I was just going through some papers and found an article about Beardmore, Ontario folk artist Ewald Rentz written by Canadian humourist Arthur Black. We enjoyed listening to his radio programme “Basic Black for many years on the C.B.C., and reading his syndicated weekly humour column. I don’t know how I came by this transcript of a 1994 show he did on Ewald Rentz, but the content is sufficiently interesting that I thought to reproduce it here to add to the (hopefully) permanent record of this significant Canadian folk artist. In looking him up I noticed Arthur Black started his column in 1976 in Thunder Bay, so it makes sense that he would become aware of, and write about a folk artist who lived so nearby. Arthur Black died Feb 21, 2018, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74. Three time winner of the Stephan Leacock Award for Humour, he will be remembered for his humour, and the large contribution he made to the promotion and documentation of Canadian culture.
“The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation on the conservation of matter.” – John Updike.
You know what’s particularly wonderful about this country of ours? Treasures, treasures everywhere. No matter how humble or unlikely the surroundings.
Take Beardmore, Ontario. Towns don’t come much more humble than Beardmore, with it’s population of a few hundred souls nestled in the bosom of northwestern Ontario wilderness about ninety miles due north of lake Superiors arched eyebrow.
It’s a small town, boasting a couple of gas stations, a general store, a motel or two. Hard to differentiate from any of several hundred other small Canadian towns. You could drive right down the main street, past the grocery store and the barber shop and be back out on the highway before you knew it. Thousands do, every year.
Ah, but they miss the treasure that way. It’s the barber shop on Main Street. That’s where Ewald Rentz lives.
Who’s Ewald Rentz? Well, first off, it’s “Ed” to his friends. He was born in North Dakota, drifted around a bit through Manitoba, but made his way eventually to Beardmore, where he fell in ove with the land and stayed.
And since all that happened back in 1939, folks take it for granted that Ed’s there for keeps.
In his 86 years Ed’s done most of the things a Northerner does. He’s been a miner, lumberjack, prospector, cook, and as the candy-stripped pole outside his place attests, a barber.
Oh yes, and one other thing. Artist. Ed’s an artist. World renowned as a matter of fact.
There are collectors in England who salivate for his work. Curators from the U.S., Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver make periodic pilgrimages to the barber shop to see if he’s got anything new they can buy. His work is on display in museums across the country including the National Museum of man in Ottawa.
Ed Rentz is a national treasure. And the barber in Beardmore. Ed’s what you call a folk artist. He doesn’t do abstract impressionist canvasses or mobiles a la Henry Moore. Balsam, birch and poplar are his media. His inspiration comes from the bush he’s wandered through for most of his life.
Ed can pick up a chunk of knotted forest debris that you and I would reject as firewood, turn it over in his own gnarled hands, take it back to his workshop and with the help of a knife and chisels, and judiciously applied dollops of house paint, transforms it into the most exquisite and unexpected bit of art – a ballerina perhaps. Or a bear cub. Or a Mountie. Or a great spotted fantasy pterodactyl in full flight, with a man on its back hanging on for dear life.
Ed’s tiny barber shop on the main street of Beardmore is crammed full of his works of wonder. Elves, moose, mermaids, wolves, Prime Ministers.
If you are good, and he’s not too busy, Ed might fetch his step-dance dolls. All meticulously hand carved, out of their special cloth bags, set them on the floor, haul out his mandolin, and make them dance for you.
But have a care. Just because he is a world-renowned artist and an unusually fine chap of 86 winters, doesn’t mean that Ed’s not a working man too. My no. If it’s a Saturday, you may have to talk to him between haircuts. Ed still knows how to give a haircut.
He still knows how to handle knotty customers too – be they balsam or bushworker.
“One time” says Ed, looking at your correspondent thoughtfully, “a nearly bald guy comes in here. I cut his hair. He gets out of the chair and says “wait a minute”. You charged me a buck when I only got a little bit of hair?”
“I told that guy” continues Ed, “I didn’t charge you a buck, I charged you twenty-five cents to cut your hair.
“And eighty cents to look for them.”