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”.

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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

The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”

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.

A World populated with animals – The work of Wilfred Richard and his family sculptors

Damase and family in front of their house about 1910

Bernard Genest’s  excellent 109 page booklet on the four generations of the Richard family carvers, published in 1986 by the Museum of Civilization begins with a quote from the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine -“Inanimate objects do you have a soul which attaches itself to our soul and forces it to love”.  A quote which applies in spades to the work of the Richard family.

a bear by Damase Richard,

The Richard family has lived in Quebec since Pierre Richard arrived from France in 1670. Six generations later Damase Richard was born in 1852.  Although he lived on a farm, Damase was not interested in farming.  He was interested in art, so as a young man he left home to seek work as an artist.  His natural talents landed him a job painting carriages, first in Quebec city and then in the U.S., and eventually in Montreal. Then he got a job with a furniture manufacturer carving and painting decorations on the finer pieces of furniture.  It was during this time, about 1871, that he met and was influenced by master carver, Louis Jobin.  He continued for about ten years before buying a piece of  wooded land near Saint-Ubalde de Portneuf. It was ten years before he had cleared the land and built a house.  At 39, in 1891 he married Elmire Frenette, and they went on to produce seven children.  As stated, Damase was not a farmer by nature so when his oldest son Wilfred became twelve he passed much of the responsibly of the day to day farm work on to Wilfred and he began to sculpt seriously.  He started with pipes, sugar molds, ashtrays and other small items that he could sell easily.  One of his sculpted pipes would sell for 60 cents, about ten cents more than a regular one.  He did not often repeat a pattern, preferring to invent designs.  He also produced toys for the children, and crucifixes and other religious articles for family members.

He used very few tools. Three gouges, two pocket knives, a plane and an axe.  He was very talented and precise. After a while he became interested in sculpting the animals and birds he saw around him.  He not only carved them, but unheard of at the time, painted them in polychrome colours. At this time there really wasn’t a market for these pieces, but he continued to produce them to satisfy his creative urge.  Of course as is often the case, nowadays  these are his most sought after and valuable pieces.  He was prolific and carried on until his  death at the age of seventy in 1922.

Of Damase’s seven children, three became carvers. Wilfred, Alfred and Joseph all carved animals and birds as their father had before them, but only Wilfred sold his work. Although he was smart, and quick to learn Wilfred only got about five years of schooling due to his family obligation. But he seemed to readily accept this destiny, and thereafter rarely left the family property.

horse by Wilfred Richard

Like his father, Wilfred showed a natural affinity to carving.  He became his father’s apprentice at an early age and was soon producing work alongside his father during the long winter months when he was not busy with farm work. He stated that he was never really interested in commercializing his work, and would actually discourage people from coming to buy.“Me. I’m not proud. When the pride was passed out I was not there. I’ll say one thing though that pride in the work has a good place. I have always been proud of this. but to dress me up fancy, to go to a formal service, or that kind of business,  I would go dressed as I am now. It would do me nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m like that. “

owl by Wilfred Richard

Wilfred married Marie Darveau, and they lived their lives together in the home Damase had built. They had fifteen children, but only six survived, and of these six, three have become carvers – Marie Jeanne, Fernand, and Maurice.  Marie Jeanne married Lucien Lavallee, and they produced two sons, Paul-Emile and Dominique who also became carvers, and carry on the tradition to this day.

Wilfred Richard was born in 1894 and he died in 1996.

Wilfred Richard in his kitchen

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.