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.

anniversary

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.

puppet

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.

shopinterior2

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.

rentz article

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.

shopinterior

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?”

shopwindow

looking through the front window of the barbershop

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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.

wedding

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.

husband

Gary and Ewald Rentz in Ewald’s shop

Maple Sugar Time

251-detail2In the mid 1990’s we did what turned out to be a one time show in the Laurentians ski area north of Montreal.  During ski season in the club house of a popular ski hill.  The assumption was that the multitude of skiers would come off the slopes and couldn’t help themselves from wandering through the show and selecting a few prime antiques for their ski chalets.  Turns out this assumption was wrong, and we spent three days watching people ski, and then going directly to their cars and leaving.  We rented a chalet with friends and so when we were not busy doing nothing at the show we at least had some good food and laughs in commiseration.   It turned out to be a pretty expensive venture which didn’t really pay off, if it was not for the fact that in being there we came across one of the best and most important pieces of Quebec folk art we had ever encountered.

Upon loading in we were struck by an incredibly detailed diorama, about three feet wide by two feet deep and high, on the table of Quebec dealer/collector Serge Brouillard, whom we knew quite well from previous dealings.  What a wonderful thing to behold.  Looking into this tiny word of snow and maple forest with little finely carved people, instruments, buildings, horses,  and even tiny squirrels in the trees, you just loose yourself in the details.  A masterpiece which would have taken an amazing amount of time and patience to realize.  Completely over the top.  We had to have it.  It wasn’t cheap as Serge knows his stuff, but it was spectacular, and in the end, how often are you offered a chance to buy spectacular.   We made a deal and sold it directly to our best customer and most serious collector of folk art.  She loves it and continues to be it’s guardian. We visit it once and a while just to go back to that magic place.  Fortunately it came with full provenance which is kept with the piece.  It’s a fascinating story.  I recount it here in English.

251-detail“Maple Sugar Time”

This scene of Maple Sugar Time was realized by Adelard Bronsseau, from St Jacques de Montcalm, Quebec in 1930.  He was an exceptionally creative man, very active in many trades (contractor, jeweller, stone carver), when he was suddenly struck by an unknown sickness. The main effect of this sickness, apart from its painful condition, was to keep him from sleeping at night. In order to occupy himself while his family was sleeping, he started carving one by one the figures, the tools, the animals. Which were going to make up this wonderful rendition of a traditional rural scene.

The village priest, M. Piette, seeing how his parishioner’s health was declining, took the bull by the horns and declared a “novena” (period of communal praying, usually nine days) for the return of the man’s health.  Probably inspired by the words of Voltaire “Work protects man from boredom, sickness, and need”, the priest offered Adelard the following deal, “My dear Adelard, if you regain your health, you will have to give your Maple Sugar Scene to the parish”. Adelard Brousseau agreed, but it was only after many months of prayers and care that he got better.

As agreed the scene was completed and turned over to the parish, and it’s new priest Angelus Houle, who was a good friend of the artist, decided to exploit the commercial potential of such a gift, by displaying it for a fee at various fairs, and public exhibitions of the district.

Adelard Brousseau’s daughter, Madam Dion, remembers that when she was a little girl her father’s Maple Sugar Scene was a great attraction at the fairs, and people would line up to view it, in spite of the high entrance fee for the time: (10 cents for children, 25 cents for adults).

Madam Dion relates that sadly she did not have the means as a child to view “the masterpiece that her papa had created at night, in his dark little workshop”.  She had seen the miniature figures dressed in woolen cloths, the horses, the carts, the buildings, but never the whole scene in its actual presentation.

Many years later in June 1992, the Maple Sugar Scene is only a vague childhood memory for Madam Dion, when suddenly it is brought back into her life by a telephone call from a nun named Sister Therese who explains that she had bought the scene from Angelus Houle, a long time ago, on the understanding that she would eventually return it to the artist’s family.  The time had come to fulfill this promise, and she was ready to deliver the piece to Madam Dion. And so it is that Madam Dion recovers a wonderful part of her personal heritage, which she can now admire at her leisure.

Madam Dion kept her father’s masterpiece for three years.  When she decided to sell her house and move into an apartment, she also had to sell the Maple Sugar Scene, which was too large for her new space.251

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.

On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

Driving the Vatican to Montreal

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

When it comes to selling folk art, something you learn pretty quickly is that size matters.  In this case, small being better than large, because not many collectors have a large amount of space to dedicate to their interest, and so although they may be delighted to see a large piece, not many of them are going to take it home.  The exception being things like totem poles or other vertical forms that don’t take up too much floor space., or can go outdoors.  Even then it has to have a lot going for it, or you risk hauling the thing around from show to show like a giant albatross around your neck.  That being said, it’s good to have something  spectacular for a show like Bowmanville, where you focus on building a reputation as well as sales, and big and flashy gets them into your booth.  This is why on the rare occasion when I did find something large that made my heart skip, I found myself drifting from ”isn’t this an interesting thing. I’m so happy to have experienced it and now I have it to remember”, to “I wonder if I can Squeeze this thing into the truck and when I get home convince Jeanine it is a good idea.”  It’s a feeling recognized by elements of excitement and danger coming rapidly in equal amounts.

It was early spring and the hope brought on by new life and growth was thick in the air as I pulled in to Jean Deshaies or as he is known “Kojak’s”.   I was flying solo and with a full truck, so it was a last look in case of an interesting small or something worth putting aside for next time.  I could see that Kojak was excited when I walked in, and he jumped right up and hurried towards me, “ Phil, you’ve got to see what just came in. It’ll blow your mind”.  He brought me into his small front room where he kept his special things and there perched on a table in front of the window was a spectacular 7 foot long, 4’ tall, red and white, three tiered birdhouse in the form of a ship.  The name “Vatican” painted prominently on the bow.  Wow.  What a thing.  Double masted, with twin funnels spewing black smoke asthe French flag overlooked all from high above.  You could see that great care had gone into the creation.  Every piece was carved lovingly from wood or shaped from metal, and it was built to last.

The Vatican in Kojak's front room

The Vatican
in Kojak’s front room

It was made in the late 1940’s by two priests who taught and lived at the seminary near the town of Lobiniere, situated on the south shore of the St Lawrence river.   It took them over two years to make it, and then they mounted it outdoors under a sheltering roof where it served as the home for many birds over the next thirty years or so until the seminary closed.  By then the brothers had died, and it was bought by a local. Fortunately, he looked after it well, keeping it painted and maintained and under a roof as the brothers had, so when Kojak bought it, it was just a question of giving it a really good cleaning.  This was the state it arrived in hours before I pulled in.

It hit all my buttons, had great provenance, and was definitely top drawer folk art, but it was also a lot of money, and huge, not to mention massively heavy.  My mind kept telling me to “avoid” “just move away and nobody gets hurt” but when Jean told me he had already called a couple of Quebec city dealers, and they had not committed but would be coming to look at it, I started to panic.  Something about it spoke to me.   I’m not naturally inclined, but it felt almost Holy.   I wanted it, and I had to think fast. “Can I have a hold on it for 24 hours, and take a couple of pictures.  I’ve got a guy in mind.”  He hesitated.  “Well, I don’t want you shopping it around to everyone, but if you have somebody in mind I’ll give you until closing time tomorrow.”  Great.  That may be all I need.

As it happened this was a time when I was selling a lot of folk art to a new, high end interior décor and furniture shop setting up over two floors of a converted warehouse in an up-scale neighborhood in Montreal.  The owner, a Mr. Camelot, (how do you forget a name like Camelot), was very progressive and pushing hard to come up with the very best.  Today I would have phoned him and sent him the picture, but in the day, after he had expressed interest over the phone, there was nothing left to do but drive to Montreal and show him the pictures. The next morning at 8 am we met at the store and he quickly decided based on the two polaroids, and my description that he had to have it, and so it just became a matter of driving the two hours back to Kojak’s and fetching it.

I had to pile up the things I already had on my truck at Jean’s because the ship took up the entire box of the truck from front to back.  I roped it in place and started out for Montreal.   I can remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday, cruising at 120 klm down Hwy 40 headed for Montreal when suddenly the sky turned black and a torrential summer rainfall let loose.  Looking in the rear view mirrors it looked like the Vatican was sailing her way through heavy seas.  I was concerned but she was built to take it and there was nothing to do but sail on.   As Mr. Camelot’s workers unloaded it and brought it up in the lift, I was thinking that although I was happy the ship had found it’s new dock, the only unfortunate part was that I would have loved to make it the center piece of our Bowmanville booth that year.  Still, a bird in the hand.   fullsizerender4

Something about seeing that ship in those rear view mirrors left a big mark on me, and a little while later I was messing around and found myself painting in a decorative old mirror frame I found, a rendering of the Vatican floating on a cloud off into a starry night  . It’s still hanging there on the wall over my left shoulder, and every once in a while I notice it and I think about the two priests staying up late, and using all their leisure time to create such a wonderful home for the little birds.

Ironically, about twenty years later, I walked into set up for the Bownmanville show and there it was. A Quebec dealer had brought it on consignment.  The Vatican was looking for a new dock.  It did not sell.  As I watched them load it back onto the truck for the trip home I said to myself, “that could be me.”vat2

The Toronto Harbourfront Market in its Heyday

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Every Sunday morning from the early 80’s to the late 90’s, the alarm would go off at our house at 4 a.m. The truck would be packed and the load tied down the day before, the lunch would be made and ready in the fridge, and our cloths would be set out. We would hop out of bed, get dressed, grab a coffee and get underway. An hour and a half later we would be pulling in to the Toronto Harbourfront Market, ready for another day of buying and selling. Rain or shine, we would make the journey, full of hope that the furniture and small items that we were offering would meet the approval of someone there.
When we started in the early 80’s the market would be held on about an acre of parkland near the terminal building, with the 100 or so vendors being set up in parking lots and green spaces right alongside the water. In the winter we would go across the road and inside an old one story warehouse. These were the glory days. It’s hard to imagine now just how “hot” the market was. The boomers in general had done well enough that their Toronto houses were paid for and they were madly buying up all the charming little farms and cottages within about a three-hour drive of Toronto. These rural places demanded antiques of course, being sympathetic to the rural environment, and a refreshing contrast to the city digs.

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

So in these days there was a large number of motivated collectors and dealers arriving about 6 a.m. vying to pick the best of what was being offered as it arrived. It was a thrill to arrive in our open pick-up truck, and have people run along beside us, racing up to the window to ask the price of the pieces they could see tied to the load. Often they would just say “yes, I’ll take it” even before it was unloaded, because they knew the competition was right behind them. It would happen occasionally that by the time we arrived at our spot, most of the furniture which could be seen was sold. Sometimes we had completely sold out by noon, but would still have to stay until five as to not create a disruption. We had our regular dealers whom we got to know would buy certain items without hesitation if the price was reasonable. You had to pay close attention. Sometimes two or three dealers would be right there as a piece was coming off and you had to be very conscious of who asked about the piece first, and who was next in line. It was easy with two people selling, under this kind of pressure to even sell the same piece to two different people. Tempers would flare. It was not always easy to sort out, and have everyone be happy with the results. It didn’t happen often, but it was difficult to avoid altogether.
Then by the mid-nineties, the Harbourfront development had other plans for the summertime parkland, and the wintertime warehouse, and so they built a brand new market at 390 Queen’s Quay W. As so often is the case, these new quarters under new management meant higher rents and lower sales. It continued to deteriorate until it was not profitable for us by the late nineties, and it eventually closed in early 2003.
Our friend, and avid collector Rod Brook used to say that he wanted to produce a book which presented exclusively all the incredible pieces that had been bought by collectors at the Harbourfront market during those glory years. Sadly, he died before he could accomplish this, but I’ll bet if someone took up the cause it would be an amazing document. For a while there it felt like it would never end, but then like everything else in life, it did.

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loading the truck for another Harbourfront Sunday.