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. “

 

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Folk Art Treasures of Huron County

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

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

Mom and Dad at the Russell Fair
by Ray Bird

The Painter
by Bud Oke

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

Annie Oakley
by Stuart Taylor

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

Butter Churning
by J. Herbert Neill

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

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

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

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

Clipper ship
concrete sculpture by George Becker

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

Do I hear “Road Trip”?

Man and Donkey
by George Laithwaite

Driving the Vatican to Montreal

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

When it comes to selling folk art, something you learn pretty quickly is that size matters.  In this case, small being better than large, because not many collectors have a large amount of space to dedicate to their interest, and so although they may be delighted to see a large piece, not many of them are going to take it home.  The exception being things like totem poles or other vertical forms that don’t take up too much floor space., or can go outdoors.  Even then it has to have a lot going for it, or you risk hauling the thing around from show to show like a giant albatross around your neck.  That being said, it’s good to have something  spectacular for a show like Bowmanville, where you focus on building a reputation as well as sales, and big and flashy gets them into your booth.  This is why on the rare occasion when I did find something large that made my heart skip, I found myself drifting from ”isn’t this an interesting thing. I’m so happy to have experienced it and now I have it to remember”, to “I wonder if I can Squeeze this thing into the truck and when I get home convince Jeanine it is a good idea.”  It’s a feeling recognized by elements of excitement and danger coming rapidly in equal amounts.

It was early spring and the hope brought on by new life and growth was thick in the air as I pulled in to Jean Deshaies or as he is known “Kojak’s”.   I was flying solo and with a full truck, so it was a last look in case of an interesting small or something worth putting aside for next time.  I could see that Kojak was excited when I walked in, and he jumped right up and hurried towards me, “ Phil, you’ve got to see what just came in. It’ll blow your mind”.  He brought me into his small front room where he kept his special things and there perched on a table in front of the window was a spectacular 7 foot long, 4’ tall, red and white, three tiered birdhouse in the form of a ship.  The name “Vatican” painted prominently on the bow.  Wow.  What a thing.  Double masted, with twin funnels spewing black smoke asthe French flag overlooked all from high above.  You could see that great care had gone into the creation.  Every piece was carved lovingly from wood or shaped from metal, and it was built to last.

The Vatican in Kojak's front room

The Vatican
in Kojak’s front room

It was made in the late 1940’s by two priests who taught and lived at the seminary near the town of Lobiniere, situated on the south shore of the St Lawrence river.   It took them over two years to make it, and then they mounted it outdoors under a sheltering roof where it served as the home for many birds over the next thirty years or so until the seminary closed.  By then the brothers had died, and it was bought by a local. Fortunately, he looked after it well, keeping it painted and maintained and under a roof as the brothers had, so when Kojak bought it, it was just a question of giving it a really good cleaning.  This was the state it arrived in hours before I pulled in.

It hit all my buttons, had great provenance, and was definitely top drawer folk art, but it was also a lot of money, and huge, not to mention massively heavy.  My mind kept telling me to “avoid” “just move away and nobody gets hurt” but when Jean told me he had already called a couple of Quebec city dealers, and they had not committed but would be coming to look at it, I started to panic.  Something about it spoke to me.   I’m not naturally inclined, but it felt almost Holy.   I wanted it, and I had to think fast. “Can I have a hold on it for 24 hours, and take a couple of pictures.  I’ve got a guy in mind.”  He hesitated.  “Well, I don’t want you shopping it around to everyone, but if you have somebody in mind I’ll give you until closing time tomorrow.”  Great.  That may be all I need.

As it happened this was a time when I was selling a lot of folk art to a new, high end interior décor and furniture shop setting up over two floors of a converted warehouse in an up-scale neighborhood in Montreal.  The owner, a Mr. Camelot, (how do you forget a name like Camelot), was very progressive and pushing hard to come up with the very best.  Today I would have phoned him and sent him the picture, but in the day, after he had expressed interest over the phone, there was nothing left to do but drive to Montreal and show him the pictures. The next morning at 8 am we met at the store and he quickly decided based on the two polaroids, and my description that he had to have it, and so it just became a matter of driving the two hours back to Kojak’s and fetching it.

I had to pile up the things I already had on my truck at Jean’s because the ship took up the entire box of the truck from front to back.  I roped it in place and started out for Montreal.   I can remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday, cruising at 120 klm down Hwy 40 headed for Montreal when suddenly the sky turned black and a torrential summer rainfall let loose.  Looking in the rear view mirrors it looked like the Vatican was sailing her way through heavy seas.  I was concerned but she was built to take it and there was nothing to do but sail on.   As Mr. Camelot’s workers unloaded it and brought it up in the lift, I was thinking that although I was happy the ship had found it’s new dock, the only unfortunate part was that I would have loved to make it the center piece of our Bowmanville booth that year.  Still, a bird in the hand.   fullsizerender4

Something about seeing that ship in those rear view mirrors left a big mark on me, and a little while later I was messing around and found myself painting in a decorative old mirror frame I found, a rendering of the Vatican floating on a cloud off into a starry night  . It’s still hanging there on the wall over my left shoulder, and every once in a while I notice it and I think about the two priests staying up late, and using all their leisure time to create such a wonderful home for the little birds.

Ironically, about twenty years later, I walked into set up for the Bownmanville show and there it was. A Quebec dealer had brought it on consignment.  The Vatican was looking for a new dock.  It did not sell.  As I watched them load it back onto the truck for the trip home I said to myself, “that could be me.”vat2

Remembering top dealer Marjorie E. Larmon

marg6Marjorie Larmon did not suffer fools.  Born on November 14, 1912, she had been interested and involved with antiques since an early age.  Her parents Roy and Ruby Sackrider were both interested in things from the past.  At an early age, she and her father would look for antiques while selling maple syrup door to door.   In the 1960’s she and her husband Clarence were able to buy the family homestead just outside Burgessville, Ontario, and Marjorie came into her own as an antique dealer, naming her business “The Pig and Plow”.  If she got to know you, and liked you, she would tell you stories of her glory days, driving her hearse to Quebec and filling it with merchandise. Going into the ditch on the way back from a winter auction, etc.  She placed many antiques in important collections over the years, and was an enthusiastic collector herself.  Her barn was full of wonderful things, but the real treat was if she were to invite you into her home, where she kept the best stuff. marg3

Over the years she gave lectures, interviews, and conducted study classes at museums and historical societies. In 1982 the Art Gallery of Windsor held a show of her folk art collection entitled “Celebration”. In 2005 she brought out a little book outlining the story of her life entitled “Diamond Buckles on my Shoes”  She was the real deal.  She developed many lasting friendships and was always friendly and welcoming to knowledgeable collectors, but if she found you to be rude, or boorish, she did not hesitate to send you packing.  When we moved to the church in Wyecombe we were told by other dealers to go and see her, but be careful in our approach, especially in trying to get a better price.  Frankly we were intimidated and didn’t even go to see her for a year or two later, at which point we felt we had enough knowledge to not be rejected outright.marg4

On that first visit we realized that there was no reason to worry.  She had heard of us through her main picker Jim Sherman, who had occasionally bought things from us for her.  So when we gave our names she was immediately warm and welcoming, suggesting that after we had finished in the barn she would make us a cup of tea and show us her collection.  We made a couple of purchases that day, and in the way of negotiation we simply asked her for her dealer price.  She looked a bit stern at first, but then offered a fair reduction and so we accepted without argument. We had made her good books.  Actually, that’s the way we have always preferred to negotiate.  Most people respect this approach and give you good prices. Also, I find it saves a lot of energy.marg5

So we loaded our purchases and made our way to the house for tea and a tour.  Mind blowing.  What a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. Her collection was better than what you would see at most museums, and she was sharp witted and quick to give you the story behind every piece.  We made several trips to see Marjorie over the following years. She and Clarence were always welcoming.  So it continued until after the death of her beloved sister Ina in 2000, and Clarence’s death in 2002 when it gradually became too much for her to continue even with the generous help of Jim Sherman, and so in 2006 she decided to retire.   She and Jim Sherman arranged a classic one-day auction, with nearby auctioneers Jim Anderson, and Gerry Brooks, and everything went up for sale.  It will be ten years since that historic auction this September 23rd, and will be the subject of a future blog.marg1

There are a few funny stories of Marjorie turfing out dealers for one transgression or another, but I prefer to remember her by telling about a visit we had with her shortly before she closed the shop.  She had called and offered to sell us back a beautiful pair of large finials that Jim had bought for her a few months earlier.  We couldn’t quite figure out why she would want to do this, but we liked the finials and the Bowmanville show was coming up so we said yes, and made the trip to pick them up.

We finished our business in the barn and headed to the house for tea.  We had a lovely chat and then she said “Come into the living room.  There is something I want to show you.”  We sat ourselves on the couch and waited feeling very curious.  “Phil open up that corner cupboard and you see that decorated box on the top shelf; bring that down for me.”  I brought down the most gorgeously carved and polychrome painted Scandinavian wedding box I had ever seen. “Jeanine, you are French, and this wedding box is French so I want you to buy it from me and take it to the Bowmanville show, and sell it for a lot of money.”  We knew it was not French but we were smart enough not to contradict her, and so we timidly suggested that yes it was a lovely thing to offer us, and how much did she want for it? We were bracing for a big number and wondering if we could afford it.  “Give me $200.”  We could not believe our ears.  We wondered if maybe she was losing it a little bit or we hadn’t heard right, or perhaps she meant to say something else, so we questioned her. “Marjorie, that’s a wonderful offer, but are you sure that’s all you want?  I mean….”  She cut me off.  “No that’s the price and I won’t take a dollar more.  You’ve been good friends and customers and I want you to sell it at Bowmanville.  Do we have a deal?  Of course we do Marjorie and thank you.

We took it the following month to the show as she requested.  We labeled it correctly as a Scandinavian wedding box in pristine condition with no repairs, and from the collection of Marjorie Larmon; and then we were totally shocked when the vetters came by and said we could not show it because it was not Canadian.  Feeling a mix of rejection, disappointment, and some relief as we were happy to take it home and keep it for ourselves we put it aside.  Then within moments, the vetter who had rejected it for inclusion in the show circled back and asked, “So what’s my dealer price on that.”  We held our nose and sold it to him.   Marjorie was thrilled when we told her what we got for it. We didn’t tell her the circumstance.

One of the last times we saw Marjorie we were delighted when she pulled up with Jim Sherman to see our newly opened Shadfly Antiques shop in Port Dover.  By this point she was using a walker and she moved slowly and carefully, and of course this was after the auction and she was living in a retirement home so she was not considering any purchases, but she seemed to really enjoy herself and wrote a nice little note in our visitor’s book.  Short and sweet.  “A great little shop”, and her signature.  She looked up at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, I would have written something longer, and better but you gave me a lousy pen.”  Ah Marjorie, you were an original and we miss you.

Marjorie inspecting a quilt

Marjorie inspecting a quilt

The Fifth Annual Outsider Art Fair – Discovering the work of James Castle

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

Coming back into the Puck building on the cold afternoon of January 23rd I started to feel that wonderful buzz that one feels before the opening of a big marketing event. A combination of excitement, and expectation, mixed with a touch of anxiety realizing that in a couple of hours the throngs would be pouring in, and we would be off and running, either making it, or breaking it.  The booth was set up and looked good, so I had a couple of hours to check out the show.  The first thing I did was cross the aisle to have a closer look at some work which I had been noticing which was deceptively simple in it’s construction but very compelling.  The entire booth of J Crist from Boise, Idaho was filled with the yet unknown work of James Castle (1900- 1977).

out2Jacqueline Crist who runs the gallery acts as agent for the artist’s estate and her gallery houses a considerable body of this particularly driven and prolific artist’s work. On this occasion she put “all of her eggs in one basket” and just brought works by Castle.  Getting up close to the work, I became more and more enamored.  Put together with spit, and soot and cardboard etc, the quantity and variety of his output is astonishing.  I came to find out that he devoted himself virtually full time to his art for nearly seven decades. His drawings, assemblages, and handmade books are compellingly mysterious, and contain a confounding sophistication.  Perhaps this quality is the essence of what attracts me to “outsider art”.  In the case of James Castle I was an immediate fan.  The tagged prices seemed fair.  Asking in the upper hundreds on up for the, in most cases, diminutive drawings and constructions.  Hmmm.   I began to think that I may score one of these beautiful little pieces to take home but of course I had to check out the rest of the show first, just in case there was another Bill Traylor drawing for low money.  Still feeling tough that I had missed out the year before.

a drawing by James Castle

a drawing by James Castle

I noticed the Traylor drawing I had missed out on was present and priced up by a few more thousand dollars. Way to go, Phil.  Then I noticed that Carl Hammer’s booth was this year graced by two large, magnificent scrolls by Henry Darger.  This was the year to promote Darger, as there was running simultaneously with the show, a Museum of American Folk Art exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings called “the Unreality of Being”.  I was interested to note but not surprised that the prices of his work had gone up considerably.

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

So I made my way from booth to booth growing more determined by the second that a small James Castle drawing was in my future.  I wasn’t going to miss out like last year by hesitating and calling home for a conference.  No, I was going to head right back and make my selection.  But what’s this?  As I approach I see a group of the top dogs including Carl hammer leaving the booth.  My heart began to sink a little, but I told myself to relax, it’s o.k.  So the selection process may be a little bit easier.  I hadn’t set my sites on any work in particular.  I slid up to Jacqueline whom I had become quite friendly with during set up and asked her “what’s up”.  “It’s the craziest thing.  Those big wigs just came over, and bought my entire booth. Lock, stock and barrel. I’m finished here before it opens.  I guess I could just pack up and go home, but I want to stay because I was so looking forward to being a part of the show.”  Nice problem to have.  Well there you go.

A James Castle construction

A James Castle construction

Are you beginning to sense a theme here when it comes to me buying, or should I say not buying at art shows?  Well in this case she had plenty more work at home so I could have theoretically ended up with something else, but I chose to just let it pass, get on with the show, and concentrate on just doing my best to sell, sell, sell, for my friend Joy.  The show went even better than the year before, and we were all very happy with the experience.  Well, except for the missing out on the James Castle thing, but there you go.

Since then a splendid book on Castle has come out in 2009, coinciding with the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “James Castle, a Retrospective”.  I highly recommend it.  I’ve got a copy.  I love looking through it.  It sits in place for the one that got away.

cover of the James Castle book

cover of the James Castle book