A World populated with animals – The work of Wilfred Richard and his family sculptors

Damase and family in front of their house about 1910

Bernard Genest’s  excellent 109 page booklet on the four generations of the Richard family carvers, published in 1986 by the Museum of Civilization begins with a quote from the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine -“Inanimate objects do you have a soul which attaches itself to our soul and forces it to love”.  A quote which applies in spades to the work of the Richard family.

a bear by Damase Richard,

The Richard family has lived in Quebec since Pierre Richard arrived from France in 1670. Six generations later Damase Richard was born in 1852.  Although he lived on a farm, Damase was not interested in farming.  He was interested in art, so as a young man he left home to seek work as an artist.  His natural talents landed him a job painting carriages, first in Quebec city and then in the U.S., and eventually in Montreal. Then he got a job with a furniture manufacturer carving and painting decorations on the finer pieces of furniture.  It was during this time, about 1871, that he met and was influenced by master carver, Louis Jobin.  He continued for about ten years before buying a piece of  wooded land near Saint-Ubalde de Portneuf. It was ten years before he had cleared the land and built a house.  At 39, in 1891 he married Elmire Frenette, and they went on to produce seven children.  As stated, Damase was not a farmer by nature so when his oldest son Wilfred became twelve he passed much of the responsibly of the day to day farm work on to Wilfred and he began to sculpt seriously.  He started with pipes, sugar molds, ashtrays and other small items that he could sell easily.  One of his sculpted pipes would sell for 60 cents, about ten cents more than a regular one.  He did not often repeat a pattern, preferring to invent designs.  He also produced toys for the children, and crucifixes and other religious articles for family members.

He used very few tools. Three gouges, two pocket knives, a plane and an axe.  He was very talented and precise. After a while he became interested in sculpting the animals and birds he saw around him.  He not only carved them, but unheard of at the time, painted them in polychrome colours. At this time there really wasn’t a market for these pieces, but he continued to produce them to satisfy his creative urge.  Of course as is often the case, nowadays  these are his most sought after and valuable pieces.  He was prolific and carried on until his  death at the age of seventy in 1922.

Of Damase’s seven children, three became carvers. Wilfred, Alfred and Joseph all carved animals and birds as their father had before them, but only Wilfred sold his work. Although he was smart, and quick to learn Wilfred only got about five years of schooling due to his family obligation. But he seemed to readily accept this destiny, and thereafter rarely left the family property.

horse by Wilfred Richard

Like his father, Wilfred showed a natural affinity to carving.  He became his father’s apprentice at an early age and was soon producing work alongside his father during the long winter months when he was not busy with farm work. He stated that he was never really interested in commercializing his work, and would actually discourage people from coming to buy.“Me. I’m not proud. When the pride was passed out I was not there. I’ll say one thing though that pride in the work has a good place. I have always been proud of this. but to dress me up fancy, to go to a formal service, or that kind of business,  I would go dressed as I am now. It would do me nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m like that. “

owl by Wilfred Richard

Wilfred married Marie Darveau, and they lived their lives together in the home Damase had built. They had fifteen children, but only six survived, and of these six, three have become carvers – Marie Jeanne, Fernand, and Maurice.  Marie Jeanne married Lucien Lavallee, and they produced two sons, Paul-Emile and Dominique who also became carvers, and carry on the tradition to this day.

Wilfred Richard was born in 1894 and he died in 1996.

Wilfred Richard in his kitchen

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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.

The Art of the Grenfell Mission

The April  2000, Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art show was a special year in that it featured the show and sale of a large collection of the work created by artisans of the Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland.  The collection of about two hundred pieces was accomplished over a twenty year period of dedicated searching by Ontario collector Robin Moore, and the sale was organized by her friend and mentor, quilt and fabric specialist Carol E. Telfer.  A beautifully illustrated, 45 page catalogue “art of the Grenfell Mission, the Robin Moore collection” accompanied the show.  The collection was offered to be sold only in its entirety.

In her opening comments Robin Moore suggests “ Michael Rowan, an old antiques buddy, has always maintained that antiques are on loan to us – we are their custodians for a period of time.  It has been my pleasure to have been the custodian of this truly marvelous legacy of the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, which I humbly refer to as “my Grenfell collection.” The time has come to pass it on to the next custodian – to love cherish, and preserve.  My dream?- to have my collection return to St. Anthony, Newfoundland where it all began 100 years ago. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Well, wonderful things do happen, as the entire collection was sold on opening night to a Newfoundland museum.  A prime example of the importance and contribution to our national heritage that a dedicated collector can make.

There is quite a bit of information about Grenfell on line.  What follows are quotes from the heritage Newfoundland and Labrador site:

“The Grenfell Mission provided some of the earliest permanent medical services in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Before the mission opened its first hospital at Battle Harbour in 1893, almost no health-care resources existed in the area – hospitals were nonexistent. Alongside its medical endeavours, the mission sought to make other social changes, specifically in the areas of education, agriculture, and industrial development. To this end, mission workers built schools and helped establish lumber mills, community farms, co-operative stores, and a commercial handicraft industry to create alternative sources of income.

British medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell arrived at Labrador in 1892 to investigate living conditions among local fishers for the United Kingdom’s National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. Shocked by the area’s widespread poverty and almost complete absence of medical resources, Grenfell spent the next year raising money at St. John’s and England to establish regular health-care services in Labrador. The mission opened a hospital at Battle Harbour and began construction on another at Indian Harbour. It also acquired a second hospital boat, the Princess May, to help medical personnel service fishing stations and coastal communities.

Alongside providing medical services, the Grenfell Mission sought to improve living conditions in general for people in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. To stimulate industrial development, the mission established a series of co-operative stores near many of its medical stations. Mission workers helped to create a local handicraft industry that allowed residents to sell hooked mats, knitted goods and other items at North American retail shops.”

From Wikipedia we learn “The Grenfell Mission established a Village Industry Department prior to 1930. Artists came from abroad to support the artistic endeavors of the residents of northern Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Grenfell Mission was famous for its burlap rugs, which were sold to hospitals in the United States and Britain. Encouraged and promoted by Dr. Grenfell, the rugmakers of the mission sometimes used designs created by Mrs. Grenfell. Beginning in the early 20th century, the International Grenfell Association (IGA) hired Jessie Luther of Providence, Rhode Island, to set up and direct the Grenfell Industrial Department. Grenfell established retail shops in England and in several U.S. cities. These shops were staffed by volunteers and augmented by travelling salesmen. Following the death of Dr. Grenfell and the surge in machine-made rug production, the business gradually failed.”

Carol Telfer did an excellent job of summarizing the Grenfell history in the catalogue with her two page essay “a brief history of the Grenfell Mission”.  I suggest you buy the catalogue which is still available, but if you want to learn the complete history in precise detail you can go to http://www.grenfellassociation.org/who-we-are/history/   the international Grenfell Association site.

The dedication to the catalogue reads “Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived on the north shore of Newfoundland more than a century ago.  He was greeted by a shy, yet industrious people who inhabited a beautiful, but isolated land. They led a harsh existence.  This catalogue- a visual tribute- is dedicated to the men and women of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, for the incredible works of art which they produced through the Grenfell Mission.  May their legacy continue.

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.

Remembering the first major unreserved auction of Canadian Folk Art – the Sutherland/ Amit Collection

As with most cultural expressions, the Interest in folk art waxes and wanes over the years.  In 1994 when the announcement for the auction of the Ann Sutherland and Zalman Amit folk art collection came out, the market was hot.  The couple’s reputation as collectors, both doctors who ran a busy behavior therapy and research clinic in Westmount Quebec, was well known primarily  by their many published articles on folk art. They owned a seven bedroom house in Nova Scotia which they filled with a large, eclectic collection of folk art, assembled on collecting trips to Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Blake McKendry wrote in the catalogue “recently, when Ann and Zalman added another piece of folk art, Zalman had to put it in the wine cellar, saying that not another piece could be stored even in the basement. Much soul searching was required before a solution could be rationalized. The collection had become too large and valuable to be managed by two busy psychologists who wished to move to a much smaller house.  On the other hand, there was no desire to suppress the shared desire to collect.  A solution evolved: disperse the entire collection by auction and divert the collecting urge to a different but related field – Canadian drawings.  The result is the first major unreserved auction of Canadian folk art in all its forms.”    Mr. McKendry went on to say about the collection, “ The entire collection is in the auction.  More than forty identified Canadian folk artists, sculptors and/ or painters are represented, some by several pieces. A large number of these works are by Nova Scotia folk artists and no doubt these will be highlighted by auctioneer Chris Huntingdon’s witty and insightful remarks.”  Lord knows, that be true.  All who attended will remember the high level of theatricality not only in Mr. Huntington’s lively commentary, but also in the evening gowns and over the elbow elegant gloves worn by  the lady presenters, complete with hand gestures, making the whole affair feel a bit like “the Price is Right”.

The auction was managed by Bill Dobson. It took place in two sessions at the Bowmanville sports complex, where the Bowmanville Spring Antiques and Folk Art sale takes place annually. 196 items were auctioned off Friday, January 21 at 6 p.m. , the remaining 336 items went up at 10 a.m on Saturday.

We were very excited to attend. We made a little family vacation out of it when our teen age daughter Cassandra who was beginning to develop an interest in folk art, decided to come along. With Chris Huntington’s commentary and all those competing collectors, it was bound to be an education. I remember as we walked into the complex to the preview Friday at 3, that she looked over everything and landed her attention on a stunning, large mechanized sculpture of a hawk by Ralph Boutilier.  Then she said, “ I know you will be wanting to be buying things for resale, but if you want to know my opinion, I would just spend whatever is necessary to buy that hawk, take it home, keep it; and forget about the rest of it.”  I took her point, but as she observed,  we were primarily interested in buying as much as we could to resell.  We created a list of all the pieces that we were  interested in, and after consideration noted our top bid in each case.   When the auction started at six, we were ready with catalogues in hand ready to write down all the prices realized. We noted that Item # 14, a painting of an Ox team by Maud Lewis sold for $550, which was about what I was paying for them at auction at Waddington’s  in those days.  An erotic drawing by Collins Eisenhauer (1898-1979 )item #18 , which we have owned once, and appeared again at this year’s Bowmanville, sold for a very reasonable $175.  A nice early Merganser (#37) went for $850.  Chip carved crooked knives went in a range from $100 to $500.   We bought a very nice watercolour and ink drawing of the the ship Mauritania by Albert Lohnes (1895-1977) which still hangs in our living room. Also a hooked rug of confronting roosters and  three different roosters by different artist.  We were quite pleased with our take that first night, but knew that the bulk of what we wanted would be offered on Saturday.

Saturday morning the place was packed. Things started slowly with a lot of glass and decorative items.  You know that a Limoges dinner service for eight, nine pieces per setting is in the wrong place when it only brings $150.  People were there to buy folk art and early furniture. It started to get exciting when some early Quebec carvings by the likes of Louis Jobin (1845-1928) started to bring in four figures.  Then the  Boutilier hawk (#317) hammered down at $2,750.  We were the underbidder much to Cassandra’s disappointment, and yes, our almost immediate regret.  I like to say when people are himming and hawing about buying a piece, “You’ll never regret what you buy.  You only think about the pieces you let slip away.”  This hawk is a perfect example. 

Then we hit #343, a carved figure of a youth, polychromed and articulated, mid 19th century. Found in Nova Scotia.  A few jaws dropped when it realized $9,000. Some of the furniture was strong. A painted and paneled Wilno box (#357) went for $6,500. A hooked rug of a woman on horseback (#339) realized $3,400.  A continuous Windsor armchair (#353) saw $2,750.

And so it progressed, slowly. Very slowly.   Chris Huntington’s dialogue although informative and entertaining initially, eventually started to draw things out to the point where most were wishing for a more conventional, let’s get it done style of auctioneering.  Eventually, item # 384 arrived.  A large 205 x 143 cm painting described as a fisherman’s village by the legendary Lorne Reid (1954-1992). Our second most coveted item after the Boutilier hawk, and we won it at $850.  A lot more than we had hoped to pay, but it was ours.   We owned it for several years and loved it in spite of the fact  it was not an “easy’ subject to live with. What appears to be a starving man staring at a fish skeleton is not all that cheerful. There is a bigger story there. One which I will go into another time.

After a couple of more small purchases we packed it in and left for home, about 4 in the afternoon if I remember correctly. There was still about another 100 items to be offered, but we had spent a whack of money, bought a lot of stuff, and were grateful for the experience.  I still wake up occasionally thinking about that mechanical hawk.  What a thing that is.  I wish it were mine.

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