Ross Butler – Branding, Butter, and Bulls

I was excited recently to learn that the excellent retrospective exhibit of artist Ross Butler, curated by Samantha Purvis-Johnston for the Woodstock Art Gallery is currently on view at the nearby Norfolk Art Centre in Simcoe, Ontario until June 22nd, 2019.  If you’ve ever noticed the classic Dawes Brewery Black Horse Ale advertising, or remember lithographs of cattle breeds displayed in high schools around the province, then you are familiar with Mr. Butler’s work.  What follows is a condensed version of the information presented in the exhibition catalogue. I highly recommend viewing the exhibit, or viewing his work, and hearing stories of his life from his son at the Ross Butler Gallery, located just outside Woodstock, Ontario. .  Here is the link http://www.rossbutler.gallery/

 A Jersey Man

Ross Butler (1907–1997), was born into a farming family in Norwich, Ontario. While he painted an impressive variety of livestock portraits and landscapes, over his life, his true inspiration was the Jersey cow. His fascination ignited at an early age when, after witnessing a ground-breaking sale of a Holstein cow, he convinced his father to purchase registered purebred pedigreed Jerseys for the potential of a similar windfall. Ross Butler would become the primary caretaker for his father’s newly acquired livestock, and at the age of twelve he recorded their daily habits and illustrated their pedigrees.

Butler’s connection with and enthusiasm for the Jersey breed would last throughout his artistic career. The artist’s works were adopted in various commercial branding enterprises, including the logo for the Canadian Jersey Cattle Breeders Association (now Jersey Canada), and the trademark emblem for the Canadian Jersey Cattle Club.

Pursuing Perfection

“Breed standards” designate a set of physical and functional qualities that speak to an animal’s production and pedigree. Standards can vary provincially and nationally, and are defined by the incorporated association for that breed. Ross Butler was a progressive advocate for the development of Canadian breed standards in the mid-twentieth century, deviating from the use of American breed standards. The artist discovered a pattern of correlated body measurements that led to his theory of perfect animal proportions. He eventually gained eager support from various cattle, poultry, and equestrian breed associations for the adoption of these standards, though not without initial difficulty and dismissal.

Butler’s True Types serve as a guide to his theory of animal proportions. Within his creative practice, animal portraiture continues to represent the greater body of his work. The True Types are evidence of his idealist and emotive affinities. Beyond perfection, Butler’s paintings of animals share a unique lifelike quality and individual personality. The True Type paintings represent not one particular animal, but rather the ideal for that breed. The detail with which he built distinct characteristics is both impressive and sympathetic. This attention to detail, combined with his apparent adoration for animals, is exceptional and an important facet of Butler’s life’s work.

Branding Butler

Ross Butler’s commissioned designs exemplify his determination and the journey of forming a legacy within the canon of agricultural art. He leveraged his strongest creation, the True Type. Following much opposition, he eventually secured a contract with the Department of Education that dispersed hundreds of thousands of his photolithographs to decorate the walls of schools across Canada. This contract would transform his cows and bulls into icons of Canada’s agrarian past. He went on to develop a number of branding assignments for various associations and businesses, including the Township of Norwich, Dawes Brewery in Quebec, and the aforementioned Jersey Canada.

At the Fair

His involvement at the fairs started at a young age when he was employed to watch over the cattle for his neighbour, Beryl Hanmer, at the Guelph Winter Fair in 1922. To his amazement, the fair showed thousands of breeds of animals, rewarding an educational experience that surely inspired his calling. His childhood delight for the fair never waned. Among many others, Ross Butler participated at both the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF).

Ross Butler’s All Canadian Holsteins – The Cattle upon the Thousand Hills (1976), shows the best of the breed in each class from 1975. Like many of his works, it serves as a guide for breeders to consult when mastering their herd standards. The painting captures the impressive parade of living Holsteins and represents the artist’s fortitude and passion for celebrating the animals’ excellence through equally excellent representations Only one year prior, Ross Butler painted the captivating Royal Review (1974) for the RAWF. Departing from his typical portraiture, Butler assembled a vision of champions heading to the fair. The group portrait assumes a wonderfully imaginative scenario with multiple vanishing points that suggest a journey, but one with no distinct start or finish. Since the painting proved favourable to the thousands of fair attendees, Butler found an excited audience to purchase his reproductions. The popularity of the Royal Review drew hundreds of visitors to Woodstock, and the reproductions continue to enjoy similar success.

Building with Butter

Butler’s arguably most recognized involvement at the fairs were his butter sculptures at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF). The artist was amused by the concept of a cow made from butter – a reversal of nature. Over his lifetime, Ross impressively formed more than ten life-size sculptures featuring both Canadian and agricultural icons. The most renowned of them, Queen Elizabeth on her Horse Winston, sculpted in 1952 for the CNE, garnered international fame and awarded Ross the trip of a lifetime to England to take part as a media presence at the Queen’s coronation.

Collection Legacy

Ross Butler’s agricultural art can be found in archives, classrooms, museums, galleries, and the homes of Woodstock and Oxford County residents. Butler strove to build a legacy by creating his own opportunities, and his perseverance is inspiring. When faced with challenges, he shaped his achievements and forged a path to success. His practice of collecting and holding the rights to his own images was intentional in building the prominence of his collection. The collection is now maintained and cared for by his only son, David Butler.

Whatever the challenge, Butler humbly yet enthusiastically persisted. The artist married his artistic talent with his adoration for animals by producing his standard types, achieving status and eventual support from the global agricultural community. He built his reputation by working hard as an independent artist, collaborating with businesses and associations, refining his moulding abilities, and avidly collecting his life’s work. Both his commercial initiatives and artistic pursuits offer evidence of Ross Butler as an idealist inventor and a visionary artist.

Canadian Humourist Arthur Black writes about Ewald Rentz

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Rentz performing at his opening

I was just going through some papers and found an article about Beardmore, Ontario folk artist Ewald Rentz written by Canadian humourist Arthur Black.  We enjoyed listening to his radio programme “Basic Black for many years on the C.B.C., and reading his syndicated weekly humour column.   I don’t know how I came by this transcript of a 1994 show he did on Ewald Rentz,  but the content is sufficiently interesting that I thought to reproduce it here to add to the (hopefully) permanent record of this significant Canadian folk artist.  In looking him up I noticed Arthur Black started his column in 1976 in Thunder Bay, so it makes sense that he would become aware of, and write about a folk artist who lived so nearby.  Arthur Black died Feb 21, 2018, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74.  Three time winner of the Stephan Leacock Award for Humour, he will be remembered for his humour, and the large contribution he made to the promotion and documentation of Canadian culture.

“The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation on the conservation of matter.”  – John Updike.

You know what’s particularly wonderful about this country of ours?  Treasures, treasures everywhere. No matter how humble or unlikely the surroundings.

Take Beardmore, Ontario.  Towns don’t come much more humble than Beardmore, with it’s population of a few hundred souls nestled in the bosom of northwestern Ontario wilderness about ninety miles due north of lake Superiors arched eyebrow.

It’s a small town, boasting a couple of gas stations, a general store, a motel or two.  Hard to differentiate from any of several hundred other small Canadian towns.  You could drive right down the main street, past the grocery store and the barber shop and be back out on the highway before you knew it. Thousands do, every year.

Ah, but they miss the treasure that way.  It’s the barber shop on Main Street.  That’s where Ewald Rentz lives.

Who’s Ewald Rentz?  Well, first off, it’s “Ed” to his friends. He was born in North Dakota, drifted around a bit through Manitoba, but made his way eventually to Beardmore, where he fell in ove with the land and stayed.

And since all that happened back in 1939, folks take it for granted that Ed’s there for keeps.

In his 86 years Ed’s done most of the things a Northerner does. He’s been a miner, lumberjack, prospector, cook, and as the candy-stripped pole outside his place attests, a barber.

Oh yes, and one other thing.  Artist. Ed’s an artist. World renowned as a matter of fact.

There are collectors in England who salivate for his work. Curators from the U.S., Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver make periodic pilgrimages to the barber shop to see if he’s got anything new they can buy. His work is on display in museums across the country including the National Museum of man in Ottawa.

Ed Rentz is a national treasure. And the barber in Beardmore.  Ed’s what you call a folk artist.  He doesn’t do abstract impressionist canvasses or mobiles a la Henry Moore.  Balsam, birch and poplar are his media. His inspiration comes from the bush he’s wandered through for most of his life.

Ed can pick up a chunk of knotted forest debris that you and I would reject as firewood, turn it over in his own gnarled hands, take it back to his workshop and with the help of a knife and chisels, and judiciously applied dollops of house paint, transforms it into the most exquisite and unexpected bit of art – a ballerina perhaps.  Or a bear cub. Or a Mountie. Or a great spotted fantasy pterodactyl in full flight, with a man on its back hanging on for dear life.

Ed’s tiny barber shop on the main street of Beardmore is crammed full of his works of wonder. Elves, moose, mermaids, wolves, Prime Ministers.

If you are good, and he’s not too busy, Ed might fetch his step-dance dolls. All meticulously hand carved, out of their special cloth bags, set them on the floor, haul out his mandolin, and make them dance for you.

But have a care. Just because he is a world-renowned artist and an unusually fine chap of 86 winters, doesn’t mean that Ed’s not a working man too. My no.  If it’s a Saturday, you may have to talk to him between haircuts. Ed still knows how to give a haircut.

He still knows how to handle knotty customers too – be they balsam or bushworker.

“One time” says Ed, looking at your correspondent thoughtfully, “a nearly bald guy comes in here. I cut his hair. He gets out of the chair and says “wait a minute”.  You charged me a buck when I only got a little bit of hair?”

“I told that guy” continues Ed, “I didn’t charge you a buck, I charged you twenty-five cents to cut your hair.

“And eighty cents to look for them.”

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Arthur Black

Billy Orr meets Phyllis Kind

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Billy in front of his cabin

Learning of the death of New York art dealer Phyllis Kind a couple of weeks ago got me to thinking about Billy Orr.  I mentioned the exchange in a 2016 blog I wrote on Billy.  Reproduced here:

“When I did the Outsider Art fair in New York City, I brought pictures of Bill’s place, along with many other examples of Canadian folk art, and showed them to the renowned art dealer, Phyllis Kind. She passed over much of what I showed her, but paused and really had a hard look at Billie’s work. She said “This is interesting.  I’d like to know more about this artist.”  When I got home I sent her photos, a bio, etc, and after a couple of weeks she phoned me to  say that she would be interested if Bill would sell all of the work and she could show it as a reconstruction of Bill’s installation. Naturally she was concerned about the cost of moving all that concrete to New York.   I got in touch with Bill but he wasn’t at all interested. I could tell that for him it would be like selling his family.  Still, Phyllis is no slouch when it comes to art, and her interest reaffirmed my belief that Bill Orr was an exceptional individual and artist; and he was a lovely man to boot.”

bil2In retrospect, “no slouch when it comes to art” sounds a bit flippant, when I was meaning to suggest that “no slouch” is an understatement.  I had and have great respect and admiration for her taste and instincts, and her contributions to the world of folk art.  She was also very nice to me when I was a stranger in the midst of the dealers at the Outsider Art Fair in 1996.

I remember seeing Phyllis Kind standing in a group of five or six other heavy- hitting art dealers in front of a Henry Darger painting in the booth of Carl Hammer.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that something heavy was going down.  She was quite small and slight; in her sixties, wearing blue jeans and a punk rock, sleeveless black t-shirt, and holding her own in whatever they were talking about. I was struck that she had very thin and wrinkly arms, and I respected that she was strong enough and had the self- respect to put them out there. She was the epitome of cool.  She had grace and presence.

Later that day, which was set up day, I was able to finish my work and have time to look at some of the other booths.  I had brought a few dozen photos of work by Canadian folk artists in case there was some interest with the U.S. dealers.  Mostly, there was not.  Some of them were downright rude.   But when I showed them to Phyllis Kind, after talking for an hour or so on various topics, she looked and passed on them all, but stopped when she came to Billy Orr. “Now this is interesting.”

She reacted immediately to the work, but became more interested when she heard Billie’s story and circumstances.  The opening was drawing near so there was no more time to talk but she asked if I could come by her gallery the next day after the show.   How great, I thought.  Of course I will.

I haven’t had that many, but I have great fondness for those moments in my life where I say to myself, “how cool is this” “Here I am going into Phyllis Kind’s Soho gallery in New York city to show her pictures of Billy Orr’s zodiac sculptures.”  I wish Billy were here.

Can you imagine?  I flashed on Billy in his kitchen telling the mother raccoon who had walked through the front door that “she would have to wait for dinner as he had company”, and I imagined Billy standing next to me in the gallery talking to Kind, and I just tried to make note of everything around me, and everything that was said, and going on.  Now twenty-two years on I remember some of it.

bil5.jpgPhyllis was interested in the fact that Billy had created his own “wooden” version of Stonehenge in his back forty, and that he occupied it with many Irish leprechauns, and zodiac figures he had created in cement.  She imagined having all the work in her gallery, in a type of recreation of Billie’s world.  We excitedly talked on about it a bit more, and we agreed that I would look into it when I got home in terms of interest on Billie’s part, and the logistics of getting all that cement to New York.

I could tell that her interest was sincere, but I could also see a lot of reasons why it would probably just remain a lovely thought.  Billy, predictably wasn’t the least bit interested, and of course the cost of getting all those heavy and fragile pieces to New York was prohibitive.  The end.

Still. It is something to behold. Something that will live on in my head.  Billy Orr shuffling up and muttering “hello” to Phyllis Kind at the opening of his solo exhibition in New York.bil6

More on Beardmore folk artist, Ewald Rentz

moose2I love it when good things fall out of the blue, right into your lap.  It had been a long time since the cosmos had flipped me a lucky card, and I remember thinking about a month ago that perhaps things were quiet because I had been out of the circle for so long (my last show being Bowmanville in 2014) that collectors had basically forgotten about me. It seemed a reasonable assumption, even after 30 years in the business, because it can be a case of what have you done for me lately.  But then two things happened. First,  I had a call from a Montreal folk art collector I have known for years, but had not heard from for at least ten.   He explained that his wife had died recently and it had come time to downsize and disperse the collection.  He has some great things so I am looking forward to starting this process.  Then the following day I got a call from a lovely woman from Thunder Bay named Alyss Rentz.  She was married to Gary Rentz who was Ewald Rentz’ nephew.  I am a huge Rentz fan, and it had been a long time since anyone from the family had contacted me. Alyss explained that her husband had died and she too was downsizing; and she has five pieces by Ewald that she would like to sell.   As it happened she was coming to Hamilton the following week to visit relatives and she could bring the pieces with her.  She described the pieces and after seeing hundreds of Rentz’s over the years I knew from her description that I was interested.  She told me she would call when she arrived in Hamilton.  Great! I was immediately looking forward to it.

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Alyss and the work in Hamilton

Good to her word, Alyss called me a few days later and we set up a time the following day for me to come and see her, and the work.  We had discussed the price and arrived at a figure that worked for both of us.  Sight unseen, but of course I had the option of opting out if they were not up to expectation. She had described them fairly well, and they were even better that I had expected.  There are three paintings, and two carvings.  I’m a sucker for the paintings. I call them paintings because they are essentially two dimensional, except even here Rentz cuts out and paints all the components and sticks them on the background so they do have some dimension.   There is a hunting camp along a stream with wildlife, a humorous scene of a hunter up a tree with his rifle on the ground.  A bear to his right, and a bull moose to his left.  Two bear cubs higher up the tree.  And finally a serene composition to two bull moose on the tundra.  For its serenity, balance, and subject matter this one has somehow become my favourite.

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Alyss and Gary wedding gift, 1992

One of the carvings is an old man leaning on a cane. The final and most charming piece is a wedding scene complete with the groom hanging a ring below his hand.  The bride has a plastic orange onion net covering her head as a bridal veil, and there is a tiny flower girl offering them an enormous bridal bouquet.  Wonder and innocence. Rentz had it in spades.  Of interest,  is that this was a wedding gift from Ewald to Alyss and her husband Gary on the occasion of their wedding in 1992.  Gary’s father was Rudolf, one of Ewalds five brothers.  The others were Julius, Gustave, August, and Herman.  We had a nice chat and Alyss brought me along several photos and clippings that they had collected.  She said that they would visit Ewald quite often as they passed by Beardmore on the way to see their daughter.  She remembers him as a warm, and uplifting individual.  I always hear this about Rentz so it must be true.

One clipping is from the Thunder Bay Times-News from December 1978 and has some interesting insights so I reproduce it here.

articleGnarled Branches, Knots, made into Objects of Art, by Gerry Poling

Beardmore: (Staff)

Some people just can’t see the figures for the trees (to paraphrase an old saying) but not so in the case of Ewald Rentz of this community. The 70 year old barber/ prospector who was born in Wales, near Minot, North Dakota, left the United States at age two to move to the community of Emmerson, near Winnipeg. His interest in odd shaped tree limbs and branches came with his move to the Beardmore area, where he engaged in operating a bush camp for Domtar, and practicing his hobby of prospecting.

Rentz also had some training in barbering and over the years came to turn it into a profitable sideline, whenever he was not out in the bush looking for precious minerals.

During his prospecting days, he began finding odd shaped limbs and knots of trees, and being somewhat of an artist; he saw things in them which people would normally overlook.

Thus he began collecting the odd piece of wood, and after adding a few touches with the paint brush, converted them into unique carvings. “I don’t think you could really call them carvings, because I don’t carve them as an ordinary sculptor would” he said.head

SEES BEYOND

“Take this for example,” he said holding a spiney piece of spruce wood, which until he turned it up for a better look at the bottom section, appeared to be just the limb of a tree. “I just painted a couple of eyes on the bottom piece and laid it on its side and there was a porcupine.”

Over the years Ewald has collected more than 100m pieces which have been turned into a variety of figurines, ranging from rabbits through to Santa Claus, and moose.

One of his pride and joys is a limb which when turned one way, represents the figure of a young man with a cane, and when reversed becomes an elderly man with the same cane.

For forty years Ewald has practiced his barbering trade and now semi-retired, he continues to operate a small shop adjacent to his home on the main street of Beardmore where he cuts hair and pieces together his object-de-art.

Married, Ewald and his wife Emma have a daughter, Ann Fraser, who resides in Ottawa, and a son Ernie in London, Ontario.

Ewald loves his life in Beardmore for, while it is a rather quiet life, he enjoys the people he meets and works with each day, and also enjoys getting out into the bush to look for minerals.

So far his stakes have not paid off, but one claim is in the throes of being investigated as a possible gold source. However, even if his claim fails to bring forth any great find, it has provided him with the type of lifelong activities which have kept him young of spirit and in good physical shape.

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Gary and Ewald Rentz in Ewald’s shop

A missed opportunity- My chance to meet Robert McCairns

I have found that sometimes, something, or someone can seem so available that you become casual and nonchalant about taking the time to go to them, and before you know it they are gone.  Thus was the case for me with Robert McCairns.  A few years after moving to Norfolk County in the early 80’s I had become aware that this noted folk artist was living nearby at Turkey Point.  I had seen a few of his bird carvings and liked the work, but at that time my life comprised primarily of trips to and fro Quebec to buy antiques and folk art, and then participating in antique shows to sell the stuff.  Also, aesthetically, I was pretty focused on the Quebec style of folk art and I was finding lots of it, and so although I found McCairn’s work interesting, it didn’t make my heart beat faster, if you know what I mean.  In short, time passed and the next thing I know I hear he’s pasted on. 

Then a few years later, we bought the Barbara Brown collection, and in it there were many, perhaps 60 or so of McCairn’s pieces.  Not only birds, and decoys for which he was mostly known, but also a few animals, and one sort of flat faced human head.  When you buy something you really look at it, and so I studied the pieces and came to appreciate his straight forward style;  slightly crude but with character, balanced, and with interesting paint.  He made carvings of the creatures around him. The birds and animals he was familiar with.

Robert McCairns at his workshop

Robert McCairns was born in Scotland October 9th, 1905. He came to Canada at the age of 18 and after travelling around the West Coast, he eventually found his way to Ontario, where he married and raised a family of two sons and a daughter at Turkey Point, on the North Shore of Lake Erie.

For more than forty years he earned his living at fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as managing tracts of the marsh.  He also carved decoys and worked as a guide during the hunting season.

After a severe illness in the mid 1970’s he retired from several of his enterprises and began to carve some of the birds he saw around the Long Point marsh; ducks, herons, shorebirds, and song birds.  Also fish, rabbits and turtles.  Eventually he added a few domestic animals such as cats, dogs and pigs.  People started to come to his place on the marsh and buy, and word got around, and by 1977 he had his first exhibition at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe Ontario. This was followed by shows  in Toronto  at the Merton Gallery, Claude Arsenault’s “Home Again”  folk art gallery, and the Harbourfront Community Gallery.  Some of his pieces were included in a travelling show sponsored by the Ontario Craft Council. In 1989, shortly before his death,  his work was the subject of a one man show at the Durham Art Gallery. This last show included a catalogue.

Robert McCairn’s produced what I consider to be good, honest folk art.  His birds are not literal  renditions of the various species, but rather they are his free interpretations of what he saw.  As much as a like many of these carvings,  it is his rendition of the human head which puts me over the top, admiration-wise.  It may have well been a “one off” for him, but to my mind as a piece of folk art, he knocked it out of the park with that one.  I felt my opinion was confirmed when I sold it at the Outsider Art Fair in New York to a well-known folk art dealer.  When I handed him a bio, he said “I don’t care who he is or where he’s from. I just love that he made this piece”.

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.

Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator