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”.

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The Fifth Annual Outsider Art Fair – Discovering the work of James Castle

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

Coming back into the Puck building on the cold afternoon of January 23rd I started to feel that wonderful buzz that one feels before the opening of a big marketing event. A combination of excitement, and expectation, mixed with a touch of anxiety realizing that in a couple of hours the throngs would be pouring in, and we would be off and running, either making it, or breaking it.  The booth was set up and looked good, so I had a couple of hours to check out the show.  The first thing I did was cross the aisle to have a closer look at some work which I had been noticing which was deceptively simple in it’s construction but very compelling.  The entire booth of J Crist from Boise, Idaho was filled with the yet unknown work of James Castle (1900- 1977).

out2Jacqueline Crist who runs the gallery acts as agent for the artist’s estate and her gallery houses a considerable body of this particularly driven and prolific artist’s work. On this occasion she put “all of her eggs in one basket” and just brought works by Castle.  Getting up close to the work, I became more and more enamored.  Put together with spit, and soot and cardboard etc, the quantity and variety of his output is astonishing.  I came to find out that he devoted himself virtually full time to his art for nearly seven decades. His drawings, assemblages, and handmade books are compellingly mysterious, and contain a confounding sophistication.  Perhaps this quality is the essence of what attracts me to “outsider art”.  In the case of James Castle I was an immediate fan.  The tagged prices seemed fair.  Asking in the upper hundreds on up for the, in most cases, diminutive drawings and constructions.  Hmmm.   I began to think that I may score one of these beautiful little pieces to take home but of course I had to check out the rest of the show first, just in case there was another Bill Traylor drawing for low money.  Still feeling tough that I had missed out the year before.

a drawing by James Castle

a drawing by James Castle

I noticed the Traylor drawing I had missed out on was present and priced up by a few more thousand dollars. Way to go, Phil.  Then I noticed that Carl Hammer’s booth was this year graced by two large, magnificent scrolls by Henry Darger.  This was the year to promote Darger, as there was running simultaneously with the show, a Museum of American Folk Art exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings called “the Unreality of Being”.  I was interested to note but not surprised that the prices of his work had gone up considerably.

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

So I made my way from booth to booth growing more determined by the second that a small James Castle drawing was in my future.  I wasn’t going to miss out like last year by hesitating and calling home for a conference.  No, I was going to head right back and make my selection.  But what’s this?  As I approach I see a group of the top dogs including Carl hammer leaving the booth.  My heart began to sink a little, but I told myself to relax, it’s o.k.  So the selection process may be a little bit easier.  I hadn’t set my sites on any work in particular.  I slid up to Jacqueline whom I had become quite friendly with during set up and asked her “what’s up”.  “It’s the craziest thing.  Those big wigs just came over, and bought my entire booth. Lock, stock and barrel. I’m finished here before it opens.  I guess I could just pack up and go home, but I want to stay because I was so looking forward to being a part of the show.”  Nice problem to have.  Well there you go.

A James Castle construction

A James Castle construction

Are you beginning to sense a theme here when it comes to me buying, or should I say not buying at art shows?  Well in this case she had plenty more work at home so I could have theoretically ended up with something else, but I chose to just let it pass, get on with the show, and concentrate on just doing my best to sell, sell, sell, for my friend Joy.  The show went even better than the year before, and we were all very happy with the experience.  Well, except for the missing out on the James Castle thing, but there you go.

Since then a splendid book on Castle has come out in 2009, coinciding with the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “James Castle, a Retrospective”.  I highly recommend it.  I’ve got a copy.  I love looking through it.  It sits in place for the one that got away.

cover of the James Castle book

cover of the James Castle book