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”.

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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.

Discovering the work of Essex County folk artist, George June

In the late fall of 2013 I was contracted by the Windsor Community Museum to produce documentation and an appraisal of a large collection of folk art by an Essex County man named George June.

The museum put the work on display for a couple of months, and I believe much of it is still available for viewing.  It is interesting work. Much of it quite simple, but elegant in line and form.  Mr. June created jewelry, canes, costumes, furniture, carvings of animals, people , and objects, along with carved and assembled vignettes of everyday rural life.  All with fine attention to detail.  Culminating in two extraordinary marquetry tables.

Here’s his bio.

George Forester June

1867 – 1944

George Forester June lived in Cottam, Ontario, a small town in Essex County.  A retired farmer, he was afflicted with sciatic rheumatism in 1929 from which he only partially recovered.  Used to working with his hands and keeping busy, he was in search of a hobby.

At his cottage near Lake Couchiching he first whittled a cedar cane.  It was the beginning of a hobby that would last the rest of his life.  He continued his hobby at his home in Cottam.  While his wife, Elizabeth, worked on her hooked rugs, he would shape wood pieces into works of art.

Soon these items became an attraction for residents and visitors to Cottam.  He built a log cabin to house the pieces and invited people in to view them.  Residents and family members recall that the large front room was filled with carvings he had made.

Upon his death in 1944, Mr. June’s collection of carvings and his log cabin were passed onto his grandson George H. Coote.

While raising a young family, George H. and his wife Mary began to look for a more permanent home for the collection.  They approached local Museums in their own area without success.

At the same time Huron County Museum founder, J. H. Neill, was collecting items to expand his own collection.  Mr. Neill approached the family and in 1956 Mr. June’s collection was loaned to the Huron County Museum.  In 1986 the collection of folk art was officially donated by George H. Coote.

 

Here is a description of the tables.

rooster table

Rooster Table

Made of walnut and white pine, this tabletop is made of 6000 pieces of 1/4 inch wood cubes.  These types of wood were chosen because they have little shrinkage and would therefore last a greater length of time.  The pattern was conceived by Mr. June and then drawn out on paper.  It took approximately 3 months to carve and lay the pieces.

dogs and dragons table

Dogs & Dragons Table

Mr. June spent approximately 6 months creating this inlaid table.  It is made from 52,600 cubes of walnut and white pine which are laid onto an oak tabletop.

If you get to the Windsor area, I highly recommend stopping by and seeing this work.  They also have quite a bit of supporting information like his old scrap book.  I don’t know how much of the work is easily accessible but I would think if you contacted them beforehand and explained your interest, they would be helpful. I enjoyed my time there, and their hospitality.  I gave a folk art lecture one night and was delighted to meet the local collectors. They are a nice bunch of folks.

Documenting collections is one of my favourite activities because it gives me a chance to look closely at the work, and get to know something about the artist.   I enjoyed getting to know the work of Mr. June, and it is satisfying that it has been preserved in perpetuity by the museum for future generations to experience.

This is all – the work of Steve Sutch

We first encountered the works of Steve Sutch in the late 1980’s at the tobacco museum in Delhi, Ontario.  It came as a total surprise.  Although we lived nearby we had never visited the museum as we were busy setting up house, and when we finally got to it one sunny summer afternoon we were amazed to find a large display of delightful carved/constructed work by this self-taught local artist. It was a show/sale and sadly for us, most of the pieces had already been bought.  It was easy to see why considering the quality and charm of the pieces presented, all at relatively low prices.  We bought everything that was left.

His sense of humour and invention was evident in all of the works presented, but the show did not include any drawings.  Over the next few years we occasionally ran across another construction, but it wasn’t until 1995 when we bought Barbara Brown’s collection that we were delighted to discover a package of about thirty Steve Sutch drawings. His constructions, and occasional piece of original furniture are good, but his drawings are amazing.

Steve Sutch’s Hungarian parents emigrated to Canada in 1905, and homesteaded in Saskatchewan where Steve was born in 1907, near Regina. He also homesteaded in that province, near Spiritwood, where he made a living working in logging camps and sawmills.

In 1937 he moved to Ontario, eventually settling down in Brantford where he remained until his death in 1992. He found employment in various areas of industry and agriculture, working on the railroad, factories, and tobacco fields. It is only after he retired from his very laborious life, raising two sons and three daughters, that he took up carving and drawing.

table designed and made by Steve Sutch

As stated, Steve Sutch did not limit himself to the carving and painting of wood. Most of his sculptures incorporate some mixed media feature, such as clothes made of actual pieces of fabric, and yarn used for hair. His pieces are constructed as much as carved. In his last few years Steve Sutch concentrated more on his drawings, which are mostly crayon and markers on the back of cereal boxes, or any scrap of paper or cardboard available. It is in the drawings that he let his imagination run wild, very often writing captions to explain the contents. These captions, if she judged too daring, were erased by his wife. She missed a few. 

We framed and took the drawings we bought from Barbara to the April Bowmanville show, and the following January to the Outsider Art Fair in New York. They sold like hot cakes and were bought by many serious collectors.  This confirmed our belief that Sutch was a top drawer artist of the cartoon persuasion.  His drawings are edgy, sometimes outrageous and even at times profound. They all contain humour and insight.  A lot of them deal with fate, and the food chain. “Make all chicken’s happy, eat pork” etc.  In the May/June 1992c edition of the Upper Canadian, folk art collector and scholar Michael J Hennigan wrote an excellent and insightful four page essay on Sutch’s drawings. If I can gain permission to do so,I will post it here in a future blog. 

Steve Sutch’s work demonstrates a very strongly individualistic interpretation of a full life’s experience; a commentary on relevant current events (such as portraits of political figures), as well as imaginative tellings of fantastic and sometimes wicked or naughty stories. Steve Sutch approached his work with a great sense of humour which permeates every piece.  I will close by reproducing a short autobiography written in his own hand which Barbara Brown had the insight to ask him to produce in 1989, shortly before his death in 1992.    As Steve says there, “This is all.”

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.