The Captain who loved to draw – Captain Alexander McNeilledge

Born at Greenock in Scotland in 1791, the young Alex was introduced at an early age to life on the high sea. When only eight years old he accompanied his father, a sea captain, on an ocean voyage to Newfoundland. In subsequent years he worked his way up from cabin boy to log keeper and eventually captain by the time he was thirty. As a sea captain he travelled around the world. His exploits are the stuff of seafaring legend: he was shipwrecked on Long Island in 1807, saw the Duke of Wellington in Lisbon, and even caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1817. The captain covered huge swaths of the globe, sailing to ports as far afield as China and running a naval blockade off Buenos Aires. And, for good measure, he endured robbery and plunder at the hands of pirates on the storied Spanish Main.

At the prodding of his brother Collin, McNeilledge came to Port Dover with his wife Mary Ann in 1832 to work as a bookkeeper at his mill, and he purchased a farm a few years later. But the mundane life of clerking and farming was nothing compared to his high seas adventures. You can you imagine how exciting farming was to him after that life? So he basically left the farming to his wife and headed down to the docks to captain the boats. McNeilledge became a fixture at the docks and was involved in many operations around port.

In the 1840s he began to produce a series of charts and maps for navigating Lake Erie. The document was widely used until the early 2oth century. In Lake Erie – a pictorial history by Julie MacFie Sobol and Ken Sobel, they quote the captain from the preface of his 1848 “Chart and Sailing Instructions for the North Shore of Lake Erie” , ”All the Lake Ontario Captains on both sides and the Lake Erie captains on the American side are afraid of the North Shore.”  His journal filled a need, for without the captain’s well observed navigational instructions and maps, many more vessels would have joined the underwater fleet”.

In his later years he began to make drawings of ships which he presented as tokens of friendship to captains of visiting vessels , as well as relatives and neighbours.  The drawings were often personalized by naming the ship after the wife, the master after the husband, and smaller vessels after the children. Most were accompanied by captions depicting fanciful and fictitious voyages, and many were inscribed with humorous autobiographical comments such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”

He maintained a diary over the last 37 years of his life, recording not only routine daily events but also many personal feelings of frustration, loneliness and non-acceptance. The captain was found by his wife on August 21, 1874, having taken his life in the ravine behind the house the previous day.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

But rather than his sad ending, I prefer to think of all the joy he has given people over the years with his charming drawings, water-colours, and of course the exquisite 1867 Confederation box. It is fitting that in that year, McNeilledge fired off his cannon to mark the start of the Canada Day Parade in Port Dover. The first in Canada, and a tradition that continues to this day.

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“Finding Folk Art” at the Eva Brook Donly Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ewald Rentz cutting Norval Morrisseau’s hair.

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

McNeilledge Confederation Box

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

 

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. “

 

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