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.”

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The “spontaneous” vision of Quebec carver Andre Laporte

Andre's Montreal Canadien goalie

Andre’s Montreal Canadien goalie

About 30 years ago we were rooting around in Alain Chauvette’s pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec when we happened upon a wonderful carving of a Montreal Canadien goalie.  A serious dude with a square head and a look of determination which would intimidate even the most veteran opponent.  We loved it and bought it for our own collection.  I’m looking at him right now and I’m still impressed with the expressiveness of his rough cut features, and the immediacy of the carving.  Problem was, he wasn’t signed.  We asked Alain if he knew the carver, and he did not so we had to be content to have found this one great piece by an unknown carver with the possibility of never knowing the maker, or seeing other work by him.  Then about six months later we found a carving that was obviously made by the same hands of a group of four cows, carved all in one piece in the round.  The same roughness and directness as the goalie.  This time it had the signature A Laporte on the bottom.  The picker still did not know the carver, but at least we had a name to go on.

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

So fast forward about fifteen years later.  We have found and bought another half dozen pieces by Mr. Laporte, all with the same strength and spontaneity of our goalie.  Still no one knew, or admitted to knowing anything about the artist.  Remember that any picker is extremely reluctant to put you in touch with a carver because then you buy from the artist and not them, so it is counterproductive.  Still, we were happy just to find the pieces and realize that the artist was most likely still active.

Andre sits on his front bench with his first carving

Then came that lucky day when by going through the phone book in La Prairie, and we found and met the carver Leo Fournier.  We were enjoying our conversation with Leo when his wife came into the room and said “Leo, Andre Laporte just phoned and I told him I would have you phone him back after you are finished here.” Eureka!  “Would your friend Andre Laporte be a carver by any chance?”  Why yes he is, a carver and an antique picker.  He lives a few miles from here in the town of Verdun.” “Would you mind giving us his phone number”. “Not at all.  I’m sure he would be happy to meet you”.  So before we left Leo called Andre back, gave him the scoop and put us on the phone.  It was late in the day, so we made arrangements to arrive at his place at 9 the next morning.  After getting directions Andre said “No one has ever wanted to meet me before.  I don’t have a lot of work to show you so I hope you are not disappointed. “.  “Not to worry Andre, we love your work and will be delighted just to meet you , and if you have anything to show us, that’s good too.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we arrived at Andre’s little house by the railway tracks precisely at 9, and there was Andre waiting on a bench by his front door.  You could see he was both excited and a little anxious. After exchanging greetings, we went inside and met his wife Lucie.  The place was small but filled with nice things including several of Andre’s carvings which were brought out and put on the dining room table.

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

Leo had briefed him on who we were and he was excited to think that we would be interested in him.  “So you actually like my work?”.  Why yes, we like it a lot. You have a unique style and energy which we find very attractive.”  “The other pickers who come by tell me my works too rough and nobody will want it, but that’s the only way I can work. “You see this horse there.”  We focused our attention on a very strong and expressive work horse. “That was my first carving.  They took down some hydro poles about seven years ago and left them across the street.  I cut up one of them into various sized “stumps”, and brought them home to burn, but then I started to look at them and after a while I saw this horse inside one of the stumps.  I thought about it for a long time, and then one day in 1984 I  just started chipping away at it, and after about ten hours this horse had emerged. That was it.  I was hooked. That’s the way I’ve worked ever since.  I see the form in the log, and then I carve, until I get it all out”.  I don’t glue pieces together or sand them more than I have to.  I like them rough and close to the way I see them in my head.” I can only work when I see the piece in the wood first, and then I can’t stop working until it is finished.  At this point Lucie jumps in.  “that’s right.  Once Andre starts to carve I know I’ve lost him until he is finished.  I drew the line when one night he put an old quilt on our bed and started to carve right there.”

Andre's bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre’s bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre represents what it is to be a natural, instinctive carver.  With no training or even having much experience of other work, his work is truly inspired and highly individual. His work deals with what is the pure essentials of his subject.  There is always a sense of vitality and movement.

We bought several pieces that day including his first carving of the horse which remains in our collection.  We continued to go by Andre’s place a couple of times a year for the many years that we continued to travel to Quebec, buying most of his output each time.  Even after we stopped going we would talk on the phone occasionally and he would describe what he had been working on.  Often we would send him a cheque and he would mail us pieces sight unseen.  Andre and Lucie have a hard life.  He was born in Verdun on May 20th, 1948 and has lived there all his life.  He has barely eked out a living being an antique picker of the door knocker variety.  For a while things went well for him when collector Pierre Laplante was buying almost everything he picked, but then they had a falling out and that stopped.  Andre and Lucie have three daughters and one grandchild.

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

A few years ago I called to see how he and Lucie were doing and he informed me that sadly one of their daughters had been in a terrible car accident was grievously injured, and that now he had to take her every day to the hospital for treatment. There was never enough money in what Andre does to make a happy and secure life, and I’m sure that without the love and support of Lucie and his family he would not be able to survive. The last time I called was in 2007 when our mutual friend Leo Fournier died. We had a great chat about Leo.  How he was his own man, and Andre laughed and summarized it like this “I have always admired Leo.  He lived exactly as he wanted to, and never cared what anybody thought. He loved to drink and he died drunk.  It couldn’t have been better for him”.  I don’t know how things have gone for Leo since.  I should phone him.  That last time we spoke he said he hadn’t made any new work in a couple of years and he was still mainly preoccupied with helping his daughter to get back to a happy and productive life.  He and Lucie are the salt of the earth.  I really hope that things are getting easier for them.  He has real talent that in a better world would be enough to provide him and his family with a happy and secure life. Unfortunately, it rarely works out like that for artists in the world we live in today.

Andre surrounded by his creations

Andre surrounded by his creations

Remembering Billie Orr and his Muskoka folk art Paradise

Billy in front of his cabin

Billy in front of his cabin

Back in the nineties, Billie Orr was a familiar figure in Bracebridge, Ontario.  My friend Scott Beasley would see him at least once a week, shuffling along the street carrying his bags of groceries and supplies, as he headed out towards his property which lay about three miles out of town on an isolated craggy, wooded acreage overlooking a river.

With his perpetual Irish cap, and lower lip which seemed in danger of dragging on the ground, Billy was well known, and universally liked by the locals. Scott took to talking to him, and found out that Billie lived on his own on the property he was raised on, and having a good picker’s instinct, he eventually got Billie to invite him for a visit. What he found was fascinating. A bit later, I happened to be in the area and was interested, so Scott and I headed out one fine summer morning for a visit.bo2

Billie lived in a log cabin with no running water and one electrical outlet on a large remote acreage not far from town.  It was a pretty funky set up.  He had to go down the hill to fetch water, and the cabin looked like nothing had been done to it in several years.  We came down the long lane to the cabin and there was Billy standing in the open front door.  Although old, and obviously used to living alone, he was welcoming and articulate.  He started right in telling us about his upbringing.  His father was an inspector on the railroad, and had built the cabin in the first quarter of the century for his wife and Billie and his sister.  Billie’s sister moved away.  Bill never left.  He never married, and never drove a car.  He would walk into Bracebridge once a week and get what he needed, which wasn’t much.  Bill still cut all his own wood, fetched his water, and grew a large garden so he was practically self-sufficient.  bo5

We were chatting away in the main room of the cabin when suddenly a large mother raccoon appeared at the door.  Billie excused himself.  “Good morning little mother.  As you can see I have guests but I have your breakfast ready for you.”  At this he disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a granite plate full of table scraps, and sets it down outside the front door.  Mother raccoon made a friendly, grateful noise and set at it.   We continued the tour.

bo7

Billie’s carved Irish little people

At the side of the room here was a steep set of stairs which led to the second floor.  You could see that the top steps were completely covered in soot, and Billie explained that he had had a fire up there a couple of years back, but had managed to get it out before it destroyed the place. Obviously he was no longer using the upstairs as it had never been cleaned.  On the steps there were several small carvings of Irish people and little wheelbarrows which Billy had made some years back with a view to selling them to tourists.  I guess he never found a venue for selling them because he had several of them in a row, all covered in a layer of soot from the fire.  “These are cool Billie.  Any chance you would sell us a couple of them.”  “Well, I could sell you one or two I suppose. If you want to buy more, you will have to come back”.  I realised that this was Billie’s technique for assuring a future visit. He obviously enjoyed conversation, and “human” visitors were rare.

cement leprechaun

cement leprechaun

Next he took us out back to show us his other work.  There among the trees stood several hand formed cement figures depicting Irish Leprechauns, and Colleens (young women) and several figures depicting the signs of the Zodiac.  Billy explained that he made these free form by placing metal armatures (or skeletal forms) in the sand and then building them up with cement.   They were all wonderful folk art, and a vision to see in this natural setting.  Just behind them Billy had years before planted a circle of trees which grew to a great height and were meant to depict Stonehenge.   What an amazing creation.  I was awe struck.

There is so much more to say about Billie and my subsequent visits that I will continue the story next week in my Friday Blog.   Billie was a true “outsider” in every sense of the word, and I am honored and privileged to have known him.   bo4

My Afternoon with Eddie Mandaggio

EMandaggioEddie Mandaggio was born in Manitoba in 1927. He spent his early years working in Northern Manitoba and Ontario as a trapper, and as a hunting and fishing guide. He came to Nova Scotia in 1951 and settled in Camperdown, Queen’s Country, where he lived until his death in 2003.

He initially worked for the railroad for eight years, and then worked in the logging camps. Eddie started carving in 1974 out of a desire to make decorations for his cabin. He followed with painting in 1976. His subjects are geese, roosters, cows, horses and also some human heads. His carved pieces greatly outnumber his painted works.

Eddie's famous white goose

Eddie’s famous white goose

In the mid -nineties I had the occasion to meet Mr. Mandaggio, and although I was trying to take in as many artists as I could in a short stay, and had intended to just stay for an hour, we became so engaged in conversation that I ended up spending the entire afternoon.  I missed out on meeting a few others but my time with Eddie remains close to my heart.

I flew to Nova Scotia to view and consider purchasing a major folk art collection which belonged to a friend of a friend named Iris Newman.  Iris is a lovely person. who got bit early by the folk art bug,and had the means, space,  and desire to build a major collection, purchasing major works directly from the artists.  She is featured in the NFB film “folk art found me”, and she is generally acknowledged as one of the main promotors and supporters of the Nova Scotia folk art community. We had a lovely lunch and fell into talking like old friends for a couple of hours before she took me around her large home and showed me the extent of the collection. Although amazing in quality and scope It turned out to be too many massive pieces which I knew would be hard to place, and she was strictly committed to an “all or nothing” deal so it didn’t work out, but I learned a lot from her and we did remain friends.  Of this vast collection, one of the most impressive things for me was two very large paintings of tiny cows in a big field by Eddie Mandaggio.  It was the first Mandaggio paintings I had seen and there is something about those giant fields with those tiny cows that hit all my buttons. She was keeping them and I completely understand why.  So after an afternoon of talking, and documenting the collection it was time for me to go.  As I was leaving I told Iris that the following day before I had to catch the evening flight home, I was going to go to the Lunenburg area to meet the Naugler brothers, Garnet Macphail, and Eddie Mandaggio who was already one of my favourite Nova Scotia folk artists.   “Oh that’s great Phil. You’ll have a wonderful time, but I must ask one thing of you.”  O.K.?  “When you get to Eddie’s you will see that he has recently carved a very large moose head trophy, and I have decided to buy it, so don’t you go and buy it.”  Ouch.  I hated to agree but Iris is a lovely and determined person, and I was still considering her collection so I reluctantly agreed.

One of Eddie's cow paintings

One of Eddie’s cow paintings

After a delightful morning with the Nauglers which will be the subject of another blog, and after a delicious bowl of chowder at a roadside restaurant, I got to Eddie’s place.  Immediately we hit it off. Eddie was very kind and open, and wonderfully generous in his description of his past careers.  He was particularly articulate about his love of carving, and stated that although he had been painting for the past few years, most of these paintings remained in the basement of the Houston gallery in nearby Lunenburg, and not many had sold, so he reckoned that he must not be a very good painter.  “Au contraire, mon Ami” “I think you are a fabulous painter. I was knocked out by the paintings in Iris’ living room.”  “Really.  Well thank you for telling me.  I don’t get much feed- back and most people just want me to keep making my “hits” like the big white geese.  It’s not much fun doing the same thing over and over again, and actually not why I started carving in the first place. I’ve started to refuse the large orders that have kept me doing the same thing for the past few years.  For me carving is a wonderful therapy to counter my jumpy nerves, but I have to be free to experiment or it becomes too much like a regular job.”  “I absolutely agree with you Eddie.  You must be free to let your imagination roam. Have fun with it, and whatever you do, don’t give up painting.”  Eddie smiled that winning smile of his. “Thanks for saying.”

Of course there in the background the entire time we are talking hung the extraordinarily beautiful massive moose head on a red heart shaped crest which Iris had forbidden me to buy.  Tagged $750.  I would have given him the cash in a second if I was not bound to my word.  What can you do?

That was the one and only time I met Eddie, and he became quite ill and stopped carving soon after.  I never did get on to see Garnet MacPhail, but I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent there with Eddie in Camperdown. A few months later I received the following polaroid of Eddie with a new cows in the field painting.  Unfortunately I didn’t move quickly enough and missed it.  If you would like to know more about Eddie, the Black Sheep Gallery has posted a wonderful series of You tube videos you can look up.Scaned

Finding Fournier – how we met the acclaimed Quebec folk artist, Leo Fournier

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo Fournier has always been one of our all time, favorite folk artist for his whimsy, elegance and balance. Leo’s sculptures cover a wide range of subjects from the religious to the erotic, as well as animals and everyday life scenes.  The work is composed mostly of figures and animals in various forms of shared or confrontational activities.  .

pig, by Leo Fournier

pig, by Leo Fournier

He had a keen eye for detail, a great sense of fun and a love of life.  You can recognize a Fournier from across the room, and we would purchase the work when we came across it, in picker’s barns, shows, or auction.  It was always our desire to find and meet Leo, but of course the pickers were not anxious to have us contact him directly so would not provide information, and his address was not listed in the reference books.   All we had to go on was that  he lived in the town of La Prarie (pop 23,000), on the south side of the St. Lawrence River, across from Montreal.

last supper, by Leo Fournier

last supper, by Leo Fournier

Sometimes our trips to Quebec were straight there and back affairs, but on other occasions we would take a few days to meander and explore, and it was on one such occasion in the early nineties that we found ourselves in La Prarie late in the afternoon with some time to kill before we hit one of our favored road side motels.  I pulled up to a phone booth, and said to Jeanine “let’s see if we can find Leo Fournier in the book.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  Our hearts sank a little when we realized there were over thirty Fourniers listed in town and only one L. Fournier.  Of course we tried this number first and it was not Leo, and furthermore they did not know of him, but we were not so easily discouraged and just started with the first listing and kept dialing.  Jeanine was getting a little tired after about a dozen dead ends, with not everyone being delighted to participate in our little search, but she persevered, and low and behold after about another six calls she spoke to someone who was a relative, and she was happy to provide his number.  “Well that was sort of easy.” I quipped. “O.K. well not that easy, and yes it was you doing all the calling”. In any case we dialed him up directly. and spoke to his wife Jeanette who said he was out momentarily but would be home soon, and he would be happy to meet us.  She gave us good directions to their house which we soon found on a quiet little street right across from a Depanneur , or variety store.

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Leo met us at the door and warmly invited us in to the sunporch, where he liked to entertain visitors.  Leo was a very charismatic storyteller, and he launched right into some great stories while sit ting in his rocking chair sipping on a big can of Molson Export.  “ I like my beer but I only buy them one at a time.  That’s why I’m happy there is a depanneur right across the street” he laughed.” I noticed there were four empty cans next to his chair, but then again it was getting on in the day.  Jeanette arrived directly with some coffee for us and we spent a very pleasant hour or so listening to his stories.  He was a retired auto body man of good reputation, and was involved in the scrap business.  He told us about and showed us his first carving which was a crucifix done  in 1967 when he was 43 yrs. old.  Since that time until his death in 2007 he continued to be a prolific carver, selling to friends and the occasional picker, Nettie Sharpe among others who would come by to see what he had been up to..  He was aware that his work was included in books and exhibits, but he never felt he was really appreciated until sometime in the nineties when the Quebec government commissioned him to produce a series of about a dozen sculptures on food production.(See the butcher with hog’s head below) With this big pay cheque he chose to go to Leningrad on his own where he spent two weeks at the Hermitage studying the art there, rather than fix the roof on the house which was what the rest of the family was pushing for.  Leo was that kind of guy.  He lived his life the way he wanted to and never thought twice about convention.  We bought the six or seven pieces he had available that day and his house became a favorite stop on subsequent trips.  We always took the time to stop and listen to his stories. According to his pal Andre Laport who phoned to tell us of his death in 2007 “he lived his life just the way he wanted to right to the end, with no lingering illness, and a beer in his hand”.  Like so many others who knew him, we really miss him , and his infectious spirit.  One of the greats.

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government