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

Sometimes you just have to buy it – the birdcage

bcage2Right up front, I must apologize for the quality of the photos.  I loaded these from scans back at home and did not realize until now that there was a problem.  I am here in France for a month without access to my original photos.  I will correct this when I get home.  For now, this will have to do.

Even from this lousy photo, I hope that you can see that this is a substantial birdcage. It stands about five feet tall, and is about three feet wide.  It is in two pieces.  It has carved hearts and diamonds, roof tiles and decorative trim.  All precisely made by someone who really knew what they were doing, and really loved birds.  There is even a little platform on the bottom which you assume was a place for the cat to sit to watch the birds.  It is magnificent in it’s design and construction. Built in the 1940’s.  A killer bird cage if ever there was one.  Something I couldn’t imagine even existed until I saw it.  So here’s the story.

My wife Jeanine is from the south west of France, and for years we would supplement our trips back and forth to visit her family by bringing over two very large suitcases full of fine linens which were easy to find in the Delhi area where we lived.  This because the area was settled largely by Belgians, Germans, and Hungarians coming to grow tobacco.  They brought a lot of beautiful stuff with them.  You could pick it up at yard sales and auctions for next to nothing.  Upon arrival in France we would go to a shop called “Au Bain Marie” near the stock market in Paris, and sell everything to them.  They always gave us good money because they would get top dollar.  It kind of blew our minds when we saw a very fine hand embroidered bed set of sheets and pillow cases for upwards of $1,000.  We would then take the money from the sale, and buy items we knew would be popular at home.  Mostly pottery, art, and forged iron items.   This was before all the repros hit the market and ruined everything.  Our two large suitcases would always pay for the trip and more.  It was a good system.

We saw lots of larger items that we knew would be popular back home but refrained from buying them, due to the hassle of arranging transport.  We would occasionally mail back a big box, but in general we stuck to things we could handle ourselves.

And so it came to pass that on one fateful trip we decided to take in one last antique show in the city of Bayonne the day before heading home.  We had a little space left in a suitcase and thought that perhaps we would find a couple more smalls.

Upon entering the hall, my jaw dropped as I saw this thing at the end of an row.  I couldn’t quite believe it was real.  At least I was hoping it wasn’t because I knew that if it was, I was in trouble.  My heart was already beating fast.  Damn if it didn’t just keep looking better the closer we came. In spite of myself, it quickly became one of those, “I must buy it no matter what” moments. Jeanine loved it too but was quick to point out that as it was so fine, it would be almost impossible to get home without damage.  I couldn’t accept this.  After a lot of pleading and persuading I was able to convince her that it would be worth any trouble we would have to go through.  The clincher was that we knew the dealer, and she said her husband would be able to make a box and arrange the transport.  We laid down the money which was substantial, and left feeling both elated and terrified.

A couple of days later, after getting home we got the call that we feared, that they were “terribly sorry but she had spoken out of hand, and there was no way they would be responsible for shipping.”  She offered to return our money, but we said no, keep it for us , and we will pack it and ship it ourselves on the next trip. bcage1

So it was six months later that I borrowed Jeanine’s cousin’s pick up and brought it to the house.  My future son in law Anson was there with our daughter Cassandra and his engineering skills came in handy as we constructed the box that we hoped would bring it back in one piece.  Surprisingly, because it was light, it didn’t cost all that much to have it flown over.  We were full of apprehension as we arrived at the Toronto airport shipping warehouse, but there it was, looking just the same as when we had left it at the Biarritz airport in France. O.K. so we got it home.  Now the question was is anybody going to pay the hefty price tag which we would have to put on it.

The Port Carling show was the next week so rather than wait months for Bowmanville we thought we would give it a try.  Sure enough, on opening night some wealthy South Africans who had just bought a local cottage walked in, took one look, and said we’ll take it. No negotiation. They even bought a half dozen Wilfred Richard birds we had displayed in it in spite of the fact that they were about $600 each. Big sigh of relief.  Sometimes when you stick your neck out things work out.  Gratefully this was one of those times.

An old truck dies, a “new” truck is born

Loading the old Bell truck in Quebec

Loading the old Bell truck in Quebec

After our old Ford pick-up died I spotted the used Bell Telephone line truck pictured above and beside, at our local used car dealer. It was well maintained and had low mileage, and was equipped with dual wheels, 350 Chevy engine, solid rack above with ladder, and a directional spot light that I knew would come in handy when looking for house numbers while on delivery, .  It had lousy seats, but I could replaced those.  My dealer pal Ozzie gave me a good deal on it, and thus it became my second home. Back and forth, back and forth to Quebec.  On the plus side it was easy to load, reliable, and reasonably comfortable with the Volvo seats I had found. On the negative side it was quite noisy, and my bagged lunches would sometimes freeze in Quebec in the winter, in spite of the heater being on full blast.  I wore layers of long johns, and pants just to sustain.  I was a lot younger then.

So back and forth, back and forth, for about five years until one day early in September, just before school was going to start I left solo for a three day trip to Quebec, planning to return the night before our daughter Cassandra’s first day of school.  I believe that it was her last year, and I had managed to take a photo of her standing by the mailbox waiting for the bus every year since she had started Kindergarten.   “See you Sunday night”, “Safe trip”.

Everything went well in Quebec.  I bought a nice load, the weather was great, and it was a lovely Saturday morning as I started the ten hour trek home.  Everything was going along tickity-boo, until suddenly  just before Gananoque, Ontario the engine started to overheat. Damn. Not good, but at least I was able to get off soon and get into town where I pulled up in front of a rad shop.  They said they could put in a new rad for $400, and have me on my way pronto.  I was suspicious that I may have bigger problems than just an overheating rad, but they assured me that the old one was shot and the engine seemed fine otherwise.  ‘Okay, go for it, I’ll grab some lunch and be back in an hour.”  So a nice sandwich at a nearby cafe, and I return to find it ready. I had a bad feeling in my gut that I knew wasn’t my lunch , but I paid, and was doing my best to feel positive about still making it home as I jumped back on the 401. Well, wouldn’t you know it.  Not fifty miles down the road, RATS there it goes again.  This time I knew I was in trouble because it was a good ten miles to the next garage which would be in Kingston.

I drove on. I knew in my heart that the engine was toast so all I was hoping was to make it  to a garage where it could be pronounced dead and I could arranged for a proper burial. If I made it without a tow it would be great, and I may even be able to rent a truck and still make it home. Ever optimistic.  Pressing on.  So, it’s getting worse quickly.  The cab is full of steam, it’s starting to chug and lurch, putting out a plume of black smoke, in spite of my slow speed.   But at least I can see Kingston ahead, and there just on the other side of the tall bridge which I am about to climb I spot an Esso station with a big parking lot.  Yes, I think I can. I think I can. I’m going to make it because if  I can only get over the hump I can glide down with the help of gravity if necessary.  Then it happened.

There goes the damn warning bell, and the lights start flashing, and to my horror the gates are coming down and the bridge span is going up to allow the oncoming sailboat to pass.  A  final backfire that sounded like a shotgun blast, and she dies.  Right there, ten feet from the apex.  A classic so close, and yet so far.  I close my eyes and think about happier places, and when I open them the gates are up, the bridge span is back down,  and the traffic oncoming is moving . Meanwhile everybody who is behind me starts blowing their horn and swearing at me.  I mean I couldn’t hear them swearing but I could feel the burn. I sat there for a couple of minutes to compose myself, and then slowly got out and went to the car behind me, where the guy was frantically rolling up his window and locking his doors.  “Listen, I’m terribly sorry about this, but you can either sit there and blow your horn which accomplishes nothing, or you can get out of your car and help me push it over the hump, so I will be able to coast down to that parking lot”.  “Oh, O.K. buddy, we’ll give it a try” . Happily, the guy behind him was also a sport and so we soon had it over the hump and I was rolling madly down the steep decline, hoping to God that I didn’t have to stop for anyone while pulling into the parking lot.  I got lucky, and soon found myself  harboured safely in the parking lot, and I was on my way by foot to the phone booth I spotted by the Esso station.

“Hi Jeanine, listen I’m sorry to tell you that you are going to have to take that shot of Cassandra tomorrow morning, because the truck has died here in Kingston, and I will have to stay overnight to make arrangements, and rent a truck etc.”  “I’m so sorry.  Tell me how did this happen.  Are you O.K.? ”  Just then I spot a pick up truck stopped at the lights, which I recognized as Cellar Door Antiques with my friend Gary Dawdy at the wheel.   “Oh, gotta go, I’m fine.  I’ll call you later.” Click, and I’m off on a sprint to catch up to Gary before the lights change.  This was in the days when I could sprint.  Gary was noticeably surprised to see me banging on his passenger side window, and immediately opened the door.  “Hey, how’s it going Gary.  Listen I’m just wondering if you might be able to drop me at a truck rental place. You see my truck just died.”   “Sure, hop in but first I have to to pick up my daughter at school  because I just dropped Gale at the hospital as she’s gone into labour.” “Oh wow, Gary you’ve got bigger things on your mind.  Don’t worry about it, I’ll walk”  “No, no it’s fine, ride along with me and after I can take you to the rental.  This is planned and I am not needed back there for a little while.”  “Great, as long as I’m not stopping you from doing what you need to do.”

We road along happily, while I told him my tale of woe which suddenly seemed quite small in the overall scheme of things. “So what’s next, repair it or get a new truck?”  “Oh, a new truck for sure. It’s been good to me but I’m tired freezing in the winter. I want to get something like this actually. A pick up with a crew cab”  ” Really, well that’s interesting because I just ordered a new truck and so I guess I’ll be getting rid of this one.” “Hmm, well I guess I’m interested if you decide.”  “I’ve decided already and I’ll sell it  to you for what they offered me as trade in.  It’s been a great truck so I don’t mind selling it to you. Just let me call Gale to make sure she agrees”. “”Oh, I wouldn’t…”   Too late. I could hear Gale expressing quite clearly that she didn’t give a hoot what he did, and didn’t he realize that she had more important things happening right then, etc.. I paraphrase to protect the innocent.  Big smile.  “Well, she’s fine with it, so why don’t we pick up my daughter  and then we can go to your truck, and if you like we can transfer the load to this truck and you can drive it home, and try it out for a few days.  Next week is the Kelso show, so you can either bring it back to me if you choose not to buy it, or bring me the $4,000 and keep it. I’ll be fine, I’m taking my cube van anyways.”


Gary’s old truck, which became my new truck. The rack came later which is another story.

This is one of the strongest examples of serendipity I have experienced in my life, and a true testimony to just how decent people can be.   Within two hours we had picked up Gary and Gale’s daughter, gone back to my truck,  and after selling a couple of things to Gary we were able to load the rest on my “new” truck”, and he had called the tow truck to have the old girl towed away to it’s final resting place.  What a guy.  I was so grateful for his kindness, and to be on my way again.  I called Jeanine and lied that I was resting at the hotel and not to worry. I would be home sometime later the next day, so she was really surprised when I walked through the door five hours later.  Here’s the picture I took of Cassandra on her final first day of school.

cassmailOf course I loved the truck, and was happy to bring the money to Gary the following week.  My first experience with cruise control.  What an invention. I swear that if I had had this earlier I wouldn’t have screwed up my right leg, which I always said was due not  to the driving ten hours in a stretch, and then loading heavy objects, but rather the result of pushing on that dastardly stiff accelerator all that time.  And boy, once you’ve have a truck which is warm and cozy no matter what the weather;  you question just how daft you had to be to put up with freezing all those winters.  I never looked back.


It came with this topper

My favourite truck came with this topper.

Participating in the “picks” of the Victoriaville Antique Centers

Antiquite Michel Prince

Antiquite Michel Prince

In an earlier post I talk about our bi-weekly trips to the Victoriaville region of Quebec where we would buy a truckload of antiques in the rough over a two or three day period and then race home to sell the stuff the following Sunday at the Harbourfront Antique Market in Toronto.  We did this regularly for a ten year period starting in the mid 80’s.  We very soon got to know and like the people we dealt with there, and early on gained their respect by never going to the Tuesday night auction in St. Hyacinth and bidding against them.   They would ask if we were going and we would always say that “no this is your territory, and we are happy to buy the stuff from you tomorrow.”   The fact is  they were fair with  their mark ups, and if you did attend they would do their best to dissuade you from ever coming back by continuing to bid you up until you paid way too much for any item you bid on. This policy and the fact that we would always negotiate by simply asking what the best they could do on a piece assured that they considered us “a class act”  as they would say, and probably saved us a lot of money in the long run.

We regularly arrived on Tuesday afternoon about 3 p.m, having left home at 4 am to get us past Toronto before the rush hour, and giving us enough time on arrival to have a look around before hitting the sack at the nearby motel. Then we would be up and at em’ by 8 a.m. because that was typically when a “pick” would take place at one or the other antique centers.

a friendly American buyer whom we saw regularly at the picks

By 7 am everyone would gather outside the entrance to the warehouse where beforehand the staff would set out all the newly arrived, unseen  items in neat rows. Not only the things purchased at the auction, but also items brought  in by pickers who independently picked the country side for the Antique Centers.  It was always exciting to see what had arrived.  Nothing had prices.  Us buyers would circulate around sipping coffee and deciding what we would attempt to buy, and figuring out how much we could spend for it.  Lots of private negotiations would be quietly going on. “O.K.  I’m only after the clock shelf so let me get that and you can have the bucket bench” . Kind of like the nonsense that goes on before an auction.

The way it worked, and probably still does for that matter, is that at 8 am everyone would pick a number out of a hat.  Enough numbers in the hat to cover everyone in attendance. Then whoever had lucky number one would go around with the seller and would have three chances to pick one item.  This was done very quietly so no one else could hear.  If you loved a wall shelf, but the price was too high for you, you could move on to your second choice, and if there was no deal there, you could move on to your third item.  Buy it or not, it was then number two’s turn, etc.  So considering that 90% of the stock was quite ordinary, it was important to get a good number or you didn’t stand a chance at getting one of the typically five or six things that were truly special and sought after. It worked well for the seller because if an item had been rejected a few times he could lower the price a little and see if that worked.  It was tougher on the buyer because you knew if you didn’t go for the price, the guy behind you probably would.  There was ways quite a bit of tension in the air.

I would always pick a number even if there was nothing that I was particularly interested in because if you drew a good number (especially number one) there was a good chance that someone was mosey quietly up to you and offer to buy it from you.  This happened to me a couple of times actually.  Typically the offer was a hundred bucks.  So  you made sure that you looked interested, and held your cards close to your chest.

After the best items were taken, everyone would disperse, breaking off into small groups where discussions of possible resale would take place. The seller would go around with a chalk and price the remaining items and the staff would start to bring them inside to be added to the stock there. It was a fine way to begin a day of antique buying.

anyone for a bathtub?

anyone for a bathtub?


Meeting Quebec folk artist Felicien Levesque


Leveques yard

part of Leveque’s yard showing his workshop at right.

In the early nineties as a result of doing many shows in Quebec, we got chummy with Riviere de Loup dealers Bertrand and Joanne Gaudreau.  Bertrand worked cutting wood all winter, and in the summer they ran a wonderful shop in a big red barn situated next to the La Malbaie/ Riviere de Loup ferry terminal on the St. Lawrence river.  Perhaps it’s still there. It’s been years since we were up that way. They always had interesting things and good prices so one summer trip, (I think it was 1993) we took them up on their offer to come visit them when we were out their way.

They knew of our passion for folk art , and were generous enough people to tell us where several of our favorite artists around that area lived.  This is rare among dealers as most are determined to guard their sources, but  the Gaudreaus realized we were a long way from home and would not be passing by very often, and they were all too happy to help us.  After going through their barn and buying a dozen or so great things we went off not far down the highway to where Felicien Levesque lived. He had always been one of our favorites for his whimsical, “outsider” style and we were delighted at the prospect of meeting him.  When we pulled in to the yard covered with folk art we knew we had found the place.  It was a classic old wooden Quebec house with a big porch and there was an impressively large  workshop in the back.   We pulled in and after taking the above shot we marched up to the back door and knocked.  After several moments, a middle aged woman opened the door  a crack, and directly asked us what our business was there.  We replied in French that we understood that this was the home of Felicien Levesque, and that we were folk art collector/dealers from Ontario who wished to make Mr. Levesque’s acquaintance, and possibly buy some folk art.  ” Oh no, I’m sorry, Mr Levesque sees no one and none of the folk art is for sale.  Thank you.  Goodbye”.  Slam.  We looked at the closed door for a moment considering if there was any point in knocking again and trying to persuade her, but it was pretty obvious we were not going to be received so we left and went to have lunch with Bertrand and Joanne in their beautiful home down the road.


Felicien Leveque

Over lunch we relayed our sad tale and Bertrand laughed and said ” Oh that’s Felicien’s daughter and they are all a little freaked out right now, because the Quebec museum was by last week, and bought all the folk art on his yard (about twice what is pictured above) for $20,000.  When she heard your English accent she probably thought you were from the tax department or something.  I’ll go with you after lunch.”

When we arrived with Bertrand, and after a short explanation, he left and we were immediately invited in and brought into a classic old Quebec kitchen.  Walls and ceiling completely paneled  in white tongue and groove pine, chairs and buffets along the walls, big harvest table in the middle of the room, and a single bare bulb hanging down over the table.  Around the edge of the room sat Madame Levesque, their daughter, her husband, and their two kids.  They all sat  quietly at first  and looked on as we answered numerous questions from Mr. Levesque’s daughter about where we lived, what it was like there,  what type of house we had, what is Toronto like, etc.  It felt like we were on display as exotic curiosities, and soon everyone joined in asking us everything about our life in far off Ontario.  We were told that Felicien always took a nap after lunch and would join us shortly.  Sure enough after about twenty minutes he appeared rubbing his eyes and looking curiously at the new arrivals. It didn’t take him long to get up to speed and he proved to be very friendly and outspoken,  telling us a quick version of the story of his life, how he had one of the finest workshops in the region, and how he had just recently sold his work to the Quebec Museum and that they were mounting a show of his work.  He was very proud of the recognition and we could see it meant a lot to him.  So over a cup of coffee the time passed pleasantly and we eventually explained that being big fans of his work, we would love to see his workshop and any work that he could show us; and that if it were possible we would love to be able to purchase something from him.

lev3Hi daughter jumped in “Oh nothing is for sale, as I told you”.  Followed immediately by Felicien saying “Don’t listen to her  It’s my work and I am the one who decides”.  A cold stare, an awkward moment, and we were off to the workshop.

For someone who made such crazy things, he had an amazingly organized and well equipped workshop. We noticed several pieces about in various stages of completion, and after more talk about his technique and approach, he lead us off to his storage room.

Framed plaster relief painting of a Canadian boat

Framed plaster relief painting of a Canadian boat

Wow.  It felt like we were entering King Tut’s tomb. The whole room was floor to ceiling shelves covered in every type of folk art imaginable. Hundreds of small bird’s, people and animals, dozens of  paintings and mid size constructions, and a few large pieces like the “sinking of the Titanic” pictured below.  We stood amazed and dumbstruck for a moment, and then I sheepishly asked ” so would we be able to by a couple of pieces?  Is anything for sale?.  He promptly answered “It’s all for sale”.  Visible flinch from the daughter.  “Oh, o.k. that’s great, so for instance how much do you want for this boat painting”  Leveque says “$50, while simultaneously  his daughter says $125. Oh, rats. What to do now?  I look back and forth at them.  He flashes a grimaced smile at his daughter and tells her to go in the house.  She looks annoyed but says nothing and leaves. We felt a combination of regret for the hurt feelings of the daughter but a  greater relief that Felicien was now completely in charge of the situation.  We put together a big pile of folk art, 50 or so pieces, which Felicien recorded in crayon on the back of an old cereal box.  We counted out the cash and started packing our purchases and putting them in the truck.  Not wanting to be a part of any further negotiations between himself and his daughter we left shortly thereafter, waving good-bye to Felicien who stood smiling in the middle of his recently sold yard  We were feeling lucky that we had met him at the peak of his game,  and before he relinquished control of his work to his family.  He died a couple of years later and we never did make it back that way.  Here is a link to his biography  .



Recalling the time we bought an entire store full of N.S. folk art – Turtle Cove


work by Leo and Bradford Naugler

work by Leo and Bradford Naugler

Arguably , the public became aware and interested in Canadian contemporary folk art with the publication of the Museum of Man book “From the Heart” in 1983.  Since that time as is the case with popular culture, the interest in folk art has waxed and waned.   I have experienced many such reversals in the thirty plus years I have been collecting and selling. Things were good in the mid 1990’s.  It was a time when we would take a dozen newly discovered Barbara Clark Fleming paintings to the Muskoka show and sell them all within the first hour, leaving us wishing we had brought a dozen more.  Meanwhile Bernard Riordin, as Director of the Nova Scotia Art Gallery was pushing hard to have the Maritime folk art scene recognized, and established as the important cultural property which it is. There was a lot of media attention.  New collectors were becoming passionate.  Those were heady times.

It came to pass that in 1996 a creative, and forward thinking Toronto woman of some position, thought it was the perfect time to open an upscale contemporary folk art gallery in the posh Hazelton Lanes shopping district in Toronto.  So she took a boat load of money down to Nova Scotia, had a ball, and made a lot of folk artists very happy by buying up their work,  and arranging to have it shipped to Toronto.

Rooster by Bradford Naugler

Rooster by Bradford Naugler

The name of the gallery was “Turtle Cove” and it occupied a large, second floor space in the Hazelton Lanes Complex.  It was a first rate effort.  Upscale fittings, museum lighting, beautifully created vignettes; the whole nine yards.  You’ve got to love people who follow their heart, and realize their dream so completely. Unfortunately, unlike the concept “if you build it, they will come” presented in the popular movie “Field of Dreams”,  things don’t always work out that way in real life. I think it took only a month or two before our brave entrepreneur realized that her sales projections had been highly over optimistic, and she decided to cut her loses and get out.  That’s when I got the call.

At the time, and to this day my main interest lies in older folk art, or at least shall I say in folk art that was not made so clearly with an eye to the market.  But then again I am all for contemporary artists making a living, and I admire the work of many contemporary Maritime artists such as Eddie Mandaggio, the Naugler Brothers, Garnet McPhail, etc. who were all well represented here. Also to be frank,  the price she quoted was interesting, so I made the trip to Toronto.


“Pegasus” and rider by Leo Naugler

Immediately upon entering the gallery I felt sorry to think that such a wonderful effort, so carefully and lovingly realized, had been unable to sustain, and that even before many had learned of it’s existence, it would be taken apart and dispersed as if it had never happened.  Ah well,  we all know how tough it is to make a go of it in retail, especially when it is a limited market, and the overheads must have been (I can only imagine) astronomical.

It was an easy negotiation   I did not argue with the proprietor’s suggestion that I pay her half of what she paid the artists.  She kept good books. There was a huge amount of stuff, including hundreds of smaller pieces which I recognized would sell easily. Of a bit more concern was the number of  big pieces such as the Pegasus with Rider by Leo Naugler pictured here; and most interestingly, but also representing the biggest unknown was some rare original furniture made by Leo and Bradford Naugler. I don’t know if she inspired or commissioned these pieces but they struck me as being important and rare, although not necessarily easy to sell. Among these pieces I think the best is an iconic “hockey chair” by Bradford Naugler.


Hockey Chair by Bradford Naugler

It is interesting to note that reportedly Bernard Riordin has recently proclaimed Bradford Naugler “the most important living Nova Scotia folk artist”,  and that this chair has again recently sold to a keen Nova Scotia collector for several thousands of dollars. It is complex, and worth considering how occasionally a particular object made by an artist is chosen by an expert as an iconic example of his or her work , and representative of a time and place;  thus becoming cherished and immortalized. People who understand this process sometimes become curators, and thus proponents of respecting and supporting our cultural heritage.  It’s important work.  It’s not always easy to understand.

It took me three full pick up truck loads to clear everything out.  As always, I was filled with concern verging on regret when signing the big cheque,  and thus taking on the responsibility of relocating such a vast amount of contemporary folk art to new homes. Happily, because of the heated market at the time, it all disappeared quite quickly,  and it worked out beautifully.  We still enjoy a couple of pieces which we put aside at the time,  and it’s satisfying  to think I was able to take all that work and find good homes for it.  Also it feels good  that the vision and enterprise of a folk art lover who “put her money where her heart is” was not in the end, in vain.

"porcupine" by Garnet McPhail

by Garnet McPhail

Roger Raymond, Quebec carver of cigar store Indians

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 kilometers away to a town called St Eulalie (you gotta love those Quebec saints). We pulled in to a modest house and workshop along the river at the edge of town.  I could tell by the many totems, and stacks of wood that this was the place. rr2Roger was a jolly fellow who immediately launched into a funny story in a thick Patois.  I couldn’t understand a word, but I could tell it was funny because both he and Pierre were laughing so hard.  I joined in.  We had a great time.  I couldn’t help but notice that Roger was standing ankle deep in wood chips, and lighting a hand rolled cigarette with one hand, hot ashes falling to the ground.  I also noted that Roger carved a lot more than cigar store Indians. Cows, pigs, bears,fish, beavers, frogs, etc. They all had humor and a wonderful original style. I was buying enough from Pierre that he didn’t mind me buying some of Roger’s carvings, which I did happily that day, and every trip I made thereafter. rr1One day I arrived to find the entire yard covered with dinosaurs.  Apparently Roger had watched Jurassic Park with his grandchildren and was inspired.  Another time I was greeted by a giant mother giraffe, with a feeding baby underneath. The mother was too big for my truck but the baby came home with me.  Roger and his wife were always extremely welcoming and quick with the funny story,  and I always enjoyed the exchange, although I have to admit that in spite of my reasonable abilities in French,  I never got more than about 20% of what he was telling me. It didn’t matter.  We always had a wonderful time.

I did come to find out that he is of Mi’kmaq heritage, and that he loves to fish and hunt with bow and arrow, and that he is a warm and loving husband, father and grandfather, who has a God given talent for making his own unique version of Quebec carving.  He told me that when he was young he was taken on as an apprentice by a cigar store Indian maker, and that he had made hundreds, perhaps thousands over the fifty years or so that he was active  By the late 1990’s he was doing less and less carving, and more and more fishing and hunting, and I had also quit making the trip so often. In 2005 I dropped in on the Raymond’s for old time’s sake and Madam Raymond said that Roger was down at the river fishing.  As I drove away from the house I saw Roger standing in the middle of the stream casting, and he turned and saw me, but as we were too far apart to have conversation over the babble of the water, we just waved at each other, and he gave me his winning smile, and that is how I remember him.  As far as I know he’s still kicking. rr6