Searching for Marya Zajac

For those of you who follow my blog, you may have noticed a long pause since my last installment. Please excuse my absence. My hiatus was brought about largely by a real need for a break, but more importantly by a desire to focus more of my time to a documentary project which is near and dear to me.  Well, things are moving along nicely now, so I am back to writing.  I look forward to getting back to one installment a week, or as close as I can muster.

Also during this time I was inspired to sort and re-organize my office.  It’s surprising how many items failed to “spark joy” in me, and got turfed.  However, equally important was how much interesting material I turned up that I had completely forgotten about, or perhaps never known about.  Included in this list is a letter from a Manitoba folk artist named Marya Zajac from Manitoba to my wife Jeanine, along with seventeen photographs of her work.  It is dated July 26, 1994.  The content refers to an arrangement they had made for Jeanine to take the photos to France to show to potential dealers there.  I have the vaguest recollection of this, and when I asked Jeanine about it she recalled that summer 1994 was the timing of her mother’s small stroke, and that when she went to France she was unable to do much more than devote her time to looking after her mother.  She did contact a few of the dealers we knew there, but nothing became of it.  In looking at the photos, I realized that I wish I had paid better attention to Ms. Zajac’s work at the time, and had pursed representing her here.  I think her work is good, and honest, and I’ll bet I could have sold a few to our customers.  This being the “high” times when the market was lively, and we were still doing lots of shows and had a large customer base.

Well, hindsight is 20/20, and I was just about to let it lie, and turf the package as a missed opportunity, when I thought better of it.  Why not at least google her name to see if I could find any evidence of her. After all the work is strong and she states in the letter that she had “placed some paintings in another gallery, and so things are coming along very nicely.”  

Sure enough not only did images of her paintings come up, but one of them linked to an Etsy store named AmpersandEtAl,  that is run by Marya’s sister Barbara MacKenzie, and it carries a few of Marya’s prints and original paintings along with Barbara’s craft items.  I read the “about” section and it stated

“AmpersandEtAl is owned and operated by me, Barbara Mackenzie and my sister Marya Zajac. We are both self- taught artists, retired from our day jobs and living in a small town in southern Manitoba.”  Bingo.  I had found the right path.

 In the upper right, under a picture of two young girls which I can only imagine was of the sisters when they were young, there is a contact button.  I wrote to Barbara explaining the history of my inquiry, and expressed the desire to write about it, and requested their permission to do so.  I waited for a reply.

My search for Marya Zajac also led me to a blog written by Barbara MacKenzie called “Art, and Life at the End of the World, becoming an artist.”  Bingo, again.   Very interesting reading where I learned more about the sisters, and their current situation, and a lot about how Barbara sees the world.   Here is a teaser quote.

The Old House at the End of the World

I live at the end of the World.  Perhaps that a bit of an overstatement.     I live in a town that sits on the border of Canada and the US.   My physical world stretches east/west and north but not south.    The Canada/US border is the end of my world.  Also my age, at 74, I am coming to the end part of my life and therefore my world.   I do say that I am going to live another 20 years but who knows what tomorrow will bring.   My house is old, built in 1895.   Probably one of the oldest houses in town.   But its comfortable, paid for and it suits me.    The garden is large enough for the dogs to run, but not too large for me to look after.

The town is quiet, which suits me.   I moved here 15 years ago, hiding to recuperate from emotional wounds inflicted on me while living in the city.  And I have never regretted the move.   Well, sometimes when I would like to order take-away, and there is nowhere to order from.

I am self -confident enough to think that I have something to say, and arrogant enough to think that other people will want to hear it.

Some set their hearts on a rocking chair

The better to sleep out their days

I’m looking for a reason to scream and shout

I don’t want to fade away

Chumbawamba

This blog is my way of screaming and shouting.   I don’t want to fade away     I wish to be heard

What a treat. I like Barbara’s attitude and writing style so I subscribed to her blog.   I’ve read all her posts now, and look forward to reading more. 

A few days later, I received a note back from Barbara stating that they were pleased to extend the permission to make them a blog subject, and she gave me Marya’s e-mail address to put me in direct contact.   I’ve written, and am awaiting a response.   I will write again about this when it happens, and more about Marya’s work.  In the meantime, I suggest you check out the Etsy store and Barbara’s blog.  The links are below.

https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/AmpersandEtAl?ref=l2-shopheader-name

I admit that I am highly critical of the effect the internet and in particular, the social media has had on society, but in a case like this, were you can search for the writer of a letter written in 1994, and moments later re-establish contact, I’m impressed.

All the usual suspects

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, we spent every Sunday for much of the 1980’s attending the Toronto Harbourfront Antique market.  It was a very lively market in those days, and you could rely on hundreds of people to attend.  Most of them serious buyers looking for a special decorative object, or piece of antique furniture to decorate their homes, as was popular at the time.   Also, it was a time when several Toronto people had already bought and furnished their house in the city, and they were all going out into the hinterland and buying up the low priced rural properties which would become their country week-end homes.  For these in particular, they were looking for antique country furniture, most often in refinished pine, or similar.  For an antique dealer these were heady times.

So eventually, within this continuous flow of humanity you would soon learn to recognize the specialty collectors or  dealers who would arrive every Sunday to scan the market for their select products.  Some smaller Toronto dealers would set up to sell, and to advertise their shop but there were several more dealers who had established shops in the city, and they would come by to add to their stock.  You got to know these people as regular buyers, and you would get to know what they are after, and try to supply it.

One fellow would buy any refinished pine chest of drawers I would bring, and at a price close to what I would get from the public.  Another dealer only wanted original paint pieces, and he would be there every week as you pulled in, hopping alongside the truck and pointing at anything of interest with the same question, “how much for this”, followed by a “ yes, I’ll take it, hold it for me and I’ll be back to settle up.  He would then run off to follow the next truck in.  Generally there would be five or six of these alfa type dealers to deal with right off the top so it made for an exciting first hour.  Although you had to be on your toes especially when you brought in something really good, and there was a frenzy to determine who of the group was the first to commit. Get this wrong and people got offended. Guys would get pretty mad at each other over lost treasure.

Then as the day wore on many other dealers and collectors would make their way to your booth, most often looking for specific items.  There was the pen guy.  At some point he would slide up beside you and say quietly “got any pens for me?” If the answer was no he would just keep walking.  However, if you did have something it wasn’t a certainty that he would be interested.  He was after top end Parkers, etc, so once in a while I would come across something he liked, but for the most part I gave up after a half dozen failed attempts.  Still he appeared like clock-work every week.

Then there was the defrocked priest couple who would always turn up seeking Catholic items. Extraordinary looking guys with extravagant wardrobe and hair down to their asses.   As I was so often in Quebec, I usually did have something to show them.  They really knew their stuff and would explain to me the symbolism and meanings of the pieces. They bought only occasionally, and I always looked forward to the little theology lesson in the middle of the day.

Later in the morning, preferring to get up at a civilized hour, along would come MonsieurTaschereau , a possible candidate for anything spectacular I might have.  He had wonderful taste, and a highly respected shop in the Four Seasons tour.  A relatively small space, but full of good things.  He was very dry and came across as haughty at first, but when you got to know him he was down to earth, and a good guy.  When he bought something from me, no matter how small he would always ask me to deliver.  Then he would grab a ride so he didn’t have to take the transit back.  I didn’t mind because we always had interesting conversation on the way, and I loved looking at his shop.

Another in this category was a lady named Susan Miller who had a wicker shop on Mount Pleasant for years.  She was an institution with all the upper crust for their supply of white wicker furniture.  All the rage for your patios and sun rooms, and Susan could be relied on for the best, and the whitest.  No matter how good I would think the white paint finish was on a piece she would always say, “well, off course I will have to have it repainted”.    It was part of her negotiation technique, but just the beginning.  She was a lovely, refined lady always decked out in top end white and beige clothes with highly coiffed white hair adorned with a beige, wicker looking, basket-weave hair band. To top it off. It was her costume.  Susan was lovely, but she was tough as nails. She had a special technique. For instance, if she liked a chair, but didn’t like the price she would simply sit in it, carry on pleasant conversation, ask for the occasional glass of water, and wait until you couldn’t stand it any longer and would say “O.K. you win Susan.  It’s yours for what you asked, and of course I am happy to deliver it today.  And of course she would always grab a ride.  Again, I really didn’t mind because the conversation was good.  I got to know a lot about Susan. How she took all her meals at Fran’s. How she couldn’t stand the smell of garlic and wouldn’t touch the stuff.  It is what she disliked most about taking the transit.  How she met her husband when she was a hairdresser at Eaton’s. Ah, so that’s the reason for the perfect hair all those years later.  How her husband was an accomplished accountant and had written the Canadian tax code.  Unfortunately he had died young, so she used some of her capital to set up the wicker store, and as it turned out she was really good at it, and enjoyed it, so it became her life until she retired (I think) at about age 70.

Being such divergent people I have to say we got along very well, and over the many trips up Mount Pleasant to deliver her and her wicker I got to know her.  “One day we were riding along when she looked over and said “You know Phil I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve worked hard, and you want to know what I can tell you about life?”  Pregnant pause while I imagined she was going to go on about family, or good friends or the like, but then she said “In the end Phil, you know who your best friend will be? “  Please tell me.  She looked at me squarely and said, “a couple of bucks in your pocket”.  When you get older and need some help, that’s what it comes down to.  A couple of bucks in your pocket.”   It surprised me, and puzzled me for a moment, but I could see from her expression that she was right.harbour1

My Meeting with Morrisseau

Man changing into Thunderbird,
Panel one

In 1976 I was making multi projector slide presentations with a couple of other guys. The kind of thing you would see at Expo 67 or the 1970’s Ontario Place, if you are old enough to catch the reference.  We called ourselves the Awes Studio, and we were based in London Ontario.  We specialized in shows about culture or art, and created works that were an artform in their own right.  There was not nearly as much money in this area as there was in creating commercial industrial or business presentations, but it was a lot more fun, and we were creating a lot of work.

Norval Morrisseau

So it came to pass that in 1976 we pitched Ontario Place on the idea of creating a multi-screen slide/ sound spectacular of Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau’s interpretation of the Ojibway legend of The Man who changed into a Thunderbird.  After a bizarre late night meeting in the executive board room of Ontario Place which I will save the telling of for another time, we had a go-ahead and some development money,  so the first thing we wanted to do was to contact Mr. Morrisseau and run the idea by him, hopefully for his blessing and in the best case scenario his involvement.   At this point Morrisseau was out of the public eye and reportedly living on the street in Northern Ontario somewhere.  It didn’t look good, but we started the process.

The one thing we knew was that he had been represented since the beginning of his artistic career in 1962 by legendary Yorkville gallery owner Jack Pollack, and although Mr. Pollack was by this point very ill and reportedly about to close his gallery, we contacted him anyway with the hope of a meeting.  He agreed, and what a lovely person he was. He made us feel most welcome, listened to our story, and suggested that although he did not know where Norval was, and could not guess what his response may be, he would do his best to contact Mr. Morrisseau and set up a meeting.  He had family contacts that he could send a message through, but he was quite concerned that no one had seen Morrisseau in quite a while and that reports suggested he was not doing well.  We crossed our fingers and waited.  We set about contacting various native organizations for input and approval.   People didn’t think about Cultural appropriation in those days, but we were serious and committed to the idea of employing as many Native artists as possible, and of studying the story and consulting until we felt certain we were presenting it as accurate and sympathetically as possible.  It  quickly became tough sledding as we came to discover that there was a vast difference in the opinions of the many scholars contacted.  We learned that Norval Morrisseau had received quite a bit of condemnation within the Native community itself for his telling of the story in book form.  Many believed that it was only to be passed on verbally and within the tribe.

The more we consulted, and learned the harder it became to see our way forward  . To find a spiritual core to hang on to, and build from.  It was all looking rather bleak when we got a call from Jack Pollack that Norval Morrisseau had been found, and very surprisingly to all of us, he had agreed to come into Toronto for a meeting to hear what we had to say.  We were equal parts ecstatic, and apprehensive.  What if he rejected us totally?  On the other hand we held great hope he may co-operate in the fact that he agreed to meet us.

We told Jack Pollack before the meeting that we would describe the project to him, and then ask Mr. Morrisseau if he would be willing to paint six large panels to depict the stages of the man turning into Thunderbird.  We would then photograph the works and use them in the production as the main, integral “sign posts” in the progress of the story.  We would also ask him if for the duration of the show, we could display the paintings along the long corridor leading to the theatre because as the line was usually quite long, and slow people would have time to contemplate them as they waited to move forward.  Mr. Pollack suggested that if Norval agreed to go ahead, he would rent him a studio for a period of months and provide him with the stretched canvas’, a budget, and the supplies necessary to produce the works.

We weren’t even commissioning him.   He would own the paintings. There would be money for allowing us to use them of course, but  we were basically just asking for him to create them,  and allow us use them for this purpose.  Preposterous when I think about it now. All we could offer other than the money was that thousands from all over Ontario and beyond would see them, and a faithful depiction of the story he told in his book.  The date for a meeting was set for a cold  February Wednesday at eleven o’clock, at the jack Pollack Gallery.

My work mate, and friend Ford Evans and I piled in my old Volvo and made it through  blizzard conditions on the 401 from London to Toronto with only moments to spare before the arranged meeting.  We had to park a few blocks away because of the snow. Time was running short so when we arrived at the gallery we burst in all red faced from the fast walking and strong wind;  with our, as it was at the time, long hair blown every which way, and snot frozen to our facial hair.  And the kicker was, that as it happened we were both wearing full length antique fur coats.  Mine was racoon, and Ford was wearing his grandfather’s buffalo coat.  Good, practical garb for February.   We never considered any implications.

So we burst into the heat of the gallery space and there before us stood Jack, whom we knew, and the great man himself. The great Anishinaabe artist, sometimes known as the Picasso of the North, Norval Morrisseau.  Or as he signed his paintings and called himself. Copper Thunderbird.  Long haired, and bearded with a clear gaze and knowing face.  You could feel his greatness. He was very still. We gathered ourselves up and approached with hand’s extended to give and receive a traditional hand shake.  “Mr. Morrisseau, we can’t tell you how honored and happy we are to meet you,  and we are so grateful that….” He held up his hand in a stop gesture. Looked right at us, and said “wait a minute, I’m talking to your coat.”  We paused.  He waited for another moment, then he closed his eyes for a moment, and then finally said, “ O.K. I’m pleased to meet you. I’m here. So what is it that you ask of me. We looked over at Jack who just smiled and looked away.  There was nothing left to do but lay it out as plainly and directly as possible so we did so in about a three minute rap leaving out many of the details and just portraying to the best of our abilities our passion and devotion to the story, and our desire to produce it for a large public.  We got to “and so, that’s about it in a nutshell but we imagine that you may have a lot of questions.” Long silence.  He just looked at us.  We began to feel he was looking through us.  We all stood there in silence for what seemed another eternity, when suddenly he said brightly “ O.K. I’ll do it.

That was it.  No questions. No comments. No reassurances. Jack stepped in and said “that’s wonderful Norval, I’ll take you over to see the studio.  We’ll let you fellows know when the paintings are finished. We thanked them both, and left wondering “what the hell just happened.”

Ago installation of
Man changing into Thunderbird

And that was the last I ever heard from or saw Norval Morrisseau or Jack Pollack.  Jack died not long afterwards, and the “thunderbird project’, although innocent of any wrong doing got caught up in a very large scandal that wiped out many departments and projects of Ontario Place.  You might remember it from the papers.  It was a big deal.  People went to jail.  But for us it was just sad that the project died on the table,  and there was nothing to do but move on to other projects.

About four years later I picked up a copy of MacLean’s and low and behold,  there are on the cover is a photograph of the six panels by Norval Morriseau  entitled “Man changing into a Thunderbird”  It was on the cover because it had sold to the Esso oil collection for some huge amount of money.  A few years after that, I walked into the Art gallery of Ontario, turned a corner and there they were in the flesh.  Magnificent. I sat  down and looked at them in awe. I was incredibly moved.  Not only did he do what he said he would do, but in doing so he had created a masterpiece.  I can only hope that Jack lived long enough to see their completion.  When I think back I am truly grateful for my brief, but brilliant moment with Norval Morrisseau, and it makes me feel good to have been even a tiny part of the story of the creation of such a magnificent and important work of art. I never did figure out what he was saying to my coat.

panel six of
Man changing into Thunderbird

You can pay anything for anything these days.

here’s a really old picture of me.

It’s 4:30 pm April 20, 2018, and I am declaring it spring.  I just had to run out to my friends place on the edge of town to deliver a painting I had cleaned for them, and when I got out of the car, I thought,  “Hallelujah. at last, it’s spring.  What a long wait it has been for us here in south-west Ontario this year.  But it’s like being beaten over the head with a two by four, it feels so good once it’s over. I point this out to say it took a lot of will power to reject the offer of a beer and sitting on the porch for a spell for me to write this,  but I met a guy at the market last week who pointed out he noticed I was getting a bit irregular in writing every Friday as I was until recently, and he gently encouraged me to get with it.  It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty apparently.  But what does this have to do with economics you ask.  Well nothing, but the arrival of spring could not go without comment.

What got me to thinking about economics this week is a new pair of blue jeans I bought at Costco.   I buy clothes only when necessary which at my age is rarely.  I’ve got a lot of clothes and not many occasions when I need to dress up,  plus I am not much of a shopper.  Anyway, seventeen bucks.  I got a really nicely made jeans of quality fabric that fit me and look good for less than the price of a coffee and a snack at Starbucks. I also had the occasion that day to be in the Bay and I saw some designer jeans for about $240.  I didn’t like the fancy stitching on the back pockets but I suppose it was there so people knew you hadn’t bought your jeans at Costco for seventeen bucks, and that’s fine with me. I’m not going to diss anybody for wanting to make a statement with their clothes, if that’s what makes you feel better.  It just doesn’t do anything for me.  I also know that if I looked around I could probably find a pair of jeans for $5, but if you want them to last you’re better off to spend a little more.   My point is you can spend $15 or you can spend $245, or more for a pair of men’s jeans. You can pay anything for anything these days

Next example.  We were at our daughter’s house and over breakfast she said to her husband “when you go out to get the groceries I would like you to go to a hardware store and get a new drip coffee maker.” This was the direct result of having to listen to me once more mutter under my breath when I tried to pour myself a cup of coffee and inevitably, no matter how hard you tried, the stupid spout of the carafe was so tiny that you ended up spilling all over the counter.  That, and the fact that it no longer had a lid and she doesn’t like the smell of coffee.  I find this hard to relate to because I love the smell of coffee, but I did agree with her that the spilling thing was a pain in the ass.  Of course it is not in my nature to replace anything that still works so I objected. I would have put up with that stupid carafe until the thing died a natural death.   Also, the fact is that neither of them drink coffee so the coffee maker is just there for us or other coffee drinking guests so is rarely used.  But she showed great determination so I headed out with my son in law, figuring that I would jump in at the last minute and buy the device as a hostess gift. As it turns out he wouldn’t let me do this but I digress. We went first to the local Loblaws for the groceries on our list, and low and behold, there in the middle isle was a very nice little coffee maker on sale for $22.   Amazing.  It has a spout that pours, a lid, a cleanable filter so you don’t have to  buy and dispose the paper filters, and I can tell it makes a much better cup of coffee than the old one.  I think I may have learned something from the experience. Spending $22 to not have to wipe up spilled coffee is a good move.  When I got home and looked at the Canadian Tire catalogue I noticed you can spend anywhere from $12 to about $350 for a drip coffee maker.  You can pay anything, for anything these days.

This seems to be the case for most items these days thanks to diverse world economics, and the modernization of manufacturing, and I think it’s a pretty good thing overall.   The frugal or poor can buy pretty good things for not much money, and the wealthy have an ever increasing selection to choose from.  However, I think it also makes people suspicious of their understanding of the monetary value of things.

This has always been an issue that antique and art dealers have had to deal with.  When you are asking $350 for a  100 year old rocking chair, there is no price in a catalogue to refer to.  There is just your knowledge of antiquity and markets which the buyer either believes in or not.  I believe that a lot of established, knowledgeable dealers do a good and fair job of pricing, but it is also the case with the way the markets are now that you see prices all over the place.  Recently, a painting by a folk artist that I represented for years sold at auction for $870.  I sold that painting in my shop for $495, and I know of other auctions were similar paintings by the same artist have sold for less than $100.

I once overheard a couple of old time dealers haggling over the price of a chair.  “Well I agree that it is a very nice chair in original paint and great condition but why is it priced at $600.” The other guy looked him strait in the face and said “because I paid $5 for it”.  Ha. They both laughed, and the questioning fellow knew that his negotiation technique was failing but you get the point.  You can pay anything, for anything these days. He may have only had to pay $5 but his knowledge of antiques made him realize it was worth much more. I think this is the basic appeal behind the business. It’s a treasure hunt.  That, and a love for the stuff.  You need that too, or you will never be able to make a go of it.

And don’t get me started on how this affects you when you are trying to do a decent job of appraising items for fair market value.  That’s a topic for another day. I’ve gone on long enough. It’s sunny on the porch and I am dying to go out there and have a beer.  I’m not a big beer drinker mind you.  Don’t touch the stuff all winter, and really don’t drink much in the summer, but on the first day of spring, who would deny me?  Happy spring everyone.

Finding Lajeunesse

shadflyguy

“Chien Mechant”

You know how sometimes when you meet a person you feel a real connection to their inner spirit, and recognize in them something which represents basic goodness and beauty?  Something rare and special.  Well that’s the way I feel about having met Henri Lajeunesse, and I am grateful for having had the experience.

Over the ten plus years of regular buying trips to Quebec we would very occasionally run across a signed work of Mr. Lajeunesse,  and we began to covet them and seek them out because we really connected with his expressiveness and vision.  Although we asked everyone we knew, we could never find out much about him. Not in books or from other collectors. Then one day we bought the piece above, “Chien Mechant” or “mean dog” as it was titled in pencil along the base. I say “was” because unfortunately one day an overzealous housekeeper…

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Roger Raymond, Quebec carver of cigar store Indians

Jeanine’s brother and his wife arrive from France later today, and in our typical procrastinate until a couple of days before and then work like hell to try to clean the whole house style, we are still at it. Almost there, but still at it, so I have decided to reblog one of my earlier posts in the hope that if you haven’t read it, you will enjoy it; and if you have read it, you may have forgotten it anyway. Thank you for your patience.

shadflyguy

rr3By the mid 1980’s along with our antique business, we supplemented our income by  setting up a mail order business selling the carvings of Pierre and Claire Trudel, who we discovered had a workshop of about a dozen talented woodworkers making several lines of reproduction antique furniture, as well as copies of various decoys, and other Quebec folk art.  An average duck decoy would sell unfinished for about $15, and we would sell them finished for about $45. This commercial operation also carried a cigar store Indian which I knew was carved by a nearby artist.  I would come by every other week and buy about 50 or so carvings, including 4 or 5 Indians.

One day when I arrived Pierre said, “well I’m just going now to pick up the Indians, would you like to come along.”  “Well, of course I would”, and so off we went a few…

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With a little help from our friends – Closing Shadfly

last day sale

last day sale

Today, September 30th marks the one year anniversary of the sale of the Shadfly Antiques building, and as it happens the 11th anniversary of our purchasing the building in 2005.  We had a great run of it, and loved having what we considered to be a great little antique shop, but the upkeep of the building and dealing with tenants had taken it’s tole on our enthusiasm, not to mention the downturn in the antique business.

last day sale

last day sale

As planned, we did a review of operations at the end of 9 years of operation, as well as hiring a professional building inspector to look over what needed to be done to the building, and when we looked at the figures we decided we it was time.  We bought the building reasonably and did not have to invest much money to set up two upstairs apartments and the main floor shop.  Not much money, but a lot of time and effort, and the building had been “good to us” for nine years, not requiring any major repairs, but it was getting harder to find good, reliable tenants, and when a blocked sewer pipe cost us $1,200 to repair with a warning from the plumber that it might soon need to be totally replaced at an estimated cost of $12,000, we started to get nervous.  Then the building inspection presented many more problems like an impending roof replacement, etc., so we took the practical step to get out before a large investment would be necessary.  We priced it reasonably and it sold within two weeks.

last day sale

last day sale

We were able to establish a four-month period before the deal closing, which allowed us time to clear the larger stock, and move the smalls and folk art which we would continue with on-line into the basement of our house next door.  It was a very busy four months I can tell you.  My side-kick Albert and I had a lot of cleaning up and painting to get the basement presentable, and there was all that furniture to move.  We held a big clearing sale for the month of August with a last day celebration and sale the weekend of September 6/7 which was a great successful in terms of sales and saying goodbye to our many local friends and customers.   I can attest that nothing improves sales like closing shop.  We were motivated sellers, and many realized that it would be their last, best chance to score a few items that they had been eyeing over the years. It was a great last day. A mixture of joy, celebration, and a little sadness; and when it was over we closed the door for the last time and started to take apart the shop in earnest the very next day.

last day sale

last day sale

fullsizerender1

Paul moving books

We chose Tuesday September, 22 as the day to move the remaining stock from Shadfly to our basement, planning to take the remaining stock the following day to a storage unit which we decided we would need for a couple of months to deal with the surplus.  We were surprised and delighted when hearing of our plan, some friends offered to help.  People can be so wonderful, can’t they? It’s one thing to have a couple of buddies help you move to your college digs.  It’s quite another at our age to be slogging heavy boxes. Many hands do indeed make for light work.  Jeanine and I spent many days packing so that on that fateful morning when 6 friends, as it turns out, arrived all we had to do was get everything from point a to b.  We thought this might take until about 1p.m. and then it would be pizza and beer, and thank you folks, but we were so efficient that when 11 o’clock rolled around everything was moved over, and instead of quitting, our friends decided that they would continue and would help move the three truck-loads of items to the storage unit.  What a team.

Carma and her new friend

Carma and her new friend

There was a natural and relaxed order to things. A person received the boxes in each of the basement storage rooms, Albert got everything down the stairs, Jeanine and I loaded people from the Shadfly end and the rest of just carried things over.  We had considered a “human chain” passing the boxes from hand to hand but it was rejected as a concept being too hard to keep the timing right, and with too much passing of things from hand to hand.  The difference between theory, and practice.  It was a beautiful morning.  The crew remained cheerful; and by 2 p.m we were sitting down to pizza and beer with a warm glow of gratitude and relief filling the room.

Jan passes to Jeanine

Jan passes to Jeanine

If that wasn’t enough, another friend who coudn’t make it on the moving day, came a couple of days later to help Albert and I move the final things to our garage and clean up the place.

Jan passes to Cindy

Jan passes to Cindy

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Mission accomplished.  Many thanks and deep gratitude to those involved.  You know who you are.  It is a wonderful fact that in our hour of need, our friends came forward and made what seemed an unsurmountable task, a piece of cake.  We’ll get by with a little help from our friends, with a little help from our friends.

Remembering the Marjorie Larmon auction

Lot #197 selling price $75,000

Lot #197
selling price $75,000 Cigar store Indian, 2nd half, 19th cent.

This September 23 marks ten years since the historic clearing auction of the Marjorie E. Larmon Collection.  Based on Marjorie’s reputation (discussed in my blog of July 29), there was enormous anticipation building up to this one-time event.  The buzz continued to growing since the announcement of the auction months before, and it was clear that they would need the full capacity of the Simcoe Curling Club where it was being held.  By the time the Friday preview arrived the atmosphere was electric, and the place was crowded with dealers and collectors closely examining and considering their items of interest.  Whispering to each other. Some with poker face. Others unable to contain their excitement. Everyone jotting down little notes in their catalogues.  I noticed some dealers gathered in a quiet corner, privately sorting out how they might divide the spoils by not bidding against each other. Kidding themselves really, into believing that this may help against this determined crowd.

lot # 162 selling price $40,000 artist's box

lot # 162
selling price $40,000
artist’s box

Our strategy at auction previews is to focus first on the work, and leave the chatting until later.  This is tougher than it sounds in a room full of people you like and who rarely, if ever turn up in these parts.   I find it best to have a short friendly exchange and then be upfront with a “let’s get together and have a visit once we’ve finished looking.  I can’t wait to see the stuff”.  Most people are relieved because they are feeling the same.  And so it was that after a couple of hours of inspection and note taking we spent another couple of hours just getting caught up with old friends.  Many of whom we invited to drop by the following day after the auction, for a beverage and commiseration on the porch.  We had no idea who would want to take the time to come by rather than beating a path home, but we realized that there would probably never be another occasion when so many of our dealer and collector friends would be drawn to our area.  With the help of our daughter Cassandra, and her husband Anson who were also attending the auction, we got a lot of snacks together, and brought the giant metal wash tub for ice, and the folding chairs up from the basement to the porch.  We spent the evening discussing our wish list, and our strategy.

Lot #104 selling price $24,000 60" x 41", Perth County, 19th cent.

Lot #104
selling price $24,000
60″ x 41″, Perth County, 19th cent.

lot#71 selling price $24,000 F.P. Gould, Brantford

lot#71
selling price $24,000

Basically we didn’t feel we would be buying much for resale.  We would watch for things that may fall through the cracks, but it was unlikely for this to happen often given the overall quality of the items, and the hyped up crowd determined to take something home of Marjorie’s.  We would keep our eyes open, but decided to focus on a half dozen things we would love to add to our own collection.  Realizing we would be happy to get one or two of them.   We didn’t want any of the big furniture for ourselves, so we decided to focus on a few smaller items like hooked rugs Lot 128 an 1888 rooster, and lot #104 a rug with five black cats, Also lot #162, a spectacular poly-chromed artist’s box, and lot #101 a beautiful example of a Ceinture fleche or Assumption sash from Quebec.  We loved the Pirate weather vane dated 1846, lot # 74, but most of all we loved lot #217, described as a pair of folk art carved and original painted pine figures, a face and upper torso of a white man, and a face of a black man with a hand below. They were attached as pilasters to an old chest of drawers and were thought to be from Quebec.  I didn’t much mind where they came from, I just thought and still do that they are extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious objects.  Plus, they were obscure enough that I imagined they would have limited appeal, and so we hoped that we could get them for four or five thousand dollars.  Tops.  I mean with everyone fighting over the cigar store Indian and the chair table who was going to notice “our” little men.  That is what I dreamed that night.

Lot #74 selling price $24,000,

Lot #74
selling price $24,000,

At 9:30 on that fateful morning, we were seated in our chairs, catalogues in hand, coffee at our side, ready to roll.  So were a few hundred other people.   Marjorie was seated front and center, ready to observe and keep track of who bought what.  The auctioneers Jim Anderson and Jerry Brooks kept their opening comments short and sweet, and so after a big round of applause for Marjorie we were away to the races.  Within minutes the pattern was set.  Every important item realized astronomical prices.  Even most lesser things went through the roof.  It was relentless. Our first targeted item #74 the pirate weather vane realized $24,000.   By the time the Ceinture fleche sold for $13,500, and the cat rug sold for $24,000 we could read the writing on the wall.

lot# 101 selling price $13,500 Ceinture Fleche, Quebec, c1800

lot# 101
selling price $13,500
Ceinture Fleche, Quebec, c1800

Then the 1888 rooster rug sold for $15,000, and we gasped along with everyone else when #162 the artist’s box sold for $40,000.  Over the afternoon we did managed to buy a few pieces of tole and pottery, and a couple of rugs for resale but in terms of our own collection our last hope, and greatest wish was #217 the strange painted men.  As we soon learned, out projected hammer price of $6,000 was wildly optimistic.   Things looked good as the bidding began and there was a point where I thought we might get them for $3,000.  It seemed there was just us and a couple of other bidders, who seemed to stop.  Then a painfully long stretch of “do I hear $3,500. Someone give me $3,200.  Are there any further bids?”  My heart was pumping.   “Any advance on $3,000?” Going, going…. and then from the back I hear “I’ll give you $3,200.  Well there you go.  It was a new bidder. An American dealer I knew from New York who had been laying in wait.   I was disappointed, but not defeated as Jeanine and I had already upped our projected top bid to $10, 000 based on the rest of the auction and our lack of success with other items.  So away we go.  My preferred bidding method is to bid fast, with just the occasional slow gap right up to my top bid. It sometimes works especially at a local, lower profile auction because people realize you are serious and determined, and the quickly climbing price is intimidating.  It didn’t work here.

lot #217 selling price $14,000

lot #217
selling price $14,000

We said goodbye to our dream at $10,000 plus one bid as planned and then watched as it carried on up between two American dealers to a hammer price of $14,000.  You know it’s true what they say.  You never regret the things you stretch your budget to buy.  You only regret the things you let get away.  $4,000 isn’t much in the overall scheme of things, but then of course there is no saying how far past this we would have to go to get them.  Would my life be more fulfilled if I was able to look at them there on the living room wall every day?  The answer is both yes and no.  I’m not a guy who gets excited by a new car or sports jacket, but I truly do love being around items that inspire me so yes, but I am also happy enough to reach a predetermined point and walk away.  You can’t take any of this stuff with you contrary to what the Pharaohs believed.

About thirty people came back to the house afterwards and it was wonderful to compare war stories.  A lot of laughs and comradery, and a fair amount of B.S.   It was a special day in many ways. For the genuine feeling of community, and because it would be the last time we would be together with some of the dealers, who have since passed on.  I wish I had taken some pictures.  I was too busy just living in the moment. It was a great moment.

auction catalogue cover

auction catalogue cover

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

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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

An Outsider, Inside at the Outsider Art Fair

out1 We met Canadian born, Miami based art dealer Joy Moos in 1994 at the one-time Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival, where we sold her some pieces, and both discovered and bought for the first time the paintings of Woodstock, Ontario artist Barbara Clark-Fleming.  Joy is a character and we hit it off immediately.   Then in the fall of 1995 Joy came to see us at the Church and picked out several other pieces she was interested in purchasing.  That was when she proposed that if she were to purchase a half dozen or so pieces, would I be willing to bring them to the Outsider Art Fair in New York city the following January.  She asked me to help man her booth, and be her on- site “expert” on Canadian Folk Art.  She offered to cover my costs and would allow me to bring a few pieces to sell at the show of my own.  Hmmm, a chance to go to New York and see the Outsider Art Fair from the inside, and hopefully make a few bucks.  “I’m in”.  So early on January 24th under sunny skies I drove to New York with a van full of Canadian folk art and arrived about 3 in the afternoon at the famous Puck building at the corner of Lafayette and Houston Streets in the Soho District.  She had a couple of assistance come in from Miami and it didn’t take us long to set up the booth.  I then checked in to our favorite downtown hotel, The Leo House, ($75 a night at the time and clean), and then met up for dinner and an evening’s debauchery with an old pal, the Oklahoma born artist Don Bonham who lived and worked at the time in a studio in Brooklyn, situated right under the Brooklyn bridge.

Joy Moos in her display at the 1996 Outsider Art Fain

Joy Moos in her booth at the 1996 Outsider Art Fain

In spite of the late night, I arrived early Friday morning, well in advance of the 5:30 preview because I wanted the chance to look at everything before it was time to work.  My show badge allowed me easy entrance, and I was immediately delighted to soak up the excitement of the pre-show set up.   Lots of New York and New jersey accents coming from the workers as they scurried around setting up the lighting, carpets, curtains, etc. and a chance to see all the famous gallery owners that I’d read about for years, never thinking that I would ever have a chance to meet them, let alone participate in a show together.  Three large rooms of side by side exhibits encompassing 35 dealers.  Right across from us Dean Jensen had an expansive display of 1920’s-30’s tattoo flash that both shocked and delighted. Across from them was the wonderful booth of Aarne Anton of the American Primitive Gallery.  A man who was immediately welcoming and friendly, as well as informative. I moved slowly up and down the rows taking in everything.  Each booth was chock a block with fabulous work.  Sometimes inspiring and beautiful beyond belief, at other times dark and disturbing.  It was overwhelming. Then I moved into the next room where I could see Carl Hammer from Chicago installing paintings by the yet relatively unknown recluse Henry Darger, whose work I found both beautiful in the way a fine Japanese watercolour is beautiful, and simultaneously disturbing in that the content is what seems to be children at war, with impaling, and death, and all that war entails.  My emotions were beginning to run high.  I was a couple hours in and already needing a little break.

A work by Henry Darger

A work by Henry Darger

So after a nice lunch in the on- site canteen, I took a bit of time to look through the expansive book store, and noticed among other things a book about Bill Traylor, who had been born a slave on an Alabama farm in 1856.  He remained on the farm until the 1930’s, when at the age of 80 he settled in Montgomery.  Impoverished and homeless he spent his days sitting on a box on a downtown street drawing scenes of the life which surrounded him, and from his memories.  I was deeply affected by the simplicity and directness of his exquisite drawings.  I put down my $16 and bought the book.out8

Not ten minutes later I was looking in a small booth, and low and behold there was a little 5” x 7” framed drawing by Traylor of a walking man with a top hat and cane, just being hung and labeled by the dealer.  I noted the price was $750 U.S.  I had brought a thousand Canadian in case I found something I felt would be good to purchase, although my thinking was that there may be some Canadian folk art turn up which may be under priced due to the location. It had never occurred to me that I may want to buy something American.  I was stopped in my tracks.  I had no idea what the value of a small, simple line drawing by the artist may be worth, but I was completely drawn to it, and so asked if the dealer would hold it for me for fifteen minutes while I reflected and called home to discuss it with Jeanine.  The dealer was nice enough about it but refused saying that the preshow was when he did some of his best business and it was a fair price.  “O.K. I understand, but I am serious and I will be right back.”  I went out back of the building to get a cell signal and happily Jeanine answered.  Upon describing the situation, she expressed that she had no idea what the work was like, and yes $750 U.S. seems like a lot for a small line drawing, but if I felt strongly about it that I should go for it.  I ran back into the show to witness Carl Hammer walking away with the drawing, as the dealer counted out the cash.  Damn it.  Another example of “you snooze, you lose”, and learn to trust your damn instincts.  Hammer put it in his booth at $14,000 which I have come to learn is still a good price for a Traylor.  Here is a link to an article in Art News which describes the rise of Traylor’s prices   http://www.artnews.com/2006/01/17/prices-climb-for-the-art-of-bill-traylor/

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A Bill Traylor drawing

 

So I only kicked myself for an hour or so before realizing that at least my instincts are good, and it was time to get on with the show.  I found it fascinating to watch the wheeling and dealing going down American style.  These boys and girls meant business and were frankly ruthless in comparison to my much more conservative and polite Canadian compatriots.  Some of them were very open and welcoming to me like top New York dealer Phyllis Kind who closed her shop and retired in 2009 after 40 years of dedication to the cause of Outsider art.  She showed interest in the photographs I brought of Billie Orr’s work and suggested I come by her gallery on Saturday when she would be in attendance.  I enthusiastically complied and spent a wonderful hour talking to her.  Billie, as stated in a previous blog was not interested so nothing came of it, but I cherish the memory of the meeting.  Some dealers were highly competitive and not nice at all.  Ricco, of Ricco/Maresca Gallery was totally dismissive suggesting he didn’t think there was any art in Canada worth bringing to the American market.  All in all, I learned a lot by being the fly on the wall.  Observing the “big guns” getting together and discussing who they “mutually agreed” would be the artists most favored and promoted that year.

map of booths at the 1996 Outsider Art Fair

map of booths at the 1996 Outsider Art Fair

 

The preview was packed right up until 8:30 closing and when not selling, I was conscious of how glamourous a New York art opening really is.  The stars were out.  Oh look, there’s Bette Midler (very nice and much shorter than you would think).  And there’s Marisa Tomei.  And look it’s Mathew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker.  Etc.  The number of sales was amazing.  Over the three days, Joy sold out at least half of her booth.  I sold everything I brought.   When I packed up and headed out for the 8 hour drive back home at 6 p.m. on Sunday, I was a happy man.  I had witnessed a great amount of inspiring art, enjoyed experiencing a major American Art Event from the inside, and I had a few bucks in my pocket to take home.  Joy was happy with the amount of art I sold for her, and I decided then and there to take her up on her offer to come back in January of 1997.  Blog to follow.

I’ll close with a quote from Phyllis Kind from the Maine Antique Digest coverage of the show.  I think it sums it up.  “The whole concept of Outsider Art is the notion that it is rare when genius, and total lack of knowing what one is doing marry”

1996 Outsider Art Fair catalogue

1996 Outsider Art Fair catalogue