Les Patenteux du Quebec, the “bible” of Quebec folk art

In 1972 three young Quebecoise, Louise de Grosbois, Raymonde Lamothe, and Lise Nantel began research on Les Patenteux du Quebec.  Patenteux is an idiomatic Quebec word that roughly translates into Inventor or Creator.  The book was published by in 1978 with assistance from the Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and The Canada Arts Council.  For six years, the women sought out “Patenteux” across Quebec, documenting their words, locations and creations for posterity and to as they suggest in the introduction,  to be a “monument to our culture”.  You know how certain books become “the Bible” of a subject? Well this is “the Bible” of Quebec folk art.  A work of great importance now, and in the future for anyone interested in understanding and appreciating Quebec culture.

In the introduction they state, “We started research in 1972 at a moment when our culture interest was to return to the source, born from a feeling of sharp Nationalism which succeeded a long period when we were easily dazzled by everything foreign. We perceived that the Quebecois people, who had survived 300 years of systematic humiliation and dispossession,  was not a people without culture and history. The ingenuity that our ancestors applied to adapt to the climate, and to conquer their isolation testifies to this. They had to survive.  They had to reinvent their architecture, their tools, their ways of feeding and clothing themselves, as well as their celebrations.  This process of rehabilitation of our history and culture, which was an attempt at decolonization has given us a new image of ourselves, and brought us to search for our identity.”

 The book records seventy five artists broken into nine geographical regions.  It is a treasure of information which is out of print and now hard to find. It has never been translated into English.   There’s a Canada 150 project I would like to see.  A hardcover version in both official languages.  But it seems the money is going to fireworks and giant rubber ducks.  But I digress.

I love this book even though I struggle to understand the accurate recording of the patois of the subjects.  There’s lots of wonderful pictures.    In my February 18, 2013 blog  “My happy time with Mr. Joly’s whirligig” I recall our first encounter.  “Fast forward to the next summer and we are enjoying a weekend in Quebec, our favourite North American city.  We had heard of a bookstore where it was possible to buy a rare book, Les Patenteux du Quebec,  which we knew to be the “bible” of Quebec folk art.  Published in 1978, it is the work of three young Quebec women who spent  a summer or so traveling all over Quebec documenting, and recording the stories of every Quebec folk artist they could trace.  We found the shop and bought the book, and when we cracked it open, it opened to page 19, and behold there was our whirligig. With a picture of it in it’s original location, and a statement by the artist.  Extraordinary.”

The love and respect shown to the artists is clear by “ the letter to the Patenteux”  which begins the book

“You encouraged us to make this book by telling us that you would like to know what the others are doing.
We wanted everyone to recognize you.
We hope that we have been faithful to what you have told us, and that you will recognize yourself. We apologize in advance for the errors which may have crept into the information we give.
A wonderful memory of you is guarded. Your great vitality has given us the taste to live for a hundred years, to get to do things as extraordinary as you do. “

Over the years I have been able to identify the unsigned works of many artist by thumbing through this book.  Every time this happens I thank the authors, and I inevitably linger, trying my best to decipher the comments, and just letting myself imagine meeting and experiencing the environments the artists create.  It has also helped us track down many artists who  continued to live and work in the places they were recorded.  Folk artists tend to stay put.

For all these reasons I salute and give a heartfelt thank you to the authors for their dedication over the six years it took to produce this book.  You have made a valuable contribution to the Quebec cultural identity, and further to our Canadian Identity.  A book worth having. Try to find yourself a copy.

Remembering the first major unreserved auction of Canadian Folk Art – the Sutherland/ Amit Collection

As with most cultural expressions, the Interest in folk art waxes and wanes over the years.  In 1994 when the announcement for the auction of the Ann Sutherland and Zalman Amit folk art collection came out, the market was hot.  The couple’s reputation as collectors, both doctors who ran a busy behavior therapy and research clinic in Westmount Quebec, was well known primarily  by their many published articles on folk art. They owned a seven bedroom house in Nova Scotia which they filled with a large, eclectic collection of folk art, assembled on collecting trips to Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Blake McKendry wrote in the catalogue “recently, when Ann and Zalman added another piece of folk art, Zalman had to put it in the wine cellar, saying that not another piece could be stored even in the basement. Much soul searching was required before a solution could be rationalized. The collection had become too large and valuable to be managed by two busy psychologists who wished to move to a much smaller house.  On the other hand, there was no desire to suppress the shared desire to collect.  A solution evolved: disperse the entire collection by auction and divert the collecting urge to a different but related field – Canadian drawings.  The result is the first major unreserved auction of Canadian folk art in all its forms.”    Mr. McKendry went on to say about the collection, “ The entire collection is in the auction.  More than forty identified Canadian folk artists, sculptors and/ or painters are represented, some by several pieces. A large number of these works are by Nova Scotia folk artists and no doubt these will be highlighted by auctioneer Chris Huntingdon’s witty and insightful remarks.”  Lord knows, that be true.  All who attended will remember the high level of theatricality not only in Mr. Huntington’s lively commentary, but also in the evening gowns and over the elbow elegant gloves worn by  the lady presenters, complete with hand gestures, making the whole affair feel a bit like “the Price is Right”.

The auction was managed by Bill Dobson. It took place in two sessions at the Bowmanville sports complex, where the Bowmanville Spring Antiques and Folk Art sale takes place annually. 196 items were auctioned off Friday, January 21 at 6 p.m. , the remaining 336 items went up at 10 a.m on Saturday.

We were very excited to attend. We made a little family vacation out of it when our teen age daughter Cassandra who was beginning to develop an interest in folk art, decided to come along. With Chris Huntington’s commentary and all those competing collectors, it was bound to be an education. I remember as we walked into the complex to the preview Friday at 3, that she looked over everything and landed her attention on a stunning, large mechanized sculpture of a hawk by Ralph Boutilier.  Then she said, “ I know you will be wanting to be buying things for resale, but if you want to know my opinion, I would just spend whatever is necessary to buy that hawk, take it home, keep it; and forget about the rest of it.”  I took her point, but as she observed,  we were primarily interested in buying as much as we could to resell.  We created a list of all the pieces that we were  interested in, and after consideration noted our top bid in each case.   When the auction started at six, we were ready with catalogues in hand ready to write down all the prices realized. We noted that Item # 14, a painting of an Ox team by Maud Lewis sold for $550, which was about what I was paying for them at auction at Waddington’s  in those days.  An erotic drawing by Collins Eisenhauer (1898-1979 )item #18 , which we have owned once, and appeared again at this year’s Bowmanville, sold for a very reasonable $175.  A nice early Merganser (#37) went for $850.  Chip carved crooked knives went in a range from $100 to $500.   We bought a very nice watercolour and ink drawing of the the ship Mauritania by Albert Lohnes (1895-1977) which still hangs in our living room. Also a hooked rug of confronting roosters and  three different roosters by different artist.  We were quite pleased with our take that first night, but knew that the bulk of what we wanted would be offered on Saturday.

Saturday morning the place was packed. Things started slowly with a lot of glass and decorative items.  You know that a Limoges dinner service for eight, nine pieces per setting is in the wrong place when it only brings $150.  People were there to buy folk art and early furniture. It started to get exciting when some early Quebec carvings by the likes of Louis Jobin (1845-1928) started to bring in four figures.  Then the  Boutilier hawk (#317) hammered down at $2,750.  We were the underbidder much to Cassandra’s disappointment, and yes, our almost immediate regret.  I like to say when people are himming and hawing about buying a piece, “You’ll never regret what you buy.  You only think about the pieces you let slip away.”  This hawk is a perfect example. 

Then we hit #343, a carved figure of a youth, polychromed and articulated, mid 19th century. Found in Nova Scotia.  A few jaws dropped when it realized $9,000. Some of the furniture was strong. A painted and paneled Wilno box (#357) went for $6,500. A hooked rug of a woman on horseback (#339) realized $3,400.  A continuous Windsor armchair (#353) saw $2,750.

And so it progressed, slowly. Very slowly.   Chris Huntington’s dialogue although informative and entertaining initially, eventually started to draw things out to the point where most were wishing for a more conventional, let’s get it done style of auctioneering.  Eventually, item # 384 arrived.  A large 205 x 143 cm painting described as a fisherman’s village by the legendary Lorne Reid (1954-1992). Our second most coveted item after the Boutilier hawk, and we won it at $850.  A lot more than we had hoped to pay, but it was ours.   We owned it for several years and loved it in spite of the fact  it was not an “easy’ subject to live with. What appears to be a starving man staring at a fish skeleton is not all that cheerful. There is a bigger story there. One which I will go into another time.

After a couple of more small purchases we packed it in and left for home, about 4 in the afternoon if I remember correctly. There was still about another 100 items to be offered, but we had spent a whack of money, bought a lot of stuff, and were grateful for the experience.  I still wake up occasionally thinking about that mechanical hawk.  What a thing that is.  I wish it were mine.

The last known works by Rosario Gautier

This handsome fellow lives in our living room.  He is a favorite of ours, and we have come to find out that he was made by Rosario Gautier, late of St. Charles de Bourget, Lac St. Jean Quebec,.  We didn’t know who made it when we bought him about 25 years ago,  and it didn’t matter so much because we loved the piece, but it was satisfying to eventually put a name on it.

Over the years we have found and bought several pieces by the same hand.  The chunky, colorful style is unique and easily recognizable, but all we encountered were unsigned, save for a few initialed “RG”.  Not a lot to go on.  Then one day, some picker, I can’t recall who, said ”Oh, yes that’s Rosario Gautier from Lac St. Jean.  He’s been carving for years.   Now at least we had a name and place to ask about.

The next big break  came in Quebec city when walking back late one night to our hotel after a particularly memorable meal and lots of good wine with friends who are lucky enough to live there.  We passed in front of a closed antique shop and there in the street light was a photo in the window of Mr. Gautier, along with several of his pieces, and a short hand written bio.  We were able to find a pen and paper and copy out the bio, and take this slightly blurry picture through the glass.  We were up and out in the morning and never got back there.

Here’s what we were able to record about him that night. “Rosario Gautier was born and lived all his life at St. Charles de Bourget, Lac St. Jean, Quebec.  Father of a large family (12 children of whom 9 are still living), he was a farmer and a blacksmith in logging camps. He started carving after retiring in 1971, and produced a large body of work. Most of his pieces are in the medium size range, but he also produced life sized animals, as well as an eight foot crucifix. The muse de la Civilization du Quebec owns 350 of his pieces, and he is represented in many major collections in Canada and the Unites States.”

By this time we had bought many pieces of his work.  We kept some, and sold most to Quebec collectors.  All the while we love his funky, choppy versions of birds and animals.  All of them rough, and not self-conscious, but also showing a fineness and understanding of form.

We were in the habit those days to try to meet as many folk artists as we could in our travels, but as much as we admired Mr. Gautier’s work and would love to have met him, we were unwilling to make the 3 hour drive north of Quebec city, on spec.  Not even knowing at this point if he was still alive.  I google mapped St. Charles de Bourget just now, and it appears to be a charming little village of 690 souls set on a beautiful northern lake, but it is well on the way to nowhere.  With very few villages en route,  it would mean three hours of looking at trees, and then if we didn’t connect, three more hours of trees coming back.  We didn’t feel like risking it.

We continued to see and buy his work from time to time, then in the mid-nineties we bought the Mongeau collection, and it included about forty small pieces that Mrs. Mongeau described to us as Mr. Gautier’s last works,  which he made just before passing away at the age of 80 in 1994.  I’ve included pictures of some of this work here.  I love the directness of this work, and even though you can see it is not as accomplished as some of his earlier pieces like our 3 ½’ long bull,  it contains a mighty spirit.

I’d still like to make it up that way just to see if I could find that eight foot crucifix.  Even if it turned out to be fruitless, it’s close to Saguenay which from the pictures seems like a pretty interesting place to check out.  I love Quebec.  Quebec J’taime.  Maybe this fall.

Bob MacDonald and the fantasy cities

I can’t remember how we met Bob MacDonald.  It’s most likely that he found us.  Bob was a full time antique picker who would pull in unexpectedly from time to time in whatever old wreck of a car he happened to be driving.  I don’t think he ever paid over $100 for a car, and he spent all his time in them, so they didn’t last long.  Bob was the type of character that kept me interested in this antique business, come lifestyle.

Bob was charming, intelligent, well read, and knowledgeable in the arts, and literature; but he also liked the bottle, and survived on almost nothing, occasionally being reduced to living in his car.  When he came by, we would make sure he got some food in him, along with his beloved black coffee.

Bob spent all of his time following up leads, and beating the bushes for valuable artwork and rare books.  He was good at it and would occasionally score big time. Then eventually the money would be gone and he may have to suffer through a fallow period.  Those where the ropes. When he found something in folk art, like a Maud Lewis painting or the like he would come to see us.  Sometimes to convince us to put some money up front, so he could actually purchase the object he had found.  We trusted Bob, and he always delivered. 

I was working in the garden on a fine summer day in the late eighties when Bob came roaring up the driveway, a big smile on his face, and a car full of what appeared to be aquariums. On closer inspection I could see that they were hand-made display boxes with plexiglass on the top and front.   There was a half dozen on the back seat and two beside him on the passenger seat. He popped the trunk and there were another four large ones in there.  “You’ll never guess what I’m bring you today”.  He could hardly contain himself.  “ I was up in Goderich and stopped in to the Chinese restaurant there for some lunch.  I got talking to the owners and came around to telling them I was looking for art and books, and the young woman there said “Well, I don’t know if you will consider them art, but my father when he wasn’t busy cooking would get out a key-hole saw, and spend hours making these fantasy city landscapes.  Would you like to see them?”  Of course he was delighted to look.  There in the back storage room were dozens of these boxes of various size and configuration. Every one similar with many layers of carefully cut out and painted balsa wood walls, towers, balconies; and courtyards adorned with little plastic trees and flowers. Most of them had a boarder of mini Christmas lights around the front, and occasionally there would be a plastic figure of a ballerina, or chicken, or duck perched atop a column making it appear to be  a giant statue in the courtyard.  The overall effect was mesmerizing.  I know Bob would play it cool, but I bet his eyes were popping out.  She explained that for a time her father would display them in the front window and occasionally someone would buy one, but eventually he became discouraged.  The family had all kept their favorites, and so when Bob expressed interest, they sold the rest of them to him for a song.  Really just wanting to find them a good home and free up the storage space I suppose.  Bob drove directly to us.

What can I tell you.  Jeanine and I both really liked them and felt they were strong examples of original folk art from a vivid imagination. Perhaps one looking nostalgically back on a childhood spent in China, although a China of the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” variety.  We felt and would continue to argue that they contained magic .   We weren’t sure if anyone would feel the same and we now had a dozen of them.  It’s the question you ask yourself when you invest your hard earned money in something that most people would find clearly crazy.  If you see it, and can recognize it, I think you are under some obligation to act.  Otherwise, why are you a folk art dealer, and not working at the bank. Or something else that rewards you with a pension, benefits and a regular “Johnny Paycheck”. 

We took them to a few Ontario shows where they were pretty much ignored, or met with a polite curiosity, or in some cases they produced downright hostility.   What is it about some folk art which actually makes people angry? I think it’s a combination of seeing something you revile with a big price tag.  It makes one question the value of money, which can lead to questioning one’s values in general, which can lead to all sorts of problems.  In any case, it soon looked like we would be owning them for a long while to come.  We didn’t have a lot of money wrapped up in them as Bob had passed them on to us very reasonably so we were happy enough to set them all up in  the showroom and plug them all in.  Then turn out the lights and enjoy  the feeling of being transported.  An exciting Friday evening out on the ranch.

Fortunately, the next January we found ourselves doing a show in New York city, and within ten moments of opening a man came rushing up to us needing to know everything about them.  He listened to the story and we soon settled on a price for all of them with the understanding that if any more were to become available he had first dibs.  Also, we were to find out anything more that we could about the artist.  Bob died not too long after, and we didn’t get a chance to ask him to go back.  Our lifestyle was such that I couldn’t take the time to drive to Goderich to see what I could find out, but it’s something I still think about from time to time. The trails pretty cold at this point.

Four favourite folk art pieces by “unknown” artists

It is the day before Christmas eve, and I will soon be going downstairs to carve up apples for pies.  Here’s wishing you dear readers, a very Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays as the case may be, and the best to all in 2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out 2016.  I think we will all be glad to be done with you.

So rather than go into a researched account of things past, or detailed description of some refinishing procedure, I am simply going to show you four of my favourite pieces in our collection, whose maker is unknown, and talk a bit about them.  I think it will be fun, and I will be able to get to the kitchen quicker.

Much folk art is unsigned.  Many who make folk art do so for their own gratification and therefore don’t bother to sign.  Others are perhaps unsure as to whether they want to own up to it. For whatever reason, it can be frustrating to a collector when you come across something you really like, and then can find no clues as to how to find other pieces by the same hand.  Sometimes you continue to find pieces you recognize are by the same maker in the same places, so you know you are getting close, and eventually you may be in the right place at the right time to have someone tell you who made them. Other times you may find a piece which totally blows you away, and never, ever see another piece like it.

Walking around the house I have chosen these four pieces for your consideration.un3

  1. Elephant on a fungus

We came across this unsigned piece on the second floor of Alan Chauvette’s pickers barn in St. Valere Quebec, in about 1985.  I remember the excitement I felt as I pulled it out from underneath a pile of blankets, and immediately fell in love.  Obviously local, the creator was dreaming of exotic, far-off Africa, with palm trees carved in relief against a blue sky.  I have always had a thing for the tree fungus you come across in the woods, which seem to scream out “do something with me”, and after finding lots of pieces involving fungus, I realize that there are many who share my enthusiasm.  For a while there I collected fungus folk art.  That was before Jeanine expressed that she found many of the pieces ugly,  and she developed a theory that they may be releasing spores into our environment,  so she would prefer that I move on.  This piece however, because she loves it as much as I do, and because the fungus is painted clearly falls into a different category.  I cannot logically explain why this piece falls into as Chuck Heston so famously put it, “if you want it, you’ll have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands”.  But it truly delights me every time I look at it.un2

  1. Chief Sam Goose

This piece was again found in Alan Chauvette’s barn about the same time.  All we could learn about it was that it was picked in New Brunswick, and had stood at the entrance to a Mi’kmaq reservation for many years.  Oil paint on plywood, it is a wonderful example of how time and nature can have a hand in making a truly unique piece.  If I were to see it new, I would enjoy it for it’s graphic qualities, but it is the fact that the paint has deteriorated into the grain of the plywood in such a beautiful way that it  looks as if the chief is looking at us through the fog of time.   I bought this piece for next to nothing, and actually put it out at three or four shows with a price tag of about $175. Then one day when packing up I took a good look at it and thought “are you crazy. This is a wonderful thing.  They’ve had their chance, and now it’s mine.”un4

  1. A couple of stout fellows from New Brunswick

Again, it was love at first site.  This time it was in the early nineties and I was having a quick look around the Inside/Outside show held near the Toronto airport before the crowd was let in. I came across these fellows in the booth of Cathy Constantino, of Timber River Farms.  Cathy is a sweet woman and you can always count on her giving you a good deal so I simply asked for her best price.  She knew they were very good, but she gave me a reasonable price in any case based on her purchase price, which makes Cathy a “class act” in my books.  I put them in my case and didn’t show them to anyone for fear they would offer me “stupid” money, and I may be tempted by the bottom line.  You can’t eat art, but you can’t live without it either.  She actually did have the name of the artist, which I actually did write down in my day book which is how I kept track of everything in those days, but it would take me hours to go through those books to retrieve it now, and as I mentioned I am anxious to make pies. I will do it one day, and write it on a note underneath them but these fall into the category of “I never found another piece by the same artist.” So, it can wait.  Aren’t they just the greatest figures of manhood that you can possibly imagine.  They hit all my buttons.un5

 

  1. Two facing off Magpies

Last, but not least, we have a couple of Magpies facing down each other over a worm (missing). We acquired this at last spring’s Aberfoyle show, from the booth of Craig Gamache.  Jeanine has a large collection of bird carvings, and we knew right away that these fellows would have to be added, so it was with some relief that he offered them to us at a decent wholesale price.  He had no information on the artist but mentioned that there had been a twig, looking like a worm, between their beaks when he bought them; but the worm was broken when he found it, and had become lost.  One of these days I’ll get around to putting a new worm between them so the tug of war can continue, but in the meantime, it just looks like they are having an animated conversation.  As Magpies will do.

On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

Driving the Vatican to Montreal

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

When it comes to selling folk art, something you learn pretty quickly is that size matters.  In this case, small being better than large, because not many collectors have a large amount of space to dedicate to their interest, and so although they may be delighted to see a large piece, not many of them are going to take it home.  The exception being things like totem poles or other vertical forms that don’t take up too much floor space., or can go outdoors.  Even then it has to have a lot going for it, or you risk hauling the thing around from show to show like a giant albatross around your neck.  That being said, it’s good to have something  spectacular for a show like Bowmanville, where you focus on building a reputation as well as sales, and big and flashy gets them into your booth.  This is why on the rare occasion when I did find something large that made my heart skip, I found myself drifting from ”isn’t this an interesting thing. I’m so happy to have experienced it and now I have it to remember”, to “I wonder if I can Squeeze this thing into the truck and when I get home convince Jeanine it is a good idea.”  It’s a feeling recognized by elements of excitement and danger coming rapidly in equal amounts.

It was early spring and the hope brought on by new life and growth was thick in the air as I pulled in to Jean Deshaies or as he is known “Kojak’s”.   I was flying solo and with a full truck, so it was a last look in case of an interesting small or something worth putting aside for next time.  I could see that Kojak was excited when I walked in, and he jumped right up and hurried towards me, “ Phil, you’ve got to see what just came in. It’ll blow your mind”.  He brought me into his small front room where he kept his special things and there perched on a table in front of the window was a spectacular 7 foot long, 4’ tall, red and white, three tiered birdhouse in the form of a ship.  The name “Vatican” painted prominently on the bow.  Wow.  What a thing.  Double masted, with twin funnels spewing black smoke asthe French flag overlooked all from high above.  You could see that great care had gone into the creation.  Every piece was carved lovingly from wood or shaped from metal, and it was built to last.

The Vatican in Kojak's front room

The Vatican
in Kojak’s front room

It was made in the late 1940’s by two priests who taught and lived at the seminary near the town of Lobiniere, situated on the south shore of the St Lawrence river.   It took them over two years to make it, and then they mounted it outdoors under a sheltering roof where it served as the home for many birds over the next thirty years or so until the seminary closed.  By then the brothers had died, and it was bought by a local. Fortunately, he looked after it well, keeping it painted and maintained and under a roof as the brothers had, so when Kojak bought it, it was just a question of giving it a really good cleaning.  This was the state it arrived in hours before I pulled in.

It hit all my buttons, had great provenance, and was definitely top drawer folk art, but it was also a lot of money, and huge, not to mention massively heavy.  My mind kept telling me to “avoid” “just move away and nobody gets hurt” but when Jean told me he had already called a couple of Quebec city dealers, and they had not committed but would be coming to look at it, I started to panic.  Something about it spoke to me.   I’m not naturally inclined, but it felt almost Holy.   I wanted it, and I had to think fast. “Can I have a hold on it for 24 hours, and take a couple of pictures.  I’ve got a guy in mind.”  He hesitated.  “Well, I don’t want you shopping it around to everyone, but if you have somebody in mind I’ll give you until closing time tomorrow.”  Great.  That may be all I need.

As it happened this was a time when I was selling a lot of folk art to a new, high end interior décor and furniture shop setting up over two floors of a converted warehouse in an up-scale neighborhood in Montreal.  The owner, a Mr. Camelot, (how do you forget a name like Camelot), was very progressive and pushing hard to come up with the very best.  Today I would have phoned him and sent him the picture, but in the day, after he had expressed interest over the phone, there was nothing left to do but drive to Montreal and show him the pictures. The next morning at 8 am we met at the store and he quickly decided based on the two polaroids, and my description that he had to have it, and so it just became a matter of driving the two hours back to Kojak’s and fetching it.

I had to pile up the things I already had on my truck at Jean’s because the ship took up the entire box of the truck from front to back.  I roped it in place and started out for Montreal.   I can remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday, cruising at 120 klm down Hwy 40 headed for Montreal when suddenly the sky turned black and a torrential summer rainfall let loose.  Looking in the rear view mirrors it looked like the Vatican was sailing her way through heavy seas.  I was concerned but she was built to take it and there was nothing to do but sail on.   As Mr. Camelot’s workers unloaded it and brought it up in the lift, I was thinking that although I was happy the ship had found it’s new dock, the only unfortunate part was that I would have loved to make it the center piece of our Bowmanville booth that year.  Still, a bird in the hand.   fullsizerender4

Something about seeing that ship in those rear view mirrors left a big mark on me, and a little while later I was messing around and found myself painting in a decorative old mirror frame I found, a rendering of the Vatican floating on a cloud off into a starry night  . It’s still hanging there on the wall over my left shoulder, and every once in a while I notice it and I think about the two priests staying up late, and using all their leisure time to create such a wonderful home for the little birds.

Ironically, about twenty years later, I walked into set up for the Bownmanville show and there it was. A Quebec dealer had brought it on consignment.  The Vatican was looking for a new dock.  It did not sell.  As I watched them load it back onto the truck for the trip home I said to myself, “that could be me.”vat2