought about largely by a real need for a break, but more importantly by a desire to focus more of my time to a documentary project which is near and dear to me.  Well, things are moving along nicely now, so I am back to writing.  I look forward to getting back to one installment a week, or as close as I can muster.

Also during this time I was inspired to sort and re-organize my office.  It’s surprising how many items failed to “spark joy” in me, and got turfed.  However, equally important was how much interesting material I turned up that I had completely forgotten about, or perhaps never known about.  Included in this list is a letter from a Manitoba folk artist named Marya Zajac from Manitoba to my wife Jeanine, along with seventeen photographs of her work.  It is dated July 26, 1994.  The content refers to an arrangement they had made for Jeanine to take the photos to France to show to potential dealers there.  I have the vaguest recollection of this, and when I asked Jeanine about it she recalled that summer 1994 was the timing of her mother’s small stroke, and that when she went to France she was unable to do much more than devote her time to looking after her mother.  She did contact a few of the dealers we knew there, but nothing became of it.  In looking at the photos, I realized that I wish I had paid better attention to Ms. Zajac’s work at the time, and had pursed representing her here.  I think her work is good, and honest, and I’ll bet I could have sold a few to our customers.  This being the “high” times when the market was lively, and we were still doing lots of shows and had a large customer base.

Well, hindsight is 20/20, and I was just about to let it lie, and turf the package as a missed opportunity, when I thought better of it.  Why not at least google her name to see if I could find any evidence of her. After all the work is strong and she states in the letter that she had “placed some paintings in another gallery, and so things are coming along very nicely.”  

Sure enough not only did images of her paintings come up, but one of them linked to an Etsy store named AmpersandEtAl,  that is run by Marya’s sister Barbara MacKenzie, and it carries a few of Marya’s prints and original paintings along with Barbara’s craft items.  I read the “about” section and it stated

“AmpersandEtAl is owned and operated by me, Barbara Mackenzie and my sister Marya Zajac. We are both self- taught artists, retired from our day jobs and living in a small town in southern Manitoba.”  Bingo.  I had found the right path.

 In the upper right, under a picture of two young girls which I can only imagine was of the sisters when they were young, there is a contact button.  I wrote to Barbara explaining the history of my inquiry, and expressed the desire to write about it, and requested their permission to do so.  I waited for a reply.

My search for Marya Zajac also led me to a blog written by Barbara MacKenzie called “Art, and Life at the End of the World, becoming an artist.”  Bingo, again.   Very interesting reading where I learned more about the sisters, and their current situation, and a lot about how Barbara sees the world.   Here is a teaser quote.

The Old House at the End of the World

I live at the end of the World.  Perhaps that a bit of an overstatement.     I live in a town that sits on the border of Canada and the US.   My physical world stretches east/west and north but not south.    The Canada/US border is the end of my world.  Also my age, at 74, I am coming to the end part of my life and therefore my world.   I do say that I am going to live another 20 years but who knows what tomorrow will bring.   My house is old, built in 1895.   Probably one of the oldest houses in town.   But its comfortable, paid for and it suits me.    The garden is large enough for the dogs to run, but not too large for me to look after.

The town is quiet, which suits me.   I moved here 15 years ago, hiding to recuperate from emotional wounds inflicted on me while living in the city.  And I have never regretted the move.   Well, sometimes when I would like to order take-away, and there is nowhere to order from.

I am self -confident enough to think that I have something to say, and arrogant enough to think that other people will want to hear it.

Some set their hearts on a rocking chair

The better to sleep out their days

I’m looking for a reason to scream and shout

I don’t want to fade away

Chumbawamba

This blog is my way of screaming and shouting.   I don’t want to fade away     I wish to be heard

What a treat. I like Barbara’s attitude and writing style so I subscribed to her blog.   I’ve read all her posts now, and look forward to reading more. 

A few days later, I received a note back from Barbara stating that they were pleased to extend the permission to make them a blog subject, and she gave me Marya’s e-mail address to put me in direct contact.   I’ve written, and am awaiting a response.   I will write again about this when it happens, and more about Marya’s work.  In the meantime, I suggest you check out the Etsy store and Barbara’s blog.  The links are below.

https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/AmpersandEtAl?ref=l2-shopheader-name

I admit that I am highly critical of the effect the internet and in particular, the social media has had on society, but in a case like this, were you can search for the writer of a letter written in 1994, and moments later re-establish contact, I’m impressed.

Canadian Humourist Arthur Black writes about Ewald Rentz

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Rentz performing at his opening

I was just going through some papers and found an article about Beardmore, Ontario folk artist Ewald Rentz written by Canadian humourist Arthur Black.  We enjoyed listening to his radio programme “Basic Black for many years on the C.B.C., and reading his syndicated weekly humour column.   I don’t know how I came by this transcript of a 1994 show he did on Ewald Rentz,  but the content is sufficiently interesting that I thought to reproduce it here to add to the (hopefully) permanent record of this significant Canadian folk artist.  In looking him up I noticed Arthur Black started his column in 1976 in Thunder Bay, so it makes sense that he would become aware of, and write about a folk artist who lived so nearby.  Arthur Black died Feb 21, 2018, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74.  Three time winner of the Stephan Leacock Award for Humour, he will be remembered for his humour, and the large contribution he made to the promotion and documentation of Canadian culture.

“The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation on the conservation of matter.”  – John Updike.

You know what’s particularly wonderful about this country of ours?  Treasures, treasures everywhere. No matter how humble or unlikely the surroundings.

Take Beardmore, Ontario.  Towns don’t come much more humble than Beardmore, with it’s population of a few hundred souls nestled in the bosom of northwestern Ontario wilderness about ninety miles due north of lake Superiors arched eyebrow.

It’s a small town, boasting a couple of gas stations, a general store, a motel or two.  Hard to differentiate from any of several hundred other small Canadian towns.  You could drive right down the main street, past the grocery store and the barber shop and be back out on the highway before you knew it. Thousands do, every year.

Ah, but they miss the treasure that way.  It’s the barber shop on Main Street.  That’s where Ewald Rentz lives.

Who’s Ewald Rentz?  Well, first off, it’s “Ed” to his friends. He was born in North Dakota, drifted around a bit through Manitoba, but made his way eventually to Beardmore, where he fell in ove with the land and stayed.

And since all that happened back in 1939, folks take it for granted that Ed’s there for keeps.

In his 86 years Ed’s done most of the things a Northerner does. He’s been a miner, lumberjack, prospector, cook, and as the candy-stripped pole outside his place attests, a barber.

Oh yes, and one other thing.  Artist. Ed’s an artist. World renowned as a matter of fact.

There are collectors in England who salivate for his work. Curators from the U.S., Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver make periodic pilgrimages to the barber shop to see if he’s got anything new they can buy. His work is on display in museums across the country including the National Museum of man in Ottawa.

Ed Rentz is a national treasure. And the barber in Beardmore.  Ed’s what you call a folk artist.  He doesn’t do abstract impressionist canvasses or mobiles a la Henry Moore.  Balsam, birch and poplar are his media. His inspiration comes from the bush he’s wandered through for most of his life.

Ed can pick up a chunk of knotted forest debris that you and I would reject as firewood, turn it over in his own gnarled hands, take it back to his workshop and with the help of a knife and chisels, and judiciously applied dollops of house paint, transforms it into the most exquisite and unexpected bit of art – a ballerina perhaps.  Or a bear cub. Or a Mountie. Or a great spotted fantasy pterodactyl in full flight, with a man on its back hanging on for dear life.

Ed’s tiny barber shop on the main street of Beardmore is crammed full of his works of wonder. Elves, moose, mermaids, wolves, Prime Ministers.

If you are good, and he’s not too busy, Ed might fetch his step-dance dolls. All meticulously hand carved, out of their special cloth bags, set them on the floor, haul out his mandolin, and make them dance for you.

But have a care. Just because he is a world-renowned artist and an unusually fine chap of 86 winters, doesn’t mean that Ed’s not a working man too. My no.  If it’s a Saturday, you may have to talk to him between haircuts. Ed still knows how to give a haircut.

He still knows how to handle knotty customers too – be they balsam or bushworker.

“One time” says Ed, looking at your correspondent thoughtfully, “a nearly bald guy comes in here. I cut his hair. He gets out of the chair and says “wait a minute”.  You charged me a buck when I only got a little bit of hair?”

“I told that guy” continues Ed, “I didn’t charge you a buck, I charged you twenty-five cents to cut your hair.

“And eighty cents to look for them.”

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Arthur Black

Rene Dandurand – a carver of great humanity

2By the mid-nineties we were doing a lot of business with Quebec collector, Pierre Laplante. He was, at the time a very successful dentist, and determined collector of Quebec antiquity and contemporary folk art.  A very good fellow who we enjoyed meeting up with every few weeks at his country home, where typically after a good meal and a little wine was consumed we would inevitably end up in his converted machine shed, which was stuffed to the walls with wonderful things, so that I might buy some of what he was prepared to let go of.  At the time he was keeping five or six pickers busy full time in an attempt to find him the “all” of the best pieces available.  They would bring in full truck loads and he would usually buy everything to get the best price, and assure their dedication.  He would sell me all the stuff he didn’t want to keep at very reasonable prices, and that kept me coming back. His appetite was voracious and he rarely said no so there was a lot of stuff arriving.  For a couple of years before we both slowed down we did a lot of great business together.

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Rene Dandurand in his workshop

One particular evening he suggested that after dinner, he was particularly excited to show me some new work by a previously unknown carver that he had recently become aware of.  That was the first time I saw the work of Rene Dandurand.  It was different than most other work being produced in Quebec at the time, and although I had to admit to Pierre that it wasn’t purely my style (my taste runs a bit more primitive and less Norman Rockwell) I could see that he had real talent and vision, and I liked that his pieces contained humour and emotion.  Pierre was good enough to give us his address and phone number in nearby Valleyfield.  We called him and he was very welcoming.  We made an appointment to see him the following day.  He was very open and we had a good talk with him and his wife Julienne before they showed us his workshop where we bought five or six pieces. I made several stops at his place on subsequent trips but as he became popular there was less and less to buy.

Rene Dandurand is a highly original Quebecois carver. Born in 1934, he started carving in the late nineties, after early retirement from his employment as a machinist. His first piece was a simple small boot, but this was quickly followed by roosters, birds, and figures. Before long his subjects evolved into more elaborate and complex compositions incorporating figures, foliage and animals to tell a complete story.  As Quebec folklorist Lyle Elder points out in his bio of the artist, “Rene Dandurand carves every aspect of the human condition and always with great humour. There is a joyfulness in his vision of people busy at their lives. His carvings are always evocative, charming and full of colour.  Rene Dandurand is certainly one of Quebec’s most talented artists”.

5 Rene Dandurand’s carvings are worked in one piece from a solid butternut or pine block. Some early works are left bare, showing the grain, but most are painted by his wife Julienne, an excellent colourist, after lengthy consideration of suitable colours. Although Dandurand’s children supplied him with a full set of carving chisels, he prefers the familiarity of his two or three ordinary old knives.4

Dandurand’s carvings are represented in major public and private collections of Canadian folk art. I am uncertain if Rene continues to live in Valleyfield, Quebec.  It was suggested to me a couple of years ago that he had passed away,  but as yet I have been unable to confirm or deny  it.  If anyone knows, please let me know and I will amend this article.  Thanks. 1

Billy Orr meets Phyllis Kind

bil1

Billy in front of his cabin

Learning of the death of New York art dealer Phyllis Kind a couple of weeks ago got me to thinking about Billy Orr.  I mentioned the exchange in a 2016 blog I wrote on Billy.  Reproduced here:

“When I did the Outsider Art fair in New York City, I brought pictures of Bill’s place, along with many other examples of Canadian folk art, and showed them to the renowned art dealer, Phyllis Kind. She passed over much of what I showed her, but paused and really had a hard look at Billie’s work. She said “This is interesting.  I’d like to know more about this artist.”  When I got home I sent her photos, a bio, etc, and after a couple of weeks she phoned me to  say that she would be interested if Bill would sell all of the work and she could show it as a reconstruction of Bill’s installation. Naturally she was concerned about the cost of moving all that concrete to New York.   I got in touch with Bill but he wasn’t at all interested. I could tell that for him it would be like selling his family.  Still, Phyllis is no slouch when it comes to art, and her interest reaffirmed my belief that Bill Orr was an exceptional individual and artist; and he was a lovely man to boot.”

bil2In retrospect, “no slouch when it comes to art” sounds a bit flippant, when I was meaning to suggest that “no slouch” is an understatement.  I had and have great respect and admiration for her taste and instincts, and her contributions to the world of folk art.  She was also very nice to me when I was a stranger in the midst of the dealers at the Outsider Art Fair in 1996.

I remember seeing Phyllis Kind standing in a group of five or six other heavy- hitting art dealers in front of a Henry Darger painting in the booth of Carl Hammer.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that something heavy was going down.  She was quite small and slight; in her sixties, wearing blue jeans and a punk rock, sleeveless black t-shirt, and holding her own in whatever they were talking about. I was struck that she had very thin and wrinkly arms, and I respected that she was strong enough and had the self- respect to put them out there. She was the epitome of cool.  She had grace and presence.

Later that day, which was set up day, I was able to finish my work and have time to look at some of the other booths.  I had brought a few dozen photos of work by Canadian folk artists in case there was some interest with the U.S. dealers.  Mostly, there was not.  Some of them were downright rude.   But when I showed them to Phyllis Kind, after talking for an hour or so on various topics, she looked and passed on them all, but stopped when she came to Billy Orr. “Now this is interesting.”

She reacted immediately to the work, but became more interested when she heard Billie’s story and circumstances.  The opening was drawing near so there was no more time to talk but she asked if I could come by her gallery the next day after the show.   How great, I thought.  Of course I will.

I haven’t had that many, but I have great fondness for those moments in my life where I say to myself, “how cool is this” “Here I am going into Phyllis Kind’s Soho gallery in New York city to show her pictures of Billy Orr’s zodiac sculptures.”  I wish Billy were here.

Can you imagine?  I flashed on Billy in his kitchen telling the mother raccoon who had walked through the front door that “she would have to wait for dinner as he had company”, and I imagined Billy standing next to me in the gallery talking to Kind, and I just tried to make note of everything around me, and everything that was said, and going on.  Now twenty-two years on I remember some of it.

bil5.jpgPhyllis was interested in the fact that Billy had created his own “wooden” version of Stonehenge in his back forty, and that he occupied it with many Irish leprechauns, and zodiac figures he had created in cement.  She imagined having all the work in her gallery, in a type of recreation of Billie’s world.  We excitedly talked on about it a bit more, and we agreed that I would look into it when I got home in terms of interest on Billie’s part, and the logistics of getting all that cement to New York.

I could tell that her interest was sincere, but I could also see a lot of reasons why it would probably just remain a lovely thought.  Billy, predictably wasn’t the least bit interested, and of course the cost of getting all those heavy and fragile pieces to New York was prohibitive.  The end.

Still. It is something to behold. Something that will live on in my head.  Billy Orr shuffling up and muttering “hello” to Phyllis Kind at the opening of his solo exhibition in New York.bil6

The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers

cover

cover of the 1991 McMichael Canadian Art Collection catalog by John Hartman

As explained by the McMichael Gallery’s Chief Curator, Jean Blodgett in the forward to the catalogue accompanying the 1991 solo exhibition of the works of Gilbert Desrochers, entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers” plans for a folk art exhibition had been underway for several years.  He states “folk art seemed eminently suitable for display at the gallery, and an appropriate subject for an institution dedicated to Canadian art.”  He explains that they asked artist John Hartman to guest curate based on his interest and knowledge of folk art.  At first it was planned to be a group exhibit, which was then narrowed down to a few artists, and finally it was decided to focus on the work of one artist, Gilbert Desrocher, whom Hartman had come to know when he was attracted by a sculpture displayed on a fence post he spotted while driving down a back road in Tiny Township on the southern end of Georgian Bay in Ontario. He stopped, and made his acquaintance, and quickly this developed into a strong friendship.  In September of 1990 John took Mr. Blodgett to Gilbert’s house to discuss the dates and arrangements for the exhibit to be held the following year.  It was devastating then when they learned a week later that Mr. Desrochers had died suddenly.

artistGilbert Desrochers was born on May 2, 1926, in Tiny Township.  The fifth child in a family of six boys and one girl. His father Thomas owned a farm on the eighteenth concession, overlooking the bluffs of Thunder Bay Beach. He only attended school for two years when his mother died, and he went to work with his father and brothers on the family farm. “I wasn’t much good in school” he recalled. “I didn’t learn much. I went to school only to smoke. And I slept.  I was always so tired that I fell asleep. I had no notion about school. I had only work in my head. I figured that work was easier than school.”  Our father couldn’t read or write either and said “it’s just as well that you are like me. Come work with me in the woods.” “My father had two hundred sheep, and we took care of them. Also nine cows, three horses, chickens and pigs. In the winter we would cut wood all the time. We didn’t have a power saw so me and Joseph would cut wood all winter. It was a lot of work with cross-cut saws and Swede saws.

In 1941 at fifteen, he and his twelve year old brother Gabe took the money form three cords of wood that they had sold and began walking to the home of their sister Aurore who lived in Toronto. They caught a ride with a group of soldiers and got dropped off near their destination.  Gabe stayed to attend school but Gilbert returned home to cut wood with his father which is what he continued to do until he was twenty five.  Not satisfied with his life he began to wander, returning home only when his money ran out. He would leave and return unannounced, and often no one in the family knew his whereabouts.horse

In 1952 Gilbert was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Kingston for stealing a barge. There he worked for a while in the carpentry shop, until he overheard other prisoners saying that they would “get him”. He refused to return to the shop and eventually became uncontrollable and was put into solitary confinement. He had a nervous breakdown and, according to his brother Gabe he was given shock therapy.  His stay in Kingston was two years.   While there that he had his first religious experience, when God appeared to him on the walls.

The day his parole was up he headed north to work in the lumber camps near Kapuskasing.  In 1953 Gilbert’s father died and he became close to his brother Gabe. For the next twenty years he continued to work seasonally in the tobacco fields of southern Ontario, and the bush camps in the North. Occasionally returning to live with Gabe and his wife Lucienne, and to work with Gabe as a roofer.  lizard

In 1975 he was working in Toronto and while looking in the garbage in an alley something struck him from behind. When he turned around no one was there. He concluded it must have been God. After his religious experience in Toronto, Gilbert moved to his brother’s farm near Perkinsfield, where he lived in a small trailer and attended church regularly.

It was here that Gilbert started to carve. He continued to have visions and said that he began making sculpture because God came to him in a dream and told him that he had to make something, then gave him visions of things to make. The dream recurred, and after the third time Gilbert started making carvings.

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Gilbert at home

During the period that he was active, Gilbert created hand carved depictions of the people, animals and events from Christian bible stories. He would often harden the high gloss paint, used to colour and give the necessary details to his sculptures, by heating his workshop, located in the same trailer that he slept, to 120 degrees F. All of his work was created for installation in and around his living space, or on his tractor.

“I promised myself that never would they catch me again to lock me up. That’s why now I’m always alone” he confessed. I’m always watching myself, just in case someone blames me and returns me to jail.  That’s what I think about steady. Never, never do I forget that. I’ll never forget. When I die, why then I figure I’ll be saved. I watch myself because they’ve tried to blame me for all sorts of things and I’ve saved myself every time. That’s why I’m prudent and I’m always in my hymns and I stay close to the good Lord.  It’s a boring life, but I have to live it anyway. That’s why I started to carve all sorts of things, to pass the time and to stay at home.  It’s a sad life but I manage to survive it.”angels

Even more on Beardmore Folk Artist Ewald Rentz

yard2Last week I told the story of recently meeting up with Ewald Rentz’ niece Alyss, and I reproduced an article on the artist from the local paper from 1978.  This week I will finish by presenting some more of her observations, and additional photos taken by her of his home and barber shop in Beardmore. I am also going to reproduce an article written by the Thunder Bay Chronicle- Journal on the occasion of his retrospective show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 1993.

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Emma and Ewald on their 60th wedding anniversary

There’s a few nice shots of Ewald’s back yard and shop interior, along with a great shot of Ewald and his wife Emma on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  When you look carefully at the shots of his barber shop you can see that it was fairly full of his carvings, and a little chaotic.  Alyss pointed out that although his sign indicated $5 for a haircut, $4 for children, it was also well known that if you didn’t have the money he would gladly cut your hair for free.  He had many takers, but he did not mind.

puppet

Rentz performing at his opening

Also, at the drop of a hat, if you had time to spare he would also sing you a song or two accompanying himself on mandolin and dancing puppets.  He made these by attaching some of his carved dancers onto recycled bass drum pedals.  He even played for the crowd at the opening of his retrospective in 1993.  I would have loved to have been there for that.  As it happened his son Ernie did ask me if I wanted to go with him to the opening; and I would have loved to, and should have, but it conflicted with an antique show and sale I had committed to.  Also, at the time I was working on curating a show of Ewald’s work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and things were looking good, so I hoped to meet him then.   It turns out the show got postponed, and Ewald died two years later so it never came to pass. I never did meet the man.

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barbershop interior

There are many tales of Ewald’s generosity in the community.  He was always ready with a free haircut, or plate of food for anyone in need who came by, and he even carved wooden headstones for those who died up there without relatives or arrangements made for a funeral.  You can see how in much of his work he laboured to uplift people with humour and warmth. He was truly a sweet man.  Here’s the newspaper article from 1993.

Animator of the Inanimate – Everything 84 year old Ewald Rentz of Beardmore carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush.  Thursday, September 16, 1993

By Bob Hearn – The Chronicle-Journal

At age 64 Ewald Rentz is still a little bemused over being a celebrity in the local art community.

“It’s something new for me,” he said with genuine modesty, and a hint of amusement at having his completed wood carvings on display for public consumption at the Thunder Bay Art gallery.

That’s because the Beardmore bush-worker/prospector/barber/musician/outdoorsman has only been able to add “artist” to his list of titles in the past twenty years. And he never expected his funny wood figures to attract any attention beyond the walls of his Beardmore barbershop.

rentz article

1993 Chronicle-Journal article

Rentz made his first wood figure, a bird suspended from the ceiling by a spring which moved up and down and flapped its wings when it was pulled. He made it to soothe children who came into his barbershop for a haircut.

“I still have it in my shop too,” Rentz said. “But I never thought about being an artist before that. Never thought of it at all.  I was just too busy.” Although he’s had no formal training Rentz has managed to perfect his completed art works out of piles of wood in his back workshop. He’s since made tons of elaborate animal and human figures and has attracted the attention of not only paying customers to his shop, but art connoisseurs as well.

In 1983, some of his pieces appeared at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull Quebec. A collection of thirty of Rentz’ most recent pieces are on display now at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until October 31 in a collection entitled “The completed Work of Ewald Rentz”

It is his second showing in Thunder Bay.  His first professional showing was back here in 1981 at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre.

He’s been described as an animator of the inanimate. Everything he carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush around his home, whether it is a tree branch, burl, or type of fungus.

“I see something. A figure in the trees or branches and I have to create it, make it come to life,” said Rentz. After carving the figure out, he touches it up with a coat of regular house paint, festooning it with hats, buttons, collars or other old discards he finds around the area. He prefers making animals, but sometimes makes satirical political figures or other people.

The tree form suggests what the figure will be, so if the branch is forked he will make it look like an animal standing on hind legs. Rentz says the outdoors supplies an endless supply of inspiration for his subjects.  Most of his life has been spent working in the bush and he’s even manifested some of his experiences in his art.

It’s the folksy nature, lack of pretense, and perpetual good humour which has made Rentz’s work popular. Tourists from England and Germany have bought his work, and her regularly gets phone calls from all across Canada from people asking him to save a certain figure for them for when they pass through Beardmore.

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barbershop interior

Rentz is pleased but nonplussed by the fuss.  He says living in Beardmore keeps everything in perspective.  “In this town people just say “ah that old guy with the carvings,” he chuckled. “He’s probably a bit off”

Rentz was born in North Dakota and moved to Woodbridge, Manitoba.  He dropped out of school in grade 4 to cut wood and work on the farm. He also attended barber school in Winnipeg before moving his wife and two kids to Beardmore in 1939, to work as a bush-cutter. At 65 he retired but he has kept busy ever since. His artwork takes up only as much time as he wants it to.

“Life is very short and you’ve got to try everything,” he said. “Pretty well everything I’ve touched in my life has worked.  You’ve got to keep active and enjoy things.”

And if his show proves to open the door for future success and fame, Rentz still won’t be tempted to leave Beardmore.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.  “It’s God’s country.  We’ve got fish and moose and beautiful clear water.  What else do you need in life?”

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looking through the front window of the barbershop