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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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.

1977 article on Canadian Folk Art

The following article was originally printed in “Antiques and Art” magazine, July / August 1977 issue. It was written by Nora Sterling and Jackie Kalman. This article serves as a useful introduction to folk art, and it is also interesting to note how much folk art has grown in recognition and popularity over the past thirty years.


CANADIAN FOLK ART
By NORA STERLING and JACKIE KALMAN

When the Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art Show opened its doors this year, waiting with the throng to enter were two people very significant by their presence. They were buyers from the Museum of Man and the National Gallery in Ottawa. The academically oriented National Gallery soon will be opening its folk art room and, in anticipation, has been collecting for the past few years.

By buying and displaying folk art, these prestigious institutions announce to Canadians what other more culturally secure countries have acknowledged for at least 50 years: folk art has finally come of age.

In the United States, as early as the 1920s, families like the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Whitneys had major collections of folk art, much of which now reside in three New York museums: the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.

In Canada, folk art is just being recognised as a viable and valid art form with qualities of freshness, inventiveness and vigour that make it exciting. What gives folk art its originality and charm is that, fortunately, the gifted artists who produced it are free from the dogmas and restrictions which the academic world imposes.

Folk art is not merely a quaint reminder of a nation’s manners and mores, a thing of the past with only functional or merely decorative purposes. It may indeed have all of these attributes, but like all good art, its expressions are powerful and compelling with an originality of concept, creativity of design, craftsmanly use of the medium and flashes of inspiration that are not surpassed by many academic artists.

Keeping in mind the similarities between academic and folk artists, the distinctive difference is that the latter is unschooled, while not necessarily unskilled. For example, a folk artist may have been whittling from his youth, creating bits and pieces for his own pleasure in his spare time. As an adult he may have become a white collar worker or perhaps a farmer, while still retaining his interest and further developing his skill.

Donald Hays is such a folk artist. Carving since he was five years old, he is .now in his early 40s and an engineer by profession. He carves bird decoys which he paints with the incredible expertise and attention to detail of an Audubon. With the true artist’s eye, he chooses those idiosyncratic stances and important characteristics that are peculiar to the bird he is carving.

On the other hand, Collins Eisenhauer, a folk artist who, like Grandma Moses, has “made it,” did not start intensive wood carving until 1964, when he was 66 years old. When asked what he did for a living in the ’30s, Eisenhauer replied, ” I wouldn’t like to tell you! ” He does admit, however, to being a farm hand, a logger and a sailor. His work has been bought by the Museum of Man, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Though carved from big hunks of wood, his figures still have a two dimensional look about them. They have the static and stiff quality which is characteristic of naive art – as if the artist does not want to risk a trial of skill to depict movement.

Charles Tanner, an ex-fisherman from Nova Scotia, approaches the task of carving with even a lesser degree of academic knowledge of the craft of sculpture than Eisenhauer. He solves his technical problems simply, by a complete disregard of detail and a disrespect for proportion which, in effect, enhance his work. One is struck by his bold personal style – exuberant, colourful and direct. His sculptures are now on tour with an exhibit of Canadian art assembled by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Generally studied in a category unto themselves, decoys have a significant place in the spectrum of folk art. Following the Indian custom of making lures to attract water fowl, the white man began carving and painting decoys.

These decoys were utilitarian. They were meant, through their likenesses, to attract birds to be shot. The early makers sold their decoys for 20 cents to 50 cents a piece. However, when market gunning was prohibited in 1918, decoy makers and factories went out of business, so the sportsman, by default, became his own decoy maker.

At this juncture, decoys became folk sculpture. The link with the folk genre lies in the carver’s craftsmanship and especially in his personal interpretation of the salient characteristics of his quarry.

Sculpture is only one way in which the power and beauty of folk art is expressed. Rugs, quilts, paintings, furniture and accessories are among the wide variety of objects produced by folk artists.

Much has been written on folk art, albeit not Canadian. Many art historians, curators and artists have concluded that the expressions of folk art are world-wide and that they state universal truths – realities which will always be voiced by untrained people with a creative urge.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Barber, Joel. Wild Fowl Decoys. New York: Windward House, 1934. Reprinted New York: Dover Public- ations, 1954.

Bishop, Robert. American Folk Sculpture. New- York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1974.

Folk Sculpture U.S.A. Edited.by Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. The Brooklyn Museum and the Los kngeles County Museum of Art. Catalogue- for 1976 show.

Folk Art of Nova Scotia. Art gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Catalogue for show, November 1976 through May 1978. Biographies of artists and illustrations of their works.

Gladstone, M.J. A Carrot for a Nose:, the Form of Folk Sculpture on America’s City Streets and Country Roads. New York: Charles Scribner’s Song, 1974.

Hooked Rugs in the Folk Art Tradition. Museum of American Folk Art, New York. Catalogue for 1974 show.

Lipman, Jean and Winchester, Alice.The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876. New York: The Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.

People’s Art: Naive Art in Canada. J. Russell Harper. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Catalogue for, show, 1973-1974.

The April Antiques and Folk Art Show. Mel Shakespeare. Catalogue for the 1975 Bowmanville, Ontario, show.

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”.

Discovering the work of Essex County folk artist, George June

In the late fall of 2013 I was contracted by the Windsor Community Museum to produce documentation and an appraisal of a large collection of folk art by an Essex County man named George June.

The museum put the work on display for a couple of months, and I believe much of it is still available for viewing.  It is interesting work. Much of it quite simple, but elegant in line and form.  Mr. June created jewelry, canes, costumes, furniture, carvings of animals, people , and objects, along with carved and assembled vignettes of everyday rural life.  All with fine attention to detail.  Culminating in two extraordinary marquetry tables.

Here’s his bio.

George Forester June

1867 – 1944

George Forester June lived in Cottam, Ontario, a small town in Essex County.  A retired farmer, he was afflicted with sciatic rheumatism in 1929 from which he only partially recovered.  Used to working with his hands and keeping busy, he was in search of a hobby.

At his cottage near Lake Couchiching he first whittled a cedar cane.  It was the beginning of a hobby that would last the rest of his life.  He continued his hobby at his home in Cottam.  While his wife, Elizabeth, worked on her hooked rugs, he would shape wood pieces into works of art.

Soon these items became an attraction for residents and visitors to Cottam.  He built a log cabin to house the pieces and invited people in to view them.  Residents and family members recall that the large front room was filled with carvings he had made.

Upon his death in 1944, Mr. June’s collection of carvings and his log cabin were passed onto his grandson George H. Coote.

While raising a young family, George H. and his wife Mary began to look for a more permanent home for the collection.  They approached local Museums in their own area without success.

At the same time Huron County Museum founder, J. H. Neill, was collecting items to expand his own collection.  Mr. Neill approached the family and in 1956 Mr. June’s collection was loaned to the Huron County Museum.  In 1986 the collection of folk art was officially donated by George H. Coote.

 

Here is a description of the tables.

rooster table

Rooster Table

Made of walnut and white pine, this tabletop is made of 6000 pieces of 1/4 inch wood cubes.  These types of wood were chosen because they have little shrinkage and would therefore last a greater length of time.  The pattern was conceived by Mr. June and then drawn out on paper.  It took approximately 3 months to carve and lay the pieces.

dogs and dragons table

Dogs & Dragons Table

Mr. June spent approximately 6 months creating this inlaid table.  It is made from 52,600 cubes of walnut and white pine which are laid onto an oak tabletop.

If you get to the Windsor area, I highly recommend stopping by and seeing this work.  They also have quite a bit of supporting information like his old scrap book.  I don’t know how much of the work is easily accessible but I would think if you contacted them beforehand and explained your interest, they would be helpful. I enjoyed my time there, and their hospitality.  I gave a folk art lecture one night and was delighted to meet the local collectors. They are a nice bunch of folks.

Documenting collections is one of my favourite activities because it gives me a chance to look closely at the work, and get to know something about the artist.   I enjoyed getting to know the work of Mr. June, and it is satisfying that it has been preserved in perpetuity by the museum for future generations to experience.

This is all – the work of Steve Sutch

We first encountered the works of Steve Sutch in the late 1980’s at the tobacco museum in Delhi, Ontario.  It came as a total surprise.  Although we lived nearby we had never visited the museum as we were busy setting up house, and when we finally got to it one sunny summer afternoon we were amazed to find a large display of delightful carved/constructed work by this self-taught local artist. It was a show/sale and sadly for us, most of the pieces had already been bought.  It was easy to see why considering the quality and charm of the pieces presented, all at relatively low prices.  We bought everything that was left.

His sense of humour and invention was evident in all of the works presented, but the show did not include any drawings.  Over the next few years we occasionally ran across another construction, but it wasn’t until 1995 when we bought Barbara Brown’s collection that we were delighted to discover a package of about thirty Steve Sutch drawings. His constructions, and occasional piece of original furniture are good, but his drawings are amazing.

Steve Sutch’s Hungarian parents emigrated to Canada in 1905, and homesteaded in Saskatchewan where Steve was born in 1907, near Regina. He also homesteaded in that province, near Spiritwood, where he made a living working in logging camps and sawmills.

In 1937 he moved to Ontario, eventually settling down in Brantford where he remained until his death in 1992. He found employment in various areas of industry and agriculture, working on the railroad, factories, and tobacco fields. It is only after he retired from his very laborious life, raising two sons and three daughters, that he took up carving and drawing.

table designed and made by Steve Sutch

As stated, Steve Sutch did not limit himself to the carving and painting of wood. Most of his sculptures incorporate some mixed media feature, such as clothes made of actual pieces of fabric, and yarn used for hair. His pieces are constructed as much as carved. In his last few years Steve Sutch concentrated more on his drawings, which are mostly crayon and markers on the back of cereal boxes, or any scrap of paper or cardboard available. It is in the drawings that he let his imagination run wild, very often writing captions to explain the contents. These captions, if she judged too daring, were erased by his wife. She missed a few. 

We framed and took the drawings we bought from Barbara to the April Bowmanville show, and the following January to the Outsider Art Fair in New York. They sold like hot cakes and were bought by many serious collectors.  This confirmed our belief that Sutch was a top drawer artist of the cartoon persuasion.  His drawings are edgy, sometimes outrageous and even at times profound. They all contain humour and insight.  A lot of them deal with fate, and the food chain. “Make all chicken’s happy, eat pork” etc.  In the May/June 1992c edition of the Upper Canadian, folk art collector and scholar Michael J Hennigan wrote an excellent and insightful four page essay on Sutch’s drawings. If I can gain permission to do so,I will post it here in a future blog. 

Steve Sutch’s work demonstrates a very strongly individualistic interpretation of a full life’s experience; a commentary on relevant current events (such as portraits of political figures), as well as imaginative tellings of fantastic and sometimes wicked or naughty stories. Steve Sutch approached his work with a great sense of humour which permeates every piece.  I will close by reproducing a short autobiography written in his own hand which Barbara Brown had the insight to ask him to produce in 1989, shortly before his death in 1992.    As Steve says there, “This is all.”

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.