“Finding Folk Art” at the Eva Brook Donly Museum

In 2005 I was the president of the Norfolk Historical Society, which was a small group of dedicated people working to keep the Eva Brook Donly museum open in our local town of Simcoe. The society was founded in 1900, and opened the museum in a lovely old home bequeathed to the town in 1946 by local artist and philanthropist,  Eva Brook Donly.  She and others had left some money to keep the place going but by the year 2000, and with the end of a lucrative bingo fund raising business, the museum and society was falling on hard times.  We had a very good curator in Bill Yeager who ran the place well with a very small staff,  but although Norfolk county looked after the building, we were independent of them otherwise. So it was up to the board to try to come up with interesting exhibits that would capture a good turn out and hopefully in the process make some money and gain new supporters.  With my background in folk art, I suggested that I would be willing to curate and mount a folk art exhibition as our major show of the year.  No budget to speak of, and based only on the knowledge that I knew a few large collectors well enough to lean on them for loans, I forged ahead. It was also something I had always wanted to do.  So I, along with Bill, and a half dozen other dedicated board members worked our butts off and called in a dozen favors, and we pulled off a first class folk art exhibition  which garnered a lot of attention and even ran a couple of weeks longer than planned due to popular demand.  We didn’t make enough money to save the museum, but  we were all happy and proud of what we were able to pull off.  Here’s a sampling of the local press reports at the time.  Some interesting insights.

Heritage Centre displays Folk Art – by Samantha Craggs, Simcoe Reformer

“Artist striving to be different would have nothing on Billie Orr.  Born in a log cabin near Purbrook Ont., Orr continued to live there after his parents died, without electricity or running water. Motivated to create, he made cement works of art including an elf and a cat with large paws. Phil Ross, owner of Shadfly Antiques used to travel to buy Orr’s pieces which the artist made him buy one by one.

Orr was a creator of folk art, a genre of visual art known for being produced by an untrained hand, individual visual expression by ordinary people who make it to continue traditions, turn everyday items into art, or simply document what they see around them. “

“I’m amazed that virtually everyone who comes through the door seems to love the colour and the humour, and the accessibility’ Says Yeager, director of the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Folk Art Feast on display at Donly Museum –by Monty Sonnenberg, Times- Reformer

A definition of folk art that everyone agrees on is hard to come by, but people know it when they see it. Folk art in abundance is the order of the day this Christmas season at the Norfolk Heritage Centre at Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe. Curator Bill Yeager and his crew of volunteers are basking in the glow of positive reviews for their ambitious exhibit, “Finding Folk Art”.

All floors of the museum feature more than 150 old and new displays of folk art.  Examples date from the early 1800’s to the present. “ I wish more people would discover this exhibit.” Yeager says,”It’s a big show.  Everyone loves it. It’s the kind of thing you’d normally have to go to see in the big city.”

Finding Folk Art, Each piece of work is unique in its Creativity and also comes with a story that adds to the appeal –  by Lyn Tremblay, Port Dover Maple Leaf

“It is an exhibit worthy of showcasing at any of Canada’s most prestigious art galleries, but residence of Norfolk County do not have to travel to large cities such as Toronto or Hamilton to see it.  The Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Eva brook Donly Museum in Simcoe is currently featuring an impressive selection of Canadian folk art from past and present. Museum curator Bill Yaeger credits Port Dover collector Phil Ross who with his wife Jeanine owns Shadfly Antiques for putting the “Finding Folk Art” exhibit together. “He borrowed much of it from outside Norfolk County” explains Mr. Yeager. “Some of the more than 150 pieces have never been exhibited publicly before, and may never be seen again.”

Ewald Rentz cutting Norval Morrisseau’s hair.

And it’s true.  Thanks to the generosity and trust of a few good collector friends, we were able to put together a first class exhibit that was both comprehensive and well documented.   We had a lot of wonderful items.  An 1830’s singing book featuring lovely  hand painted sketches. An absolutely incredible, and important 1867 Confederation box created by Port Dover’s Captain Alexander McNeilledge. A hand painted candle box depicting flags and beavers and minute whimsical inscriptions along the border such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

A few Maud Lewis and Joe Norris Paintings.  Many works by all the greats, Ewald Rentz, Wilfred Richard, Leo Fournier, the list goes on and on.  All catalogued, with short informative labels, and all well-lit, and displayed effectively. It really was an enormous amount of work, but when all was said and done, and we walked through the galleries looking at the results of our efforts,  we all felt enormously happy and proud, even if it was all just for a local audience.  It would have been nice if we could have garnered some attention from larger places like Brantford, Hamilton or Toronto.  We tried sending press releases to all the larger media outlets, but heard nothing back.  That’s the way it is.  And you never know who you may have an effect on.  We may have encouraged some young local talent.  We certainly gave those who saw it, something to think about, and celebrate if they were so inclined.

 

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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

A Retrospective of the work of Ewald Rentz at the R.O.M. (almost)

rom1Most folk artists don’t see much recognition for their work during their lifetime.  To most it would never occur to them to expect it.  So it is particularly satisfying to note that two years before his death, the Thunder Bay Art Galley gave Ewald Rentz a major exhibition called “The “Completed” work of Ewald Rentz “.  This was not far from his village of Beardmore so many of his friends made it. His son Ernie told me that it meant a lot to him to have this recognition.  Rentz wasn’t at all interested in the commercial aspect of his art. He just wanted to please people. He was a modest man.rom4

Nova Scotia does a wonderful job of promoting it’s folk art and artists.   I think it is fair to say that this is largely due to the tireless work of Bernie Riordan during his long tenure as the director of the Art Gallery of Nova scotia, and to Chris Huntington who has sold and promoted Nova Scotia folk art since he arrived in Eagle Head in 1974. n 1988, Chris was instrumental in helping to establish the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival which is held in Lunenburg during late July or early August of each year.  There are many others of course, but these two really got the ball rolling.

My home province of Ontario on the other hand has done little to promote this type of artwork, and so it was of great interest to me when in 1988 I was contacted by our friend Susan Murray whom at the time was a powerful lobbyist (since retired) and dedicated folk art collector.  She had set up a meeting with a person she met from The Royal Ontario Museum who expressed an interest in Canadian folk art.  Susan was and is a dedicated promoter of Canadian Folk Art. The someone in question was Dr. Howard Collinson, head of the department of Art and Culture for the museum.  This is what can come of rubbing elbows with the right people at the right parties, and having a very persuasive nature. rom3

It was a very exciting potential that we considered on the way over to the meeting.  I took to Howard immediately.  He was friendly and personable, but direct. He got right to the point, that the basement galleries of the museum needed to be changed. For decades it housed a rather uninteresting, and frankly in some cases incorrect representation of furnished rooms of Canadian homes of various periods.  It needed to go, and in it’s place he wanted something vital and relevant.  What he had in mind was a show of some sort on Ontario Folk Art.  We looked at pictures of several Ontario artist’s work, thinking this initial exhibit might be a cross section of artists, but when we got to the work of Ewald Rentz, he said “That’s it.  I want it to be a solo exhibition of this man’s work”.   Well alright then. I could see his reasoning.  Rentz’s work is very friendly and approachable, just like the man himself.  Let’s keep it simple and direct.  We went down to see the basement space and then agreed to meet again in a month or so. The timeline for the show was for late the following year, and he had a lot on his plate to deal with before he could dedicate any time to the project.  It all felt very positive and I began to look forward to getting started.rom5

Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, the next thing I knew I was being contacted by a pleasant-sounding woman who informed me that the museum had a new director, and that Dr. Collinson was no longer with the gallery. She had taken over his position.  She stated that she was still interested in the project, but was currently unable to devote any time to it, having inherited many other more pressing issues.  My heart sank. I could sense from her description of the current situation at the museum, and from her tone that the chances of an Ewald Rentz exhibition at the R.O.M. was quickly becoming slight or most likely not at all. The one that got away.  I was right. She got back to me a few weeks later and said that the new director had imposed a completely different agenda for the department and that she could not see anything happening for the foreseeable future.  I was disappointed of course, but still held the desire to push for an exhibition of Canadian folk art somewhere, at some time.  I did realize this years later in 2005 with the Finding Folk Art exhibition at the Eva Brook Donley museum in Simcoe Ontario.  Admittedly it was not nearly as high profile, but it was a very good exhibition of which I am still proud.  But that’s a different story, for a different day.rom2

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

Meeting Aime Demeules , folk artist from St. Paul-de-la-Croix, Quebec

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Speckled horse by Aime Desmeules

In an earlier post I recall our meeting Felicien Levesque in the early nineties while touring the Bas -St. -Laurent region of Quebec.  Well, the very next day we rose early and made the half hour drive From Cacouna to St Paul de-la-Croix, knowing it was the hometown of the well-know carver Aime Desmeules.  We had been buying his animals for years from Victoriaville picker Marcel Gosselin, and we had always wanted to meet him.  It was not hard to get directions to his house in this small town of 367 people, and we were soon pulling in to the driveway of a neatly kept, small ranch style home.

moose by Aime Desmeules

moose by Aime Desmeules

Jeanine and I rang the bell, and were soon greeted by a puzzled looking older lady we took to be his wife.   We explained that we had come from Ontario and being big fans of Mr Desmeule’s work, we had made the trek to their home with the hopes of meeting him.  “Oh no, that will not be possible.  He doesn’t like to meet new people, and he has no work for sale in any case. No, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”Just as she was about to slam the door in our faces, Jeanine added sweetly, “Well we don’t mind if there is no work for sale,  but please we have come a long way and we would be very grateful just to have the opportunity to make his acquaintance.”  She looked us up and down.  Long pause. “Very well, he’s not here right now as he is fetching wood, but I suppose if you come back in an hour he may be willing to talk to you.”  Whew, nice work Jeanine.  “Great, thanks, we’ll be back.”  So we went into town and had a delicious big breakfast, and lingered over our coffee to fill in the time.

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

One hour later we were greeted at the door by Aime.  Surprisingly, he was as friendly as can be, and invited us in to his work shop which was fairly full of finished carvings.  “Pardon us for saying, but your wife gave us the impression that you had no work for sale, so I suppose these pieces are commissioned.”  He Laughed.  “No these pieces are for sale, it’s just that when you arrived unexpectedly with your accents, she was worried that you may be from the tax department.”  I was starting to think that this would be the standard greeting we could expect arriving unannounced at Quebec carver’s homes, and upon reflection, I understand where they are coming from.

The next hour was pleasantly filled by Aime telling us the story of how he was 64 years old before he took up carving and at that time he was taught by his father to create the various animals in his father’s repertoire to be precisely like his father’s work.  It was only after his father’s death in 1986 at 95 years of age that Aime developed a few new animals of his own, along with some pieces depicting people such as the blacksmith shown here.

"Blacksmith" by Aime Desmeules

“Blacksmith” by Aime Desmeules

 

 

Mrs. Demeules joined us after awhile and expressed that she was sorry for the rude greeting, but that she could see now that we were truly fans and not inspectors, and she was happy that we came.  We bought a lot of his work, about twenty pieces or so, and we spent a pleasant morning getting to know each other, before loading up and heading out of town.

 

 

 

What I find interesting about Aime, is how he was content, to the point of taking pride in creating exact copies of his father’s work.  He even signed the pieces with a stylized “A” “D” with the “A” looking very much like a “G” as his father had signed.  It is quite difficult to distinguish the father’s work from the son’s, and you are pretty much dependent on patina and provenance. My understanding is that George quit working in the early 70’s, but then Aime only lived on until 1997.

Aime's signature on cat

Aime’s signature on cat

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f you consider other carving families, such as Damase Richard and his son Wilfred; although there is a similarity to their work, when you study them closely you can see quite a few differences which make them easy to distinguish.   When considering father and son carvers, Aime and George’s bond seems unique.

"brown Cow" by Aime Desmeules

“brown Cow” by Aime Desmeules

Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival -part 2

digby ferry

June 1994. Stephen Outhouse (middle with cap), Mark Robichaud (right), and David Stephens standing with the purser on the Digby ferry – on our way to Paris! We had this shark – a carving by Stephen – mounted to the top of the the truck cab.
I received this photo and note from Nova Scotia artist David Stephens shortly after last weeks post was published. Thanks David for permitting me to post it here. It’s a long drive from Nova Scotia for a one day show. This illustrates the dedication of all involved to this unique folk art event.
In looking over my support material, I came across some interesting definitions of folk art in the initial correspondence from promoter Michael Hennigan.  I include them here to add to the dialogue which we as collectors and enthusiasts continue to have on what constitutes folk art; and what of this art is worthy of study and preservation.
“The working definition of folk art for this show is: “the personal or naive expression of untutored creators”.  You will note that this definition deviates from those presented by folklorists and material culturalists which tend to emphasize context and tradition over aesthetics and individuality.  Rather it adheres to the connoisseurs or Art Historian’s definition with emphasis on form, line, and color.”
“I am trying to avoid ethnically based arts and crafts such as knife making, canoe building, basketry, newly made fish and duck decoys, or any mass produced craft lacking creative inspiration.  For the purposes of this show, Craft involves head and hand, while art involves head, and hand and heart.”
“I am also avoiding highly commercialized or slick assembly line work, or neo-folk art.  Which is defined as work made by self taught artists who get their ideas from seeing folk art elsewhere such as in books or museums. For purposes of the show such art is not folk art, but rather is about folk art.”
“Also, I am avoiding faux naif art, which is defined as art produced in a naif style by fine artists. Finally I am avoiding amateur or so called “Sunday” painting, as difficult as it may occasionally be to distinguish such art from folk art.  Folk Craft is also not allowed.  Folk craft is the folksy, cutesy pie, overly sentimentalized stuff seen at craft shows.”
With the inclusion of contemporary folk art at such distinguished shows as Cabin Fever, coming up February 6 and 7, 2016 in Kingston, Ontario, and the Bowmanville show which every year is on Good Friday, we have an opportunity to compare the work presented there to these definitions. I think that you will find that for the most part these shows rise to these standards.  I wish I could say the same for the field shows, but perhaps they will be inspired to improve as the knowledge of what constitutes folk art is understood by more and more people.   Here’s hoping.
I went through my photos and found a picture of one of the dinosaurs we brought to the show.  Imagine being greeted by two of these 9′ monsters.
dinosaur

9′ dinosaur by Roger Raymond

Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival- remembering a significant, one time, folk art happening

CCFAFposterBack on Sunday, June 26, 1994,  my wife Jeanine and I as Old Church Trading participated in an ambitious, extensive, and ultimately one time special event that was, and remains the largest and most exciting folk art festival ever to take place in Ontario, if not all of Canada.  Acknowledging here the annual Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival.  It included 2 lectures, displays by a half a dozen folk art dealers, and the work of about 25 Contemporary Canadian Folk Artists, many who were in attendance. It all took place  on one glorious summer day from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. at the Paris Ontario fairgrounds. It was an extraordinary opportunity for collectors, dealers, and folk artists to interact and network and to honor and support Canadian Folk Artists.  I remain enormously  grateful for having been included in this great event; and we sold a lot of folk art too.

The whole thing was conceived, organized, executed and financed by Canadian Folk Art collectors Michael and Peggy Hennigan, of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and it was a giant undertaking.  Not only for the set-up, and extensive promotion associated with a first time show, but also for organizing and paying for many artists to come from as far away as Alberta, and Nova Scotia. Many folk artists chipped in to help get the word out.  I remember Michael’s gratitude to Joe Lloyd of Brantford who made up and distributed signs. We brought 25 of our best pieces by Ewald Rentz, Edmond Chatigny, Aime, Desmeules, Jacob Roth, and others, and were particularity happy to bring along two recently acquired six foot tall dinosaurs created by Quebec folk artist, Roger Raymond.  They looked fantastic gracing each side of the entrance walk.  Looking back it felt like it was over in a flash, but at the time it was a long day of exciting exchanges, sales, connecting with new (to us) artists, and last but not least, education.  We met and started to carry the work of Woodstock area artist Barbara Clark-Fleming, and I was delighted with the opportunity to meet and hang out with the likes of Joe Lloyd, Garnet McPhail, Stephen Outhouse, and Mark Robichaud, not to mention all of those passionate collectors.

It was well attended  for a first time event.  A few hundred people as I recall, and most of those being driven and engaged;  but it was less than anticipated, and less than required for the Hennigans to consider doing it again when weighed against the enormous workload, and expense. No one could blame them, as they certainly gave it their all, and none of this diminishes the fact that this event lives on in the memories of those involved as a unique and exciting day for collectors, dealers and artists alike, and a prime example of just how rich, fun, and informative a folk art festival can be.

I am reproducing the program here, and next Friday I will post a further look at some exciting and defining ideas about folk art brought about by this event.  I am even going to look through my old photos and see if I can find a shot of those dragons.  No promises  I’ll do my best.

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