Billy Orr meets Phyllis Kind

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Billy in front of his cabin

Learning of the death of New York art dealer Phyllis Kind a couple of weeks ago got me to thinking about Billy Orr.  I mentioned the exchange in a 2016 blog I wrote on Billy.  Reproduced here:

“When I did the Outsider Art fair in New York City, I brought pictures of Bill’s place, along with many other examples of Canadian folk art, and showed them to the renowned art dealer, Phyllis Kind. She passed over much of what I showed her, but paused and really had a hard look at Billie’s work. She said “This is interesting.  I’d like to know more about this artist.”  When I got home I sent her photos, a bio, etc, and after a couple of weeks she phoned me to  say that she would be interested if Bill would sell all of the work and she could show it as a reconstruction of Bill’s installation. Naturally she was concerned about the cost of moving all that concrete to New York.   I got in touch with Bill but he wasn’t at all interested. I could tell that for him it would be like selling his family.  Still, Phyllis is no slouch when it comes to art, and her interest reaffirmed my belief that Bill Orr was an exceptional individual and artist; and he was a lovely man to boot.”

bil2In retrospect, “no slouch when it comes to art” sounds a bit flippant, when I was meaning to suggest that “no slouch” is an understatement.  I had and have great respect and admiration for her taste and instincts, and her contributions to the world of folk art.  She was also very nice to me when I was a stranger in the midst of the dealers at the Outsider Art Fair in 1996.

I remember seeing Phyllis Kind standing in a group of five or six other heavy- hitting art dealers in front of a Henry Darger painting in the booth of Carl Hammer.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that something heavy was going down.  She was quite small and slight; in her sixties, wearing blue jeans and a punk rock, sleeveless black t-shirt, and holding her own in whatever they were talking about. I was struck that she had very thin and wrinkly arms, and I respected that she was strong enough and had the self- respect to put them out there. She was the epitome of cool.  She had grace and presence.

Later that day, which was set up day, I was able to finish my work and have time to look at some of the other booths.  I had brought a few dozen photos of work by Canadian folk artists in case there was some interest with the U.S. dealers.  Mostly, there was not.  Some of them were downright rude.   But when I showed them to Phyllis Kind, after talking for an hour or so on various topics, she looked and passed on them all, but stopped when she came to Billy Orr. “Now this is interesting.”

She reacted immediately to the work, but became more interested when she heard Billie’s story and circumstances.  The opening was drawing near so there was no more time to talk but she asked if I could come by her gallery the next day after the show.   How great, I thought.  Of course I will.

I haven’t had that many, but I have great fondness for those moments in my life where I say to myself, “how cool is this” “Here I am going into Phyllis Kind’s Soho gallery in New York city to show her pictures of Billy Orr’s zodiac sculptures.”  I wish Billy were here.

Can you imagine?  I flashed on Billy in his kitchen telling the mother raccoon who had walked through the front door that “she would have to wait for dinner as he had company”, and I imagined Billy standing next to me in the gallery talking to Kind, and I just tried to make note of everything around me, and everything that was said, and going on.  Now twenty-two years on I remember some of it.

bil5.jpgPhyllis was interested in the fact that Billy had created his own “wooden” version of Stonehenge in his back forty, and that he occupied it with many Irish leprechauns, and zodiac figures he had created in cement.  She imagined having all the work in her gallery, in a type of recreation of Billie’s world.  We excitedly talked on about it a bit more, and we agreed that I would look into it when I got home in terms of interest on Billie’s part, and the logistics of getting all that cement to New York.

I could tell that her interest was sincere, but I could also see a lot of reasons why it would probably just remain a lovely thought.  Billy, predictably wasn’t the least bit interested, and of course the cost of getting all those heavy and fragile pieces to New York was prohibitive.  The end.

Still. It is something to behold. Something that will live on in my head.  Billy Orr shuffling up and muttering “hello” to Phyllis Kind at the opening of his solo exhibition in New York.bil6

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The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers

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cover of the 1991 McMichael Canadian Art Collection catalog by John Hartman

As explained by the McMichael Gallery’s Chief Curator, Jean Blodgett in the forward to the catalogue accompanying the 1991 solo exhibition of the works of Gilbert Desrochers, entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom of Gilbert Desrochers” plans for a folk art exhibition had been underway for several years.  He states “folk art seemed eminently suitable for display at the gallery, and an appropriate subject for an institution dedicated to Canadian art.”  He explains that they asked artist John Hartman to guest curate based on his interest and knowledge of folk art.  At first it was planned to be a group exhibit, which was then narrowed down to a few artists, and finally it was decided to focus on the work of one artist, Gilbert Desrocher, whom Hartman had come to know when he was attracted by a sculpture displayed on a fence post he spotted while driving down a back road in Tiny Township on the southern end of Georgian Bay in Ontario. He stopped, and made his acquaintance, and quickly this developed into a strong friendship.  In September of 1990 John took Mr. Blodgett to Gilbert’s house to discuss the dates and arrangements for the exhibit to be held the following year.  It was devastating then when they learned a week later that Mr. Desrochers had died suddenly.

artistGilbert Desrochers was born on May 2, 1926, in Tiny Township.  The fifth child in a family of six boys and one girl. His father Thomas owned a farm on the eighteenth concession, overlooking the bluffs of Thunder Bay Beach. He only attended school for two years when his mother died, and he went to work with his father and brothers on the family farm. “I wasn’t much good in school” he recalled. “I didn’t learn much. I went to school only to smoke. And I slept.  I was always so tired that I fell asleep. I had no notion about school. I had only work in my head. I figured that work was easier than school.”  Our father couldn’t read or write either and said “it’s just as well that you are like me. Come work with me in the woods.” “My father had two hundred sheep, and we took care of them. Also nine cows, three horses, chickens and pigs. In the winter we would cut wood all the time. We didn’t have a power saw so me and Joseph would cut wood all winter. It was a lot of work with cross-cut saws and Swede saws.

In 1941 at fifteen, he and his twelve year old brother Gabe took the money form three cords of wood that they had sold and began walking to the home of their sister Aurore who lived in Toronto. They caught a ride with a group of soldiers and got dropped off near their destination.  Gabe stayed to attend school but Gilbert returned home to cut wood with his father which is what he continued to do until he was twenty five.  Not satisfied with his life he began to wander, returning home only when his money ran out. He would leave and return unannounced, and often no one in the family knew his whereabouts.horse

In 1952 Gilbert was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Kingston for stealing a barge. There he worked for a while in the carpentry shop, until he overheard other prisoners saying that they would “get him”. He refused to return to the shop and eventually became uncontrollable and was put into solitary confinement. He had a nervous breakdown and, according to his brother Gabe he was given shock therapy.  His stay in Kingston was two years.   While there that he had his first religious experience, when God appeared to him on the walls.

The day his parole was up he headed north to work in the lumber camps near Kapuskasing.  In 1953 Gilbert’s father died and he became close to his brother Gabe. For the next twenty years he continued to work seasonally in the tobacco fields of southern Ontario, and the bush camps in the North. Occasionally returning to live with Gabe and his wife Lucienne, and to work with Gabe as a roofer.  lizard

In 1975 he was working in Toronto and while looking in the garbage in an alley something struck him from behind. When he turned around no one was there. He concluded it must have been God. After his religious experience in Toronto, Gilbert moved to his brother’s farm near Perkinsfield, where he lived in a small trailer and attended church regularly.

It was here that Gilbert started to carve. He continued to have visions and said that he began making sculpture because God came to him in a dream and told him that he had to make something, then gave him visions of things to make. The dream recurred, and after the third time Gilbert started making carvings.

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Gilbert at home

During the period that he was active, Gilbert created hand carved depictions of the people, animals and events from Christian bible stories. He would often harden the high gloss paint, used to colour and give the necessary details to his sculptures, by heating his workshop, located in the same trailer that he slept, to 120 degrees F. All of his work was created for installation in and around his living space, or on his tractor.

“I promised myself that never would they catch me again to lock me up. That’s why now I’m always alone” he confessed. I’m always watching myself, just in case someone blames me and returns me to jail.  That’s what I think about steady. Never, never do I forget that. I’ll never forget. When I die, why then I figure I’ll be saved. I watch myself because they’ve tried to blame me for all sorts of things and I’ve saved myself every time. That’s why I’m prudent and I’m always in my hymns and I stay close to the good Lord.  It’s a boring life, but I have to live it anyway. That’s why I started to carve all sorts of things, to pass the time and to stay at home.  It’s a sad life but I manage to survive it.”angels

 

More on Beardmore folk artist, Ewald Rentz

moose2I love it when good things fall out of the blue, right into your lap.  It had been a long time since the cosmos had flipped me a lucky card, and I remember thinking about a month ago that perhaps things were quiet because I had been out of the circle for so long (my last show being Bowmanville in 2014) that collectors had basically forgotten about me. It seemed a reasonable assumption, even after 30 years in the business, because it can be a case of what have you done for me lately.  But then two things happened. First,  I had a call from a Montreal folk art collector I have known for years, but had not heard from for at least ten.   He explained that his wife had died recently and it had come time to downsize and disperse the collection.  He has some great things so I am looking forward to starting this process.  Then the following day I got a call from a lovely woman from Thunder Bay named Alyss Rentz.  She was married to Gary Rentz who was Ewald Rentz’ nephew.  I am a huge Rentz fan, and it had been a long time since anyone from the family had contacted me. Alyss explained that her husband had died and she too was downsizing; and she has five pieces by Ewald that she would like to sell.   As it happened she was coming to Hamilton the following week to visit relatives and she could bring the pieces with her.  She described the pieces and after seeing hundreds of Rentz’s over the years I knew from her description that I was interested.  She told me she would call when she arrived in Hamilton.  Great! I was immediately looking forward to it.

alyss

Alyss and the work in Hamilton

Good to her word, Alyss called me a few days later and we set up a time the following day for me to come and see her, and the work.  We had discussed the price and arrived at a figure that worked for both of us.  Sight unseen, but of course I had the option of opting out if they were not up to expectation. She had described them fairly well, and they were even better that I had expected.  There are three paintings, and two carvings.  I’m a sucker for the paintings. I call them paintings because they are essentially two dimensional, except even here Rentz cuts out and paints all the components and sticks them on the background so they do have some dimension.   There is a hunting camp along a stream with wildlife, a humorous scene of a hunter up a tree with his rifle on the ground.  A bear to his right, and a bull moose to his left.  Two bear cubs higher up the tree.  And finally a serene composition to two bull moose on the tundra.  For its serenity, balance, and subject matter this one has somehow become my favourite.

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Alyss and Gary wedding gift, 1992

One of the carvings is an old man leaning on a cane. The final and most charming piece is a wedding scene complete with the groom hanging a ring below his hand.  The bride has a plastic orange onion net covering her head as a bridal veil, and there is a tiny flower girl offering them an enormous bridal bouquet.  Wonder and innocence. Rentz had it in spades.  Of interest,  is that this was a wedding gift from Ewald to Alyss and her husband Gary on the occasion of their wedding in 1992.  Gary’s father was Rudolf, one of Ewalds five brothers.  The others were Julius, Gustave, August, and Herman.  We had a nice chat and Alyss brought me along several photos and clippings that they had collected.  She said that they would visit Ewald quite often as they passed by Beardmore on the way to see their daughter.  She remembers him as a warm, and uplifting individual.  I always hear this about Rentz so it must be true.

One clipping is from the Thunder Bay Times-News from December 1978 and has some interesting insights so I reproduce it here.

articleGnarled Branches, Knots, made into Objects of Art, by Gerry Poling

Beardmore: (Staff)

Some people just can’t see the figures for the trees (to paraphrase an old saying) but not so in the case of Ewald Rentz of this community. The 70 year old barber/ prospector who was born in Wales, near Minot, North Dakota, left the United States at age two to move to the community of Emmerson, near Winnipeg. His interest in odd shaped tree limbs and branches came with his move to the Beardmore area, where he engaged in operating a bush camp for Domtar, and practicing his hobby of prospecting.

Rentz also had some training in barbering and over the years came to turn it into a profitable sideline, whenever he was not out in the bush looking for precious minerals.

During his prospecting days, he began finding odd shaped limbs and knots of trees, and being somewhat of an artist; he saw things in them which people would normally overlook.

Thus he began collecting the odd piece of wood, and after adding a few touches with the paint brush, converted them into unique carvings. “I don’t think you could really call them carvings, because I don’t carve them as an ordinary sculptor would” he said.head

SEES BEYOND

“Take this for example,” he said holding a spiney piece of spruce wood, which until he turned it up for a better look at the bottom section, appeared to be just the limb of a tree. “I just painted a couple of eyes on the bottom piece and laid it on its side and there was a porcupine.”

Over the years Ewald has collected more than 100m pieces which have been turned into a variety of figurines, ranging from rabbits through to Santa Claus, and moose.

One of his pride and joys is a limb which when turned one way, represents the figure of a young man with a cane, and when reversed becomes an elderly man with the same cane.

For forty years Ewald has practiced his barbering trade and now semi-retired, he continues to operate a small shop adjacent to his home on the main street of Beardmore where he cuts hair and pieces together his object-de-art.

Married, Ewald and his wife Emma have a daughter, Ann Fraser, who resides in Ottawa, and a son Ernie in London, Ontario.

Ewald loves his life in Beardmore for, while it is a rather quiet life, he enjoys the people he meets and works with each day, and also enjoys getting out into the bush to look for minerals.

So far his stakes have not paid off, but one claim is in the throes of being investigated as a possible gold source. However, even if his claim fails to bring forth any great find, it has provided him with the type of lifelong activities which have kept him young of spirit and in good physical shape.

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Gary and Ewald Rentz in Ewald’s shop

1977 article on Canadian Folk Art

The following article was originally printed in “Antiques and Art” magazine, July / August 1977 issue. It was written by Nora Sterling and Jackie Kalman. This article serves as a useful introduction to folk art, and it is also interesting to note how much folk art has grown in recognition and popularity over the past thirty years.


CANADIAN FOLK ART
By NORA STERLING and JACKIE KALMAN

When the Bowmanville Antiques and Folk Art Show opened its doors this year, waiting with the throng to enter were two people very significant by their presence. They were buyers from the Museum of Man and the National Gallery in Ottawa. The academically oriented National Gallery soon will be opening its folk art room and, in anticipation, has been collecting for the past few years.

By buying and displaying folk art, these prestigious institutions announce to Canadians what other more culturally secure countries have acknowledged for at least 50 years: folk art has finally come of age.

In the United States, as early as the 1920s, families like the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Whitneys had major collections of folk art, much of which now reside in three New York museums: the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.

In Canada, folk art is just being recognised as a viable and valid art form with qualities of freshness, inventiveness and vigour that make it exciting. What gives folk art its originality and charm is that, fortunately, the gifted artists who produced it are free from the dogmas and restrictions which the academic world imposes.

Folk art is not merely a quaint reminder of a nation’s manners and mores, a thing of the past with only functional or merely decorative purposes. It may indeed have all of these attributes, but like all good art, its expressions are powerful and compelling with an originality of concept, creativity of design, craftsmanly use of the medium and flashes of inspiration that are not surpassed by many academic artists.

Keeping in mind the similarities between academic and folk artists, the distinctive difference is that the latter is unschooled, while not necessarily unskilled. For example, a folk artist may have been whittling from his youth, creating bits and pieces for his own pleasure in his spare time. As an adult he may have become a white collar worker or perhaps a farmer, while still retaining his interest and further developing his skill.

Donald Hays is such a folk artist. Carving since he was five years old, he is .now in his early 40s and an engineer by profession. He carves bird decoys which he paints with the incredible expertise and attention to detail of an Audubon. With the true artist’s eye, he chooses those idiosyncratic stances and important characteristics that are peculiar to the bird he is carving.

On the other hand, Collins Eisenhauer, a folk artist who, like Grandma Moses, has “made it,” did not start intensive wood carving until 1964, when he was 66 years old. When asked what he did for a living in the ’30s, Eisenhauer replied, ” I wouldn’t like to tell you! ” He does admit, however, to being a farm hand, a logger and a sailor. His work has been bought by the Museum of Man, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Though carved from big hunks of wood, his figures still have a two dimensional look about them. They have the static and stiff quality which is characteristic of naive art – as if the artist does not want to risk a trial of skill to depict movement.

Charles Tanner, an ex-fisherman from Nova Scotia, approaches the task of carving with even a lesser degree of academic knowledge of the craft of sculpture than Eisenhauer. He solves his technical problems simply, by a complete disregard of detail and a disrespect for proportion which, in effect, enhance his work. One is struck by his bold personal style – exuberant, colourful and direct. His sculptures are now on tour with an exhibit of Canadian art assembled by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Generally studied in a category unto themselves, decoys have a significant place in the spectrum of folk art. Following the Indian custom of making lures to attract water fowl, the white man began carving and painting decoys.

These decoys were utilitarian. They were meant, through their likenesses, to attract birds to be shot. The early makers sold their decoys for 20 cents to 50 cents a piece. However, when market gunning was prohibited in 1918, decoy makers and factories went out of business, so the sportsman, by default, became his own decoy maker.

At this juncture, decoys became folk sculpture. The link with the folk genre lies in the carver’s craftsmanship and especially in his personal interpretation of the salient characteristics of his quarry.

Sculpture is only one way in which the power and beauty of folk art is expressed. Rugs, quilts, paintings, furniture and accessories are among the wide variety of objects produced by folk artists.

Much has been written on folk art, albeit not Canadian. Many art historians, curators and artists have concluded that the expressions of folk art are world-wide and that they state universal truths – realities which will always be voiced by untrained people with a creative urge.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Barber, Joel. Wild Fowl Decoys. New York: Windward House, 1934. Reprinted New York: Dover Public- ations, 1954.

Bishop, Robert. American Folk Sculpture. New- York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1974.

Folk Sculpture U.S.A. Edited.by Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. The Brooklyn Museum and the Los kngeles County Museum of Art. Catalogue- for 1976 show.

Folk Art of Nova Scotia. Art gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Catalogue for show, November 1976 through May 1978. Biographies of artists and illustrations of their works.

Gladstone, M.J. A Carrot for a Nose:, the Form of Folk Sculpture on America’s City Streets and Country Roads. New York: Charles Scribner’s Song, 1974.

Hooked Rugs in the Folk Art Tradition. Museum of American Folk Art, New York. Catalogue for 1974 show.

Lipman, Jean and Winchester, Alice.The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776-1876. New York: The Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974.

People’s Art: Naive Art in Canada. J. Russell Harper. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Catalogue for, show, 1973-1974.

The April Antiques and Folk Art Show. Mel Shakespeare. Catalogue for the 1975 Bowmanville, Ontario, show.

Falling down the rabbit hole of Christmas memories

It’s  5:15 pm and it is dark outside my window. Above is a picture of how it looked at 3:00 pm.  Living on the north shore of lake Erie, we live in what Ontarians call the banana  belt,  and we are spared from much snow fall.  The prevailing winds blow from the north and typically dump snow on the American side, which we love to watch on t.v.   But we’re not laughing today.  It is rare when the snow comes in from the south west but when it does we get buried.  Today is such a day.  It started at about nine this morning and it hasn’t stopped since.  We took an early run for the supplies we would need and hunkered down.  I do look forward to a nice snow storm from time to time as long as we are home and the hydro is on.

About 11:00 am I set about working on my blog.  I had decided my subject would be folk art at Christmas time, and folk art created for Christmas.  I wanted to write about the effect that Christmas ideology has on folk artists, and inversely how folk art has effected Christmas ideology.   Folky, Grandma Moses like images of wintery villages, people skating,  and horse drawn sleighs still adorn many Christmas cards and Holiday biscuit tins.  But then again who sends Christmas cards anymore.  I think the polar bears drinking Coke actually figure larger in folk ideology, but in any case.  Within this context I wanted to show how some of my favourite Canadian folk artists interpreted Santa Claus, etc.   That’s where the trouble began.

Three Kaz Kizik Santas

I have documented several pieces of  Christmas folk art which we have owned and sold over the years,  and so I had to do was to go through my photos,  find some examples, and scan them.  Easy squeezy.  You would think, but no, not really because although I have managed to keep our photos reasonably organized: and when I say reasonably I mean that some are in books by subject and labeled, while others are in more randomly arranges in books.  But actually most  remain in photo envelopes awaiting  further sorting, and the labels are very general.  Us in France, Exterior church shots, Us with Friends, Christmas 1997, etc.  So at least I was able to skip several envelopes when looking for Christmas Santa Claus carvings.

Barbara Clark-Fleming
winter scene

But here’s where the soft, hypnotic snow fall outside the window comes in.  The feeling of being shut in for the duration. The sudden urge to do a 1000 piece puzzle, or as the case was today, to fall into hours of looking at old images of Christmas past, and places visited, and happy occasions remembered, and loved ones who have passed on.  I call it falling down the rabbit home.  It happens to me from time to time when I look at photos, or more often when I research something on the internet.  For instance, the other day I was reminded of the Talking Heads song “Same as it ever was”, and so downloaded the original video on You Tube.  I had never seen it and it excited me, so I watched the next video which was an interesting interview with David Byrne, and then came an amazing one hour video of the band performing live in Rome in 1980.  When I resurfaced three videos later, I came away with a deeper understanding of the talent and contribution of these fine musical artists, but the morning was shot.

night hockey game in Ottawa, circa 1945,
by Elmo Phillips

So that’s what happened. I found several of the photos I wanted to use right away, but a photo of a big Santa and Rudolph made by Ewald Rentz which we used to display by the back door of the church eluded me.  Strange, I thought it would be the easiest to find, but no.  At first I flipped quickly and efficiently through many books before the power of some of the images caused me to slow down and think.  Think about what I can remember of the moment. To observe how different we all looked.  To think about our relationships then. Before you know it, you are adrift. Down the rabbit hole.

Nostalgia is a bitter sweet mix which I rarely indulge in, but today I really let myself go.  I took a deep drink, and now I’m so filled with personal memories that for now I’ve lost the urge to talk about folk art. Another time.  I just want to go down to see what Jeanine is up to.  Knitting probably.  And finally, I want to wish everyone a very happy holidays and solstice; however you chose to celebrate, or not celebrate as the case may be.  Enjoy, and create some new memories to look back on some day. The snow continues to fall.  Tomorrow I’ll get out the shovel.

Santa and Rudolph
by Ewald Rentz

A missed opportunity- My chance to meet Robert McCairns

I have found that sometimes, something, or someone can seem so available that you become casual and nonchalant about taking the time to go to them, and before you know it they are gone.  Thus was the case for me with Robert McCairns.  A few years after moving to Norfolk County in the early 80’s I had become aware that this noted folk artist was living nearby at Turkey Point.  I had seen a few of his bird carvings and liked the work, but at that time my life comprised primarily of trips to and fro Quebec to buy antiques and folk art, and then participating in antique shows to sell the stuff.  Also, aesthetically, I was pretty focused on the Quebec style of folk art and I was finding lots of it, and so although I found McCairn’s work interesting, it didn’t make my heart beat faster, if you know what I mean.  In short, time passed and the next thing I know I hear he’s pasted on. 

Then a few years later, we bought the Barbara Brown collection, and in it there were many, perhaps 60 or so of McCairn’s pieces.  Not only birds, and decoys for which he was mostly known, but also a few animals, and one sort of flat faced human head.  When you buy something you really look at it, and so I studied the pieces and came to appreciate his straight forward style;  slightly crude but with character, balanced, and with interesting paint.  He made carvings of the creatures around him. The birds and animals he was familiar with.

Robert McCairns at his workshop

Robert McCairns was born in Scotland October 9th, 1905. He came to Canada at the age of 18 and after travelling around the West Coast, he eventually found his way to Ontario, where he married and raised a family of two sons and a daughter at Turkey Point, on the North Shore of Lake Erie.

For more than forty years he earned his living at fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as managing tracts of the marsh.  He also carved decoys and worked as a guide during the hunting season.

After a severe illness in the mid 1970’s he retired from several of his enterprises and began to carve some of the birds he saw around the Long Point marsh; ducks, herons, shorebirds, and song birds.  Also fish, rabbits and turtles.  Eventually he added a few domestic animals such as cats, dogs and pigs.  People started to come to his place on the marsh and buy, and word got around, and by 1977 he had his first exhibition at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe Ontario. This was followed by shows  in Toronto  at the Merton Gallery, Claude Arsenault’s “Home Again”  folk art gallery, and the Harbourfront Community Gallery.  Some of his pieces were included in a travelling show sponsored by the Ontario Craft Council. In 1989, shortly before his death,  his work was the subject of a one man show at the Durham Art Gallery. This last show included a catalogue.

Robert McCairn’s produced what I consider to be good, honest folk art.  His birds are not literal  renditions of the various species, but rather they are his free interpretations of what he saw.  As much as a like many of these carvings,  it is his rendition of the human head which puts me over the top, admiration-wise.  It may have well been a “one off” for him, but to my mind as a piece of folk art, he knocked it out of the park with that one.  I felt my opinion was confirmed when I sold it at the Outsider Art Fair in New York to a well-known folk art dealer.  When I handed him a bio, he said “I don’t care who he is or where he’s from. I just love that he made this piece”.

The Captain who loved to draw – Captain Alexander McNeilledge

Born at Greenock in Scotland in 1791, the young Alex was introduced at an early age to life on the high sea. When only eight years old he accompanied his father, a sea captain, on an ocean voyage to Newfoundland. In subsequent years he worked his way up from cabin boy to log keeper and eventually captain by the time he was thirty. As a sea captain he travelled around the world. His exploits are the stuff of seafaring legend: he was shipwrecked on Long Island in 1807, saw the Duke of Wellington in Lisbon, and even caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte, the deposed emperor of France, in exile on the island of St. Helena in 1817. The captain covered huge swaths of the globe, sailing to ports as far afield as China and running a naval blockade off Buenos Aires. And, for good measure, he endured robbery and plunder at the hands of pirates on the storied Spanish Main.

At the prodding of his brother Collin, McNeilledge came to Port Dover with his wife Mary Ann in 1832 to work as a bookkeeper at his mill, and he purchased a farm a few years later. But the mundane life of clerking and farming was nothing compared to his high seas adventures. You can you imagine how exciting farming was to him after that life? So he basically left the farming to his wife and headed down to the docks to captain the boats. McNeilledge became a fixture at the docks and was involved in many operations around port.

In the 1840s he began to produce a series of charts and maps for navigating Lake Erie. The document was widely used until the early 2oth century. In Lake Erie – a pictorial history by Julie MacFie Sobol and Ken Sobel, they quote the captain from the preface of his 1848 “Chart and Sailing Instructions for the North Shore of Lake Erie” , ”All the Lake Ontario Captains on both sides and the Lake Erie captains on the American side are afraid of the North Shore.”  His journal filled a need, for without the captain’s well observed navigational instructions and maps, many more vessels would have joined the underwater fleet”.

In his later years he began to make drawings of ships which he presented as tokens of friendship to captains of visiting vessels , as well as relatives and neighbours.  The drawings were often personalized by naming the ship after the wife, the master after the husband, and smaller vessels after the children. Most were accompanied by captions depicting fanciful and fictitious voyages, and many were inscribed with humorous autobiographical comments such as : Captain Alex. McNeilledge -76 years- Use no specks – Chew no tobacco – Take only a wee drop as required”

He maintained a diary over the last 37 years of his life, recording not only routine daily events but also many personal feelings of frustration, loneliness and non-acceptance. The captain was found by his wife on August 21, 1874, having taken his life in the ravine behind the house the previous day.

McNeilledge Confederation Box

But rather than his sad ending, I prefer to think of all the joy he has given people over the years with his charming drawings, water-colours, and of course the exquisite 1867 Confederation box. It is fitting that in that year, McNeilledge fired off his cannon to mark the start of the Canada Day Parade in Port Dover. The first in Canada, and a tradition that continues to this day.