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

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


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


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


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.

More about Billie Orr

Bill loved visitors

Bill loved visitors

Throughout the nineties I continued to visit Bill when I would get to the Muskoka region.  This was fairly often because at the time I was getting a lot of fresh picked stock from Scott Beasley and a couple of other guys in the region.  Over repeated visits I was able to buy more of his carvings, just a few at a time, and I got to know more of Bill’s story.

Billie Orr was born in Tyrone, Ireland in 1912, but he came to Canada with his parents when he was six months old. The family settled in Muskoka, and when Bill was sixteen he went to work for the railroad. Then in 1936 he started to work at the Muskoka Sanatorium in Gravenhurst where he was employed for several years as chief engineer.

Bill continued to live on the family homestead in a log cabin all his life until shortly before his death in 1998.  About fifty years ago Billie planted a tree circle behind his house and started to make Irish and Zodiac figures in cement. He placed his figures within this “magical” circle. He said he did it for the amusement of the moose. He made friends with and tamed many wild animals. He loved Ireland, and would return many times on his own to travel by bicycle and hike throughout the countryside. When he returned he would publish accounts of his travels in the Muskoka paper.

a copy of Bill's article

a copy of Bill’s article

In the fall of 1997 I dropped by Bill’s unannounced, and for the first time he wasn’t home.  I thought I had just missed him and he had gone into town, so I left a note and thought nothing more about it.  A couple of weeks later I got a letter from Billie.  Sadly, he explained that he had fallen ill with a bad heart and that after a stay in the hospital he was forced to move from his beloved cabin into Orillia, where he had a sister in law who helped look after him.  He gave me his new address and phone number.  It was sad talking to him, because although he remained up-beat, he stated that he would now have to stay in Orillia near his doctor and that he would never again see his cherished home in Purbrook. He ended sounding upbeat, and he told me that before the attack he had finished a half dozen new carvings and if I could get up to see him he would sell me a couple. This was in February of 1998.  I  said I would be up to see him, as soon as the good weather came in the spring.

Bill's last letter

Bill’s last letter

Well, one thing lead to another, and spring came and went and I think it was mid-summer before I was ready to head up north. I called Bill’s number to tell him I was coming. Billy’s sister in law answered. I was shocked to learn that Billie had died not long after I talked to him.   I was too late.  I felt terrible for missing my chance to have one last visit, but I had convinced myself that he was on the mend.  His sister in law told me that the property sold right away and was being developed. I knew this meant the end of the circle of trees, and the magical world of zodiac and Irish creatures. When I had expressed my condolences and hung up the phone, I felt I should rush up there immediately and try to save the concrete menagerie as I feared they would likely get bulldozed into the ground the minute they got in the way.  Then I thought about it a bit more and I didn’t go.  I knew in my heart that it was too late, and decided I would rather remember it the way it was.  I once brought along a VHS camera and taped a visit with Bill.  What I must do before it deteriorates is get it transferred to digital and have it as a record. Bill was a special man, and in his own right an inspired artist, both in what he created, and the way he lived.  When I did the Outsider Art fair in New York City, I brought pictures of Bill’s place, along with many other examples of Canadian folk art, and showed them to the renowned art dealer, Phyllis Kind. She passed over much of what I showed her, but paused and really had a hard look at Billie’s work. She said “This is interesting.  I’d like to know more about this artist.”  When I got home I sent her photos, a bio, etc, and after a couple of weeks she phoned me to  say that she would be interested if Bill would sell all of the work and she could show it as a reconstruction of Bill’s installation. Naturally she was concerned about the cost of moving all that concrete to New York.   I got in touch with Bill but he wasn’t at all interested. I could tell that for him it would be like selling his family.  Still, Phyllis is no slouch when it comes to art, and her interest reaffirmed my belief that Bill Orr was an exceptional individual and artist; and he was a lovely man to boot.bob4

One last little story.  I got back from a Muskoka trip once and in going over my finances I realised that I have inadvertently underpaid Bill by ten bucks. I can be a real idiot with numbers sometimes.  In any case, I wrote him a letter of apology, and sent him it along with some photos I took of his pieces, and the ten bucks I owed him. I received the following note by return mail:

Dear Phillip,

Thank you very much for the letter and the photos. The Colleen Dubh takes a good photo due a lot to the surroundings, especially the honeysuckle bush.  Thanks for the ten dollars. I noticed the error but didn’t want to say anything.  Thanks a lot for the correction.

What a guy.bo1

If it’s 1985 you’ll find us in the workshop – keeping the customers satisfied

Our workshop

Our workshop

As I sit here with my shoulders aching after just an hour of gardening, it is good to remember that there was a time when we were young, and healthy, and resilient, and happening on all cylinders.  From the mid 80’s to the start of the nineties more or less, we moved enough “product” that we employed from one to three people daily to keep up with the demand.  Both from sales at the Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto, and through our folk art mail order business.

Edith and Jeanine at work

Edith and Jeanine at work

Antiques brought back from Quebec needed to be cleaned, and/or stripped and refinished.  Now don’t get excited, we never stripped good paint, but the reality was that there was a lot more people looking for a nicely refinished pine piece than there was looking for good paint, and good paint was hard to find so we played to our market.  The kids understandingly wanted to eat, and for quite a while there you could count on selling any refinished pine, or butternut bonnet chest you would bring to the market.  The good thing in this was that the Americans didn’t like bonnet chests so they were always cheap and available in Quebec.  But I digress.  Besides the antiques, we discovered that there was a good market for a reproduction pine armoire we found in Quebec that was deep enough to house those giant honking t.v.’s that everybody had back then, and still look reasonably good among your other antiques. Of course very few old cupboards were of the proportion to do this, and there was a demand so it filled a niche.

A refinshed TTrudel entertainment unit

A refinished Trudel entertainment unit

At the peak we could expect up to a half dozen orders per week.  We bought them in the rough from Pierre and Claire Trudel, who had a small factory near the pickers barns in the Victoriaville area (future blog).  They also made the carved wooden ducks, birds, and animals that we sold at the market and on mail order.  So after picking the antiques from the region I would swing by Pierre and Claire, and fill the truck with our order of new cupboards and animals.

Once home, besides the work on the antiques we had to refinish or paint the repro cupboards as ordered, and similarly paint or varnish the wooden animals, so it very quickly became more than Jeanine and I could handle on our own.  Albert who I have mentioned before and will undoubtedly mention again came first, and then a neighbor lady named Edith joined us who felt lonely at home while her husband delivered the mail and who enjoyed the work and the extra income.  Then as was necessitated by increasing sales we would hire a local high school student or two to keep up.  The place was hoping from 8:30 until about 5:30 every weekday, and I would quite often go back in the evenings and work until late, especially if it was getting close to Sunday, and the Toronto market, or we had a large order to fill.

A load of Trudel animals

A load of Trudel animals

I know there are a lot of collectors who look down on selling reproductions along side antiques, but at Harbourfront in those days it was perfectly acceptable as long as they were sold as what they are, which is a reproduction.   There was a lot of people looking for entertainment units, and I’d much rather provide a new one that did the job and was well made, than cutting the middle post out of an actual antique cupboard or some other such none sense. It also really helped with the bottom line.



Similarly, the carved animals, were attractive to heaps of folks who didn’t necessarily want to spend much, or deal with a challenging piece of original folk art.  These folks were looking for a nicely carved and finished pine goose to go along with the rest of their “country pine” décor. I think back on this period as our “manufacturing” phase, and it was a lot of work,  but it was lucrative at the time, and it gave us and a few other people some relatively interesting and rewarding work. We played it until the demand died out, and when the “craze” subsided we quit reproductions, and focused entirely on original finish antiques and “real” folk art.  To everything there is a season.

Jeanine and I with ordered cupboards

Jeanine and I with ordered cupboards

Born to be Wild – Friday 13th in Pt. Dover

fridayI was going to write on another subject, but here it is 3 p.m. in Port Dover, Ontario on a sometimes sunny, sometimes raining Friday the 13th of May, 2016, and there are over 100,000 bikers in town.  The air is a rich mixture of gasoline fumes, rock and roll, and Harley grunts, and well, it’s damn near impossible to think about anything else.

I don’t own a motorcycle.  Have never had any inclination even to ride one, other than dirt bike fun as a kid, but I can see that it is a great pleasure for those who are so inclined.  After living here for 13 years we have experienced a half dozen or so of these events.  The other times we would just get out of Dodge, but occasionally we have friends who want to experience it, or we just don’t feel like clearing out, so we stay put.  The experience is always much the same.  The crowd has gotten bigger each year and the management of said crowd has gotten smoother, but basically it’s the same routine.  A few hundred come in on Thursday and keep the Norfolk Hotel (our neighbor) hoppin’ until about 2 a.m.  It was a little earlier last night because a thunderstorm arrived about 1 am and drove everyone to their tents or hotel rooms.  This morning starting about 8:30 am the police direct the throngs that arrive, up St Andrew Street past our house, through town until they hit Chapman Street where they go left past the Main Street which is reserved for walking traffic, to St. George Street, where they descend back down to Harbor St.  Here, they hang a left and head out the way they came in.  During this procedure most stop and park somewhere along the way, buy a coffee and doughnut, or later a beer and pulled pork sandwich, buy the t-shirt and perhaps some dope paraphernalia or leather goods.  They walk around checking out each others bikes and outfits, and then about now 80% of them  get back on their bikes and go home.  Some will stay over and rock the night away, but by noon tomorrow there will just be a handful of bikes, things will be cleaned up, and you will have trouble finding evidence that anything out of the ordinary has occurred.fri13h

Other than a chance to see bikes and chat with those with similar interests Friday the 13th is fundamentally a fashion parade.  It strikes me that in spite of the bad ass, counterculture persona of the bike culture, the end result is that everyone dresses in some version of the same components; black t-shirts and jeans, black leather everything, spooky jewelry that would not be out of place at a Mexican day of the dead celebration, and other death and rock imagery which when put together has the effect of making everyone look like they are members of the same tribe.  What’s with that?  I suppose there is comfort in those numbers.


Thong man prepares

And I would like to state that although I don’t “get it”, I ’m not judging or putting anyone down.  It’s good for the economy of our little town and I have no problem with people having fun. Enjoy yourselves and live the dream.  I recognize it’s the restrictions of my perspective that excludes this as really good fun. In spite of trying, I just can’t find anything to be interested in.  Admittedly some of the bikes are interesting as sculptural form, and some of the people very photogenic, but it only goes so far when balanced against the discomfort of being in a dense crowd, listening to bad cover versions of songs you were quite happy to leave in the 70’s, and waiting forever in line to overpay for a greasy pulled pork sandwich.

thong man poses

thong man poses


There’s a guy who has become a genuine Friday 13th celebrity which best illustrates the cultural depth of the pond in which we are swimming.  He comes to every one of these and for some reason has chosen the boulevard beside our house in which to change wardrobe three or four times over the day.  Meet “thong man”. Pleasant enough fellow who seems delighted to show us his aged bum in a variety of thong based costumes. Today he had a Police officer based costume with police badge patch covering his genitals, and fuzzy pink handcuffs.  Then he changed into a pink bunny outfit with white pompom tail; then it was a fluorescent green number which may have had something to do with leprechauns.    As you watch, older and younger women approach to have their picture taken with this star.  Quite often, with their full acceptance and encouragement he is photographed grabbing the subjects breast and looking lecherous.   Boyfriend or husband nearby, grinning behind their cell phone as they click for posterity.  Thong man’s wife looking bored and disinterested, wondering when he will have had enough and they can just go home.  And so it goes.

Ahh, I hear that the rock and roll has started again.  Time to go and get myself a greasy pulled pork sandwich.  Happy Friday the 13th from Port Dover.fri13a