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,

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The story of Joe Sleep

Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.

In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states

“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed  handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.

Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”

Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street.  It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life.  He died in 1978.

In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes

“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings.  Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical.  He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.

In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character.  He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity.  “Well, I’m not sorry about it.  I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”