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.

On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

“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