Bill Male, painter of rural life in the La Prairie region of Quebec

William Male, also known as Bill or Willie, was born in 1918. He was an anglophone Quebecer who lived most of his life in or near Montreal, except for the war years which he spent in Europe, serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. After being wounded in Italy in 1944, Bill returned deaf in one ear, to Montreal, where he found employment as a furniture restorer with the firms of Henri Morgan and Alexandre Craig.

winter fun in Hemmingsford

In the 1970s, without any training of any kind, Bill Male started painting. Perhaps it was in response to certain voids in his life as a bachelor: “I never got married, the war got in the way of that” he said. Perhaps his solitary life prompted him to fill his paintings with images of people enjoying various social activities – viewing a show, sitting in a bar, picking fruit in an orchard, playing cards… In any case, these images speak of joy, friends, love and family. There are also, however, expressions of melancholy and loneliness in Bill Male’s work, especially the solitary portraits which often feature a woman sitting alone and waiting.

a lady alone.

When Bill Male retired he opened his own little antiques restoration shop in the town of Hemmingford, Quebec. He worked in his shop every summer and spent his winters painting his dreams and reminiscences.

remembering Europe during the war

We used to see Bill’s work from time to time at the picker’s barns, and then in the mid-nineties a collector friend noticed one of his paintings in our truck and said “That’s one of Bill’s paintings.  I know where he lives. Would you like to meet him?”.  Sure thing.  So with directions in hand, and a phone call ahead we arrived mid-morning at a three story, 1940’s apartment block near the baseball diamond at the edge of town.  Bill buzzed us in and we climbed to the second floor and arrived at his door. He must have been standing right on the other side because the second we knocked the door flew open and there stood Bill, all smiles, peering through those thick glasses.  His small one bedroom apartment was that of your old bachelor uncle’s pad.  Tidy, but full of upholstered chairs, crochet covered tables, and  knick-knacks; with every square inch of wall space covered by his paintings in every type, colour, and size All in reclaimed frames of every type and colour.  The effect was a bit dizzying, but also warm and hospitable.  “Everything is for sale, and at reasonable prices”, and so we picked out our favourite twenty or so and paid him what he asked in cash.  Bill didn’t talk much, and he never offered to make us tea or anything, but over a few visits he did start to warm up and tell us some stories from when he was in Europe, and one funny story of how he almost got killed in his workshop.  Well, funny because no one got hurt.

apple picking in Hemmingsford

Bill rented a garage for his work from a very old neighbor lady. He was slowing down on accepting work but still doing the occasional project for a neighbor. So he was working away one winter day with the doors closed and the heat fired up.  He was standing at the side of the shop putting wood in the woodstove when suddenly there was a tremendous crash, and bang, and shattering of wood in every direction as an old sedan came smashing through the closed doors, raced the length of the building knocking everything asunder, and went smashing out the far wall into the back yard.  Turns out his old landlady had arrived at a day when she confused the gas and brake pedals, and she tried to slam on the brakes. “It happened so fast I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I knew I was damn lucky to be standing aside”.  “You’ve got that right, Bill.

We would go to see Bill another five or six times, always happy to see his new work, and to have a chance to get to know him a bit better.  We even wrote back and forth a bit. He would send me pictures of his new paintings and ask which ones he might put aside for me.  He was a lovely guy.  Then on one late fall day in 2003, we found ourselves in the area and decided to drop by.  He didn’t answer his phone but we knew he didn’t leave the apartment much so we took a chance and just arrived and rang his buzzer.  Someone answered but it wasn’t Bill.  The fellow explained that Bill had died suddenly a few months before, and he was the new tenant.  He didn’t have any information on Bill as he did not know him. With no living relatives and not knowing his friends we were struck with a sadness, made sadder somehow because there was no one to express our condolences to. We said a silent goodbye and left.

Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator

The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.

Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”

“Finding Folk Art” at the Eva Brook Donly Museum

In 2005 I was the president of the Norfolk Historical Society, which was a small group of dedicated people working to keep the Eva Brook Donly museum open in our local town of Simcoe. The society was founded in 1900, and opened the museum in a lovely old home bequeathed to the town in 1946 by local artist and philanthropist,  Eva Brook Donly.  She and others had left some money to keep the place going but by the year 2000, and with the end of a lucrative bingo fund raising business, the museum and society was falling on hard times.  We had a very good curator in Bill Yeager who ran the place well with a very small staff,  but although Norfolk county looked after the building, we were independent of them otherwise. So it was up to the board to try to come up with interesting exhibits that would capture a good turn out and hopefully in the process make some money and gain new supporters.  With my background in folk art, I suggested that I would be willing to curate and mount a folk art exhibition as our major show of the year.  No budget to speak of, and based only on the knowledge that I knew a few large collectors well enough to lean on them for loans, I forged ahead. It was also something I had always wanted to do.  So I, along with Bill, and a half dozen other dedicated board members worked our butts off and called in a dozen favors, and we pulled off a first class folk art exhibition  which garnered a lot of attention and even ran a couple of weeks longer than planned due to popular demand.  We didn’t make enough money to save the museum, but  we were all happy and proud of what we were able to pull off.  Here’s a sampling of the local press reports at the time.  Some interesting insights.

Heritage Centre displays Folk Art – by Samantha Craggs, Simcoe Reformer

“Artist striving to be different would have nothing on Billie Orr.  Born in a log cabin near Purbrook Ont., Orr continued to live there after his parents died, without electricity or running water. Motivated to create, he made cement works of art including an elf and a cat with large paws. Phil Ross, owner of Shadfly Antiques used to travel to buy Orr’s pieces which the artist made him buy one by one.

Orr was a creator of folk art, a genre of visual art known for being produced by an untrained hand, individual visual expression by ordinary people who make it to continue traditions, turn everyday items into art, or simply document what they see around them. “

“I’m amazed that virtually everyone who comes through the door seems to love the colour and the humour, and the accessibility’ Says Yeager, director of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Folk Art Feast on display at Donly Museum –by Monty Sonnenberg, Times- Reformer

A definition of folk art that everyone agrees on is hard to come by, but people know it when they see it. Folk art in abundance is the order of the day this Christmas season at the Norfolk Heritage Centre at Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe. Curator Bill Yeager and his crew of volunteers are basking in the glow of positive reviews for their ambitious exhibit, “Finding Folk Art”.

All floors of the museum feature more than 150 old and new displays of folk art.  Examples date from the early 1800’s to the present. “ I wish more people would discover this exhibit.” Yeager says,”It’s a big show.  Everyone loves it. It’s the kind of thing you’d normally have to go to see in the big city.”

Finding Folk Art, Each piece of work is unique in its Creativity and also comes with a story that adds to the appeal –  by Lyn Tremblay, Port Dover Maple Leaf

“It is an exhibit worthy of showcasing at any of Canada’s most prestigious art galleries, but residence of Norfolk County do not have to travel to large cities such as Toronto or Hamilton to see it.  The Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Eva brook Donly Museum in Simcoe is currently featuring an impressive selection of Canadian folk art from past and present. Museum curator Bill Yaeger credits Port Dover collector Phil Ross who with his wife Jeanine owns Shadfly Antiques for putting the “Finding Folk Art” exhibit together. “He borrowed much of it from outside Norfolk County” explains Mr. Yeager. “Some of the more than 150 pieces have never been exhibited publicly before, and may never be seen again.”

Ewald Rentz cutting Norval Morrisseau’s hair.

And it’s true.  Thanks to the generosity and trust of a few good collector friends, we were able to put together a first class exhibit that was both comprehensive and well documented.   We had a lot of wonderful items.  An 1830’s singing book featuring lovely  hand painted sketches. An absolutely incredible, and important 1867 Confederation box created by Port Dover’s Captain Alexander McNeilledge. A hand painted candle box depicting flags and beavers and minute whimsical inscriptions along the border such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

A few Maud Lewis and Joe Norris Paintings.  Many works by all the greats, Ewald Rentz, Wilfred Richard, Leo Fournier, the list goes on and on.  All catalogued, with short informative labels, and all well-lit, and displayed effectively. It really was an enormous amount of work, but when all was said and done, and we walked through the galleries looking at the results of our efforts,  we all felt enormously happy and proud, even if it was all just for a local audience.  It would have been nice if we could have garnered some attention from larger places like Brantford, Hamilton or Toronto.  We tried sending press releases to all the larger media outlets, but heard nothing back.  That’s the way it is.  And you never know who you may have an effect on.  We may have encouraged some young local talent.  We certainly gave those who saw it, something to think about, and celebrate if they were so inclined.

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.

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.”

The discovered drawings of Maggie Lounsbury

In the fall of 2011 I paid a visit to friends Kim and Dan Davies of Tattered and Torn Antiques.  Over coffee Kim mentioned that she had just procured something that I might like to see.  Why of course I would. So she brought out a worn and falling apart old Nature study portfolio which contained many drawings, and poems along with some mementos such as old Christmas cards.  It only took flipping through a few pages to see that this was a very interesting collection of folk art drawings from the 1st quarter of the 20th Century, and so I didn’t play coy by appearing disinterested (we’ve known each other far too long for that) and came right out and asked her “ Well, before I fall further in love with this thing you’ve got to tell me if you might be willing to sell it.” “Oh sure, I am.  I figured it was your type of thing so you might as well have it.”  She quoted a reasonable price.  I said yes without even looking further, and so I went happily ahead to discover what a treasure I had just purchased.  Co-operation between dealers can be a wonderful thing. 

Turning the pages I was as happy as a six year old opening his Christmas presents.  Each page offered  clues as to the identity and story of its creator.  Here is how I described it when I offered the works at the 2012 Bowmanville Spring Folk Art and Antiques show.

“ The drawings presented here are taken from the scrap book of Miss Maggie J. Lounsbury, who lived near Warner, in the Niagara Peninsula on the banks of the Chippewa River.  Along with the drawings, the book contains poetry, most of which was printed using rubber stamp letters, and some mementos such as Christmas cards.  Also, a little, bound book entitled “The swim in the Chippewa” by Maggie J Lounsbury, and dedicated in loving memory of little Judson Erskine Lounsbury, whom we assume was related, and drowned in the Chippewa sometime around the turn of the century.  Newspaper clippings and one dated drawing imply that the book was created in the first quarter of the 20th Century, but we believe the ink drawings used as illustrations in small book are older, and were created by a different hand, and were chosen by Lounsbury to illustrate her poem.  There is nothing in the book to attribute these earlier works, but three of the original drawings from the book were mounted in the portfolio so we speculate that it may have been a relative.  Because the binding of the book was in such a sorry state, we decided to separate and offer the individual works properly framed and mounted on acid free paper.”

We separated about 50 of the best drawings and had them mounted and matted, and sold the bulk of them at the show, and then a bit later I sold the rest of the book including the small booklet “The Swim in the Chippewa” to a local historian.  Given the time and the money, it would have been great to restore and keep it all together, but the fact is that it was a scrap book, and so was never intended to hold together as whole, and of course the economics of selling off the individual drawings is much more interesting.  I could not bring myself to break apart an antique book of drawings in good condition, but this was not the case here. 

The poetry which is rubber stamped across many pages of the book seems almost to be a flow of consciousness.  It is quite hard to follow, and there are no personal notes or labeling of the drawings so it is hard to pin down the details, but when you spend enough time with the material you get a strong sense of the Maggie Lounsbury’s personality and sensibilities.  Obviously a creative and sensitive young woman, she has had a great tragedy occur very near her, and  amongst her sunnier observations of flower gardens and children’s games, there are also images of cemetery’s, and angels, and ominous black snakes.  Ultimately, the little booklet is very revealing.  It is basically a ten page poem called “The Swim” in which Little Jack has trouble persuading anyone to go swimming with him in the Chippewa.  Eventually his mother takes him and he very happily goes swimming until suddenly he is aware of several big black snakes swimming towards him.  He rushes to the shore and escapes, and he and his mother go home.  A happy ending.  However the booklet is accompanied by 1912 newspaper clippings of the unfortunate drowning of little Erskine Lounsbury, the boy the booklet is dedicated to.  I will end by reprinting Maggie’s poem which begins the book.

“The Chippewa, with it’s traditional wolf, Indian, robber, esteemed by the little folk who roamed the lovely banks – the hunting par excellence. The enemy,  of equal beauty and hideousness , mottled gray, they speedily captured, dragged, wounded and fighting, out of their pretty waters. Away from the dreams they had so labouriously and painstakingly builded, where silvery fish kicked and swimming holes beckoned, across which old Bob White called, whip-poor-wills uttered their plaintive cry: tragedy, lurking silent and grim just where it was deepest – the beautiful Chippewa. “

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.