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

A Retrospective of the work of Ewald Rentz at the R.O.M. (almost)

rom1Most folk artists don’t see much recognition for their work during their lifetime.  To most it would never occur to them to expect it.  So it is particularly satisfying to note that two years before his death, the Thunder Bay Art Galley gave Ewald Rentz a major exhibition called “The “Completed” work of Ewald Rentz “.  This was not far from his village of Beardmore so many of his friends made it. His son Ernie told me that it meant a lot to him to have this recognition.  Rentz wasn’t at all interested in the commercial aspect of his art. He just wanted to please people. He was a modest man.rom4

Nova Scotia does a wonderful job of promoting it’s folk art and artists.   I think it is fair to say that this is largely due to the tireless work of Bernie Riordan during his long tenure as the director of the Art Gallery of Nova scotia, and to Chris Huntington who has sold and promoted Nova Scotia folk art since he arrived in Eagle Head in 1974. n 1988, Chris was instrumental in helping to establish the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival which is held in Lunenburg during late July or early August of each year.  There are many others of course, but these two really got the ball rolling.

My home province of Ontario on the other hand has done little to promote this type of artwork, and so it was of great interest to me when in 1988 I was contacted by our friend Susan Murray whom at the time was a powerful lobbyist (since retired) and dedicated folk art collector.  She had set up a meeting with a person she met from The Royal Ontario Museum who expressed an interest in Canadian folk art.  Susan was and is a dedicated promoter of Canadian Folk Art. The someone in question was Dr. Howard Collinson, head of the department of Art and Culture for the museum.  This is what can come of rubbing elbows with the right people at the right parties, and having a very persuasive nature. rom3

It was a very exciting potential that we considered on the way over to the meeting.  I took to Howard immediately.  He was friendly and personable, but direct. He got right to the point, that the basement galleries of the museum needed to be changed. For decades it housed a rather uninteresting, and frankly in some cases incorrect representation of furnished rooms of Canadian homes of various periods.  It needed to go, and in it’s place he wanted something vital and relevant.  What he had in mind was a show of some sort on Ontario Folk Art.  We looked at pictures of several Ontario artist’s work, thinking this initial exhibit might be a cross section of artists, but when we got to the work of Ewald Rentz, he said “That’s it.  I want it to be a solo exhibition of this man’s work”.   Well alright then. I could see his reasoning.  Rentz’s work is very friendly and approachable, just like the man himself.  Let’s keep it simple and direct.  We went down to see the basement space and then agreed to meet again in a month or so. The timeline for the show was for late the following year, and he had a lot on his plate to deal with before he could dedicate any time to the project.  It all felt very positive and I began to look forward to getting started.rom5

Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, the next thing I knew I was being contacted by a pleasant-sounding woman who informed me that the museum had a new director, and that Dr. Collinson was no longer with the gallery. She had taken over his position.  She stated that she was still interested in the project, but was currently unable to devote any time to it, having inherited many other more pressing issues.  My heart sank. I could sense from her description of the current situation at the museum, and from her tone that the chances of an Ewald Rentz exhibition at the R.O.M. was quickly becoming slight or most likely not at all. The one that got away.  I was right. She got back to me a few weeks later and said that the new director had imposed a completely different agenda for the department and that she could not see anything happening for the foreseeable future.  I was disappointed of course, but still held the desire to push for an exhibition of Canadian folk art somewhere, at some time.  I did realize this years later in 2005 with the Finding Folk Art exhibition at the Eva Brook Donley museum in Simcoe Ontario.  Admittedly it was not nearly as high profile, but it was a very good exhibition of which I am still proud.  But that’s a different story, for a different day.rom2

The paintings of Barbara Clark Fleming

bcf1Artist’s Statement:

“All of my paintings reflect upon my country life. Paintings of rural landscapes and different animals, all of which are a link to my past. I was born in 1939 on a 150 acre farm in East Zorra, Ontario, where my father farmed with horses. My mom and dad had no boys, so I became my dad’s helper. As a result of these memories my paintings frequently reflect scenes of haying, threshing, fetching cows, and scenes of country villages.

I never took lessons in painting. I just wanted to put my feelings on canvas. I don’t like painting straight lines, I prefer curves and waves. I do all my painting at home in the country, and I use many different colours. I started painting in 1977 as I realized I had no pictures of my dad’s farm. To keep memories of that farm alive my first picture was painted, and it was entered into the Oxford County Juried Exhibition and won an award of merit. It still have that painting. I did not take my painting seriously until 1989 when an accident prevented me from working full time. I hope that everyone who views my paintings receives as much pleasure as I receive painting them.”

Barbara Clark-Fleming

 

As mentioned in my previous blog about the Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival, it was here in 1994 that we first encountered the work of Barbara Clark Fleming.   Shortly after we contacted her and made our first trip to her home near Woodstock, Ontario.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at her neat little hobby farm was the pony in a paddock at the rear.  Barbara met us at the door and although obviously very shy was none the less welcoming and told us about her pet horse and her love for all animals.  We then went in to the house to discover a turtle crawling across the kitchen floor, a couple of cats lounging about, and a little white bunny who would hide behind the furniture and hop by occasionally.  We were introduced to her husband Stan, who was stretched out in a recliner chair in the living room.  A very nice man who was by this point very ill and requiring her full time care.  She took us into a little room beside which was her studio. Here she painted on a flat school desk over which hung a large combination lamp/ magnifying glass.  Barbara explained that she is very near sighted and required this set up for the details. She said that the painting was a great escape for her, as she was required to be at home, indoors most of the time. She essentially remembers happy scenes from her childhood and paints them spontaneously. Although she is not conscious of it, this method was and is the essence of what gives her work it’s spontaneous energy,  strength and beauty.. She paints because she loves to paint with no concern for conventional form or perspective. She is fearless and direct and simply works until she is happy with the painting. We love this about her work. We bought about twelve paintings that day and thus began a long relationship with Barbara and her art.bcf3

She looked after Stan at home until his death a couple of years later, after which she got out and traveled around the nearby countryside, observing and documenting those elements of rural life that she still related to her upbringing.  Thus she began to paint Mennonite farms, and old feed mills that reminded her of her youth.bcf4

We believe that the first rule of dealing with folk artists is “Do not influence”.  It is always tempting to “suggest” painting more paintings in a style which you find to be most commercial, but ultimately it is this type of influence which kills the natural wonder and instincts which nurtures an artist’s development. If an artist starts to paint to please you, it is not long before they grow bored and resentful.bcf5

In 1995 we took fourteen of Barbara’s paintings to the summer Muskoka Antique Show and sold all fourteen on the opening night.  I seriously considered driving home that night to fetch more, but it was eight hours round trip so didn’t.  Barbara’s paintings sold well at every show including Muskoka the following year, and continued to be very popular for about another five years before interest waned.  Interest and sales have gone up and down since, but nothing like when we first introduced them to the Canadian market at that time.  She continues to paint excellent paintings. bcf6