Antiques I love, and why I love them – part 2, a tiny tin fiddle

 A friend and fellow folk art enthusiast came by yesterday, and while we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee the conversation lead to an exchange questioning what is it about certain objects that make us like them more than other objects?   Any conversation about personal aesthetics is at best subjective, and at times downright obscure, but it is better than talking about the weather.  So as an attempt to get down to defining the source of the desire to possess I asked my friend, “Hypothetically, If I were to let you take home one item from our collection that you can see from where you currently sit , What would it be”.  After a pause and some reflection he said, “I would take that tiny fiddle hanging on the wall over there”. This surprised me, because we have a lot of flashier, obviously more expensive items around, but yet I understood, and might likely to have answered in the same way.

It is unclear if this 18” long, 4 string fiddle made from an old herring tin and carved wood was ever meant to be played, but my guess is it was playable when it was made.  When I study it, I imagine that it may have been created as a gift to a child to encourage musicianship, but it is equally possible that it was created as a “gag” instrument to be pulled out for surprise at a strategic moment in a performance.  Maybe the guy or gal just wanted to make something to put on the wall, or to give as a gift.  It’s fun to think about, but in the end you get back to the object. 

I remember finding it under a big pile of junk in Alan Chauvette’s  pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec back in the early eighties.  Alan was standing nearby writing down what we were buying and the prices.  I held it up and said “how much for this”  Alan glanced up and said “$45”.  “O.K. write it down”.  I don’t think he looked closely, or maybe he doesn’t share my aesthetic because I felt it was a steal.  But then again I have come to realize that things of great esthetic value do not always get recognized monetarily.

Some people, or I would imagine many people would think that even $45 is too much for a rusty old tin can fiddle, but they are different from me.  I love the thing.  I brought it home from Quebec.  I hung it on the wall, and to quote the late, great Charlton Heston, “ to get it, you will have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands. “ So what is it?  Obviously, the colour and untouched patina are superb, and the form and hand carved neck and machine heads are beautifully executed in a functional, yet slightly primitive sort of way.  The “F” holes are beautifully cut out, and the construction of tin, wire, and wood is wonderful.  All these elements hit  the pleasure buttons in my  brain, but I think it Is the fact of the herring tin body that puts me over the top.  I looked for a long while half consciously wondering how they got the herrings out of the tin which looks original and undisturbed save for the “F” holes, before I investigated and saw that there is a neat row of nails around the bottom attaching it back to the sides.  Great care was taken to create this.  A real labor of love. I love the way it is, but when I imagine it with it’s bridge intact, and the other three strings, I wonder what type of sound it would have made.  One would assume, tinny.

I found my “sunshine” tractor in a little shop north of London, Ontario a long time ago.  Again it was an item which went straight to my heart, and as I purchased it I knew it was something for me.  Something I would never want to give up.  I’ve bought and sold hundreds of hand-made toys, many more impressive in construction and scale, and yet it is this tractor which continues to sit in a glazed cupboard overlooking my work desk.   I love it’s construction and form and colour, but the element that takes it into my top drawer is the little “sunshine” sign.  I’m not an armchair psychiatrist per say, but it doesn’t take Freud to understand that my love probably has a direct route back to my mother singing me “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” while I lay sick in bed with the measles at the age of ten.  That song is such a bittersweet tour de force isn’t it?  I get emotional just thinking about it.

 

Lastly, we come to “Old 99” (see 99 painted on the door). To be honest I don’t love it nearly as much as I love the tin fiddle or “Sunshine”, but I do love the fact that someone with welding ability, probably a professional welder, took the time and effort to make his or her child an indestructible toy locomotive, with a space at the back to put an engineer.  Is that an old bullet used to make the smokestack?  I hope not.  The poor kid could blow up.

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.

 

Bob MacDonald and the fantasy cities

I can’t remember how we met Bob MacDonald.  It’s most likely that he found us.  Bob was a full time antique picker who would pull in unexpectedly from time to time in whatever old wreck of a car he happened to be driving.  I don’t think he ever paid over $100 for a car, and he spent all his time in them, so they didn’t last long.  Bob was the type of character that kept me interested in this antique business, come lifestyle.

Bob was charming, intelligent, well read, and knowledgeable in the arts, and literature; but he also liked the bottle, and survived on almost nothing, occasionally being reduced to living in his car.  When he came by, we would make sure he got some food in him, along with his beloved black coffee.

Bob spent all of his time following up leads, and beating the bushes for valuable artwork and rare books.  He was good at it and would occasionally score big time. Then eventually the money would be gone and he may have to suffer through a fallow period.  Those where the ropes. When he found something in folk art, like a Maud Lewis painting or the like he would come to see us.  Sometimes to convince us to put some money up front, so he could actually purchase the object he had found.  We trusted Bob, and he always delivered. 

I was working in the garden on a fine summer day in the late eighties when Bob came roaring up the driveway, a big smile on his face, and a car full of what appeared to be aquariums. On closer inspection I could see that they were hand-made display boxes with plexiglass on the top and front.   There was a half dozen on the back seat and two beside him on the passenger seat. He popped the trunk and there were another four large ones in there.  “You’ll never guess what I’m bring you today”.  He could hardly contain himself.  “ I was up in Goderich and stopped in to the Chinese restaurant there for some lunch.  I got talking to the owners and came around to telling them I was looking for art and books, and the young woman there said “Well, I don’t know if you will consider them art, but my father when he wasn’t busy cooking would get out a key-hole saw, and spend hours making these fantasy city landscapes.  Would you like to see them?”  Of course he was delighted to look.  There in the back storage room were dozens of these boxes of various size and configuration. Every one similar with many layers of carefully cut out and painted balsa wood walls, towers, balconies; and courtyards adorned with little plastic trees and flowers. Most of them had a boarder of mini Christmas lights around the front, and occasionally there would be a plastic figure of a ballerina, or chicken, or duck perched atop a column making it appear to be  a giant statue in the courtyard.  The overall effect was mesmerizing.  I know Bob would play it cool, but I bet his eyes were popping out.  She explained that for a time her father would display them in the front window and occasionally someone would buy one, but eventually he became discouraged.  The family had all kept their favorites, and so when Bob expressed interest, they sold the rest of them to him for a song.  Really just wanting to find them a good home and free up the storage space I suppose.  Bob drove directly to us.

What can I tell you.  Jeanine and I both really liked them and felt they were strong examples of original folk art from a vivid imagination. Perhaps one looking nostalgically back on a childhood spent in China, although a China of the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” variety.  We felt and would continue to argue that they contained magic .   We weren’t sure if anyone would feel the same and we now had a dozen of them.  It’s the question you ask yourself when you invest your hard earned money in something that most people would find clearly crazy.  If you see it, and can recognize it, I think you are under some obligation to act.  Otherwise, why are you a folk art dealer, and not working at the bank. Or something else that rewards you with a pension, benefits and a regular “Johnny Paycheck”. 

We took them to a few Ontario shows where they were pretty much ignored, or met with a polite curiosity, or in some cases they produced downright hostility.   What is it about some folk art which actually makes people angry? I think it’s a combination of seeing something you revile with a big price tag.  It makes one question the value of money, which can lead to questioning one’s values in general, which can lead to all sorts of problems.  In any case, it soon looked like we would be owning them for a long while to come.  We didn’t have a lot of money wrapped up in them as Bob had passed them on to us very reasonably so we were happy enough to set them all up in  the showroom and plug them all in.  Then turn out the lights and enjoy  the feeling of being transported.  An exciting Friday evening out on the ranch.

Fortunately, the next January we found ourselves doing a show in New York city, and within ten moments of opening a man came rushing up to us needing to know everything about them.  He listened to the story and we soon settled on a price for all of them with the understanding that if any more were to become available he had first dibs.  Also, we were to find out anything more that we could about the artist.  Bob died not too long after, and we didn’t get a chance to ask him to go back.  Our lifestyle was such that I couldn’t take the time to drive to Goderich to see what I could find out, but it’s something I still think about from time to time. The trails pretty cold at this point.

A Retrospective of the work of Ewald Rentz at the R.O.M. (almost)

rom1Most folk artists don’t see much recognition for their work during their lifetime.  To most it would never occur to them to expect it.  So it is particularly satisfying to note that two years before his death, the Thunder Bay Art Galley gave Ewald Rentz a major exhibition called “The “Completed” work of Ewald Rentz “.  This was not far from his village of Beardmore so many of his friends made it. His son Ernie told me that it meant a lot to him to have this recognition.  Rentz wasn’t at all interested in the commercial aspect of his art. He just wanted to please people. He was a modest man.rom4

Nova Scotia does a wonderful job of promoting it’s folk art and artists.   I think it is fair to say that this is largely due to the tireless work of Bernie Riordan during his long tenure as the director of the Art Gallery of Nova scotia, and to Chris Huntington who has sold and promoted Nova Scotia folk art since he arrived in Eagle Head in 1974. n 1988, Chris was instrumental in helping to establish the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival which is held in Lunenburg during late July or early August of each year.  There are many others of course, but these two really got the ball rolling.

My home province of Ontario on the other hand has done little to promote this type of artwork, and so it was of great interest to me when in 1988 I was contacted by our friend Susan Murray whom at the time was a powerful lobbyist (since retired) and dedicated folk art collector.  She had set up a meeting with a person she met from The Royal Ontario Museum who expressed an interest in Canadian folk art.  Susan was and is a dedicated promoter of Canadian Folk Art. The someone in question was Dr. Howard Collinson, head of the department of Art and Culture for the museum.  This is what can come of rubbing elbows with the right people at the right parties, and having a very persuasive nature. rom3

It was a very exciting potential that we considered on the way over to the meeting.  I took to Howard immediately.  He was friendly and personable, but direct. He got right to the point, that the basement galleries of the museum needed to be changed. For decades it housed a rather uninteresting, and frankly in some cases incorrect representation of furnished rooms of Canadian homes of various periods.  It needed to go, and in it’s place he wanted something vital and relevant.  What he had in mind was a show of some sort on Ontario Folk Art.  We looked at pictures of several Ontario artist’s work, thinking this initial exhibit might be a cross section of artists, but when we got to the work of Ewald Rentz, he said “That’s it.  I want it to be a solo exhibition of this man’s work”.   Well alright then. I could see his reasoning.  Rentz’s work is very friendly and approachable, just like the man himself.  Let’s keep it simple and direct.  We went down to see the basement space and then agreed to meet again in a month or so. The timeline for the show was for late the following year, and he had a lot on his plate to deal with before he could dedicate any time to the project.  It all felt very positive and I began to look forward to getting started.rom5

Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, the next thing I knew I was being contacted by a pleasant-sounding woman who informed me that the museum had a new director, and that Dr. Collinson was no longer with the gallery. She had taken over his position.  She stated that she was still interested in the project, but was currently unable to devote any time to it, having inherited many other more pressing issues.  My heart sank. I could sense from her description of the current situation at the museum, and from her tone that the chances of an Ewald Rentz exhibition at the R.O.M. was quickly becoming slight or most likely not at all. The one that got away.  I was right. She got back to me a few weeks later and said that the new director had imposed a completely different agenda for the department and that she could not see anything happening for the foreseeable future.  I was disappointed of course, but still held the desire to push for an exhibition of Canadian folk art somewhere, at some time.  I did realize this years later in 2005 with the Finding Folk Art exhibition at the Eva Brook Donley museum in Simcoe Ontario.  Admittedly it was not nearly as high profile, but it was a very good exhibition of which I am still proud.  But that’s a different story, for a different day.rom2

The paintings of Barbara Clark Fleming

bcf1Artist’s Statement:

“All of my paintings reflect upon my country life. Paintings of rural landscapes and different animals, all of which are a link to my past. I was born in 1939 on a 150 acre farm in East Zorra, Ontario, where my father farmed with horses. My mom and dad had no boys, so I became my dad’s helper. As a result of these memories my paintings frequently reflect scenes of haying, threshing, fetching cows, and scenes of country villages.

I never took lessons in painting. I just wanted to put my feelings on canvas. I don’t like painting straight lines, I prefer curves and waves. I do all my painting at home in the country, and I use many different colours. I started painting in 1977 as I realized I had no pictures of my dad’s farm. To keep memories of that farm alive my first picture was painted, and it was entered into the Oxford County Juried Exhibition and won an award of merit. It still have that painting. I did not take my painting seriously until 1989 when an accident prevented me from working full time. I hope that everyone who views my paintings receives as much pleasure as I receive painting them.”

Barbara Clark-Fleming

 

As mentioned in my previous blog about the Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival, it was here in 1994 that we first encountered the work of Barbara Clark Fleming.   Shortly after we contacted her and made our first trip to her home near Woodstock, Ontario.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at her neat little hobby farm was the pony in a paddock at the rear.  Barbara met us at the door and although obviously very shy was none the less welcoming and told us about her pet horse and her love for all animals.  We then went in to the house to discover a turtle crawling across the kitchen floor, a couple of cats lounging about, and a little white bunny who would hide behind the furniture and hop by occasionally.  We were introduced to her husband Stan, who was stretched out in a recliner chair in the living room.  A very nice man who was by this point very ill and requiring her full time care.  She took us into a little room beside which was her studio. Here she painted on a flat school desk over which hung a large combination lamp/ magnifying glass.  Barbara explained that she is very near sighted and required this set up for the details. She said that the painting was a great escape for her, as she was required to be at home, indoors most of the time. She essentially remembers happy scenes from her childhood and paints them spontaneously. Although she is not conscious of it, this method was and is the essence of what gives her work it’s spontaneous energy,  strength and beauty.. She paints because she loves to paint with no concern for conventional form or perspective. She is fearless and direct and simply works until she is happy with the painting. We love this about her work. We bought about twelve paintings that day and thus began a long relationship with Barbara and her art.bcf3

She looked after Stan at home until his death a couple of years later, after which she got out and traveled around the nearby countryside, observing and documenting those elements of rural life that she still related to her upbringing.  Thus she began to paint Mennonite farms, and old feed mills that reminded her of her youth.bcf4

We believe that the first rule of dealing with folk artists is “Do not influence”.  It is always tempting to “suggest” painting more paintings in a style which you find to be most commercial, but ultimately it is this type of influence which kills the natural wonder and instincts which nurtures an artist’s development. If an artist starts to paint to please you, it is not long before they grow bored and resentful.bcf5

In 1995 we took fourteen of Barbara’s paintings to the summer Muskoka Antique Show and sold all fourteen on the opening night.  I seriously considered driving home that night to fetch more, but it was eight hours round trip so didn’t.  Barbara’s paintings sold well at every show including Muskoka the following year, and continued to be very popular for about another five years before interest waned.  Interest and sales have gone up and down since, but nothing like when we first introduced them to the Canadian market at that time.  She continues to paint excellent paintings. bcf6

Canadian Contemporary Folk Art Festival -part 2

digby ferry

June 1994. Stephen Outhouse (middle with cap), Mark Robichaud (right), and David Stephens standing with the purser on the Digby ferry – on our way to Paris! We had this shark – a carving by Stephen – mounted to the top of the the truck cab.
I received this photo and note from Nova Scotia artist David Stephens shortly after last weeks post was published. Thanks David for permitting me to post it here. It’s a long drive from Nova Scotia for a one day show. This illustrates the dedication of all involved to this unique folk art event.
In looking over my support material, I came across some interesting definitions of folk art in the initial correspondence from promoter Michael Hennigan.  I include them here to add to the dialogue which we as collectors and enthusiasts continue to have on what constitutes folk art; and what of this art is worthy of study and preservation.
“The working definition of folk art for this show is: “the personal or naive expression of untutored creators”.  You will note that this definition deviates from those presented by folklorists and material culturalists which tend to emphasize context and tradition over aesthetics and individuality.  Rather it adheres to the connoisseurs or Art Historian’s definition with emphasis on form, line, and color.”
“I am trying to avoid ethnically based arts and crafts such as knife making, canoe building, basketry, newly made fish and duck decoys, or any mass produced craft lacking creative inspiration.  For the purposes of this show, Craft involves head and hand, while art involves head, and hand and heart.”
“I am also avoiding highly commercialized or slick assembly line work, or neo-folk art.  Which is defined as work made by self taught artists who get their ideas from seeing folk art elsewhere such as in books or museums. For purposes of the show such art is not folk art, but rather is about folk art.”
“Also, I am avoiding faux naif art, which is defined as art produced in a naif style by fine artists. Finally I am avoiding amateur or so called “Sunday” painting, as difficult as it may occasionally be to distinguish such art from folk art.  Folk Craft is also not allowed.  Folk craft is the folksy, cutesy pie, overly sentimentalized stuff seen at craft shows.”
With the inclusion of contemporary folk art at such distinguished shows as Cabin Fever, coming up February 6 and 7, 2016 in Kingston, Ontario, and the Bowmanville show which every year is on Good Friday, we have an opportunity to compare the work presented there to these definitions. I think that you will find that for the most part these shows rise to these standards.  I wish I could say the same for the field shows, but perhaps they will be inspired to improve as the knowledge of what constitutes folk art is understood by more and more people.   Here’s hoping.
I went through my photos and found a picture of one of the dinosaurs we brought to the show.  Imagine being greeted by two of these 9′ monsters.
dinosaur

9′ dinosaur by Roger Raymond

39th Annual Bowmanville show

the dealers circulating just before opening

This past Good Friday, April 6th, it was my pleasure to participate in the 39th annual Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art show;  the long standing pinnacle of Canadian antique shows for early, collector-quality furniture, accessories, and folk art.  It is held every Good Friday and following Saturday at the G.B. Rickard Recreation Complex in Bowmanville, Ontario. It is a vetted show of 28 invited top dealers and represents the best of what’s out there.

It is always interesting and worthwhile but  to be honest for a dealer it is also always a bit of a wind up.  You work on your booth for weeks, seeking out and saving only the best items to present to the elite of the Canadian collectors who wait eagerly for the six o’clock opening so that they can rush in and nab that special something before a rival gets a chance.  Within two hours of the opening this crowd has either bought enough of your offerings that you are happy, or they have passed you by, and you are aware that you will be there until 9 that evening, and then from ten until four on the Saturday with a greatly diminished chance of anything moving.  I have been doing the show for over 20 years and twas always thus,  but lately with the stalled economy it has become more of a risk.  This year because I sold 11 of 24 drawings from the scrap book of a turn of the century young Niagara Peninsula woman, and a few other items I was alright, but I repacked my big ticket items at the end of the show and I noticed that it was the same for most of my colleagues.  I looked back over my books and although always profitable, the last year I had a gang buster show was 2009.  Fits right in with the general economy doesn’t it, and although Bill Dobson is a terrific guy and promotes and runs the show well, it does not seem to attract many new collectors.  Some feel that having it at every year at Easter which often coincides with Pass Over is an obstacle.  I think that a more important factor is that in recent years many large collections are being offered for auction around the same time of year. This year on May 19th Tim Potter is offering the important collection of Rod and Aggie Brook, and when you go to his site (http://www.timpotter.com/auctions/051912.html) and see the quality of what’s being offered you can see why some people were waiting.

It’s a rapidly changing, big ol’ digital world out there, and we live in hope that through exposure and promotion more people will be brought to recognize the authentic and will begin to seek out the beauty of the handmade antique item. Bowmanville is an institution, and you would be hard pressed to find a better show to increase your knowledge and  see beautiful things. Please come out and support it next year, which will be the 40th year.

I am happy to note that this year eight Collectivator dealers participated. They are  Barry Ezrin, Croydon House, Land and Ross, Martin Osler, Pollikers, Portobello Road, Shadfly, and Shaun Markey.  I include pictures here.  Thanks to Ben Lennox for some of the photos, and my sincere apology to Marty Osler  whose booth photo did not turn out. I hope to get a shot from a friend and add it.   In the meantime, I  am including a nice shot of the back of Marty’s head which shows off his trendy new short cropped hair.  Looking good Marty.

Croyden House

Barry Ezrin

Portobello Road / Ben Lennox

Land and Ross

Shaun Markey

Polliker

Shadfly

The back of Marty Osler's head. Looking good.