Looking into the private world of Fenton Dukeshire

d6Back in the 1990’s I would occasionally get a call from a friend, Marty Ahvenus, who owned and operated the Village Book Store on Queen St at the time.  He was a book seller by trade who also enjoyed folk art and making periodic trips to the East Coast.  When he returned from a trip he was in the habit of phoning me, and selling me the folk art which he had acquired enroute.  We would meet at a French restaurant on Baldwin Street which offered fish soup, a favourite of both of us, and I remember that the owner/chef would always come out to see who had ordered the soup as so few did.  But that’s another story.duke1

One day I met Marty and he had a dozen or so small and interesting fantasy buildings that he had just acquired from a very elderly gentleman from Wolfville Nova Scotia, who was living with his son in Toronto at the time.  I guess he had heard about him when he was out East and found out that he was living with his son who was teaching law in Toronto, so he arranged to go over and meet him.   Fenton Dukeshire’s son made it clear that Marty was welcome to come over and see the work, but that it was very unlikely that he would meet the artist. Fenton was a very private, and shy man who liked to keep to himself in a back bedroom of the house where he would spend hour after hour creating intricately detailed miniatures of buildings, bridges, locomotives, etc out of bits of found wood, matchsticks, and cardboard.  These all bore the mark of his individual imagination, and the patience required to bring such detailed pieces to realization.  Time was not a problem for Fenton.  He was in his element working, and he did so hour after hour, day after day.  Along with the individual sculptures of buildings, etc. he liked to create dioramas which involved people in dramatic situations.  Gunfighters facing each other down on the street.  A church scene with choir and unnoticed urchin with a sling shot about to hit the minister in the back of the head. Another church scene with a mother reaching out to save her baby who was teetering on the edge of the balcony banister.  All his people had a humorous, comic book aspect to them.  They are crowd pleasers. duke2

This intensely shy and unassuming man was born in Maitland Bridge, Annapolis County in 1917. He was a woodsman, sawmill worker, and farmer during his working life and only took up carving and model making in his 60’s.  His wife of 39 years died in 1985, and he has no other brothers, sisters, or other children.  He lived with his only son in Wolfville, then Toronto, and then back to Wolfville with his son when the work concluded in Toronto.  He lived there quietly producing his art until he died.  I cannot find the date of his death on-line but I know he was very old.

I like the fun of his dioramas with people, but I admire most the simple architectural elegance of his buildings. You can tell he created these to satisfy his own love and fascination with architecture, and had no commercial intentions.  duke5

So when Marty arrived at the house, he admired and agreed to purchase many recent works, but before he left he asked once again if he may at least meet the artist who was working away in his back room.  The son agreed to ask, and sure enough a few moments later a small grey man slid into the room.  Came up to Marty and put out his hand.  “how do you do?”.  They shook hands and Marty barely had time to say “what a pleasure it is to meet you” when Mr. Dukeshire spun on his heels and headed back into his room, closing the door behind him.duke4

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In appreciation of Nova Scotia artist Lorne Reid

It is rare, but sometimes you develop a deep relationship with an artist the first time you encounter their work. It’s like falling in love.  Immediately, a lot of your buttons are being pushed and it affects you personally.  It was like that for me with Nova Scotia’s Lorne Reid.  When we attended the Sutherland/ Amit auction in 1994 I was immediately taken by three of his works being offered there.  I had never seen his work. The first and most dramatic was a 5 1/2 foot high sculpture of a mother holding a baby, painted in a pointillist style. Amazing work. Then I found a 11’ x 14” pointillist painting of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.  I loved it because it was amusing and in your face.  Finally, and for me the most appealing there was a 6’x 3’ oil on plywood painting of a man eating a fish.  Absolutely haunting and powerful image. Not at all pretty. Actually  quite unsettling and not a favorite of my wife or daughter who were with me, but a painting that spoke to me directly.  I was fortunate in that most people sided with my Jeanine and Cassandra’s opinion,  so I was able to get it at a bargain price.  They were fine with the thought that it would go into our collection of stock for resale but they were not so happy when we got home and I hung it above the living room couch. No matter where you sat in the room he was staring at you.  His haunted look and the fish skeleton in front of him on the table suggest a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  It is not a cheerful painting.  I took a lot of heat for a few days but the controversy died down.  Before long he became a member of the family and is in the background of many family Christmas pictures.  I never grew tired looking at it.

Then in 1995, my stepson Brodie who is a musician and member of the excellent Canadian band the Corndogs, asked me if they might use the image for there up-coming CD.  I agreed to if I could get the permission of the artist’s mother, who was handling the estate. I got her number and called her out of the blue, as it were. What a lovely woman. I was nervous, but she was so immediately welcoming and friendly that my concerns quickly left me and we had a wonderful, and long conversation about Lorne. She was all too happy to give permission.  The CD was released on Immune Records in England and did very well there, but never found a Canadian distributer. Still, I think it is a masterful work and I am happy that the painting has become associated with it.  I think you can still buy it on CD Baby or one of those sites.  The juxtaposition of the image with the phrase “love is all” seems appropriate to what I know of Lorne Reid. 

He was a searcher. He hitch-hiked around North America for 15 years, and then went back to Nova Scotia and became a dedicated artist.  He painted and sculpted until his tragic early death by cancer at the age of 37.

Lorne dedicated himself to his work and the work of other local artists.  In 1989, along with artist David Stephens and Chris Huntington he was instrumental in creating The Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival and Picnic.  He is considered by many to be one of the most important and significant artists to come out of Nova Scotia. He was a member of what some refer to as the “new wave” of Nova Scotia folk artists. Younger artists who were influenced by the originals such as Sid Howard,  and then took the energy and style and made it their own.

It was difficult to find much information on Lorne Reid or to see many of his works publicly displayed until in 2010, when Audrey Sandford of the excellent Black Sheep Gallery of West Jeddore Village, Nova Scotia organized and executed a retrospective on his work in her gallery from July 27-August 29. She accompanied the exhibition with an  excellent 6 page catalogue which they make available on their website.  Here is a link  http://www.blacksheepart.com/lornereid1.html

Fellow artist and close friend David Stephens estimates that Lorne did fewer than 100 small folk art paintings and perhaps a dozen larger paintings during his short career.  He remains as one of my favorites, and I hadn’t thought about him much until this morning when  I saw a clipping from the Upper Canadian coverage of the 2004 Bowmanville show that Adrian Tinline posted in the Canadiana Antiques Facebook group.  There it is. “Man eating a fish” which sold the opening night.  I can’t say that what I feel is regret.  I owned it for ten years and sold it to a good collection, but it still makes me feel a little sad, and just a bit haunted.

Charlie Tanner 1904-1982

There are certain folk artists who’s work is so personalized, and exhibits such a distinct style, that once seen, you can recognize the work from across a room.  Charlie Tanner is just such an artist.  I loved his work the first time I laid eyes on it, and he has been one of my favourite folk artists ever since.

In Chris Huntington’s excellent essay published in the booklet that accompanied the 1984 retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, he writes

 “Stonehurst is a small fishing village that located itself about 200 years ago amidst the barren, rocky, coastal out-reaches about ten miles south of Lunenburg. Stonehurst is that much closer to the inshore fishing grounds so that, in spite of it’s inhospitable geology, it attracted the Germanic farmer-fisherman pushing out fom the hills of Lunenburg. Today every other mailbox proclaims that a Tanner is it’s owner. On February 15, 1904, another Tanner was born there and his name was Charles Enos. “We were common people them days. Everyone was.” Charlie spoke with the heavy Lunenburg-Dutch accent that is still often heard in those parts today. He recalled “Children were growed up before they had any age to them. They never had a chance to go to school. You had to start work when you were so young that you never really had much chance to develop any interests other than fishing”. One of 12 children Charlie started cod lining as part of the family livelihood when he was “eight, ten maybe nine”.  By 13 like other his age, his father took him to Lunenburg and put him on a schooner for the Grand Banks, where he earned $30.00 a month as a deck hand until he was 15, at which time he was considered a grown man. Charlie then took his place at the bow of one of the dozen dories that put out each dawn and afternoon to set trawl for codfish. There he labored under tutelage of an older, experienced fisherman as a part of a two man team, for which Charlie earned a share of the schooner’s take.  Between the long voyages to the banks, like other fishermen, Charlie mended gear, built boats, repaired houses, farmed, chipped out decoys and took them gunning, as he had ever since he was big enough to carry a gun. – “That was none too big either”.

After a dozen years or so of salt-banking Charlie contributed to the bootleg industry by schoonering cases of liquor from St. Pierre to outside the twelve mile boundary off of Block Island, New York, where the crew would wait for power boats evading the Feds to steal through the darkness to relieve the cargo. “That was good fun,” Charlie said. At the same time Charlie put his name in as a labourer at the New Mersey Plant. Though the job never materialized, he bought a boat and, between rum-running trips took up life as an inshore out of Mersey point near Liverpool. Stonehurst hadn’t been big enough for all those Tanners so Charlie settled into a forty year period of either fishing alone, or with one partner, in his 40 foot Cape Islander, jigging Cod, seining herring or mackerel, the latter of which was used to bait lobster traps during those seasons. ”Them times there was no money. When you went all  day out and got 2,000 pounds of fish and made $25 or $30 to fead the two of you.” The take was one cent a pound for cod and 40 cents for lobster. Charlie said he took by handline a much as 3,000 pounds of cod by himself in one day. It may have been a tough haul but it was what Charlie knew.  His hands after a life of such toil were an amazing testament to the life they lived. Work was like breathing; it was second nature. “Fishing.  It’s a damn habit, that’s all it is,” he said looking back. His wife Helen offered “He’s just an old alt, that’s all he is.” But of course that is not all that Charlie was, and this exhibition celebrates the other part of his life, for which he will ultimately be remembered; that is, the roughly eight years he spent making small carved and painted figures of living things.”

Charlie Tanner died in 1982. Two years after his death, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia honoured him with an exhibition of his work.

Reference: Charlie Tanner Retrospective, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1984. Folk Art of Nova Scotia, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia,

In appreciation of Sid Howard

You know how with some artists you just love their work the first time you see it; recognizing that there is something genuine and authentic in it which places it above the work of others?  Something which goes directly  to your gut, bypassing the analytical brain cells. Well for me that’s Sid Howard.

Especially his early work.  His approach is direct, joyful, strong, and not at all self-conscious.  Simple lines.  A primitive elegance. I always get a lift when I look at his work.  I would see it on rare occasions over the years but did not become fully conscious of his life and work until I saw the NFB film “Folk Art Found Me” in 1993.  The fellows who made it set up and sold copies at the Bowmanville show that year.  A great film that you can see by following this link http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpk3q0

Sid Howard sitting amongst his creations singing “Pretty Robin Redbreast” is such a treat in itself, and then he goes on to talk about getting started.  This would be about 1945.

“Well one day I sat down and I said, I’d like to make a fish, and I’m going to try it. I never made one before.  Well, I worked on it slow and easy and it come out good; and so from then on I liked it and I never stopped since.”

We are lucky that the film makers got this on film.  He died shortly after.

Kobayashi/Bird “A compendium of Canadian Folk Artists (1985) states,

Around many odd tasks and carpentry work (Howard) managed to find opportunities for pursuit of his wood carving interests, particularly after 1945.  His earliest carving, a deer, was inspired by a drawing in his daughter’s colouring book. He continued to carve cats, fish, birds, and human figures.  Many of his works were destroyed in a fire in the late sixties. He eventually began to undertake the ambitious project of carving life-sized figures, including his interpretation of Cape Breton’s legendary “McAskill Giant”. He also carved various low-relief plaques with nature scenes, such as a beaver in a marsh setting, or scenes with stags, horses, seals, fish, and sailing vessels.  Inspired also by popular culture, he carved large sharks modelled after the villain in the movie “Jaws”.  He also carved political figures and an RCMP officer.  By the 1980’s he was turning increasingly to television programmes for subject matter.”

An early Sid Howard full-sized figure.

I have bought and sold Sid Howard works occasionally over the last thirty years,  but as I was buying largely in Quebec I did not encounter them very often.  Then at one of the Bowmanville shows in the late 1990’s,  Toronto art dealer Av Issacs and I were talking about Sid, and he said “you know, I have a Sid Howard piece that I bought years ago, that I could part with. “  Of course I was interested, and so true to word, the next week I received from Av, a photo and come on letter.  “No reasonable offer refused”.  Ya right Av, I’ve known you for too many years to fall for that.

On the phone the next day when we set up the appointment Av said   “You are going to love this piece. It’s so strong.  Actually, I’m not sure if I should even be selling it.”  I could feel the price rising.

I felt “cool” going into his rented digs in that old factory full of artists on Richmond Street.  I’m not sure that it hasn’t been made into up-scale condos by now, but at the time it had a real scene living there.  Av had closed the gallery and retired, but rented this for storage and an office space.   On the way in you could see that the young artists loved him.  We reached his space, unlocked the door, and there was the Sid Howard sitting on an easel in the light of the north facing window.  What a knock out.  Av was right.  I didn’t even try to play it cool, or barter.  Av was far too seasoned and would spot it right away anyway, so I just said “You’re right Av, it’s amazing.  I want it. So how much do I have to pay for it, bottom line.  Prix d’ami.  I always try the Quebec term prix d’ami, or “friend’s price” because it puts a friendly, positive spin on it.   Av’s price was by no means a giveaway, but it was fair and so I counted out the cash.

I brought it home and Jeanine loved it, so we hung it in the dining room, and there it remains.

After concluding our business, Av and I were looking around at some of his things under the pretense that there might be something else I would like, so I asked him.  “you wouldn’t have any William Kurelek drawings or paintings laying around that you want to get rid of at a cheap price?”  Av smiled, “well no, I’ve sold every painting and drawing that I had for sale, but I could sell you this.”  He went over to a storage rack and pulled out a fairly large plywood packing crate.  He flipped it around and on the back was quite a beautiful pencil drawing of a western village.  Along with an elaborate colorful frame around the name and address area.  “He sent me some paintings in this case from out West,  and he took the time to make it beautiful.”  Wow.  Simply wow.  Of course even Av’s friend price was way more than I could afford.  But I still think about it once in a while.  And I still love looking at the Sid Howard eagle.

our Sid Howard eagle

My Afternoon with Eddie Mandaggio

EMandaggioEddie Mandaggio was born in Manitoba in 1927. He spent his early years working in Northern Manitoba and Ontario as a trapper, and as a hunting and fishing guide. He came to Nova Scotia in 1951 and settled in Camperdown, Queen’s Country, where he lived until his death in 2003.

He initially worked for the railroad for eight years, and then worked in the logging camps. Eddie started carving in 1974 out of a desire to make decorations for his cabin. He followed with painting in 1976. His subjects are geese, roosters, cows, horses and also some human heads. His carved pieces greatly outnumber his painted works.

Eddie's famous white goose

Eddie’s famous white goose

In the mid -nineties I had the occasion to meet Mr. Mandaggio, and although I was trying to take in as many artists as I could in a short stay, and had intended to just stay for an hour, we became so engaged in conversation that I ended up spending the entire afternoon.  I missed out on meeting a few others but my time with Eddie remains close to my heart.

I flew to Nova Scotia to view and consider purchasing a major folk art collection which belonged to a friend of a friend named Iris Newman.  Iris is a lovely person. who got bit early by the folk art bug,and had the means, space,  and desire to build a major collection, purchasing major works directly from the artists.  She is featured in the NFB film “folk art found me”, and she is generally acknowledged as one of the main promotors and supporters of the Nova Scotia folk art community. We had a lovely lunch and fell into talking like old friends for a couple of hours before she took me around her large home and showed me the extent of the collection. Although amazing in quality and scope It turned out to be too many massive pieces which I knew would be hard to place, and she was strictly committed to an “all or nothing” deal so it didn’t work out, but I learned a lot from her and we did remain friends.  Of this vast collection, one of the most impressive things for me was two very large paintings of tiny cows in a big field by Eddie Mandaggio.  It was the first Mandaggio paintings I had seen and there is something about those giant fields with those tiny cows that hit all my buttons. She was keeping them and I completely understand why.  So after an afternoon of talking, and documenting the collection it was time for me to go.  As I was leaving I told Iris that the following day before I had to catch the evening flight home, I was going to go to the Lunenburg area to meet the Naugler brothers, Garnet Macphail, and Eddie Mandaggio who was already one of my favourite Nova Scotia folk artists.   “Oh that’s great Phil. You’ll have a wonderful time, but I must ask one thing of you.”  O.K.?  “When you get to Eddie’s you will see that he has recently carved a very large moose head trophy, and I have decided to buy it, so don’t you go and buy it.”  Ouch.  I hated to agree but Iris is a lovely and determined person, and I was still considering her collection so I reluctantly agreed.

One of Eddie's cow paintings

One of Eddie’s cow paintings

After a delightful morning with the Nauglers which will be the subject of another blog, and after a delicious bowl of chowder at a roadside restaurant, I got to Eddie’s place.  Immediately we hit it off. Eddie was very kind and open, and wonderfully generous in his description of his past careers.  He was particularly articulate about his love of carving, and stated that although he had been painting for the past few years, most of these paintings remained in the basement of the Houston gallery in nearby Lunenburg, and not many had sold, so he reckoned that he must not be a very good painter.  “Au contraire, mon Ami” “I think you are a fabulous painter. I was knocked out by the paintings in Iris’ living room.”  “Really.  Well thank you for telling me.  I don’t get much feed- back and most people just want me to keep making my “hits” like the big white geese.  It’s not much fun doing the same thing over and over again, and actually not why I started carving in the first place. I’ve started to refuse the large orders that have kept me doing the same thing for the past few years.  For me carving is a wonderful therapy to counter my jumpy nerves, but I have to be free to experiment or it becomes too much like a regular job.”  “I absolutely agree with you Eddie.  You must be free to let your imagination roam. Have fun with it, and whatever you do, don’t give up painting.”  Eddie smiled that winning smile of his. “Thanks for saying.”

Of course there in the background the entire time we are talking hung the extraordinarily beautiful massive moose head on a red heart shaped crest which Iris had forbidden me to buy.  Tagged $750.  I would have given him the cash in a second if I was not bound to my word.  What can you do?

That was the one and only time I met Eddie, and he became quite ill and stopped carving soon after.  I never did get on to see Garnet MacPhail, but I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent there with Eddie in Camperdown. A few months later I received the following polaroid of Eddie with a new cows in the field painting.  Unfortunately I didn’t move quickly enough and missed it.  If you would like to know more about Eddie, the Black Sheep Gallery has posted a wonderful series of You tube videos you can look up.Scaned