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

 

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Even more on Beardmore Folk Artist Ewald Rentz

yard2Last week I told the story of recently meeting up with Ewald Rentz’ niece Alyss, and I reproduced an article on the artist from the local paper from 1978.  This week I will finish by presenting some more of her observations, and additional photos taken by her of his home and barber shop in Beardmore. I am also going to reproduce an article written by the Thunder Bay Chronicle- Journal on the occasion of his retrospective show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in 1993.

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Emma and Ewald on their 60th wedding anniversary

There’s a few nice shots of Ewald’s back yard and shop interior, along with a great shot of Ewald and his wife Emma on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  When you look carefully at the shots of his barber shop you can see that it was fairly full of his carvings, and a little chaotic.  Alyss pointed out that although his sign indicated $5 for a haircut, $4 for children, it was also well known that if you didn’t have the money he would gladly cut your hair for free.  He had many takers, but he did not mind.

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Rentz performing at his opening

 

Also, at the drop of a hat, if you had time to spare he would also sing you a song or two accompanying himself on mandolin and dancing puppets.  He made these by attaching some of his carved dancers onto recycled bass drum pedals.  He even played for the crowd at the opening of his retrospective in 1993.  I would have loved to have been there for that.  As it happened his son Ernie did ask me if I wanted to go with him to the opening; and I would have loved to, and should have, but it conflicted with an antique show and sale I had committed to.  Also, at the time I was working on curating a show of Ewald’s work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and things were looking good, so I hoped to meet him then.   It turns out the show got postponed, and Ewald died two years later so it never came to pass. I never did meet the man.

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barbershop interior

There are many tales of Ewald’s generosity in the community.  He was always ready with a free haircut, or plate of food for anyone in need who came by, and he even carved wooden headstones for those who died up there without relatives or arrangements made for a funeral.  You can see how in much of his work he laboured to uplift people with humour and warmth. He was truly a sweet man.  Here’s the newspaper article from 1993.

Animator of the Inanimate – Everything 84 year old Ewald Rentz of Beardmore carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush.  Thursday, September 16, 1993

By Bob Hearn – The Chronicle-Journal

At age 64 Ewald Rentz is still a little bemused over being a celebrity in the local art community.

“It’s something new for me,” he said with genuine modesty, and a hint of amusement at having his completed wood carvings on display for public consumption at the Thunder Bay Art gallery.

That’s because the Beardmore bush-worker/prospector/barber/musician/outdoorsman has only been able to add “artist” to his list of titles in the past twenty years. And he never expected his funny wood figures to attract any attention beyond the walls of his Beardmore barbershop.

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1993 Chronicle-Journal article

Rentz made his first wood figure, a bird suspended from the ceiling by a spring which moved up and down and flapped its wings when it was pulled. He made it to soothe children who came into his barbershop for a haircut.

“I still have it in my shop too,” Rentz said. “But I never thought about being an artist before that. Never thought of it at all.  I was just too busy.” Although he’s had no formal training Rentz has managed to perfect his completed art works out of piles of wood in his back workshop. He’s since made tons of elaborate animal and human figures and has attracted the attention of not only paying customers to his shop, but art connoisseurs as well.

In 1983, some of his pieces appeared at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull Quebec. A collection of thirty of Rentz’ most recent pieces are on display now at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until October 31 in a collection entitled “The completed Work of Ewald Rentz”

It is his second showing in Thunder Bay.  His first professional showing was back here in 1981 at the Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre.

He’s been described as an animator of the inanimate. Everything he carves comes from something he has seen or found in the bush around his home, whether it is a tree branch, burl, or type of fungus.

“I see something. A figure in the trees or branches and I have to create it, make it come to life,” said Rentz. After carving the figure out, he touches it up with a coat of regular house paint, festooning it with hats, buttons, collars or other old discards he finds around the area. He prefers making animals, but sometimes makes satirical political figures or other people.

The tree form suggests what the figure will be, so if the branch is forked he will make it look like an animal standing on hind legs. Rentz says the outdoors supplies an endless supply of inspiration for his subjects.  Most of his life has been spent working in the bush and he’s even manifested some of his experiences in his art.

It’s the folksy nature, lack of pretense, and perpetual good humour which has made Rentz’s work popular. Tourists from England and Germany have bought his work, and her regularly gets phone calls from all across Canada from people asking him to save a certain figure for them for when they pass through Beardmore.

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barbershop interior

Rentz is pleased but nonplussed by the fuss.  He says living in Beardmore keeps everything in perspective.  “In this town people just say “ah that old guy with the carvings,” he chuckled. “He’s probably a bit off”

Rentz was born in North Dakota and moved to Woodbridge, Manitoba.  He dropped out of school in grade 4 to cut wood and work on the farm. He also attended barber school in Winnipeg before moving his wife and two kids to Beardmore in 1939, to work as a bush-cutter. At 65 he retired but he has kept busy ever since. His artwork takes up only as much time as he wants it to.

“Life is very short and you’ve got to try everything,” he said. “Pretty well everything I’ve touched in my life has worked.  You’ve got to keep active and enjoy things.”

And if his show proves to open the door for future success and fame, Rentz still won’t be tempted to leave Beardmore.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.  “It’s God’s country.  We’ve got fish and moose and beautiful clear water.  What else do you need in life?”

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looking through the front window of the barbershop