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

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For the Birds

As I have mentioned before in this blog, my wife Jeanine collects folk art carved birds.  Our kitchen is full of them.  I miss them when we are away.

Birds, for the most part are a pleasant and relaxing part of our natural environment.  Except of course when they are dive bombing you for being too close to their nest, and then they’re not so relaxing.  Otherwise, we enjoy watching them fly, and chirp, and hop around the back yard looking for bugs. They are entertaining.  I suggest that this is the reason that it is one of the most commonly carved species, and often the first carving an artist will undertake.  Birds makes for an interesting collection because there are so many approaches and attitudes to the subject.  Some strive for accuracy.  Others a stylized approach.  Some are abstracted, while others are barely recognizable.  I tend to admire skill and craftsmanship, but it’s the crazy and primitive ones that turn my crank.  After my morning coffee I took a look around the room and photographed a few of my favourites .   With some little notations attached.

I hope that you enjoy looking at them.  I do.  Every morning.

sparrows in flight

Jeanine is keen on finding more of these little carved sparrows.  We may because I have the feeling that these although hand carved, were commercially produced and sold in gift shops.  Perhaps a little cottage industry item from Eastern Canada, where we found them.  Or even possibly overseas. If so, I would think Europe or England as opposed to Asian.

Red-winged blackbird by Yvon Cote

a Cote decal. Not used on every carving.

This Cote red-winged blackbird is typical of the Gaspe artist.  I will make him the subject of a future blog, but for now suffice to say that his work is easy to recognize because he used pencil crayons for colour and then lacquered over top, and even when a piece doesn’t have his decal, you can tell it is him by the form, colour, and little wire legs.

Here’s a new addition to the family.  this friendly little Carolina Wren was created by C. Bodley of Toronto.  He was good enough to name and sign it on the bottom.  It’s a good example of a work that looks like the species, but also contains personality.  He also created this wonderful diminutive owl

Owl bu C. Bodley, Toronto

 

 

 

 

What follows is a bunch of little birds with different approaches, by different artists at different times.  Most of them are from Quebec.  You can see run the gamut in terms of approach.  Although it is perhaps the piece that looks the least like an actual bird, I love the little beige bird by Cadieux.  His name is stamped on the bottom.  I also love the little blue bird which looks almost like a cartoon.  it is made very carefully. Those wings are thin wood, not metal.

Which one of these do you like the most?

Someone even decided to make a little bird using wicker. This little fellow somehow comes across as looking quite mad.  And last but not least we have this hanging black and white bird on a perch.  Interesting construction, and can anyone figure out why his wings are on backwards?   Could this really be intentional?  Perhaps dyslectic?  Go figure.

 

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

 

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

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

Finding Fournier – how we met the acclaimed Quebec folk artist, Leo Fournier

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo and Jeanette Fournier at home

Leo Fournier has always been one of our all time, favorite folk artist for his whimsy, elegance and balance. Leo’s sculptures cover a wide range of subjects from the religious to the erotic, as well as animals and everyday life scenes.  The work is composed mostly of figures and animals in various forms of shared or confrontational activities.  .

pig, by Leo Fournier

pig, by Leo Fournier

He had a keen eye for detail, a great sense of fun and a love of life.  You can recognize a Fournier from across the room, and we would purchase the work when we came across it, in picker’s barns, shows, or auction.  It was always our desire to find and meet Leo, but of course the pickers were not anxious to have us contact him directly so would not provide information, and his address was not listed in the reference books.   All we had to go on was that  he lived in the town of La Prarie (pop 23,000), on the south side of the St. Lawrence River, across from Montreal.

last supper, by Leo Fournier

last supper, by Leo Fournier

Sometimes our trips to Quebec were straight there and back affairs, but on other occasions we would take a few days to meander and explore, and it was on one such occasion in the early nineties that we found ourselves in La Prarie late in the afternoon with some time to kill before we hit one of our favored road side motels.  I pulled up to a phone booth, and said to Jeanine “let’s see if we can find Leo Fournier in the book.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  Our hearts sank a little when we realized there were over thirty Fourniers listed in town and only one L. Fournier.  Of course we tried this number first and it was not Leo, and furthermore they did not know of him, but we were not so easily discouraged and just started with the first listing and kept dialing.  Jeanine was getting a little tired after about a dozen dead ends, with not everyone being delighted to participate in our little search, but she persevered, and low and behold after about another six calls she spoke to someone who was a relative, and she was happy to provide his number.  “Well that was sort of easy.” I quipped. “O.K. well not that easy, and yes it was you doing all the calling”. In any case we dialed him up directly. and spoke to his wife Jeanette who said he was out momentarily but would be home soon, and he would be happy to meet us.  She gave us good directions to their house which we soon found on a quiet little street right across from a Depanneur , or variety store.

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Old man fantasy by Leo Fournier

Leo met us at the door and warmly invited us in to the sunporch, where he liked to entertain visitors.  Leo was a very charismatic storyteller, and he launched right into some great stories while sit ting in his rocking chair sipping on a big can of Molson Export.  “ I like my beer but I only buy them one at a time.  That’s why I’m happy there is a depanneur right across the street” he laughed.” I noticed there were four empty cans next to his chair, but then again it was getting on in the day.  Jeanette arrived directly with some coffee for us and we spent a very pleasant hour or so listening to his stories.  He was a retired auto body man of good reputation, and was involved in the scrap business.  He told us about and showed us his first carving which was a crucifix done  in 1967 when he was 43 yrs. old.  Since that time until his death in 2007 he continued to be a prolific carver, selling to friends and the occasional picker, Nettie Sharpe among others who would come by to see what he had been up to..  He was aware that his work was included in books and exhibits, but he never felt he was really appreciated until sometime in the nineties when the Quebec government commissioned him to produce a series of about a dozen sculptures on food production.(See the butcher with hog’s head below) With this big pay cheque he chose to go to Leningrad on his own where he spent two weeks at the Hermitage studying the art there, rather than fix the roof on the house which was what the rest of the family was pushing for.  Leo was that kind of guy.  He lived his life the way he wanted to and never thought twice about convention.  We bought the six or seven pieces he had available that day and his house became a favorite stop on subsequent trips.  We always took the time to stop and listen to his stories. According to his pal Andre Laport who phoned to tell us of his death in 2007 “he lived his life just the way he wanted to right to the end, with no lingering illness, and a beer in his hand”.  Like so many others who knew him, we really miss him , and his infectious spirit.  One of the greats.

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government

one of the works commissioned by the Quebec government

My happy time with Mr. Joly’s whirligig

Gig on display at the church

Gig on display at the church

It was 1984 when I crossed paths with this whirligig; during the period when I was going to the picker’s barns of the Victoriaville area of Quebec every other week.  The drill was to leave home at 4 a.m., drive the ten hours, buy a truckload of furniture as quickly as possible, and get on home.  It was in late November, and I remember the trip well because the temperature dropped quickly, and the Drummondville bridge froze up before the roadway.  When I hit the bridge,  I did a perfect 360 pirouette the entire length, coming back on course and continuing as though nothing had happened; frazzled but undeterred.  Soon, the snow had come on so strong that for moments which seemed like eternity, I became completely lost, with no sense of direction within a big white cloud. All you can do when this happens is to slow down and listen for when the tires hit the gravel, thinking the whole time that a transport will come out of nowhere and drive right through you. Nasty. This was followed by long periods of the dreaded “hypno” snow, which is when the big fluffy flakes swirl over and over in spiral patterns until you think you’re going to loose it.  Tough sledding.

An hour later, when I finally arrived at Paul Prince’s place near Defoy it was dark and snowing hard, but I was just so damn happy to be alive.  The lights were on but Paul had gone home.  I was about to leave when a picker I knew named Jimmy pulled in behind me. A great guy, and a legendary  picker, he had been at it since he was a teenager.  On this night he was on his way home from picking around Montreal, and he was really excited by something “special” he wanted to show me. Jimmy was never a guy to suppress his enthusiasm.  Under the yard light, there in the back of his truck I could just make out  this funky metal rocking boat gig in vivid paint. All 4 feet in length of it. I got excited too. When he showed me how the window cranking mechanism from an old Ford  provided the gears for the rocking up and down of the boat, and the turning of the steering wheel I was a goner.

I had to think hard and fast because it was a lot of money, but a really cool thing; and I knew if I didn’t go for it, Paul, or the next guy would.  “O.K. Jimmy here you go, but put it on my back seat so it doesn’t get smashed by the furniture”. “I’m doing you a favour by selling you this.  You’re gonna make good money”.  “Ya right, if I wait 25 years”.  At this point Jimmy punched me in the arm and laughed, and the transaction was complete. I was delighted, but I had that slightly sick feeling I get when I stretch beyond my comfort range to acquire something special.  I loved it, but I could have bought 4 or 5 cupboards for the same money, and at that point cupboards were selling well, at a good profit. Oh,what the hey. You’ve got to trust your instincts, and great things don’t come along every day.

The next day was snowy and cold, and I filled the truck quickly, thinking all day of the money spent, and wondering whether Jeanine would share my enthusiasm.  I arrived home about 2 in the morning, so I left everything in the truck and went straight to bed. The next morning, over coffee, Jeanine asked me about the trip. I replied,  “Oh good overall, but  pretty intense”. I told her about the bridge incident, etc. and then casually mentioned that I bought something special that I hoped she would lke. I find it better to give confession right away, as delaying only adds to the suffering.  “Well, go get it, and let’s see what you’ve done”. The moment of truth had arrived.  Happily she loved it too, and we decided there and then to keep it for a good long time so we could appreciate it everyday.  “Too bad we don’t know who made it”.

Fast forward to the next summer and we are enjoying a weekend in Quebec, our favourite North American city.  We had heard of a bookstore where it was possible to buy a rare book, Les Patenteux du Quebec,  which we knew to be the “bible” of Quebec folk art, .

page 19 of "les Patenteux du Quebec"

page 19 of “les Patenteux du Quebec”

Published in 1978, it is the work of three young Quebec women who spent  a summer or so traveling all over Quebec documenting, and recording the stories of every Quebec folk artist they could trace.  We found the shop and bought the book, and when we cracked it open, it opened to page 19, and behold there was our whirligig. With a picture of it in it’s original location, and statement by the artist.  Extraordinary.   jolygig1

page18

We placed the piece on a low cupboard in front of the low wall which separated our kitchen from dining area, and there it sat for the next twenty years or so.  We never offered it for sale but we had various offers over the years.  The best was when a friend  was returning to live in Italy, and he offered us his recent model Jeep in exchange. We thought about that one quite seriously, but refused figuring that the Jeep would rust out and be finished in a few years, where as the gig would just keep on going.

When we moved from the church to our current residence in  Port Dover in 2003,  we found it difficult to find the right place to display it. We considered mounting it high on a shelf above our front bay window, but that posed a risk of falling and crowning someone.  It moved from place to place being a bit in the way, and ended up sitting on a ledge behind the couch, which is when we more or less forgot about it. I still noticed it, but it no longer “engaged” me, if you catch my drift. Jeanine felt the same. So it came to pass that last year in a mood of downsizing we decided that although we had really enjoyed owning the piece, it was time to pass it along.  My friend, and serious collector Dr. Martin Osler had always coveted it,  and had asked for first refusal, so I gave him a call. Because we can both be convoluted at times, and because there was no particular hurry,  it took just about a full year to complete the transaction, but it now sits proudly on a high cupboard in the back of Marty’s office.  A striking location in an important collection, and I am happy because I can visit it occasionally. Here is a photo of Marty, and his friend, contemporary artist  Alex Cameron admiring the gig in it’s new home.

Marty and Alex enjoying his newest acquisition.

Marty and Alex enjoying his newest acquisition.

For me, after thirty years as a full time dealer I consider that I truly don’t own, or need to own anything.  My job is to find it, to recognize it, and then to be a good custodian until I have found it a decent home, where it will be loved and preserved.  It’s kind of liberating, actually.