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

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

Meeting Aime Demeules , folk artist from St. Paul-de-la-Croix, Quebec

aime6

Speckled horse by Aime Desmeules

In an earlier post I recall our meeting Felicien Levesque in the early nineties while touring the Bas -St. -Laurent region of Quebec.  Well, the very next day we rose early and made the half hour drive From Cacouna to St Paul de-la-Croix, knowing it was the hometown of the well-know carver Aime Desmeules.  We had been buying his animals for years from Victoriaville picker Marcel Gosselin, and we had always wanted to meet him.  It was not hard to get directions to his house in this small town of 367 people, and we were soon pulling in to the driveway of a neatly kept, small ranch style home.

moose by Aime Desmeules

moose by Aime Desmeules

Jeanine and I rang the bell, and were soon greeted by a puzzled looking older lady we took to be his wife.   We explained that we had come from Ontario and being big fans of Mr Desmeule’s work, we had made the trek to their home with the hopes of meeting him.  “Oh no, that will not be possible.  He doesn’t like to meet new people, and he has no work for sale in any case. No, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”Just as she was about to slam the door in our faces, Jeanine added sweetly, “Well we don’t mind if there is no work for sale,  but please we have come a long way and we would be very grateful just to have the opportunity to make his acquaintance.”  She looked us up and down.  Long pause. “Very well, he’s not here right now as he is fetching wood, but I suppose if you come back in an hour he may be willing to talk to you.”  Whew, nice work Jeanine.  “Great, thanks, we’ll be back.”  So we went into town and had a delicious big breakfast, and lingered over our coffee to fill in the time.

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

One hour later we were greeted at the door by Aime.  Surprisingly, he was as friendly as can be, and invited us in to his work shop which was fairly full of finished carvings.  “Pardon us for saying, but your wife gave us the impression that you had no work for sale, so I suppose these pieces are commissioned.”  He Laughed.  “No these pieces are for sale, it’s just that when you arrived unexpectedly with your accents, she was worried that you may be from the tax department.”  I was starting to think that this would be the standard greeting we could expect arriving unannounced at Quebec carver’s homes, and upon reflection, I understand where they are coming from.

The next hour was pleasantly filled by Aime telling us the story of how he was 64 years old before he took up carving and at that time he was taught by his father to create the various animals in his father’s repertoire to be precisely like his father’s work.  It was only after his father’s death in 1986 at 95 years of age that Aime developed a few new animals of his own, along with some pieces depicting people such as the blacksmith shown here.

"Blacksmith" by Aime Desmeules

“Blacksmith” by Aime Desmeules

 

 

Mrs. Demeules joined us after awhile and expressed that she was sorry for the rude greeting, but that she could see now that we were truly fans and not inspectors, and she was happy that we came.  We bought a lot of his work, about twenty pieces or so, and we spent a pleasant morning getting to know each other, before loading up and heading out of town.

 

 

 

What I find interesting about Aime, is how he was content, to the point of taking pride in creating exact copies of his father’s work.  He even signed the pieces with a stylized “A” “D” with the “A” looking very much like a “G” as his father had signed.  It is quite difficult to distinguish the father’s work from the son’s, and you are pretty much dependent on patina and provenance. My understanding is that George quit working in the early 70’s, but then Aime only lived on until 1997.

Aime's signature on cat

Aime’s signature on cat

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f you consider other carving families, such as Damase Richard and his son Wilfred; although there is a similarity to their work, when you study them closely you can see quite a few differences which make them easy to distinguish.   When considering father and son carvers, Aime and George’s bond seems unique.

"brown Cow" by Aime Desmeules

“brown Cow” by Aime Desmeules

Folk art arrives at the door – The Barbara Browne Collection

BBrown5

drawing by Liz Barrett-Milner

It was a sunny, August day in 1995, and we had just finished our lunch when there came a knock on the back door.  We weren’t expecting anyone, and it was rare for anyone to visit without calling ahead.  This, because we were so often on the road that our friends knew to give us the heads up before coming by.  We opened to find a small elderly lady standing there with a big smile and a portfolio under her arm.  “Are you the folks who buy folk art?”  “Well yes, we have been known to do so.  How can we help you?” “My name is Barbara Browne, and I live down the road in Port Rowan, and I have a collection of folk art which I would like to sell.”  “Come right in and tell us about it.”

She explained that she was an artist who had collected Canadian folk art for the past twenty years, and she was about to buy a smaller house in Simcoe, and thus needed to downsize, and recoup her investment to help with the purchase.  “What is the nature of your collection?”  She reached into her portfolio and produced a twenty-page booklet of meticulously hand drawn illustrations of folk art with dimensions, which we later learned were produced for her by her niece, well-know Norfolk artist Liz Barrett-Milner.  “It’s all in here.  There are 185 pieces all told, and I am only interested in sell the whole thing.  No picking and choosing.”  There was some mind blowing stuff, including works by Nova Scotia artists Charlie Atkinson, Charlie Tanner, and Everett Lewis; as well as many Ontario artists such as Clarence Webster, Joe Lloyd, Steve Sutch, and Robert McCairns.  Most pieces were smaller in nature, but there was also a big wall-mounted cow’s head, a couple of 8’ totem poles, a full size deer, and last but not least, the best folk art hooked rug I had ever set eyes on, depicting a fat man and dated 1916.

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head by Robert McCairns

“We won’t beat around the bush.  It’s all of interest, but of course it depends on your expectations” She then produced an itemized price list of what she felt would be current list prices.  “I understand you need to make money, so this is what I think it is worth, and I would therefore expect half”.  “In principle that sounds fair so let us go over it and get back to you.”

What followed was four or five meetings at her house where we viewed the items and discussed the prices.  It became a bit complicated as each time we arrived we she had decided that there were a few more items that she felt she needed to keep, but it came to pass that we arrived at a final list and a final price, and so a date was set to complete the deal and pick up the pieces.

On that day, she informed us that she didn’t want to be there as we removed the pieces as it would be sad for her, so she wanted to go for a walk and return when we were finished.  We weren’t at all comfortable with this, but agreed on the condition that we would line up the pieces outside by the truck, and she would review the load before we left, and that’s how we did it.

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Barbara Browne and Cassandra by the truck

Barbara was an excellent artist in herself, and continued to be a friend and inspiration until her death several years later.  The collection sold well, and the fat man rug was featured prominently in the John Fleming/ Michael Rowan book on Canadian folk art.

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the fat man rug