The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers

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cover of the 1991 McMichael Canadian Art Collection catalog by John Hartman

As explained by the McMichael Gallery’s Chief Curator, Jean Blodgett in the forward to the catalogue accompanying the 1991 solo exhibition of the works of Gilbert Desrochers, entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers” plans for a folk art exhibition had been underway for several years.  He states “folk art seemed eminently suitable for display at the gallery, and an appropriate subject for an institution dedicated to Canadian art.”  He explains that they asked artist John Hartman to guest curate based on his interest and knowledge of folk art.  At first it was planned to be a group exhibit, which was then narrowed down to a few artists, and finally it was decided to focus on the work of one artist, Gilbert Desrocher, whom Hartman had come to know when he was attracted by a sculpture displayed on a fence post he spotted while driving down a back road in Tiny Township on the southern end of Georgian Bay in Ontario. He stopped, and made his acquaintance, and quickly this developed into a strong friendship.  In September of 1990 John took Mr. Blodgett to Gilbert’s house to discuss the dates and arrangements for the exhibit to be held the following year.  It was devastating then when they learned a week later that Mr. Desrochers had died suddenly.

artistGilbert Desrochers was born on May 2, 1926, in Tiny Township.  The fifth child in a family of six boys and one girl. His father Thomas owned a farm on the eighteenth concession, overlooking the bluffs of Thunder Bay Beach. He only attended school for two years when his mother died, and he went to work with his father and brothers on the family farm. “I wasn’t much good in school” he recalled. “I didn’t learn much. I went to school only to smoke. And I slept.  I was always so tired that I fell asleep. I had no notion about school. I had only work in my head. I figured that work was easier than school.”  Our father couldn’t read or write either and said “it’s just as well that you are like me. Come work with me in the woods.” “My father had two hundred sheep, and we took care of them. Also nine cows, three horses, chickens and pigs. In the winter we would cut wood all the time. We didn’t have a power saw so me and Joseph would cut wood all winter. It was a lot of work with cross-cut saws and Swede saws.

In 1941 at fifteen, he and his twelve year old brother Gabe took the money form three cords of wood that they had sold and began walking to the home of their sister Aurore who lived in Toronto. They caught a ride with a group of soldiers and got dropped off near their destination.  Gabe stayed to attend school but Gilbert returned home to cut wood with his father which is what he continued to do until he was twenty five.  Not satisfied with his life he began to wander, returning home only when his money ran out. He would leave and return unannounced, and often no one in the family knew his whereabouts.horse

In 1952 Gilbert was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Kingston for stealing a barge. There he worked for a while in the carpentry shop, until he overheard other prisoners saying that they would “get him”. He refused to return to the shop and eventually became uncontrollable and was put into solitary confinement. He had a nervous breakdown and, according to his brother Gabe he was given shock therapy.  His stay in Kingston was two years.   While there that he had his first religious experience, when God appeared to him on the walls.

The day his parole was up he headed north to work in the lumber camps near Kapuskasing.  In 1953 Gilbert’s father died and he became close to his brother Gabe. For the next twenty years he continued to work seasonally in the tobacco fields of southern Ontario, and the bush camps in the North. Occasionally returning to live with Gabe and his wife Lucienne, and to work with Gabe as a roofer.  lizard

In 1975 he was working in Toronto and while looking in the garbage in an alley something struck him from behind. When he turned around no one was there. He concluded it must have been God. After his religious experience in Toronto, Gilbert moved to his brother’s farm near Perkinsfield, where he lived in a small trailer and attended church regularly.

It was here that Gilbert started to carve. He continued to have visions and said that he began making sculpture because God came to him in a dream and told him that he had to make something, then gave him visions of things to make. The dream recurred, and after the third time Gilbert started making carvings.

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Gilbert at home

During the period that he was active, Gilbert created hand carved depictions of the people, animals and events from Christian bible stories. He would often harden the high gloss paint, used to colour and give the necessary details to his sculptures, by heating his workshop, located in the same trailer that he slept, to 120 degrees F. All of his work was created for installation in and around his living space, or on his tractor.

“I promised myself that never would they catch me again to lock me up. That’s why now I’m always alone” he confessed. I’m always watching myself, just in case someone blames me and returns me to jail.  That’s what I think about steady. Never, never do I forget that. I’ll never forget. When I die, why then I figure I’ll be saved. I watch myself because they’ve tried to blame me for all sorts of things and I’ve saved myself every time. That’s why I’m prudent and I’m always in my hymns and I stay close to the good Lord.  It’s a boring life, but I have to live it anyway. That’s why I started to carve all sorts of things, to pass the time and to stay at home.  It’s a sad life but I manage to survive it.”angels

 

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Even more on Beardmore Folk Artist Ewald Rentz

yard2Last week I told the story of recently meeting up with Ewald Rentz’ niece Alyss, and I reproduced an article on the artist from the local paper from 1978.  This week I will finish by presenting some more of her observations, and additional photos taken by her of his home and barber shop in Beardmore. I am also going to reproduce an article written by the Thunder Bay Chronicle- Journal on the occasion of his retrospective show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 1993.

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Emma and Ewald on their 60th wedding anniversary

There’s a few nice shots of Ewald’s back yard and shop interior, along with a great shot of Ewald and his wife Emma on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  When you look carefully at the shots of his barber shop you can see that it was fairly full of his carvings, and a little chaotic.  Alyss pointed out that although his sign indicated $5 for a haircut, $4 for children, it was also well known that if you didn’t have the money he would gladly cut your hair for free.  He had many takers, but he did not mind.

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Rentz performing at his opening

 

Also, at the drop of a hat, if you had time to spare he would also sing you a song or two accompanying himself on mandolin and dancing puppets.  He made these by attaching some of his carved dancers onto recycled bass drum pedals.  He even played for the crowd at the opening of his retrospective in 1993.  I would have loved to have been there for that.  As it happened his son Ernie did ask me if I wanted to go with him to the opening; and I would have loved to, and should have, but it conflicted with an antique show and sale I had committed to.  Also, at the time I was working on curating a show of Ewald’s work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and things were looking good, so I hoped to meet him then.   It turns out the show got postponed, and Ewald died two years later so it never came to pass. I never did meet the man.

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barbershop interior

There are many tales of Ewald’s generosity in the community.  He was always ready with a free haircut, or plate of food for anyone in need who came by, and he even carved wooden headstones for those who died up there without relatives or arrangements made for a funeral.  You can see how in much of his work he laboured to uplift people with humour and warmth. He was truly a sweet man.  Here’s the newspaper article from 1993.

Animator of the Inanimate – Everything 84 year old Ewald Rentz of Beardmore carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush.  Thursday, September 16, 1993

By Bob Hearn – The Chronicle-Journal

At age 64 Ewald Rentz is still a little bemused over being a celebrity in the local art community.

“It’s something new for me,” he said with genuine modesty, and a hint of amusement at having his completed wood carvings on display for public consumption at the Thunder Bay Art gallery.

That’s because the Beardmore bush-worker/prospector/barber/musician/outdoorsman has only been able to add “artist” to his list of titles in the past twenty years. And he never expected his funny wood figures to attract any attention beyond the walls of his Beardmore barbershop.

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1993 Chronicle-Journal article

Rentz made his first wood figure, a bird suspended from the ceiling by a spring which moved up and down and flapped its wings when it was pulled. He made it to soothe children who came into his barbershop for a haircut.

“I still have it in my shop too,” Rentz said. “But I never thought about being an artist before that. Never thought of it at all.  I was just too busy.” Although he’s had no formal training Rentz has managed to perfect his completed art works out of piles of wood in his back workshop. He’s since made tons of elaborate animal and human figures and has attracted the attention of not only paying customers to his shop, but art connoisseurs as well.

In 1983, some of his pieces appeared at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull Quebec. A collection of thirty of Rentz’ most recent pieces are on display now at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until October 31 in a collection entitled “The completed Work of Ewald Rentz”

It is his second showing in Thunder Bay.  His first professional showing was back here in 1981 at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre.

He’s been described as an animator of the inanimate. Everything he carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush around his home, whether it is a tree branch, burl, or type of fungus.

“I see something. A figure in the trees or branches and I have to create it, make it come to life,” said Rentz. After carving the figure out, he touches it up with a coat of regular house paint, festooning it with hats, buttons, collars or other old discards he finds around the area. He prefers making animals, but sometimes makes satirical political figures or other people.

The tree form suggests what the figure will be, so if the branch is forked he will make it look like an animal standing on hind legs. Rentz says the outdoors supplies an endless supply of inspiration for his subjects.  Most of his life has been spent working in the bush and he’s even manifested some of his experiences in his art.

It’s the folksy nature, lack of pretense, and perpetual good humour which has made Rentz’s work popular. Tourists from England and Germany have bought his work, and her regularly gets phone calls from all across Canada from people asking him to save a certain figure for them for when they pass through Beardmore.

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barbershop interior

Rentz is pleased but nonplussed by the fuss.  He says living in Beardmore keeps everything in perspective.  “In this town people just say “ah that old guy with the carvings,” he chuckled. “He’s probably a bit off”

Rentz was born in North Dakota and moved to Woodbridge, Manitoba.  He dropped out of school in grade 4 to cut wood and work on the farm. He also attended barber school in Winnipeg before moving his wife and two kids to Beardmore in 1939, to work as a bush-cutter. At 65 he retired but he has kept busy ever since. His artwork takes up only as much time as he wants it to.

“Life is very short and you’ve got to try everything,” he said. “Pretty well everything I’ve touched in my life has worked.  You’ve got to keep active and enjoy things.”

And if his show proves to open the door for future success and fame, Rentz still won’t be tempted to leave Beardmore.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.  “It’s God’s country.  We’ve got fish and moose and beautiful clear water.  What else do you need in life?”

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looking through the front window of the barbershop

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

Looking into the private world of Fenton Dukeshire

d6Back in the 1990’s I would occasionally get a call from a friend, Marty Ahvenus, who owned and operated the Village Book Store on Queen St at the time.  He was a book seller by trade who also enjoyed folk art and making periodic trips to the East Coast.  When he returned from a trip he was in the habit of phoning me, and selling me the folk art which he had acquired enroute.  We would meet at a French restaurant on Baldwin Street which offered fish soup, a favourite of both of us, and I remember that the owner/chef would always come out to see who had ordered the soup as so few did.  But that’s another story.duke1

One day I met Marty and he had a dozen or so small and interesting fantasy buildings that he had just acquired from a very elderly gentleman from Wolfville Nova Scotia, who was living with his son in Toronto at the time.  I guess he had heard about him when he was out East and found out that he was living with his son who was teaching law in Toronto, so he arranged to go over and meet him.   Fenton Dukeshire’s son made it clear that Marty was welcome to come over and see the work, but that it was very unlikely that he would meet the artist. Fenton was a very private, and shy man who liked to keep to himself in a back bedroom of the house where he would spend hour after hour creating intricately detailed miniatures of buildings, bridges, locomotives, etc out of bits of found wood, matchsticks, and cardboard.  These all bore the mark of his individual imagination, and the patience required to bring such detailed pieces to realization.  Time was not a problem for Fenton.  He was in his element working, and he did so hour after hour, day after day.  Along with the individual sculptures of buildings, etc. he liked to create dioramas which involved people in dramatic situations.  Gunfighters facing each other down on the street.  A church scene with choir and unnoticed urchin with a sling shot about to hit the minister in the back of the head. Another church scene with a mother reaching out to save her baby who was teetering on the edge of the balcony banister.  All his people had a humorous, comic book aspect to them.  They are crowd pleasers. duke2

This intensely shy and unassuming man was born in Maitland Bridge, Annapolis County in 1917. He was a woodsman, sawmill worker, and farmer during his working life and only took up carving and model making in his 60’s.  His wife of 39 years died in 1985, and he has no other brothers, sisters, or other children.  He lived with his only son in Wolfville, then Toronto, and then back to Wolfville with his son when the work concluded in Toronto.  He lived there quietly producing his art until he died.  I cannot find the date of his death on-line but I know he was very old.

I like the fun of his dioramas with people, but I admire most the simple architectural elegance of his buildings. You can tell he created these to satisfy his own love and fascination with architecture, and had no commercial intentions.  duke5

So when Marty arrived at the house, he admired and agreed to purchase many recent works, but before he left he asked once again if he may at least meet the artist who was working away in his back room.  The son agreed to ask, and sure enough a few moments later a small grey man slid into the room.  Came up to Marty and put out his hand.  “how do you do?”.  They shook hands and Marty barely had time to say “what a pleasure it is to meet you” when Mr. Dukeshire spun on his heels and headed back into his room, closing the door behind him.duke4

Finding Lajeunesse

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“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.

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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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For the Birds

As I have mentioned before in this blog, my wife Jeanine collects folk art carved birds.  Our kitchen is full of them.  I miss them when we are away.

Birds, for the most part are a pleasant and relaxing part of our natural environment.  Except of course when they are dive bombing you for being too close to their nest, and then they’re not so relaxing.  Otherwise, we enjoy watching them fly, and chirp, and hop around the back yard looking for bugs. They are entertaining.  I suggest that this is the reason that it is one of the most commonly carved species, and often the first carving an artist will undertake.  Birds makes for an interesting collection because there are so many approaches and attitudes to the subject.  Some strive for accuracy.  Others a stylized approach.  Some are abstracted, while others are barely recognizable.  I tend to admire skill and craftsmanship, but it’s the crazy and primitive ones that turn my crank.  After my morning coffee I took a look around the room and photographed a few of my favourites .   With some little notations attached.

I hope that you enjoy looking at them.  I do.  Every morning.

sparrows in flight

Jeanine is keen on finding more of these little carved sparrows.  We may because I have the feeling that these although hand carved, were commercially produced and sold in gift shops.  Perhaps a little cottage industry item from Eastern Canada, where we found them.  Or even possibly overseas. If so, I would think Europe or England as opposed to Asian.

Red-winged blackbird by Yvon Cote

a Cote decal. Not used on every carving.

This Cote red-winged blackbird is typical of the Gaspe artist.  I will make him the subject of a future blog, but for now suffice to say that his work is easy to recognize because he used pencil crayons for colour and then lacquered over top, and even when a piece doesn’t have his decal, you can tell it is him by the form, colour, and little wire legs.

Here’s a new addition to the family.  this friendly little Carolina Wren was created by C. Bodley of Toronto.  He was good enough to name and sign it on the bottom.  It’s a good example of a work that looks like the species, but also contains personality.  He also created this wonderful diminutive owl

Owl bu C. Bodley, Toronto

 

 

 

 

What follows is a bunch of little birds with different approaches, by different artists at different times.  Most of them are from Quebec.  You can see run the gamut in terms of approach.  Although it is perhaps the piece that looks the least like an actual bird, I love the little beige bird by Cadieux.  His name is stamped on the bottom.  I also love the little blue bird which looks almost like a cartoon.  it is made very carefully. Those wings are thin wood, not metal.

Which one of these do you like the most?

Someone even decided to make a little bird using wicker. This little fellow somehow comes across as looking quite mad.  And last but not least we have this hanging black and white bird on a perch.  Interesting construction, and can anyone figure out why his wings are on backwards?   Could this really be intentional?  Perhaps dyslectic?  Go figure.