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

Frozen hard boiled eggs – Recollections of Quebec in the winter

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

It is December 1st and we are still enjoying mild temperatures and no snow here in Port Dover on the “south coast” of Ontario, which is how they promote the region around here.  In actuality, it is not a coast at all but rather the north shore of Lake Erie.  You need an ocean to have a coast, and I bring this up because I am not about supporting the deterioration of the language. In any case, the forecast is for temperatures to drop at the weekend to normal values and then if we believe what we are told we are in for a rough winter.  I was looking at the old Bell line van pictured at the top of every blog and thinking about how cold I used to get traveling in that van to Quebec in the winter.winter1

I did my best to fit trips in between snow events, but it goes to say that when you are back and forth every couple of weeks you are going to get caught.  I can remember white outs on the four lane #20 highway when looking out the windshield was like looking into a snow globe. Everything is white snow swirling and dancing in the headlights; everything is hypnotic and there is no hint of an edge to the road, or white line to guide you.  You are lost, and afraid to stop for fear that a transport will run straight over you, but also afraid to pull over because you have no idea where the highway ends and the ditch begins. A total white knuckle scenario which lasts for minutes that feels like hours.

You know those “bridge freezes over before highway” signs you sometimes see on northern bridges.  Well I can attest to that being true.  Late one December night I headed through Montreal, and on to the south shore with the temperature dropping steadily, and the rain starting to glaze up and turn to snow. By the time I reach the Drummondville bridge it was cold enough that indeed the road before the bridge was fine, but the second I hit the bridge that big old truck thought itself a figure skater and decided to pirouette the entire length of the bridge, spinning gracefully all the way across until it hit the dry pavement on the far end, and miraculously I had completed a turn and  the wheels were aligned so I just stabilized and kept going as if nothing had happened.  Good thing I bring a change of underwear.winter6

Another time when I picked up Jeanine at Mirabelle airport after her spending a few weeks in France, we were so happy to see each other and getting caught up that we hardly noticed the ever increasing magnitude of the snow storm which was coming in.  It just kept getting heavier and heavier but we continued to crawl along in the tracks of the transport ahead of us. We made it like this as far as the Ontario boarder before the front bumper of the van was literally plowing snow and that’s when we decided to call it a night.

The old Bell line van held a lot of gear and you could rely on the 350 Chevy engine to start and get you there and back, but the body wasn’t built for traveling for a long time in sub- zero weather, with it’s non insulated sliding side doors. It was meant to be a delivery van after all   I would wrap up in long johns, two pairs of pants, a pair of insulated cover-alls, and a blanket over my legs but even with the heater blasting full it could get damn cold.  I remember one -30 degree morning when surprisingly the engine fired up after turning over so slowly you would think it was being hand cranked.  After leaving it to heat up for 15 minutes I set off to get on with my day of visiting the picker’s barns with my lunch box on the engine cover.  I got hungry about an hour later and decided to have a hard- boiled egg, only to find that it was frozen as hard as a rock.  It’s amazing what you will put up with when you are young and have lots of blood flowing through your veins.  I could not believe the feeling of absolute luxury when the old van finally died and I started traveling in a pick-up truck.  What was I thinking?winter5

Of course the flip side to this potential discomfort and hardship is just how wonderful and special it is to be in Quebec on a , crisp sunny morning with the snow piled as high as the rooftops. Quebec city in particular is absolutely magical in the winter. To look out your hotel window and see the people below hustling along narrow paths between buildings, with every other inch of space being covered with deep,deep snow is unforgettable, and quintessentially Canadian. “”Mon pays, c’est l’hiver” or “My country. It is winter” is more than a popular Quebec expression. It’s a concept to understand and cherish.

I leave you with one last recollection. That of the Northern lights dancing magnificently overhead as I drive the lonely distance between Quebec city and Trois Riviere late at night listening to the CBC, and thinking about what my loved ones were doing at home.  Loving what I was experiencing with the light show and all, but also thinking about my family and bed and wishing I was home.  winter4

Breakfast in Quebec

One thing that I look forward to when on the road, especially in Quebec, is having breakfast at a little, local restaurant.   Typically, we look for the mom and pop place in a small town with a lot of cars in the parking lot.  That’s a sure sign because the locals know best. I love walking into a lively room full of morning light and people, talking, laughing, and generally getting on with things.  It’s that happy time when you are full of hope and energy before the day has a chance to complicate things and wear you down.  It’s all about that first cup of coffee, filling that empty stomach, and getting your communication skills working.  In Quebec, on a good day, these places are full of noise and merriment, and most often delicious food.

At least I can now by Creton at our local Food Basics

At least I can now buy Creton at our local Food Basics

I like to go with the traditional Quebec big breakfast, a couple of eggs, sausage, toast, baked beans, and a little container full of Creton.  What is Creton you may ask.  Well it’s basically pork fat mixed with bread crumbs, and a little onion and spice, and it is delicious spread on toast. Just the thing if you are going to go out in sub- zero weather to cut down trees.  Maybe a few more calories than you need to drive around and search out antiques, but a great way to start the day none the less. I know a lot of people at this point are crying out “cholesterol alert”, but I have a well-researched theory that a small amount of this type of heavy fat is actually good for you. The operative word being a “small” amount, and provided you are active enough to burn it off. Because you are satiated it cuts down on snacking, and your stomach recognizes the fat and puts out the proper enzymes to digest it. Something that doesn’t happen with “low fat” foods, most of which are filled with dangerous chemicals.  But I digress.

I also love that a lot of these places, although clean, have not been professionally decorated or modernized.   It is one of my greatest pleasures to sit, sipping my coffee, anticipating my food and just taking in the local scene.  Randomly tuning in on conversations of people you do not know and will never see again makes me feel energized, and connected. At one with the world.

When on an antique hunt you are basically driving from place to place, and walking through barns with occasional moments of lifting and loading.  So after a big breakfast we then go through the day snacking on things out of a cooler we bring along.  This is not only cost saving but satisfying because even the little grocery stores in Quebec have a wonderful selection of fruits, bread, meats and cheese that can be munched on between stops, or if we feel like a break at a rest stop.  Not to forget those little packages of delicious cheese curds left out on the counter of almost every little country variety so that they are the right temperature to get every little bit of “squeaky” texture and flavor out. This was then.  I hear that now the powers that be have forced the store owners to refrigerate for fear of us becoming sick. Ridiculous. It takes days for curds to go bad.  It’s like buttermilk.  You can leave it out on the counter and it just continues to be buttermilk for days.  The restrictions on raw milk cheese are also ridiculous,  but don’t get me started.

Finally, at the end of the day it was our pleasure to drive around and seek out a simple meal at some place that looked good and not too expensive. Now days we do a little trip advisor research in advance.  It works and saves some gas, but it takes some of the fun out of it.  Over the years we have found our favourite spots and we look forward to revisiting them.

Eventually we took to carrying two coolers, one for the day to day use, and one for bringing back all the products that we discovered and came to love, and can find only in Quebec.

We always make our first stop at a little place on L’Isle Perrot when coming into Montreal on Highway 20.  It used to be a dairy Freeze but then one happy day it became Smoke Meat Pete.  Their slogan is “you can’t beat Pete’s meat” and I heartily agree.  Pete smokes his own, and it is super delicious.  Second only to Schwartz’s in Montreal and even that may be because Schwartz has the advantage of being the traditional favourite.  We always arrive hungry.  Have a huge sandwich, and leave super full with a big brisket in the cooler to take home.  Yes, gratefully they sell full briskets to go.

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete's

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete’s

Next on the tour near the picturesque town of Knowlton lies the giant Lac Brome duck producers.  A great source for packaged duck confit legs.  Duck confit is a traditional food from Jeanine’s home in the south/west of France and is one of our favourite things, so we usually buy ten or twelve packages containing two legs each, and put them in the freezer when we get home.

Then it’s a short drive over to  the Abbaye De St-Benoit-Du-Lac, a picturesque monastery on the top of a hill which produces and sells many award winning cheeses.  Nearby Magog has a couple of excellent bakeries and specialty shops.  You can buy every kind of pate imaginable from rabbit and duck, to elk and you name it.  In Magog you can buy over a dozen types of pates while here in rural Ontario you are lucky to find anything other than a basic pork pate with pepper corns.  Why is this?

Once while doing the Eastman show we found out about a little bakery about six kilometers south of town on Rte 12 that is locally famous for making the most delicious tourtiere you will ever encounter, and the clincher is they sell them for between $12 to $16 each depending on the type.  We put as many as we can cram into the cooler for freezing back home. Excellent.

When you think of Quebec food, you may think of meat pies, baked beans, poutine, sugar pie and those $2“vapor” hotdog stands with those funny little buns, but increasingly you must also think of world standard cheeses, meats and produce.  All this talk is making me hungry.  It’s time for me to wrap this baby up and go downstairs, and make myself a sandwich. Bon Appetit.food1

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

Looking back at over twenty years at the Christie Antique Show

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine  in our booth, mid nineties

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine in our booth, mid nineties

The Christie Antique show is coming up on Saturday, September 10th at the Christie conservation area near Hamilton, Ontario.  It is Canada’s largest outdoor antique show and draws thousands of people to both the spring and fall shows.  It was started in 1988 by Jeff and Wendy Gadsden in partnership with John Forbes, and a few others investing.  I remember everyone getting excited about the prospect of a new outdoor show in the Golden Triangle area.  At the time the Flamborough Antique show held nearby, also in the spring and fall by promoter Bill Hogan was the only large outdoor show, and it was uncertain how this new show would stack up.  We liked the fact that it was a one-day show held on Saturday so we didn’t need to miss the Harbourfront market in Toronto on Sunday which was still going strong. Also, Christie is an hour away from our home so we didn’t have to factor in staying overnight at a motel.

From the beginning the Gadsden’s and Hogan ran a tight ship.  There was active vetting and anyone foolish enough to try to pass off a reproduction or junky piece would be certain to be brought to task and made to remove the offending item, or in some extreme cases be thrown out altogether from future shows.  Older folk art was o.k., but mass produced, contemporary folk art was not; especially if misrepresented.  I remember one spring show when Jeff made the dealer next to me return the money to a customer, and accept back an Aime Desmeulles horse that the gentleman had bought for a large sum because he was told it was old and rare. He was not happy when someone had told him the truth, and so he went to the promoter’s office to complain.  There was no tolerance for early packing, no matter what the weather conditions.   You could be sure that everything would be on display right up until closing time at five. Load in and load out was carefully supervised.   It was in every sense a well-run show and collectors and dealers alike loved it.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Many dealers would come the night before to set up their tents, and then settle in for the night so they would be ready for the morning rush.  This continues to be the case.  You could not unpack your stock, so in the evening there was a fair amount of partying and card playing going on.  Not to mention a fair amount of subtle trading and purchasing; everyone being very careful not to be caught as this was forbidden. You were allowed to unpack starting at 6 a.m. and so those two hours before the field was open to the public at 8 was crucial.  Typically, you would do a lot of dealer business during this period quite often selling many of your nicer pieces as they came off the truck.  Clay Benson and others would race around buying, following up leads given to them on their walky-talkies by scouts also combing the fields.  The negotiation was accomplished quickly and when a deal was reached it would be completed later in the day when things had calmed down.  I loved to buy at the show but I would always stay in the booth during this critical period because I was most interested in selling, and the type of thing I buy was esoteric enough that it would still be there later on.   It felt great when on occasion you had sold enough to consider it a successful show before the public had even entered the field.  This was the hay day, and everyone was tuned up for it.

Like everyone else, we had our fans.  Early on, there was not a lot of folk art on the field so folk art collectors made our booth one of their first stops.  These “keeners” were also in a hurry to buy and move on, but many of them would circle back later for a visit.  Things were typically busy until about ten, when it would slow down enough that Jeanine could handle the flow, and I would take off for a couple of hours to comb the field, coming back about every twenty minutes to unload purchases, and check how things were going.  I could tell by the expression on Jeanine’s face as she saw me approached with my treasures if I had some “splaning” to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.  I loved it on the occasions when I would quickly sell again something she would flatly tell me that “you’ll be taking that piece to your grave with you”.  But then again she was often right, and we mostly agreed.  She would take her turn after lunch, and it was my turn to hold down the fort, and offer comments on her purchases.  We didn’t have any cell phones or walky-talkies at this point which was just as well.  There’s nothing worse in my opinion than trying to explain and convince another of the relative merits of a piece, talking on your phone in someone’s booth while they look expectantly on. It takes the fun out of it.

For the first several years we had a spot right in the middle of a row in broad sunlight.  It was awfully hot until we purchased a tent to provide shade and shelter.  As helpful and necessary as it was, the first twenty minutes in the morning setting up the wretched thing, and the last twenty minutes at the end of the day packing it, where my least favourite parts of the day. Some swearing was involved as you would inevitably at some point pinch your skin putting the stupid thing together. When Marjorie Larmond quit doing the show in the late nineties she was nice enough to bequeath her spot under a big shade tree to us.  Jeff went along with her wishes, and so after that we had a lovely spot at the back of the booth, in the shade to set up our picnic lunch.  These lunches started out innocently enough, but being French Jeanine kept upping the ante until it became quite a production with tablecloths, a range of excellent cheeses, beverages, etc.  Many friends got in on this, and it became a very pleasant way to spend the slow time after two, until it was time to start wrapping up the business and beginning to pack at five.  We tried to keep it subtle and behind the truck and we made sure that someone was always on duty up front should someone wish assistance. Still some people would give us some very odd looks.  This reminded me a bit of the shows in France where at mid-day, everyone sets the table, and puts out their lunches and bottles of wine and you carry on regardless.  The French have their priorities straight.chri4

We happen to agree with a no packing before show end policy so although we would have our boxes and packaging ready we would wait for the announcement that it was over and it was o.k. to start.  It usually would take a couple of hours at a leisurely pace to pack up and leave.  We were always exhausted, but most often happy and satisfied with our day.  There is a Chinese place we like called “the China King” going into Brantford where we would stop and eat before heading home.  I don’t think Chinese food ever tastes better than at the end of a long, arduous day which also provides the satisfaction of good visits, exciting purchases, and if lucky, lots of sales and a full wallet.

We did our last Christie in 2010 which as it happens is also the last year the Gadsden’s ran it.  Anyone who has attended regularly over the years will tell you Christie has changed dramatically, especially in these last few years.  To everything, turn, turn, turn; so let’s not get maudlin about it.  There’s still plenty of wonderful stuff turning up on the field, and many good dealers.  Look harder and filter out the stuff that grinds on your collector sensibilities.  You just might find something to cherish, and you’re likely to enjoy yourself.  Quite possibly snag a nice lunch.  We’ll see you there.chri2

“living the dream”, a church full of great stuff in the middle of nowhere

int5

later on when most of the furniture was gone and it was largely folk art

I can remember standing in the partially dilapidated main hall of the old Wyecombe Methodist church for the first time, and thinking “this would make a fabulous antique store.”  It’s 1981 and Jeanine has read a classified ad in the London Free Press about a church for sale in Norfolk County for $21,000.  We decided to take a ride in the country and have a look just for the fun of it. Seemed harmless enough.  Well damned if we didn’t fall in love with the vaulted, 28’ patterned tin ceiling, and surrounding 14’ Gothic windows.  We loved the size, exposure and location of the place and saw the potential; and so in spite of all our friends and family advice against it, we bought the dream.  Thus along with our new alternative life style we began several years of hard labor renovating and maintaining the joint.  We soon discovered why these church halls are typically taken on by a community, and not individuals.  Everything is large scale.  Thirty gallons of paint rather than four.  We loved the challenge. We could see the phoenix rising from the ashes.int6

As life demands, simultaneous to the renovation we began to buy and sell antiques, to meet our needs, and so our main concern was to sell every weekend at the Toronto Harbourfront market. We didn’t think many would find us in the outback and we were happy with the income from the market.  But it wasn’t long before dealers and other customers started to make the trip out to see what we had at home.  At first it was more of a warehouse than a show room, but over the years we refined and added showcases, and shelving and by about 1990 it was usually quite full and fairly organized.  Of course everything had to be dragged up and down the wide, front steps, but we were young and stupid; and didn’t care.  Like many of us at that time who found themselves being full-time antique dealers, it was the alternative lifestyle thing that attracted us. It was more out of an aesthetic interest than any well thought out business plan that the sales room of Old Church Trading came about.  That and the natural tendency for things to pile up as you continue in this business, and thus the need to find some place to keep them.int4

In the fall of 1996 a Quebec dealer friend of ours started to bring huge loads of mediocre stuff to a Guelph auction every other week, and proposed that he also bring along some good things for us to sell for him. Things were changing in Quebec.  We had the room, and had done good business together over the years so we said yes.  It was great.  He kept bringing us wonderful things.  Not a lot at a time, but excellent quality.  We loved to see him pull in.  It was like Christmas.

Our Harbourfront days were now behind us, but with some good dealer trade and with a schedule of about twelve shows a year we continued to go through a lot of stock.  People who had not been by for a while often commented that it was amazing how much the stock kept changing.  That, and it just kept getting fuller.  Cupboards were now in rows and stacked one on top of the other.  I felt proud that it was looking like a Quebec picker’s barn. I loved to stand at the front of the big room and look over the variety of interesting things.  Although visitors were few and sometimes far between, those who made the trip usually were serious and went home with something, or often with lots of things.  We really didn’t advertise all that much, or encourage passing trade.  There was a small sign at the road but that was all.  Most who came were people we knew from shows.  Or people who learned about us through them.  I guess we could have pushed harder, but we like staying a bit out of the way.  Mysterious and a bit aloof.  Not in a “pearls before swine sort of way”, but just by saying “here it is.  We think it’s great.  If you think it’s great and want to take it home, we are happy to help you carry it out. Otherwise, we hope you had a nice time and it was worth the drive.”  You could be that cocky back then.int3

Late in 1997 our Quebec pal’s arrangement with the auction house ended and he stopped coming, so we bought about half the stock we had, and sent the rest home with him.  The market was changing, and so were we.  We were becoming more interested in the folk art, and although I loved the furniture, my back was just about pooched, and the furniture market was slowing, so we decided to downsize and focus on smalls. Oh how dismissive a young me and my colleagues had been watching the “smalls” dealers bringing in their boxes, and now I was one of them.  Less and less furniture came up those stairs.int2

Our daughter Cassandra had left for Queens a few years earlier, so by the year 2000 we started to think about ourselves in the not too distant future being old, and a bit crazy, rambling around the church in old patched sweaters, so we decided that a move into town and a new scene was the next project.  It took us three years to wind down the church and move on to Port Dover, and don’t get me wrong.  We’re happy we did.  But for a while there we were living our dream.  A great shop, in the middle of nowhere, which almost nobody knows about.   Looking back, I can see that it was almost like building a folly.int1

Buying my “wreck” from Kojak

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

Kojak’s barn was located on the outskirts of Victoriaville.  You may be acquainted with Kojak from my previous blog “discovering the picker’s barns around Victoriaville”.  Jean (Kojak) Deshaies was thus nicknamed because he was bald and had a rough voice.  He also had a disarmingly direct way of expressing himself which reminded me of the t.v. detective.  Across the road from Kojak was an Esso station with a good little roadside restaurant.  All the pickers used to gather there about 7 am to have breakfast and exchange tips and gossip.  It was a good place to be to find out what had come in, and what was going on.

One particular summer morning Jeanine and I arrived to find an unusually high level of

excitement amongst the natives.  It was 7 am and the boys were drinking brandy, giving high fives, and generally celebrating.  What’s up?  Kojak who seemed to be the center of attention answered, “have a brandy on me.  We’re celebrating the delivery of my new truck.  There she is out front.  Isn’t she a beauty.”  Sure enough a massive, brand new, chrome covered, custom painted one ton, four door Chevy sat glistening in the sun.   “It’s a little early for us for Brandy, but congratulations Jean, that’s a real beauty.”   We took our place at our usual table and ordered breakfast.

This was at a time when I was becoming known as a “regular”, and the boys liked me in spite of my beat up old pickup with the simple bolted together oak board rack.  Actually, I could tell that they laughed a bit behind my back as theirs was an “express my macho through my big truck culture.”  That and the big roll of cash which they would pull out of their pants is what made them impressive to their clients and each other.  They could not imagine why someone would come from so far which such a small potential for hauling things back.  The first time I tried to tie down a load, they stopped me and taught me how to do it properly.  Making a loop at one end of the rope and then pulling the other end through and pulling hard to cinch with a reef knot and the load was in place.  I was getting pretty good at piling the stuff up a little past the height of the cab and onto the lowered tailgate to maximize my load.

So we were enjoying the laughter and light heartedness of the moment, along with some bacon and eggs, when Kojak slid onto the bench next to us.   “Hey Phil, you should buy mon wreck.”  Pause. “Buy your wreck” ???  It was first thing in the morning and I was struggling to find meaning in Jean’s “Franglaise”.  Perhaps the shot of brandy would have helped.  “Yea, mon wreck.  Mon wreck from my old truck.  It didn’t fit the new truck because my last truck had the small back space like yours so I had a new one made. But it would work great for you, and then you would have a real rig for hauling a decent load.”  The fog lifted.  “Well what are you asking for it?”  At this Jean looked me directly in the face and held up five fingers.  Let’s see; another puzzler.  I knew that it could have originally cost $5,000 because it was beautifully made with a deck over the cab which had a metal mesh walking surface that came right out to the front bumper, and handy sailboat type rope tie downs all along the sides.  But it seemed too high, so I ventured, “how much Jean?”  “Five hundred.”  “Give me five hundred and we can go to the welder’s place right after breakfast and he will put it on for you. That’s included in the price”.  I looked at Jeanine.  She gave me a wink, and so I said “Sure. Sounds good”.  Thanks Jean.  We’ll go for it.”  Jean’s big smile displayed his satisfaction with this.  His old rack was sold and he knew I could buy a lot more from him with this new equipment.  It was a good investment on his part.

We finished our breakfasts and followed Jean about five clicks out of town to the home and shop of his welder buddy.  Jean had called ahead so by the time we arrived he had it suspended up above the bay ready for us to drive in.  Twenty minutes later our old oak rack was on the burn pile, and our new front to back rack was bolted into place along the sides and on to the front bumper.  The old truck dropped about two inches under the new weight, but it drove fine, and we were off on the hunt with oodles of more space for purchases.  The rack survived two new trucks and served me well for the rest of my time hauling big loads out of Quebec.  I was happy that we had been there for breakfast the day Kojak’s new truck had arrived.

My new metal rack bought from Kojak.

My new metal rack bought from Kojak.

An amateurs guide to moving small buildings, or how we got our out- buildings for almost nothing

A couple of years after moving to the church, about 1984, Jeanine noticed a small ad in the local paper advertising an auction of cottages in Port Dover.  The Arbour cottages had provided many families a cheap and fun summer home at the beach since their construction in the mid 1940’s, but they were small, and basic, and had fallen out of favor after forty years of service so it was decided by the owners to get rid of them and build a super miniature golf course in their place.

the "workshop" cabins in their original location

the “workshop” cabins in their original location

Well, it just so happened that we needed out buildings.  When we bought the place there was a very rudimentary workshop, and a sad little chicken coop not worth saving, and so we were planning to spend a bit to build a good workshop, with storage, and a building for the lawn mower, etc. So this seemed like a possibility to buy premade if the prices didn’t go too high.

The auction was set for 10 a.m. Saturday morning and I had to be at another country auction to buy stock, so Jeanine went to see if she might buy one, or with any luck two.  We knew that they were well made, and several were smaller, about 10’x10’ so in theory they should be easy to move.  Small enough to go under hydro lines. There was about twenty of them in all spread along two rows.

Jeanine got there about 9:30 and after having a good look decided which one’s she would try for.  The bidding started precisely at 10, and the auctioneer must have had somewhere else to go because basically he just walked down the row, saying “O.K. you’ve had a chance to see them and remember they come with all the contents, but by that by buying one you are agreeing to have it removed completely from the premises within 30 days.  Let’s begin.  Do I have $300.  Do I see $300.  Anyone in at $250.  Do I see $200.  Come on folks get me started here. Let’s go.”  Jeanine put up her hand.  I’ll bid $50.  “SOLD.   O.k. folks that’s the way it’s done, so now cabin #2. Do I here $300.”  Jeanine again.  I’ll give you $50.  “SOLD.  O.K. we move on to #3. “. And so it went on for another 20 minutes or so, and when the dust had cleared at Cabin #20 Jeanine had bought a total of 6 cabins from $50 to $150 each, complete with contents, and with this one little problem in that they all had to be moved within thirty days.

The cabins installed on our property

The cabins installed on our property

We were very do-it-yourself oriented in those days so after examining the situation we settled on a plan of borrowing our apple farmer friend Sergio’s large, low lying, flat-bed trailer.  We would jack the cabins up onto a tower of blocks high enough to drive the trailer very carefully underneath, between the concrete pylons.  Then it was simply the case of dropping the building onto the trailer and driving it the 40 kilometer distance to our place.   Our farmer friend and neighbor Dave offered to help and he had a big 8-cylinder heavy duty pick-up truck he thought we could use to drive them over.  What could go wrong?

I’m here to tell you that jacking up a building one side at a time and slipping in concrete blocks before going to the other side and repeating the process, is a pretty hairy business.  It seemed that it was always teetering on the brink and just about ready to drop, so you were super prepared to jump out of the way to save life and limb.  But somehow we were able to accomplish it with a lot of encouragement from Dave, who was rough and tumble and did this sort of thing all the time.

So we arrived at the moment when Dave, being our expert driver, very slowly lined up the trailer in front of the first cottage, and with his window open, cigarette dangling from his lips, looking back and forth between his two mirrors, managed to back it right up to the back of the cottage without touching the pillars on either side.  This was a masterful performance considering he had less than 3 inches grace on either side to play with.  Well done Dave.

Dropping it on the trailer was no problem, and after securing it we were ready to take our first cabin out of the park and over to the church.  No permits of course, but if they stopped us we were prepared to see just how far we could get with the argument that we had farm plates. Dave said you can do practically anything if you have farm plates. We did have a car in front with the blinkers flashing after all, and someone behind as well.

It went pretty well at first.  The truck seemed to be struggling a bit to get it moving, but we managed to pull out onto to the road and make a quick right, which was when we discovered that the Port Dover hill is a lot steeper than it looks.  The truck was in it’s lowest gear and it only took a couple of seconds to realize it just didn’t have the power to get this baby up the hill.  Yikes. Nothing to do but retreat.  One of us had stopped the traffic behind, so Dave was able to back into the Cabin park again and pull it a bit out of the way.  Hmm.  We needed a bigger gun.  So it was decided to call a friend of Dave’s who had a tow truck.  Within an hour he was there and hooked up, and with the extra power we had no problem getting up the hill and down the back roads to our place in Wyecombe. He charged us $75 for the trip.  We had a system.  Now all we had to do is get the thing off the trailer and go for number two.

As it turns out that was the tough part.  Not the lifting it up so the trailer could come out so much as the bringing it back down without tipping it part.  I think we managed to drop every one of them at least a little bit, but they landed roughly were we wanted them to with no damage and no one’s foot underneath.

We managed the 10’x10’ cabins well but there was a larger one about 16’ x 16’ that was too large for the trailer.  I went about trying to line up a couple of longer I beams to move it on, but nobody had any available so we had to resort to plan “B”.  Plan “B” was to simply take a chain saw and cut right down the corners of the building allowing us to lay down the individual sides on the trailer.  We just tore off the roof and trashed it. Worked like a charm.  We reconstructed the building by reinforcing the corners and built a new roof and it was as good as new.

Within the thirty days we managed to move the two buildings which went together to form our workshop and storage, a play cabin for our daughter Cassandra, a garden tool cabin, and we gave one to Dave for his helping us.  Realizing we didn’t need any more we sold the remaining one to a gent who had turned up too late for the auction and dearly wanted one.  We had a lot of refrigerators, stoves and funky furniture which disappeared pretty quickly as the local tobacco farmers were always looking to cheaply equip their summer help cabins.  We managed to recoup the cost of purchase from selling the contents, and in the end had four great outbuildings for less than $500.  Plus, we ended up with all our toes and fingers.  Bonus.cabin3

 

YOUR TRUCK IS ON FIRE!!!

truckIt had been a successful Odessa show.   On Saturday at opening we had just arrived due to a flat en route , and were bringing things off the truck as people came in.  Turns out people get excited by getting first crack at things, and several pieces were selling as they hit the ground.  The mood was jovial and spirited.  Dan Ackroyd and his wife came by and they were attracted to a two piece painted cupboard that they could see glimpses of on the still tied down load.  She told him to stay there until it was unloaded while she went on down the line, and he was good enough to suggest helping me unload rather than just standing there watching me.  Nice guy.  It turned out not to be the cupboard for them, but regular Toronto customers bought it right after, so this combined with other sales indicated a strong start.  It’s a great feeling to sell enough in the first hour that you have “made your table” as the expression goes, and you can relax a little knowing that even if nothing else sells you have had a good show.  It didn’t happen that often even then in the heyday of the nineties.

The day continued to go well in spite of the sweltering August heat, and we even had a few sales on Sunday. So, when five o’clock closing came, we were happy not to have a lot to load back on, although the Toronto couple needed the cupboard delivered to their home, and I bought a few things in the rough to take home.  By about seven we were loaded and on the 401 heading west.  We checked the radio for traffic and found out that things were moving slowly all the way to Toronto due to an accident and so decided to pull off at Belleville for dinner at a place we like down by the marine.  We felt a bit celebratory, and content to relax, sip wine, and eat seafood while looking out over the boats in the harbor, so by the time we finished our espresso it was probably pushing ten before we were back on the road to complete the five hour (in total) drive.  Feeling good and awake thanks to the espresso.   Of course we were younger then and able to stay up past ten.

So everything was going swimmingly. Traffic was clipping along, the CBC was playing an interesting documentary, the windows were down and the breeze was cool.  We hit Toronto about midnight and I was enjoying the fact that all four express lanes seemed almost empty.  Occasionally a big transport would go whooshing past me in spite us traveling at 120 Km per hour.  I was “in the zone” and enjoying the oddly luminescent mercury vapor lighting and passing cityscape when suddenly there is a pick-up right behind me flashing his lights, and hitting his horn.  “Alright already.  Go by me there’s another three lanes.”   What is with this guy?  Next thing he has pulled up right beside me, and a guy leans out the window and screams “Your truck is on fire!!”  Whaaat?  Looking in the rear view I see flames flaring up into the night off the top of my load and realized he’s right. Yikes! It was several minutes before I could pull off safely, all the while watching the flames get higher due to the combination of plenty of oxygen , and all that dry 100 year old wood.  I jumped out and surveyed the scene.  Indeed, I could see that at least three things were on fire and several blankets had ignited, and of course all this was tightly secured by ropes which are also on fire by this point. The situation looked dire. First things first.  Jeanine was by this point sleeping, and was not at all pleased to be woken up with the news that it was time to abandon ship and run for your life.  We both ran down into the ditch thinking that at any moment the thing may blow just like in the movies.  Then slowly reason supplanted panic, and we realized that the pieces on fire were up on top and we would have to stand there and watch it burn for a long time before it came anywhere near the gas tank.  Let alone heat up the steel of the truck bed enough to ignite anything, so we got busy and started untying things as fast as we could, throwing the burning blankets and ropes into the ditch and stomping them out.  My kingdom for a fire extinguisher.  I have always carried one thereafter, and so there’s a cautionary tale for you.  Other than gloves, all we had to fight the fire was a couple of large bottles of water which we saved to pour right on the burning wood parts of the furniture that had ignited. We unloaded and stomped and smothered for about fifteen minutes which seemed an eternity and before you knew it, the flames were out. The fire was mostly in the blankets as it turns out, and we quickly assessed that only three pieces of furniture were seriously damaged.  Unfortunately, one of them was the sold and paid for cupboard to be delivered to Toronto.  We sat in the ditch for several minutes making sure all the fire was out, as the traffic roared by quite oblivious to our drama.  Nobody stopped and the half expected police never showed up.  We settled our nerves, and tried to figure out how such a thing could happen.  Our best guess was that a trucker had thrown out a lit cigarette and it had landed in among the blankets.  A close call, but half an hour later we were reloaded and back on the road heading home, feeling grateful that things had not gotten worse.  The insurance paid for some of the damage.  Giving us the money we had paid for the cupboard before restoring it, and not the amount we had just sold it for.  However, something is better than nothing.  The hard part of course was phoning our good clients in Toronto and having to inform than that their beloved cupboard had met a deathly fate on the road home and we were tearing up their cheque.  Very nice folks, they were quite understanding although they didn’t entirely believe that we hadn’t sold the cupboard for more money and then made up the story, so they accepted our invitation to come out and see for themselves.  They were quite reassured when they saw it and marveled that the fire had not spread further to destroy more of the load.  We felt the same.  We were able to come up with another cupboard for them, and no one got hurt so I guess you can say that all’s well that ends well. Still, I would advise that get yourself a fire extinguisher, especially if you carry furniture on an open truck. The moment may arrive when you would give your left arm to have one, God forbid.

The manufactured “folk art” of Pierre et Claire Inc.

the cover of our mail order brochure

the cover of our mail order brochure

Last Saturday at Christie in anticipation of this article, I looked to see how many animals I could find which were manufactured by this small Quebec company.  Although it was too hot to cover the entire field, I did manage about ½ of it, and in that area I found five.  I noted that we as Old Church Trading had painted three of the five.  This gives you an idea of the scope of production of this company.

Rene Beaudoin was one of the original, and possibly the most successful of the Quebec pickers which started up in the 1960’s in the Victoriaville region of Quebec.  There were several small farms in the region, and everyone seemed inclined to keep all the old furniture and accessories as it was replaced in the barns, basements, and attics on the property.  The popularization of antiques brought in part by Expo 67 signaled the start of the antique picking industry, and Rene, although reportedly not able to read or write, had a keen understanding of business and quickly became the main man, hiring several men to go out and knock on doors, and they fetched all and everything available, bringing it back daily to his large farm near Defoy.  After becoming enormously successful in the antique trade, in 1978 he decided to create a small manufacturing business, employing some of the wonderfully talented wood workers of the region to create high quality reproductions of antiques, and copies of wood carvings which were prevalent in the area.  In 1983 his daughter Claire, who is married to Pierre Trudel, bought the company from Rene, and thus Pierre et Claire Inc. was formed.

unfinished order arriving from Pierre et Claire

unfinished order arriving from Pierre et Claire

The company exists to this day at its original location of 1197 Rue Principale, St. Anne Du Sault (Defoy), Quebec, and continues to manufacture reproductions of antiques and animal carvings with about five full time employees.  When we discovered them back in the early 80’s we decided to set up a mail order business for the animals which we called Old Church Trading.  We advertised in Harrowsmith magazine in Canada, and Country Home magazine in the States.  We offered many different animals both in the sanded, unfinished state that we bought them in, and varnished or painted which we did ourselves. We sold hundreds of them both through mail order, and at the Harbourfront market in Toronto, which we attended every Sunday.  At the time it seemed everyone wanted a nice pine, carved goose or swan to sit on their harvest table or cupboard.

various cow models

various cow models

We would stop in every other week or so and fill out our orders, going through the bins of carvings and picking out the nicest ducks, geese, swans, loons, roosters, and other animals.  We were always interested to see what new models they would come up with.  Penguins, buffalo, bears etc. would appear.  The prices were always reasonable.  I recall the standard size goose would cost about $16 each.  Although there was some variation in quality, (sometimes they would have large knots, or be slightly malformed) overall they were very nicely done.  Initially, all the models were cut out from solid pine, but sometimes these pieces would crack with time, especially if they were not adequately finished, so eventually they started to offer laminated models at a slightly higher price.  This solved the cracking problem, but didn’t look as nice and natural in varnish.  Of course they were the best ones to buy for painting.

inside the factory. Note the pile of geese in the background

inside the factory. Note the pile of geese in the background

As far as I know this small company was, and is the only North American company to “manufacture” folk art type carvings.   Although by the fact that they are manufactured and mass produced they cannot truly be considered as folk art.  And yet you cannot really call them reproductions either because in many cases they are an original design.  For folk art collectors it is important to know of these carvings, and be able to spot them.   They are fine for decoration when bought at the right price, but should not be confused with “real” folk art, which are items of individual expression, and not mass produced.  Although we must also acknowledge that many folk artists, Maud Lewis springs to mind, would repeat favored images over and over again, it is quite different than banging out 100’s of identical ducks using templates and modern wood working tools.   Ironically, I think their market has been effected when the Chinese started to reproduce copies of their work.  I’ve seen lots of these too.

the very popular rooster, and hen with our paint jobs

the very popular rooster, and hen with our paint jobs

note how this is modeled after the Black Horse Beer display

note how this is modeled after the Black Horse Beer display

Pierre et Claire continue to be in business, and have a web site at www.pierreetclaireinc.com, but it is in French only, and does not show many of their available carvings.

Our painted versions of Pierre et Claire animals

Our painted versions of Pierre et Claire animals