In appreciation of Canadian Outsider Artist – Philip Melvin

Martin Luther King Jr.

Outsider art is like Rap music in that you’ve got to have “street cred”. If you’re just a weird guy who doesn’t like people much, lives at the edge of town, and you paint, you aren’t necessarily an outsider artist.  It is about the lifestyle you live, and the visions you present.  The line between folk art and outsider art is a blurry one, but basically outsider art is a term applied to art made by someone untrained, who lives outside society.  Sometimes outsider artists are institutionalized;  some outsider artists live on the streets.  Philip Melvin is such an artist.

a 20 pound Salmon

I met him once in Toronto.  I was taking the streetcar down Queen street when I noticed someone had set up a bunch of crazy looking paintings along the curb in front of a CIBC bank on a busy corner. They looked interesting so I jumped off at the next stop and went back to see them.  They were mostly portraits of well know people and although they really didn’t look at all like the actual people, they all had energy and humour, and I quite liked them.  I did not know of him at the time, but it was Philip Melvin. Looking pretty disheveled with an impressive beard, and quick eyes.  I asked him if these were his paintings, and if they were for sale and he said “yes, and you can have any one of them for $60”.  So I bought one.  He introduced himself and we had a really odd but quite interesting chat, and shortly the next street car came along, and I had to say a quick good-bye and jump on.  Appointments to keep.  That was it.  I could see that trying to get a contact number would be pointless.

the Irish Mountain Ram

Philip Melvin was born in 1938. He lived all across Canada, but his last known residence was in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Not much has been recorded about him. He was born in Lamanche, Newfoundland. From there he travelled to Toronto Ontario, and once described himself as ‘the biggest fool that ever hit Toronto’ and as ‘the man from Lamanche’. Finding himself in continual trouble with the law and at the periphery of society, he spent a good deal of time in correctional facilities or rehabilitation centres. In 1980 he began carving religious plaques and subjects, as well as painting Toronto landmarks and familiar sights. Spending time at the Lakehead, or in Toronto, often at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Philip Melvin would sometimes turn to carving in hope of selling a few pieces as a means of minimal survival. Philip Melvin moved to Vancouver where he continued to get into trouble with authorities. He made the news when he was found wandering around Stanley Park with a power saw. He was just looking for deadfall for his sculpture but the authorities thought otherwise. His work was included in the 2000 Canadian Museum of Civilization exhibition “Under the Sign of the Cross: Creative Christianity in Canada”.

As far as I know he is still alive but I haven’t heard anything about him for a couple of years.

“I’m a green deer from Belfast”
BIG RED
“We got enough green in this country”

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Richard, the wood carver

Different carvers have different motivations, and different approaches.  There is an interesting moment in a CBC documentary made in the 60’s when Richard Thompkins who was then living in Nova Scotia , is asked by the narrator how he evolved into full time carving. Richard who answers questions simply and honestly said  “I used to work polishing automobile bumpers, and when I got into carving I liked smooth lines and surfaces.  I started with a nude and did some abstract sculptural things before I went commercial and started to produce my own version of small animals and birds. I developed a style for each,  and continued to make them in bulk”. When the narrator then  asked him if he like many carvers found the act of carving relaxing, he answered, “No, not really. When I get a big order to fill it can make me quite tense.  Richard was a straight shooter. For Richard, it was not about accolades or great profit.  He developed a simple, minimalist style using mostly butternut, which he then rubbed down with linseed oil and lacquered, until it was slick and sleek, almost resembling midcentury Danish Teak furniture. His work was highly finished, with a straight forward elegance, and his prices were very reasonable.  You could buy a nice little beaver carving in his shop for $2 – $3.  He worked on volume.  His work was not only sold in the towns he set up shop.  He would also fill orders for hundreds of bears and raccoons, etc. from gift shops in Ottawa, Toronto, and British Columbia.   Many thousands of his works have found their way into homes as souvenirs and gifts.  He would wood burn his signature “Richard” on the bottom of the pieces, followed by Canada.  Thus many people believed that was his actual name, Richard Canada.

Richard Thompkins was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1930.  He did a stint polishing chrome automobile bumpers in Sudbury, and spent a short time in the Canadian Navy.  He then suffered a back injury and moved to Cookstown, where he bought some woodworking tools and started carving. He opened a shop selling and repairing antiques, and there began to sell his carvings as he developed them.

In 1968 he moved his family to Upper Port la Tour, a fishing town in Nova Scotia, where he had a small shop selling his carvings. During this time he would come back to Ontario twice a year to collect his preferred woods – butternut, walnut and basswood. Nova Scotia was not as good financially as he hoped for, so in 1972 he packed up his family and moved to Port Dover.

Things picked up. He joined up with local folk artist Lois Garrett, and potter Dona Matthews to sell from a rented shop in what had been an old net Shanty, and called it the Red Heron.  It was a small work space, about 100 square feet with additional retail space on the main floor and living quarter upstairs.

In 1986 Richard moved to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he continued to carve in spite of advancing arthritis.  He died of cancer in 1995.

There is an excellent small exhibition of Richard Thompkins works on at the Port Dover Harbour Museum until June 23, 2018.  You should pop in if you are by this way.  Assistant curator Katie Graham has even made a small but effective 20 page catalogue which accompanies the exhibit and is for sale for $15.  Thanks to the museum, and photographer Marcia MacKinnon for allowing me to use their photographs.

In appreciation of Nova Scotia artist Lorne Reid

It is rare, but sometimes you develop a deep relationship with an artist the first time you encounter their work. It’s like falling in love.  Immediately, a lot of your buttons are being pushed and it affects you personally.  It was like that for me with Nova Scotia’s Lorne Reid.  When we attended the Sutherland/ Amit auction in 1994 I was immediately taken by three of his works being offered there.  I had never seen his work. The first and most dramatic was a 5 1/2 foot high sculpture of a mother holding a baby, painted in a pointillist style. Amazing work. Then I found a 11’ x 14” pointillist painting of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.  I loved it because it was amusing and in your face.  Finally, and for me the most appealing there was a 6’x 3’ oil on plywood painting of a man eating a fish.  Absolutely haunting and powerful image. Not at all pretty. Actually  quite unsettling and not a favorite of my wife or daughter who were with me, but a painting that spoke to me directly.  I was fortunate in that most people sided with my Jeanine and Cassandra’s opinion,  so I was able to get it at a bargain price.  They were fine with the thought that it would go into our collection of stock for resale but they were not so happy when we got home and I hung it above the living room couch. No matter where you sat in the room he was staring at you.  His haunted look and the fish skeleton in front of him on the table suggest a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  It is not a cheerful painting.  I took a lot of heat for a few days but the controversy died down.  Before long he became a member of the family and is in the background of many family Christmas pictures.  I never grew tired looking at it.

Then in 1995, my stepson Brodie who is a musician and member of the excellent Canadian band the Corndogs, asked me if they might use the image for there up-coming CD.  I agreed to if I could get the permission of the artist’s mother, who was handling the estate. I got her number and called her out of the blue, as it were. What a lovely woman. I was nervous, but she was so immediately welcoming and friendly that my concerns quickly left me and we had a wonderful, and long conversation about Lorne. She was all too happy to give permission.  The CD was released on Immune Records in England and did very well there, but never found a Canadian distributer. Still, I think it is a masterful work and I am happy that the painting has become associated with it.  I think you can still buy it on CD Baby or one of those sites.  The juxtaposition of the image with the phrase “love is all” seems appropriate to what I know of Lorne Reid. 

He was a searcher. He hitch-hiked around North America for 15 years, and then went back to Nova Scotia and became a dedicated artist.  He painted and sculpted until his tragic early death by cancer at the age of 37.

Lorne dedicated himself to his work and the work of other local artists.  In 1989, along with artist David Stephens and Chris Huntington he was instrumental in creating The Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival and Picnic.  He is considered by many to be one of the most important and significant artists to come out of Nova Scotia. He was a member of what some refer to as the “new wave” of Nova Scotia folk artists. Younger artists who were influenced by the originals such as Sid Howard,  and then took the energy and style and made it their own.

It was difficult to find much information on Lorne Reid or to see many of his works publicly displayed until in 2010, when Audrey Sandford of the excellent Black Sheep Gallery of West Jeddore Village, Nova Scotia organized and executed a retrospective on his work in her gallery from July 27-August 29. She accompanied the exhibition with an  excellent 6 page catalogue which they make available on their website.  Here is a link  http://www.blacksheepart.com/lornereid1.html

Fellow artist and close friend David Stephens estimates that Lorne did fewer than 100 small folk art paintings and perhaps a dozen larger paintings during his short career.  He remains as one of my favorites, and I hadn’t thought about him much until this morning when  I saw a clipping from the Upper Canadian coverage of the 2004 Bowmanville show that Adrian Tinline posted in the Canadiana Antiques Facebook group.  There it is. “Man eating a fish” which sold the opening night.  I can’t say that what I feel is regret.  I owned it for ten years and sold it to a good collection, but it still makes me feel a little sad, and just a bit haunted.

Charlie Tanner 1904-1982

There are certain folk artists who’s work is so personalized, and exhibits such a distinct style, that once seen, you can recognize the work from across a room.  Charlie Tanner is just such an artist.  I loved his work the first time I laid eyes on it, and he has been one of my favourite folk artists ever since.

In Chris Huntington’s excellent essay published in the booklet that accompanied the 1984 retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, he writes

 “Stonehurst is a small fishing village that located itself about 200 years ago amidst the barren, rocky, coastal out-reaches about ten miles south of Lunenburg. Stonehurst is that much closer to the inshore fishing grounds so that, in spite of it’s inhospitable geology, it attracted the Germanic farmer-fisherman pushing out fom the hills of Lunenburg. Today every other mailbox proclaims that a Tanner is it’s owner. On February 15, 1904, another Tanner was born there and his name was Charles Enos. “We were common people them days. Everyone was.” Charlie spoke with the heavy Lunenburg-Dutch accent that is still often heard in those parts today. He recalled “Children were growed up before they had any age to them. They never had a chance to go to school. You had to start work when you were so young that you never really had much chance to develop any interests other than fishing”. One of 12 children Charlie started cod lining as part of the family livelihood when he was “eight, ten maybe nine”.  By 13 like other his age, his father took him to Lunenburg and put him on a schooner for the Grand Banks, where he earned $30.00 a month as a deck hand until he was 15, at which time he was considered a grown man. Charlie then took his place at the bow of one of the dozen dories that put out each dawn and afternoon to set trawl for codfish. There he labored under tutelage of an older, experienced fisherman as a part of a two man team, for which Charlie earned a share of the schooner’s take.  Between the long voyages to the banks, like other fishermen, Charlie mended gear, built boats, repaired houses, farmed, chipped out decoys and took them gunning, as he had ever since he was big enough to carry a gun. – “That was none too big either”.

After a dozen years or so of salt-banking Charlie contributed to the bootleg industry by schoonering cases of liquor from St. Pierre to outside the twelve mile boundary off of Block Island, New York, where the crew would wait for power boats evading the Feds to steal through the darkness to relieve the cargo. “That was good fun,” Charlie said. At the same time Charlie put his name in as a labourer at the New Mersey Plant. Though the job never materialized, he bought a boat and, between rum-running trips took up life as an inshore out of Mersey point near Liverpool. Stonehurst hadn’t been big enough for all those Tanners so Charlie settled into a forty year period of either fishing alone, or with one partner, in his 40 foot Cape Islander, jigging Cod, seining herring or mackerel, the latter of which was used to bait lobster traps during those seasons. ”Them times there was no money. When you went all  day out and got 2,000 pounds of fish and made $25 or $30 to fead the two of you.” The take was one cent a pound for cod and 40 cents for lobster. Charlie said he took by handline a much as 3,000 pounds of cod by himself in one day. It may have been a tough haul but it was what Charlie knew.  His hands after a life of such toil were an amazing testament to the life they lived. Work was like breathing; it was second nature. “Fishing.  It’s a damn habit, that’s all it is,” he said looking back. His wife Helen offered “He’s just an old alt, that’s all he is.” But of course that is not all that Charlie was, and this exhibition celebrates the other part of his life, for which he will ultimately be remembered; that is, the roughly eight years he spent making small carved and painted figures of living things.”

Charlie Tanner died in 1982. Two years after his death, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia honoured him with an exhibition of his work.

Reference: Charlie Tanner Retrospective, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1984. Folk Art of Nova Scotia, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia,

A missed opportunity- My chance to meet Robert McCairns

I have found that sometimes, something, or someone can seem so available that you become casual and nonchalant about taking the time to go to them, and before you know it they are gone.  Thus was the case for me with Robert McCairns.  A few years after moving to Norfolk County in the early 80’s I had become aware that this noted folk artist was living nearby at Turkey Point.  I had seen a few of his bird carvings and liked the work, but at that time my life comprised primarily of trips to and fro Quebec to buy antiques and folk art, and then participating in antique shows to sell the stuff.  Also, aesthetically, I was pretty focused on the Quebec style of folk art and I was finding lots of it, and so although I found McCairn’s work interesting, it didn’t make my heart beat faster, if you know what I mean.  In short, time passed and the next thing I know I hear he’s pasted on. 

Then a few years later, we bought the Barbara Brown collection, and in it there were many, perhaps 60 or so of McCairn’s pieces.  Not only birds, and decoys for which he was mostly known, but also a few animals, and one sort of flat faced human head.  When you buy something you really look at it, and so I studied the pieces and came to appreciate his straight forward style;  slightly crude but with character, balanced, and with interesting paint.  He made carvings of the creatures around him. The birds and animals he was familiar with.

Robert McCairns at his workshop

Robert McCairns was born in Scotland October 9th, 1905. He came to Canada at the age of 18 and after travelling around the West Coast, he eventually found his way to Ontario, where he married and raised a family of two sons and a daughter at Turkey Point, on the North Shore of Lake Erie.

For more than forty years he earned his living at fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as managing tracts of the marsh.  He also carved decoys and worked as a guide during the hunting season.

After a severe illness in the mid 1970’s he retired from several of his enterprises and began to carve some of the birds he saw around the Long Point marsh; ducks, herons, shorebirds, and song birds.  Also fish, rabbits and turtles.  Eventually he added a few domestic animals such as cats, dogs and pigs.  People started to come to his place on the marsh and buy, and word got around, and by 1977 he had his first exhibition at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe Ontario. This was followed by shows  in Toronto  at the Merton Gallery, Claude Arsenault’s “Home Again”  folk art gallery, and the Harbourfront Community Gallery.  Some of his pieces were included in a travelling show sponsored by the Ontario Craft Council. In 1989, shortly before his death,  his work was the subject of a one man show at the Durham Art Gallery. This last show included a catalogue.

Robert McCairn’s produced what I consider to be good, honest folk art.  His birds are not literal  renditions of the various species, but rather they are his free interpretations of what he saw.  As much as a like many of these carvings,  it is his rendition of the human head which puts me over the top, admiration-wise.  It may have well been a “one off” for him, but to my mind as a piece of folk art, he knocked it out of the park with that one.  I felt my opinion was confirmed when I sold it at the Outsider Art Fair in New York to a well-known folk art dealer.  When I handed him a bio, he said “I don’t care who he is or where he’s from. I just love that he made this piece”.

In appreciation of Sid Howard

You know how with some artists you just love their work the first time you see it; recognizing that there is something genuine and authentic in it which places it above the work of others?  Something which goes directly  to your gut, bypassing the analytical brain cells. Well for me that’s Sid Howard.

Especially his early work.  His approach is direct, joyful, strong, and not at all self-conscious.  Simple lines.  A primitive elegance. I always get a lift when I look at his work.  I would see it on rare occasions over the years but did not become fully conscious of his life and work until I saw the NFB film “Folk Art Found Me” in 1993.  The fellows who made it set up and sold copies at the Bowmanville show that year.  A great film that you can see by following this link http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpk3q0

Sid Howard sitting amongst his creations singing “Pretty Robin Redbreast” is such a treat in itself, and then he goes on to talk about getting started.  This would be about 1945.

“Well one day I sat down and I said, I’d like to make a fish, and I’m going to try it. I never made one before.  Well, I worked on it slow and easy and it come out good; and so from then on I liked it and I never stopped since.”

We are lucky that the film makers got this on film.  He died shortly after.

Kobayashi/Bird “A compendium of Canadian Folk Artists (1985) states,

Around many odd tasks and carpentry work (Howard) managed to find opportunities for pursuit of his wood carving interests, particularly after 1945.  His earliest carving, a deer, was inspired by a drawing in his daughter’s colouring book. He continued to carve cats, fish, birds, and human figures.  Many of his works were destroyed in a fire in the late sixties. He eventually began to undertake the ambitious project of carving life-sized figures, including his interpretation of Cape Breton’s legendary “McAskill Giant”. He also carved various low-relief plaques with nature scenes, such as a beaver in a marsh setting, or scenes with stags, horses, seals, fish, and sailing vessels.  Inspired also by popular culture, he carved large sharks modelled after the villain in the movie “Jaws”.  He also carved political figures and an RCMP officer.  By the 1980’s he was turning increasingly to television programmes for subject matter.”

An early Sid Howard full-sized figure.

I have bought and sold Sid Howard works occasionally over the last thirty years,  but as I was buying largely in Quebec I did not encounter them very often.  Then at one of the Bowmanville shows in the late 1990’s,  Toronto art dealer Av Issacs and I were talking about Sid, and he said “you know, I have a Sid Howard piece that I bought years ago, that I could part with. “  Of course I was interested, and so true to word, the next week I received from Av, a photo and come on letter.  “No reasonable offer refused”.  Ya right Av, I’ve known you for too many years to fall for that.

On the phone the next day when we set up the appointment Av said   “You are going to love this piece. It’s so strong.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should even be selling it.”  I could feel the price rising.

I felt “cool” going into his rented digs in that old factory full of artists on Richmond Street.  I’m not sure that it hasn’t been made into up-scale condos by now, but at the time it had a real scene living there.  Av had closed the gallery and retired, but rented this for storage and an office space.   On the way in you could see that the young artists loved him.  We reached his space, unlocked the door, and there was the Sid Howard sitting on an easel in the light of the north facing window.  What a knock out.  Av was right.  I didn’t even try to play it cool, or barter.  Av was far too seasoned and would spot it right away anyway, so I just said “You’re right Av, it’s amazing.  I want it. So how much do I have to pay for it, bottom line.  Prix d’ami.  I always try the Quebec term prix d’ami, or “friend’s price” because it puts a friendly, positive spin on it.   Av’s price was by no means a giveaway, but it was fair and so I counted out the cash.

I brought it home and Jeanine loved it, so we hung it in the dining room, and there it remains.

After concluding our business, Av and I were looking around at some of his things under the pretense that there might be something else I would like, so I asked him.  “you wouldn’t have any William Kurelek drawings or paintings laying around that you want to get rid of at a cheap price?”  Av smiled, “well no, I’ve sold every painting and drawing that I had for sale, but I could sell you this.”  He went over to a storage rack and pulled out a fairly large plywood packing crate.  He flipped it around and on the back was quite a beautiful pencil drawing of a western village.  Along with an elaborate colorful frame around the name and address area.  “He sent me some paintings in this case from out West,  and he took the time to make it beautiful.”  Wow.  Simply wow.  Of course even Av’s friend price was way more than I could afford.  But I still think about it once in a while.  And I still love looking at the Sid Howard eagle.

our Sid Howard eagle

Considering the sophisticated folk art of Robert Wylie

Robert Wylie in his studio

Not all folk artist carvers fit neatly into the preconceived notion of a simple soul living on the fringes of society whittling out roughly realized renderings of farm animals or birds, and selling them from the front porch for next to nothing.  Robert Wylie is an example of a sophisticated, modern professional man who makes highly stylized and finely rendered sculptures that would not be out of place in a fine art gallery, and yet he is a self-proclaimed folk artist largely based on the fact that he has received no formal art training.  Proving that some people just come by it naturally.  Here’s a biography of Wylie provided by Ingram Antiques of Toronto who carried his work until they closed a few years back.

“Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Wylie immigrated to Canada as a young man, yet has maintained his distinct accent. “It’s simply easier to talk like this, my tongue curves around the words better” he jokes.

Wylie started carving in the early eighties, and stresses that he never had any formal training in art whatsoever. Retired, with some time on his hands, he began whittling, thus creating wooden sculptures “by accident” in an effort to fill up the time it took to watch his wife Liz Sinclair’s kiln being fired (a process taking up to 14 hours). While both Robert and Liz were pleased with the results of his carvings, neither of them considered for a moment that this could become a serious occupation.

When the expenses of restoring and renovating an old stone farmhouse just north of Belleville kept mounting, it was time to take action. While reluctantly considering going to a sales job, or some other seemingly less interesting occupation, Wylie met with an old friend who encouraged him to start carving seriously – and he did.

His extensive repertoire includes primarily stylized and minimalist animals, graceful and elegant. Other works include religious themes such as angels, crosses, and Noah’s Ark, complete with 13 pairs of animals, as well as Noah and his wife. He prefers to carve in basswood, as it is relatively easy to work with and never cracks, and occasionally works in pine. On larger pieces, he uses a band saw to shape the blank piece of wood, and generally uses a knife and an extensive amount of rasp work to shape the final product. The finish is typically very smooth, highly polished, monochromatic, dark blue/black with the undercoat shining through.”

I have to admit that when I first encountered Wylie’s work, in spite of liking it, I had to get my head around considering it as folk art in spite of his total lack of training. This is based on the fact that his work is highly refined and polished, which implies “fine art” to me whatever the artist’s background. But does applying the term folk art to an artist’s output suggest that the work must contain a certain level of simplicity, or naiveite?  After pondering it awhile I don’t think so. Grandma Moses work is very sophisticated but she is still considered to be the “Grandma” of all folk artists.  I can think of others whose work seems too sophisticated to be considered folk art.   And then there are also the trained artists who will occasionally, or exclusively paint in a “folk art style”.  Paul Gaugin and Picasso for heaven’s sake.  The lines get blurred, but in the end I think the only thing that matters is whether the work is genuine or not.  We can talk about definitions until the cows come home, but don’t let that stop us from enjoying the work.

[Reference: Folk Art – Primitive and Naive Art in Canada, Black McKendry, and A Compendium of Canadian folk Artists, Kobayashi and Bird]

Robert Wylie whale offered by Martin Osler on Collectivator