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

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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”

First, we take Manhattan – part two

newy6We had outrun the snow storm, and arrived at the Puck building in Soho before the morning rush.  Although it was two hours before the designated set up time of 8 am, Jeanine and I had already had a morning coffee and a lovely smoked salmon sandwich on rye.  One thing you had to say about this promoter is that he really fed you well, knowing that dealers think with their stomachs.  None of the crew that would help dealers unload would be there for two hours, but we hadn’t slept and were running on nervous energy. Anxious to get at it and set up, so that we could get to the hotel and sleep.  We had rejected the idea of a nap.  So, nothing to do but drive the truck up to the nearest door to our booth and start lugging.  There was no traffic so this was a snap.newy2

We pulled up the door of the cube van and became intimidated for a moment by the size of the load.  We had a good-sized booth and wanted to do well, so we were loaded for bear.  Just then as we were stretching out our muscles in anticipation of the task ahead we spotted a young, black guy, in a black hoody sliding up the sidewalk.  He stopped as he reached us, smiled, and said “Can you use a hand”.   “Well, if your offering, we could actually. I’ll be glad to compensate you”. Without a beat. “Let’s get started. I’m Leroy.  Where are we going with this stuff”?  “Right in here, Leroy.  I’m Phil and this is Jeanine.” A little bow and a handshake. “Nice to meet you both. So what I’d suggest Phil is that Jeanine stays at the booth, you bring the small stuff to me off the truck, and I’ll look after the middle. The big stuff we’ll have to do together. ”Sounds great Leroy. Let’s get at her.” He was a wonderful helper, remaining positive and up-beat the whole time. Full of suggestions; “Well I think you should put that cupboard over there Jeanine”.  It was actually fun.  Within an hour and a bit everything was in front of our booth and we were already half set up.  We thanked Leroy, and asked if he might come back on Sunday night at 6 when the show was over to help us reload. “Well that depends. I’ll try, but I can’t promise.  No problem Leroy, so let’s see” We’ll call it an hour and a half, so how about 30 bucks? Does that sound fair?”  “Oh no Phil.  You’re in the big city now you know.  Everything costs more.  I think you’ll have to do better.”  He was right, of course. My Scottish nature had made me offer him a country wage.  “Alright Leroy, let’s make it $50.”  That’s right, Phil. Now you’ve got it. Now you’re in a New York state of mind.”  Leroy shook our hands, wished us a great show, and headed off in the same direction he was going before. Sometimes help arrives when you need it.newy1

By the time I had taken the truck to the parking lot ($125 dollars there for the weekend.  Now I know what you mean Leroy.) , and we had finished setting up, we were totally pooched.  It had started to snow heavily about 10 a.m. so in the cab on the way over to the hotel later that afternoon we were becoming concerned as to whether anyone would be able to make it to the show the following morning.  We were too tired to care much at that point.  All we could think of was a shower and a bed.

We arose to snow covered streets, but nothing that would stop a dedicated antique show lover.   At 9 am when we arrived at the show there was already a small line of people waiting.  By the ten o’clock opening, there was maybe 60 to 80 who rushed in.  Not a Bowmanville opening night crowd, but serious shoppers none the less.  The first person to approach us was an interior designer from Brooklyn who could barely contain herself with excitement over the sphinx’s.  She asked for the dealer discount which we provided and she immediately said yes and gave us $100 down, pleading with us not to sell them to anyone else while she went to a cash machine to come up with the rest.  We reassured her that with the deposit they were hers, no matter how much extra someone might offer.  I can’t imagine reneging on a deal once money has changed hands, but I suppose there may be some who can justify it to themselves. Somehow.  It wasn’t a problem in any case because although others did admire them, everyone respected the sold tags, and she was back within the hour with the cash and a van to take them.  Several more sales followed over the next two days despite the relatively low attendance.  At least those who came were keen, and decisive.  What surprised us most was the high number of people who knew about Canadian folk art.  Many people would recognize a Charlie Tanner, or Edmund Chatigny, and everyone seemed to know who Maud Lewis was.  We were told by several people that they had gone to Nova Scotia on a field trip arranged by the Museum of Folk Art.  We were in high spirits at dinner on Saturday evening when we met our friends who live in Manhattan.  We had delicious Japanese food that was still quite a novelty to us, in a place our friends frequented.  A couple of glasses of sake and we really started to feel the buzz of the city.

Sunday was cold and blustery, but we did a bit more business and knew that we would go home with considerably less stock and more money, which is of course the point of the exercise.

Leroy was a no show at pack-up, and the gang of young Russian thugs the promoter hired to help load just about gave me a heart attack with their careless and at times downright brutal loading techniques.  At one point I was having to catch boxes full of delicate items thrown at me from the back door of the truck.  Hair raising stuff, and they looked like they might kill you if you complained. Still, we were packed in about an hour and heading down the West Side highway, heading to the George Washington bridge   as the sun set, and the street lights came on. The icing on the cake is when I heard the immediately recognizable first chords of waw waw guitar and the golden voice of Isaac Hayes utter the first lines of “Shaft”.  A song I had always heard as quintessential New York.  It was a magic moment we had there heading down the West Side Highway listening to Shaft.  A perfect moment.newy3

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

Considering antique surfaces – an introduction

In the open market we encounter antiques with many different types of surface.  Original painted surface, original varnish, rubbed oil surface, dry surface, waxed surface, refinished, dry scraped to original finish, chemically stripped to original finish, over-painted, and re-painted. By learning about these different processes,  when considering an antique we can greater appreciate whether the surface is original to the piece, and/or what has happened to it over the years. Over this series of articles I will show how to recognize these various finishes, and will suggest the aesthetic considerations I apply to each. Initially we understand that very few pieces remain untouched.  It is most common that at some point over the years Ma pointed at her kitchen cupboard and said to Pa ” let’s freshen this up with some of that newfangled oil paint that we bought at the hardware store”,  or later, “lets take off the six coats of paint on this dresser with furniture stripper and then we can see the original cherry wood.”  Altering the original finish is sometimes an improvement, but more often a shame.  That being said the finish on older pieces are most often altered long ago, so then you need to decide whether to live with it the way it is our alter it again to improve it. There has been much discussion amongst collectors over the comparative value of original surface over refinished surface, and it is easy to oversimplify the equation.  Lets take a look at this circa 1860 Nova Scotia tilt-top table to open the discussion.

flame birch tilt-top table from Nova Scotia

flame birch tilt-top table from Nova Scotia

You can see that the top looks lighter than the base. That is because at some point (I would think about thirty years ago) someone has decided to “clean” the top a bit so that it is possible to see the pattern of the flame birch.  In the close up of the base  you can see that the (presumably) original varnish has darkened and crackled with age.  Untouched, you would not be able to see the patterned wood of the top, and so the owner of this table made the decision to thin down the varnish on the top only.

On the Roadshow, the boys would be rightfully quick to point out that the piece has lost value, but you can also see that for a true lover of wood it would be a shame not to be able to see the pattern as you would have when the piece was made.  In reality, pieces made with figured wood such as flame birch, or bird’s eye maple do not lose much value having undergone a quality refinishing because many collectors want to see the wood.  Consider how you would prefer to see this table.

untouched surface on the base

untouched surface on the base

For me, if a piece retains a good original finish, I always want to leave it alone, even in a case such as this.  But I recognize that many would prefer the piece in it’s current state, and that some would even prefer that the whole piece be taken down to the wood and resurfaced, and that too is a valid opinion.  To be clear then, if you are lucky enough to find a piece with a good original finish, my advise is to leave it alone, but once a finish has been altered it’s fair game to change it again if it is for the better.

refinished flame birch top

refinished flame birch top

You can see that the top has not been stripped right down to the wood, but rather was taken down slowly and carefully to retain much of it’s original colour.  This process was very popular with collectors of figured wood in the seventies and eighties when much of this furniture hit the market.  It  suggests how many dealt with the conflicting values of leaving things alone to show their age and the changes inherent in the aging  process, and the desire to see things as they would have looked when they were new.