Madam Tessier, and her brother

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walking in the park

In the late 1980’s when we were antique shopping in Quebec on a regular basis, we would follow up on leads for new sources that were offered to us by other dealers.  We were told about a great shop in the town of Deschambault, which is on Rt. 138 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river between Trois Rivieres and Quebec city.  Rte. 138 was a popular tourist route back in the heyday of motoring vacations in the fifties and the sixties, but traffic dropped dramatically when the auto-route 40 opened and people’s attitude changed, and they started to just want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible.  There wasn’t much of the old “motoring” culture left along the route, but it was a gorgeous drive and every so often you would spot a handmade sign in front of a little roadside shack indicating “Souvenirs”.   Naturally we would stop and check it out.  You never know when and where you may find the next great folk artist or crafts-person. Most of these shops were a disappointment however in that they contained the St. Jean-Port-Jolie style tourist carvings, and the typical plastic commercial schlock, but once in a while we would find some crazy, old guy making something interesting, or in this case of this story, a great source of charming, original designed hand hooked rugs.

woven runners and mats

woven runners and mats

It was a fine summer morning as we rounded the bend just a few klicks from our destination of Deschambault, when we noticed several signs around an old frame house indicating “Souvenirs” “Quebec textiles”, “hand hooked rugs”, etc.  These signs had a charm all their own so we were hopeful that we may be on to something.  We went through the door indicated as “shop”, and entered into a long thin room which had an end to end run of long, thin, fabric cutting style tables, stacked with dozens of different varieties of hooked rugs and woven runners, and mats.  The back wall was covered with examples of rugs, and behind the tables stood a lovely looking elderly woman looking every bit the Victorian lady with piled up hair and white powder makeup.  Right out of central casting.  She had a radiant smile and seemed truly delighted to meet us.  She told us her name was Madam Tessier and all the textiles on sale where either made by her, or one of her three or four rug hooking neighbors.

a geometric

a geometric

Our attention moved from her to the rugs, and we were immediately taken with the charming original subjects, the vibrant colors, and the workmanship.  The expected florals and geometrics were interesting, but what caught our attention were the many depictions of rural Quebec life.  Scenes of bringing in the ducks at night, of workers stopping in the field to observe the “angelus” or moment of prayer at 6 pm, a sugaring scene in early spring, a farmer about to feed the animals, and so on.  There were also riffs on classic themes like a beaver on a log, a maple leaf. As well there were tables full of multi coloured runners. Rainbows in fabric everywhere you looked.  The prices were very reasonable considering the amount of work that went into them, and you could see that they were well made, and would wear well.  She was surprised and delighted when instead of choosing one or two, we bought a dozen or so.  We explained who we were and that we were buying for resale, and that if they should sell as we thought they would we would soon be back for more.  And so it was. They went like hotcakes and within a month we were back buying about twice as many as before.  Madam Tessier grew to look forward to us pulling up.

farmer and his yellow wagon

farmer and his yellow wagon

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farmer in the yard

After a few visits she asked us into the adjacent house for tea.  She explained that she had lived there all her life with her brother, but that he had recently passed away so she was now there on her own.  She said she didn’t mind because she had many friends in the village and was never alone for very long. It was lovely to sit in her kitchen and have tea and listen to her story.  It took me several minutes before I noticed something peculiar about the walls.  As I looked more closely at the tongue and groove wood grained boards which ran from floor to ceiling, I realized that they were not wood paneling at all, but rather a hand painted facsimile.  I couldn’t believe it.  The whole room had been meticulously grain painted by hand.  Every groove and the wood grain was done free hand, one at time. Then I realized that where there was a painting on the wall, that the painting had been done in the same hand right on the wall with a painted frame around it, as it should be. Amazing.  Can you imagine how long it would take to do something like that?  I had to ask her.  “oh that.  Yes, that was my brother’s project later in life.  He volunteered to paint the place but then he got the idea of the wood grain so it took him several years.”  He completed many rooms before he died.”  You could see she was proud of her brother’s accomplishment.

beaver on a log

beaver on a log

It’s funny what sticks with you in life.  Sitting in that room, drinking tea with Madam Tessier and coming to the realization that the entire room I was sitting in was faux painted freehand by her brother remains as vivid in my memory today as the day it occurred.  I’d imagine that the conclusion of a psychiatrist would be obsessive/ compulsive behavior, but to me it felt like an act of a deep dedication to the concept of beauty and love of environment, not to mention persistence.  I had a deep feeling of warmth come over me, and I knew I was in the presence of true inspiration.   Madam Tessier there smiling benevolently with her white powder make up and piled up Victorian hair.

farmers pausing to pray the Angelus

farmers pausing to pray – the Angelus

“It’s not saleable!! It doesn’t get made in a minute” – The art of Edmund Chatigny

chat4We unfolded ourselves slowly out of the truck after the grueling ten-hour drive from our home in Wyecombe Ontario to Alan Chauvette’s picking barn near Victoriaville, Quebec.  We were met by a particularly animated Alan. He was excited, even for Alan who tends to run a little hot.  “What perfect timing.  I’ve got something exciting to show you.  Follow me to my house and we’ll come back here after”.   Ten minutes later we are entering Alan’s back yard and everywhere you look there are chip carved, splatter painted, flowers, birds, and other wildlife generally with a large figure at the center and a multitude of smaller components coming off in every direction.  Wild.   The total affect was that of a fantasy garden.  We were mesmerized. chat5

“They were all made by this crazy old guy in St. Isidore de Beauce who covered his yard completely. He’s gone into the retirement home and the family is selling the house, so I got them all.”  We were still looking around trying to take it all in.  “As you can see there are hundreds of pieces and I am selling them all as one lot. None of this picking the best, and leaving the rest.”  I was almost afraid to ask the price, but had to.  Alan gave me a serious look and a number in the high four figures. It was pretty much what I expected due to the quantity, but the first thing that sprang to mind was “We think it’s wonderful, but I wonder if anybody else will.  This is pretty eccentric stuff.”   We looked at each other for a moment, then I said to Alan.  “We’ll discuss it on the way back to the barn and give you an answer there.”  That was a pretty intense ten minutes that followed. We both loved the work, and “got” that his complex assemblages which could be reconfigured in different ways and still ‘work” was an exciting concept.chat1  Still, it was a lot of money to put down on an unknown horse. We talked it out and as we pulled in we concluded “What the hell. Let’s trust our instincts and do what we are here to do, so it was all big smiles and laughter, as we concluded the deal.  There were a couple of pickers standing nearby that we saw regularly, and they laughed at us.  “They’ll be burying you with that stuff”.  We didn’t care.  We owned the entire contents of Mr. Chatigny’s yard, and although we had never heard of him, we knew that it spoke to us as so few things do in this life.  We were half way home, somewhere around Brockville before we started to question ourselves.  We needn’t have.  Within a month we had sold enough to pay back our investment, and there was still a good half left.chat2

Edmond Chatigny was born in 1895 in St. Isidore de Beauce, Quebec. He was creative from an early age. “When I was young I used to take a knife and whittle.  My mother used to say “I think you could end up making something”.  He became a farmer. Married and had thirteen children.  Then the day came when he retired.  “When I was on the farm I used to work hard, then when I retired I had nothing to do and I became bored. That’s what decided me to start making little things – wooden flowers, birds, then all kinds of things. I do it with a little saw and a pocket knife.chat7 Sell them? They are not sellable. They are not made in a minute. It’s all green, white and red with a little brown. This year I think I am going to put a lot of green and white.  In the summer when I cut the grass, I clear them all off, then I put them all back.  It takes two days.” chat3

Although I never met M. Chatrigny, I am sure that it would bemuse him to hear me say that I think he was a uniquely innovative, and an important artist in his own right; and since I first laid eyes on his work, until present day, he remains one of my favourites.chat8

Looking back at over twenty years at the Christie Antique Show

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine  in our booth, mid nineties

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine in our booth, mid nineties

The Christie Antique show is coming up on Saturday, September 10th at the Christie conservation area near Hamilton, Ontario.  It is Canada’s largest outdoor antique show and draws thousands of people to both the spring and fall shows.  It was started in 1988 by Jeff and Wendy Gadsden in partnership with John Forbes, and a few others investing.  I remember everyone getting excited about the prospect of a new outdoor show in the Golden Triangle area.  At the time the Flamborough Antique show held nearby, also in the spring and fall by promoter Bill Hogan was the only large outdoor show, and it was uncertain how this new show would stack up.  We liked the fact that it was a one-day show held on Saturday so we didn’t need to miss the Harbourfront market in Toronto on Sunday which was still going strong. Also, Christie is an hour away from our home so we didn’t have to factor in staying overnight at a motel.

From the beginning the Gadsden’s and Hogan ran a tight ship.  There was active vetting and anyone foolish enough to try to pass off a reproduction or junky piece would be certain to be brought to task and made to remove the offending item, or in some extreme cases be thrown out altogether from future shows.  Older folk art was o.k., but mass produced, contemporary folk art was not; especially if misrepresented.  I remember one spring show when Jeff made the dealer next to me return the money to a customer, and accept back an Aime Desmeulles horse that the gentleman had bought for a large sum because he was told it was old and rare. He was not happy when someone had told him the truth, and so he went to the promoter’s office to complain.  There was no tolerance for early packing, no matter what the weather conditions.   You could be sure that everything would be on display right up until closing time at five. Load in and load out was carefully supervised.   It was in every sense a well-run show and collectors and dealers alike loved it.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Many dealers would come the night before to set up their tents, and then settle in for the night so they would be ready for the morning rush.  This continues to be the case.  You could not unpack your stock, so in the evening there was a fair amount of partying and card playing going on.  Not to mention a fair amount of subtle trading and purchasing; everyone being very careful not to be caught as this was forbidden. You were allowed to unpack starting at 6 a.m. and so those two hours before the field was open to the public at 8 was crucial.  Typically, you would do a lot of dealer business during this period quite often selling many of your nicer pieces as they came off the truck.  Clay Benson and others would race around buying, following up leads given to them on their walky-talkies by scouts also combing the fields.  The negotiation was accomplished quickly and when a deal was reached it would be completed later in the day when things had calmed down.  I loved to buy at the show but I would always stay in the booth during this critical period because I was most interested in selling, and the type of thing I buy was esoteric enough that it would still be there later on.   It felt great when on occasion you had sold enough to consider it a successful show before the public had even entered the field.  This was the hay day, and everyone was tuned up for it.

Like everyone else, we had our fans.  Early on, there was not a lot of folk art on the field so folk art collectors made our booth one of their first stops.  These “keeners” were also in a hurry to buy and move on, but many of them would circle back later for a visit.  Things were typically busy until about ten, when it would slow down enough that Jeanine could handle the flow, and I would take off for a couple of hours to comb the field, coming back about every twenty minutes to unload purchases, and check how things were going.  I could tell by the expression on Jeanine’s face as she saw me approached with my treasures if I had some “splaning” to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.  I loved it on the occasions when I would quickly sell again something she would flatly tell me that “you’ll be taking that piece to your grave with you”.  But then again she was often right, and we mostly agreed.  She would take her turn after lunch, and it was my turn to hold down the fort, and offer comments on her purchases.  We didn’t have any cell phones or walky-talkies at this point which was just as well.  There’s nothing worse in my opinion than trying to explain and convince another of the relative merits of a piece, talking on your phone in someone’s booth while they look expectantly on. It takes the fun out of it.

For the first several years we had a spot right in the middle of a row in broad sunlight.  It was awfully hot until we purchased a tent to provide shade and shelter.  As helpful and necessary as it was, the first twenty minutes in the morning setting up the wretched thing, and the last twenty minutes at the end of the day packing it, where my least favourite parts of the day. Some swearing was involved as you would inevitably at some point pinch your skin putting the stupid thing together. When Marjorie Larmond quit doing the show in the late nineties she was nice enough to bequeath her spot under a big shade tree to us.  Jeff went along with her wishes, and so after that we had a lovely spot at the back of the booth, in the shade to set up our picnic lunch.  These lunches started out innocently enough, but being French Jeanine kept upping the ante until it became quite a production with tablecloths, a range of excellent cheeses, beverages, etc.  Many friends got in on this, and it became a very pleasant way to spend the slow time after two, until it was time to start wrapping up the business and beginning to pack at five.  We tried to keep it subtle and behind the truck and we made sure that someone was always on duty up front should someone wish assistance. Still some people would give us some very odd looks.  This reminded me a bit of the shows in France where at mid-day, everyone sets the table, and puts out their lunches and bottles of wine and you carry on regardless.  The French have their priorities straight.chri4

We happen to agree with a no packing before show end policy so although we would have our boxes and packaging ready we would wait for the announcement that it was over and it was o.k. to start.  It usually would take a couple of hours at a leisurely pace to pack up and leave.  We were always exhausted, but most often happy and satisfied with our day.  There is a Chinese place we like called “the China King” going into Brantford where we would stop and eat before heading home.  I don’t think Chinese food ever tastes better than at the end of a long, arduous day which also provides the satisfaction of good visits, exciting purchases, and if lucky, lots of sales and a full wallet.

We did our last Christie in 2010 which as it happens is also the last year the Gadsden’s ran it.  Anyone who has attended regularly over the years will tell you Christie has changed dramatically, especially in these last few years.  To everything, turn, turn, turn; so let’s not get maudlin about it.  There’s still plenty of wonderful stuff turning up on the field, and many good dealers.  Look harder and filter out the stuff that grinds on your collector sensibilities.  You just might find something to cherish, and you’re likely to enjoy yourself.  Quite possibly snag a nice lunch.  We’ll see you there.chri2

“living the dream”, a church full of great stuff in the middle of nowhere

int5

later on when most of the furniture was gone and it was largely folk art

I can remember standing in the partially dilapidated main hall of the old Wyecombe Methodist church for the first time, and thinking “this would make a fabulous antique store.”  It’s 1981 and Jeanine has read a classified ad in the London Free Press about a church for sale in Norfolk County for $21,000.  We decided to take a ride in the country and have a look just for the fun of it. Seemed harmless enough.  Well damned if we didn’t fall in love with the vaulted, 28’ patterned tin ceiling, and surrounding 14’ Gothic windows.  We loved the size, exposure and location of the place and saw the potential; and so in spite of all our friends and family advice against it, we bought the dream.  Thus along with our new alternative life style we began several years of hard labor renovating and maintaining the joint.  We soon discovered why these church halls are typically taken on by a community, and not individuals.  Everything is large scale.  Thirty gallons of paint rather than four.  We loved the challenge. We could see the phoenix rising from the ashes.int6

As life demands, simultaneous to the renovation we began to buy and sell antiques, to meet our needs, and so our main concern was to sell every weekend at the Toronto Harbourfront market. We didn’t think many would find us in the outback and we were happy with the income from the market.  But it wasn’t long before dealers and other customers started to make the trip out to see what we had at home.  At first it was more of a warehouse than a show room, but over the years we refined and added showcases, and shelving and by about 1990 it was usually quite full and fairly organized.  Of course everything had to be dragged up and down the wide, front steps, but we were young and stupid; and didn’t care.  Like many of us at that time who found themselves being full-time antique dealers, it was the alternative lifestyle thing that attracted us. It was more out of an aesthetic interest than any well thought out business plan that the sales room of Old Church Trading came about.  That and the natural tendency for things to pile up as you continue in this business, and thus the need to find some place to keep them.int4

In the fall of 1996 a Quebec dealer friend of ours started to bring huge loads of mediocre stuff to a Guelph auction every other week, and proposed that he also bring along some good things for us to sell for him. Things were changing in Quebec.  We had the room, and had done good business together over the years so we said yes.  It was great.  He kept bringing us wonderful things.  Not a lot at a time, but excellent quality.  We loved to see him pull in.  It was like Christmas.

Our Harbourfront days were now behind us, but with some good dealer trade and with a schedule of about twelve shows a year we continued to go through a lot of stock.  People who had not been by for a while often commented that it was amazing how much the stock kept changing.  That, and it just kept getting fuller.  Cupboards were now in rows and stacked one on top of the other.  I felt proud that it was looking like a Quebec picker’s barn. I loved to stand at the front of the big room and look over the variety of interesting things.  Although visitors were few and sometimes far between, those who made the trip usually were serious and went home with something, or often with lots of things.  We really didn’t advertise all that much, or encourage passing trade.  There was a small sign at the road but that was all.  Most who came were people we knew from shows.  Or people who learned about us through them.  I guess we could have pushed harder, but we like staying a bit out of the way.  Mysterious and a bit aloof.  Not in a “pearls before swine sort of way”, but just by saying “here it is.  We think it’s great.  If you think it’s great and want to take it home, we are happy to help you carry it out. Otherwise, we hope you had a nice time and it was worth the drive.”  You could be that cocky back then.int3

Late in 1997 our Quebec pal’s arrangement with the auction house ended and he stopped coming, so we bought about half the stock we had, and sent the rest home with him.  The market was changing, and so were we.  We were becoming more interested in the folk art, and although I loved the furniture, my back was just about pooched, and the furniture market was slowing, so we decided to downsize and focus on smalls. Oh how dismissive a young me and my colleagues had been watching the “smalls” dealers bringing in their boxes, and now I was one of them.  Less and less furniture came up those stairs.int2

Our daughter Cassandra had left for Queens a few years earlier, so by the year 2000 we started to think about ourselves in the not too distant future being old, and a bit crazy, rambling around the church in old patched sweaters, so we decided that a move into town and a new scene was the next project.  It took us three years to wind down the church and move on to Port Dover, and don’t get me wrong.  We’re happy we did.  But for a while there we were living our dream.  A great shop, in the middle of nowhere, which almost nobody knows about.   Looking back, I can see that it was almost like building a folly.int1

The paintings of Barbara Clark Fleming

bcf1Artist’s Statement:

“All of my paintings reflect upon my country life. Paintings of rural landscapes and different animals, all of which are a link to my past. I was born in 1939 on a 150 acre farm in East Zorra, Ontario, where my father farmed with horses. My mom and dad had no boys, so I became my dad’s helper. As a result of these memories my paintings frequently reflect scenes of haying, threshing, fetching cows, and scenes of country villages.

I never took lessons in painting. I just wanted to put my feelings on canvas. I don’t like painting straight lines, I prefer curves and waves. I do all my painting at home in the country, and I use many different colours. I started painting in 1977 as I realized I had no pictures of my dad’s farm. To keep memories of that farm alive my first picture was painted, and it was entered into the Oxford County Juried Exhibition and won an award of merit. It still have that painting. I did not take my painting seriously until 1989 when an accident prevented me from working full time. I hope that everyone who views my paintings receives as much pleasure as I receive painting them.”

Barbara Clark-Fleming

As mentioned in my previous blog about the Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival, it was here in 1994 that we first encountered the work of Barbara Clark Fleming.   Shortly after we contacted her and made our first trip to her home near Woodstock, Ontario.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at her neat little hobby farm was the pony in a paddock at the rear.  Barbara met us at the door and although obviously very shy was none the less welcoming and told us about her pet horse and her love for all animals.  We then went in to the house to discover a turtle crawling across the kitchen floor, a couple of cats lounging about, and a little white bunny who would hide behind the furniture and hop by occasionally.  We were introduced to her husband Stan, who was stretched out in a recliner chair in the living room.  A very nice man who was by this point very ill and requiring her full time care.  She took us into a little room beside which was her studio. Here she painted on a flat school desk over which hung a large combination lamp/ magnifying glass.  Barbara explained that she is very near sighted and required this set up for the details. She said that the painting was a great escape for her, as she was required to be at home, indoors most of the time. She essentially remembers happy scenes from her childhood and paints them spontaneously. Although she is not conscious of it, this method was and is the essence of what gives her work it’s spontaneous energy,  strength and beauty.. She paints because she loves to paint with no concern for conventional form or perspective. She is fearless and direct and simply works until she is happy with the painting. We love this about her work. We bought about twelve paintings that day and thus began a long relationship with Barbara and her art.bcf3

She looked after Stan at home until his death a couple of years later, after which she got out and traveled around the nearby countryside, observing and documenting those elements of rural life that she still related to her upbringing.  Thus she began to paint Mennonite farms, and old feed mills that reminded her of her youth.bcf4

We believe that the first rule of dealing with folk artists is “Do not influence”.  It is always tempting to “suggest” painting more paintings in a style which you find to be most commercial, but ultimately it is this type of influence which kills the natural wonder and instincts which nurtures an artist’s development. If an artist starts to paint to please you, it is not long before they grow bored and resentful.bcf5

In 1995 we took fourteen of Barbara’s paintings to the summer Muskoka Antique Show and sold all fourteen on the opening night.  I seriously considered driving home that night to fetch more, but it was eight hours round trip so didn’t.  Barbara’s paintings sold well at every show including Muskoka the following year, and continued to be very popular for about another five years before interest waned.  Interest and sales have gone up and down since, but nothing like when we first introduced them to the Canadian market at that time.  She continues to paint excellent paintings. bcf6

The Fifth Annual Outsider Art Fair – Discovering the work of James Castle

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

Coming back into the Puck building on the cold afternoon of January 23rd I started to feel that wonderful buzz that one feels before the opening of a big marketing event. A combination of excitement, and expectation, mixed with a touch of anxiety realizing that in a couple of hours the throngs would be pouring in, and we would be off and running, either making it, or breaking it.  The booth was set up and looked good, so I had a couple of hours to check out the show.  The first thing I did was cross the aisle to have a closer look at some work which I had been noticing which was deceptively simple in it’s construction but very compelling.  The entire booth of J Crist from Boise, Idaho was filled with the yet unknown work of James Castle (1900- 1977).

out2Jacqueline Crist who runs the gallery acts as agent for the artist’s estate and her gallery houses a considerable body of this particularly driven and prolific artist’s work. On this occasion she put “all of her eggs in one basket” and just brought works by Castle.  Getting up close to the work, I became more and more enamored.  Put together with spit, and soot and cardboard etc, the quantity and variety of his output is astonishing.  I came to find out that he devoted himself virtually full time to his art for nearly seven decades. His drawings, assemblages, and handmade books are compellingly mysterious, and contain a confounding sophistication.  Perhaps this quality is the essence of what attracts me to “outsider art”.  In the case of James Castle I was an immediate fan.  The tagged prices seemed fair.  Asking in the upper hundreds on up for the, in most cases, diminutive drawings and constructions.  Hmmm.   I began to think that I may score one of these beautiful little pieces to take home but of course I had to check out the rest of the show first, just in case there was another Bill Traylor drawing for low money.  Still feeling tough that I had missed out the year before.

a drawing by James Castle

a drawing by James Castle

I noticed the Traylor drawing I had missed out on was present and priced up by a few more thousand dollars. Way to go, Phil.  Then I noticed that Carl Hammer’s booth was this year graced by two large, magnificent scrolls by Henry Darger.  This was the year to promote Darger, as there was running simultaneously with the show, a Museum of American Folk Art exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings called “the Unreality of Being”.  I was interested to note but not surprised that the prices of his work had gone up considerably.

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

So I made my way from booth to booth growing more determined by the second that a small James Castle drawing was in my future.  I wasn’t going to miss out like last year by hesitating and calling home for a conference.  No, I was going to head right back and make my selection.  But what’s this?  As I approach I see a group of the top dogs including Carl hammer leaving the booth.  My heart began to sink a little, but I told myself to relax, it’s o.k.  So the selection process may be a little bit easier.  I hadn’t set my sites on any work in particular.  I slid up to Jacqueline whom I had become quite friendly with during set up and asked her “what’s up”.  “It’s the craziest thing.  Those big wigs just came over, and bought my entire booth. Lock, stock and barrel. I’m finished here before it opens.  I guess I could just pack up and go home, but I want to stay because I was so looking forward to being a part of the show.”  Nice problem to have.  Well there you go.

A James Castle construction

A James Castle construction

Are you beginning to sense a theme here when it comes to me buying, or should I say not buying at art shows?  Well in this case she had plenty more work at home so I could have theoretically ended up with something else, but I chose to just let it pass, get on with the show, and concentrate on just doing my best to sell, sell, sell, for my friend Joy.  The show went even better than the year before, and we were all very happy with the experience.  Well, except for the missing out on the James Castle thing, but there you go.

Since then a splendid book on Castle has come out in 2009, coinciding with the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “James Castle, a Retrospective”.  I highly recommend it.  I’ve got a copy.  I love looking through it.  It sits in place for the one that got away.

cover of the James Castle book

cover of the James Castle book

The “spontaneous” vision of Quebec carver Andre Laporte

Andre's Montreal Canadien goalie

Andre’s Montreal Canadien goalie

About 30 years ago we were rooting around in Alain Chauvette’s pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec when we happened upon a wonderful carving of a Montreal Canadien goalie.  A serious dude with a square head and a look of determination which would intimidate even the most veteran opponent.  We loved it and bought it for our own collection.  I’m looking at him right now and I’m still impressed with the expressiveness of his rough cut features, and the immediacy of the carving.  Problem was, he wasn’t signed.  We asked Alain if he knew the carver, and he did not so we had to be content to have found this one great piece by an unknown carver with the possibility of never knowing the maker, or seeing other work by him.  Then about six months later we found a carving that was obviously made by the same hands of a group of four cows, carved all in one piece in the round.  The same roughness and directness as the goalie.  This time it had the signature A Laporte on the bottom.  The picker still did not know the carver, but at least we had a name to go on.

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

So fast forward about fifteen years later.  We have found and bought another half dozen pieces by Mr. Laporte, all with the same strength and spontaneity of our goalie.  Still no one knew, or admitted to knowing anything about the artist.  Remember that any picker is extremely reluctant to put you in touch with a carver because then you buy from the artist and not them, so it is counterproductive.  Still, we were happy just to find the pieces and realize that the artist was most likely still active.

Andre sits on his front bench with his first carving

Then came that lucky day when by going through the phone book in La Prairie, and we found and met the carver Leo Fournier.  We were enjoying our conversation with Leo when his wife came into the room and said “Leo, Andre Laporte just phoned and I told him I would have you phone him back after you are finished here.” Eureka!  “Would your friend Andre Laporte be a carver by any chance?”  Why yes he is, a carver and an antique picker.  He lives a few miles from here in the town of Verdun.” “Would you mind giving us his phone number”. “Not at all.  I’m sure he would be happy to meet you”.  So before we left Leo called Andre back, gave him the scoop and put us on the phone.  It was late in the day, so we made arrangements to arrive at his place at 9 the next morning.  After getting directions Andre said “No one has ever wanted to meet me before.  I don’t have a lot of work to show you so I hope you are not disappointed. “.  “Not to worry Andre, we love your work and will be delighted just to meet you , and if you have anything to show us, that’s good too.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we arrived at Andre’s little house by the railway tracks precisely at 9, and there was Andre waiting on a bench by his front door.  You could see he was both excited and a little anxious. After exchanging greetings, we went inside and met his wife Lucie.  The place was small but filled with nice things including several of Andre’s carvings which were brought out and put on the dining room table.

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

Leo had briefed him on who we were and he was excited to think that we would be interested in him.  “So you actually like my work?”.  Why yes, we like it a lot. You have a unique style and energy which we find very attractive.”  “The other pickers who come by tell me my works too rough and nobody will want it, but that’s the only way I can work. “You see this horse there.”  We focused our attention on a very strong and expressive work horse. “That was my first carving.  They took down some hydro poles about seven years ago and left them across the street.  I cut up one of them into various sized “stumps”, and brought them home to burn, but then I started to look at them and after a while I saw this horse inside one of the stumps.  I thought about it for a long time, and then one day in 1984 I  just started chipping away at it, and after about ten hours this horse had emerged. That was it.  I was hooked. That’s the way I’ve worked ever since.  I see the form in the log, and then I carve, until I get it all out”.  I don’t glue pieces together or sand them more than I have to.  I like them rough and close to the way I see them in my head.” I can only work when I see the piece in the wood first, and then I can’t stop working until it is finished.  At this point Lucie jumps in.  “that’s right.  Once Andre starts to carve I know I’ve lost him until he is finished.  I drew the line when one night he put an old quilt on our bed and started to carve right there.”

Andre's bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre’s bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre represents what it is to be a natural, instinctive carver.  With no training or even having much experience of other work, his work is truly inspired and highly individual. His work deals with what is the pure essentials of his subject.  There is always a sense of vitality and movement.

We bought several pieces that day including his first carving of the horse which remains in our collection.  We continued to go by Andre’s place a couple of times a year for the many years that we continued to travel to Quebec, buying most of his output each time.  Even after we stopped going we would talk on the phone occasionally and he would describe what he had been working on.  Often we would send him a cheque and he would mail us pieces sight unseen.  Andre and Lucie have a hard life.  He was born in Verdun on May 20th, 1948 and has lived there all his life.  He has barely eked out a living being an antique picker of the door knocker variety.  For a while things went well for him when collector Pierre Laplante was buying almost everything he picked, but then they had a falling out and that stopped.  Andre and Lucie have three daughters and one grandchild.

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

A few years ago I called to see how he and Lucie were doing and he informed me that sadly one of their daughters had been in a terrible car accident was grievously injured, and that now he had to take her every day to the hospital for treatment. There was never enough money in what Andre does to make a happy and secure life, and I’m sure that without the love and support of Lucie and his family he would not be able to survive. The last time I called was in 2007 when our mutual friend Leo Fournier died. We had a great chat about Leo.  How he was his own man, and Andre laughed and summarized it like this “I have always admired Leo.  He lived exactly as he wanted to, and never cared what anybody thought. He loved to drink and he died drunk.  It couldn’t have been better for him”.  I don’t know how things have gone for Leo since.  I should phone him.  That last time we spoke he said he hadn’t made any new work in a couple of years and he was still mainly preoccupied with helping his daughter to get back to a happy and productive life.  He and Lucie are the salt of the earth.  I really hope that things are getting easier for them.  He has real talent that in a better world would be enough to provide him and his family with a happy and secure life. Unfortunately, it rarely works out like that for artists in the world we live in today.

Andre surrounded by his creations

Andre surrounded by his creations