“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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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.

The graphic appeal of old games boards

Quebec game board, 2nd quarter, 20th cent. offered by Martin Osler on the Collectivator site

The board game called “Checkers” in North America and “Draughts” (pronounced as “drafts”) in Europe is one of the oldest games known to man. The history of checkers can be traced to the very cradle of civilization, where vestiges of the earliest form of the game was unearthed in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq.

Draughts (British English), or checkers (American English) is a group of strategy board games for two players which involve diagonal moves of uniform game pieces and mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces.

Octagonal sided game board, late 19th cent.,Waterloo, Ontario, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

The most popular forms are English draughts, also called American checkers, is played on an 8×8 checkerboard; Russian draughts, also played on an 8×8; and international draughts, played on a 10×10 board. There are many other variants played on 8×8 and 12×12 boards. Canadian checkers and Singaporean/Malaysian checkers (also locally known as dum) are played on a 12×12 board.  I have found that what is referred to as Canadian checkers, might better be called Quebec, or French Canadian checkers, because after years of buying and selling both 8, 10 and 12 square variations of the board, I have found that it is pretty much accepted that if a board has 12 squares across it is from French Quebec.  With 8 or 10 spaces, it is assumed to be Ontario or other “English” culturally based province.  How did this variation get started? Maybe folks in Quebec just liked a bit longer game.  After all, the winters are cold in Quebec so what’s the rush to get outdoors.

Circa 1820, Lunenburg Cty, Nova Scotia Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 216 of Canadian folk art to 1950, by John A. Fleming, and Micheal J. Rowan.

Chess may be considered the game of kings, but Pachisi is the game of emperors. Long before the American game of Parcheesi was first played in the late 1860s in North America, Pachisi, the Royal Game of India, had made its way around the world.

You won’t find nearly as many parcheesi boards out there, which illustrates that many more people went for the simpler game of checkers, but the boards are particularly sought after for their more complex graphic pattern.  And let’s face it, not a lot of people are buying old game boards to occupy their time on a Friday night.  For the most part, People buy old game boards to put them up on the wall as a graphic focus.  And who can blame them.  A checker board  is  inherently interesting.  We like looking at contrasting squares.   The orderly rows of squares suggest discipline, and harmony.  It’s peaceful and it draws the eye.

Quebec, mid 19th century Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 40 of the Price’s book “Twas ever thus”

I have bought and sold many game boards over the years although we have never added one to our collection.  I’ve found many that attracted me, but I think the reason I am happy to appreciate them and then find them a good home is because we like paintings so much that we want to donate all our wall space to them.  It’s the same reason we don’t collect old advertising.  I love looking at a great old sign, and some of it is as exciting visually  as a good painting, but they rarely turn my crank like a good painting will.  It’s true that some boards and ads do transcend into the realm of fine art, but they are few and far between, and such a thing has never fallen into my hands.

late 19th cent checkers board, Waterloo, Ont, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

Unlike most antique furniture or accessories, a game board can fit into many room décors be it traditional, or modern because of it’s graphic nature.   They also look fabulous grouped together.  We have friends with about 14 game boards placed carefully  over a very tall and wide wall in their living room and the overall effect is breath taking.   They are all different, while also being similar in that they all have the graphic checkerboard as the main component.  Some are primitive.  Some refined.  They all say something about who made them.  And of course patina can be a large factor.  The wear on some old game boards can beautifully tell the story of usage and age.  You are struck visually with the pattern, and at the back of your head you can’t help thinking about all the happy hours spent talking and playing the game together by countless individuals over the years.  You think about how when these boards were being used regularly, there were no game boys, television, or U-Tube to occupy your “down” time.  You could read when you wanted to be solitary, or if you wanted to have some entertainment and commute with others you would  find the local checkers or parcheesi game.  Or I suppose if you wanted a bit more of an intellectual work out you may play chess.  You still needed the board.

Because gameboards offer many interesting variations on a similar theme they are a natural and fun thing to collect.  I love looking at them.   If only we had more wall space.

Circa 1880 Quebec Parcheesi board, offer on Collectivator by Croyden House.

Remembering the Pierre Laplante auction- a vast collection of Quebec folk art and antiques

We first met Pierre Laplante when he participated for one time in the 1997 Bowmanville Spring Folk Art and Antique show.  We set up just down the aisle from him and before the show was over we had gotten to know each other through many friendly exchanges, and also he bought a giant lumberjack that was our show stopper to put in his indoor pool area at his rural home.  Nice fellow.

It was announced at the show that Bill Dobson was managing an auction of Pierre’s collection on May 17 and 18th, with auctioneers Tim Potter and Cec Knight in Kingston.  It was exciting news as Pierre had a reputation as a very serious collector of Quebec folk art.   We had heard many stories from the pickers in Quebec of the dentist from Montreal that would buy almost everything that they would bring to him.  Often this was said in the form of an apology for not having anything to offer us.

cigar store Indian marked “Illinois”, late 19th cent. – $5,000

If you have the money and the will this is a very effective way to collect.  Once a few pickers know they can rely on you to buy almost anything they bring you, they will put in a special effort, offer everything to you first, and as they say be happy to “make hay while the sun shines”.  It was rumored that after a few years of collecting this way, the barn and out buildings at his weekend farm in the La Prairie region south of Montreal were chock full of wonderful stuff.   Folk art was still a very strong market in 1997 so when the auction came, we broke open our piggy bank, and went loaded for bear.

mounted wooden model of a steamship,early 20th cent. – $750

The catalogue has an interesting two page introduction by Pierre which explains his interest.  It begins:

“The wellspring of folk art lies in the heart, not the wallet.  It is an audacious mix of techniques and materials; a multiplicity of themes and genres.  Folk artists are not artists in the conventional understanding of that word, rather they are ordinary folk without pretense or grand artistic ambitions. Through Quebec folk art, we can glimpse the geographical, historical, social, and religious character of the province, and in that sense, the heritage of Quebec folk art ranks along with its architectural and technological history.”  He goes on to discuss the many factions of folk art and concludes; “ I have collected folk art for over 30 years.  It’s a past time – even a passion – that gives me the opportunity to meet people who live anonymously but have many things to say, and they do speak, in their own way.  Many of these talented people are not considered artists.  They should be. Perhaps if they had lived in another place or another time, they would be considered such. There’s so much great folk art there that deserves a place of honour in all art collections.”

Well said Pierre, and the massive, well organized, two day auction saw many such pieces make their way into some important collections, while realizing some pretty phenomenal sale prices.

Lucien Legare horse, buggy and rider

We were able to buy a lot of stuff. We paid relatively big money for some things like this Lucien legare horse, buggy and driver at $750, but with so much on offer we were able to scoop up many bargains as well.  Like this Felicien Levesque tableau of the Titanic sinking at $625. Well under the money.

The Titanic by Felicien Levesque

Things started out modestly with maple sugar molds, and smaller carvings and accessories going in the expected $200 t0 $400 range, and then people started paying attention when lot 161, a painted whirligig Mountie which is illustrated on the cover went for $900. Soon after a tin rooster weather vane in old white paint realized $1,250.  Then lot 195, a knife with carved wooden handles in the form of a fleurde lis with a man’s head brought $1,900.  Things were moving.

There were a few gasps when a beautiful Nova Scotia document box from 1914 with interlocking hands, hearts, stars, and leaves went for $1,900. Followed shortly after by an oil on glass painting of tugboats on the Saint Lawrence attributed to Captain P. Carbonneau which saw $2,500. An Alcide St Germain hanging flying goose achieved $1,000, and the tone was set.  Here’s a couple of the highlights.  There were many more.

We went on to establish a relationship with Pierre after the auction and were invited to visit him and his wife at their farm.  We had a wonderful evening of laughter,  good conversation and an excellent meal, and we even enjoyed the adventure of climbing up the tiny ladder to the second floor guest room of the century old farm house.  I made sure my bladder was empty though because I didn’t fancy climbing down in the dark to find the washroom.  We realized that for as much was sold at the auction, he had twice as much great stuff still in his collection.   We even had a chance to say a quick hello to our lumberjack friend in his new residence by the pool.

large pulpit decor from Grosse Island where Irish immigrants were held in quarantine, made as a greetings from French Canadians. – $3,100

Antiques I love, and why I love them – part 2, a tiny tin fiddle

 A friend and fellow folk art enthusiast came by yesterday, and while we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee the conversation lead to an exchange questioning what is it about certain objects that make us like them more than other objects?   Any conversation about personal aesthetics is at best subjective, and at times downright obscure, but it is better than talking about the weather.  So as an attempt to get down to defining the source of the desire to possess I asked my friend, “Hypothetically, If I were to let you take home one item from our collection that you can see from where you currently sit , What would it be”.  After a pause and some reflection he said, “I would take that tiny fiddle hanging on the wall over there”. This surprised me, because we have a lot of flashier, obviously more expensive items around, but yet I understood, and might likely to have answered in the same way.

It is unclear if this 18” long, 4 string fiddle made from an old herring tin and carved wood was ever meant to be played, but my guess is it was playable when it was made.  When I study it, I imagine that it may have been created as a gift to a child to encourage musicianship, but it is equally possible that it was created as a “gag” instrument to be pulled out for surprise at a strategic moment in a performance.  Maybe the guy or gal just wanted to make something to put on the wall, or to give as a gift.  It’s fun to think about, but in the end you get back to the object. 

I remember finding it under a big pile of junk in Alan Chauvette’s  pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec back in the early eighties.  Alan was standing nearby writing down what we were buying and the prices.  I held it up and said “how much for this”  Alan glanced up and said “$45”.  “O.K. write it down”.  I don’t think he looked closely, or maybe he doesn’t share my aesthetic because I felt it was a steal.  But then again I have come to realize that things of great esthetic value do not always get recognized monetarily.

Some people, or I would imagine many people would think that even $45 is too much for a rusty old tin can fiddle, but they are different from me.  I love the thing.  I brought it home from Quebec.  I hung it on the wall, and to quote the late, great Charlton Heston, “ to get it, you will have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands. “ So what is it?  Obviously, the colour and untouched patina are superb, and the form and hand carved neck and machine heads are beautifully executed in a functional, yet slightly primitive sort of way.  The “F” holes are beautifully cut out, and the construction of tin, wire, and wood is wonderful.  All these elements hit  the pleasure buttons in my  brain, but I think it Is the fact of the herring tin body that puts me over the top.  I looked for a long while half consciously wondering how they got the herrings out of the tin which looks original and undisturbed save for the “F” holes, before I investigated and saw that there is a neat row of nails around the bottom attaching it back to the sides.  Great care was taken to create this.  A real labor of love. I love the way it is, but when I imagine it with it’s bridge intact, and the other three strings, I wonder what type of sound it would have made.  One would assume, tinny.

I found my “sunshine” tractor in a little shop north of London, Ontario a long time ago.  Again it was an item which went straight to my heart, and as I purchased it I knew it was something for me.  Something I would never want to give up.  I’ve bought and sold hundreds of hand-made toys, many more impressive in construction and scale, and yet it is this tractor which continues to sit in a glazed cupboard overlooking my work desk.   I love it’s construction and form and colour, but the element that takes it into my top drawer is the little “sunshine” sign.  I’m not an armchair psychiatrist per say, but it doesn’t take Freud to understand that my love probably has a direct route back to my mother singing me “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” while I lay sick in bed with the measles at the age of ten.  That song is such a bittersweet tour de force isn’t it?  I get emotional just thinking about it.

 

Lastly, we come to “Old 99” (see 99 painted on the door). To be honest I don’t love it nearly as much as I love the tin fiddle or “Sunshine”, but I do love the fact that someone with welding ability, probably a professional welder, took the time and effort to make his or her child an indestructible toy locomotive, with a space at the back to put an engineer.  Is that an old bullet used to make the smokestack?  I hope not.  The poor kid could blow up.

Four favourite folk art pieces by “unknown” artists

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

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

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

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

  1. Elephant on a fungus

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

  1. Chief Sam Goose

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

  1. A couple of stout fellows from New Brunswick

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

 

  1. Two facing off Magpies

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

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