Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Nova Scotia or bust

One summer, back in the late nineties we decided to take a quick trip eastward combining some antique picking and vacation activities as a fun time together with our daughter Cassandra before she left high school to go to university.  The objective was to have no specific plan, and wander eastward as we saw fit buying along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaching Nova Scotia.  Even if we didn’t have the time on this trip to explore further once we got there. We put about $4,000 in an envelope for purchases, packed out bags and food hamper into a full size cargo van we borrowed from our son Brodie, leaving him our pick-up to use while we were gone.  We were not looking for furniture on this trip, and felt it safer to leave our small sized purchases locked up inside a van at night.  We got a good, early start and made it to our regular stomping grounds around Victoriaville in time to do a quick circuit of the picker’s barns there before settling in for the night at our regular spot, the Motel Marie -Dan in St. Eulalie.  We didn’t buy much, wanting to save our money for buying in the previously untraveled regions to the east.

Day two, after a hearty breakfast we shot down #20 expressway past Quebec city until the village of St. Jean Port Jolie.  This pleasant little village on the banks of the St. Lawrence river is the home of the Bourgault brothers, who founded the “École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli” in 1940 with the support of the Quebec government.  The carvings became very popular with tourists and locals alike, and still today the village is chock a block with wood carvers.  To be honest although we greatly respect this form of carving, we were hoping to find  a unique folk artist more towards the lunatic fringe of the spectrum who might be hanging out there.   We had a great time looking at the museum and several shops but didn’t find what we were looking for.

After a nice lunch we made our way along the coast on the two lane Hwy # 132 past Riviere-du-Loup  as far as Trois Pistoles, a trip which would ordinarily take about an hour, but in our case took over four due to several stops at yard sales, markets, and shops. We hadn’t expected it, but we found a lot of wonderful stuff and by the time we stopped for a coffee in Trois Pistoles the cargo area of the van was almost full, and our envelope was over half empty.  We had a little conference, and thinking of Nova Scotia decided that instead of going further into the Gaspe we would turn back to Riviere-du-Loup, hang a left on Hwy #85 which becomes Hwy#2 as soon as you cross over into New Brunswick  and on a good day with steady driving will get you to Amherst, Nova Scotia in about eight and a half hours.  Our goal was to sleep in New Brunswick.

It was dark and raining by the time we had made our way past the endless forests of this part of Quebec and then we hit the construction.  On a 1 to 10 scale of “hairy” driving this was a solid eight. Pounding rain, mud, and lots of starting and stopping. We white knuckled it for about another hour and finally made it to Grand Falls, New Brunswick.  It was pushing ten o’clock, and we really needed to stop.  Turns out there was a convention in town and we were turned away at every motel, and feeling quite desperate before we got the advice that the only room we could get would be at a bed and breakfast in a recently converted old nunnery a few miles out of town.  We’re not big B and B fans but great.  We’ll take any port in this storm, and after a call ahead to confirm they had a room, we went off with the little hand drawn map we were provided.

The storm grew stronger, and the thunder and lightning more brutal, as we wound our way up into the surrounding hills, until there in a flash of lightning worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, the huge, old, Victorian Gothic Institution appeared, with a giant cross above the entrance;  and we drove up the hill and pulled into a parking space, wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to.

I can’t recall, but I’m sure we were greeted by a perfectly nice night attendant, although in my imagination he was someone akin to Igor.  We were lead down a long, dark, corridor to a pair of rooms which seemed to remain untouched from their former life.  I remember the institutional green walls and old steel beds.  They were small, and basic, but a blessing in our situation.  In bed, with the lights out, and the still frequent flashes of lightning and thunder I began to hear people moaning in the distance. It kinda freaked me out, but I had no desire to investigate.  I put the pillow over my ears and did my best to fall asleep.  It was a long night.

Next morning, we met Cassandra in the canteen, and after coffee and hot chocolate decided to get the heck out of there.  “Did you hear all that moaning” Cassandra said.  “It really freaked me out”.  “  “Me two.”  “Me three” said Jeanine.  We saw the caretaker on the way out, and he explained that it had become a B and B, slash old people’s home, and that some of the old dears were restless.  The place didn’t look all that spooky in the daylight.

In town, we sat in a little mom and pop restaurant, finishing breakfast and discussing our plan.  We had learned that the construction which we had only experienced about an hour of, continued for several more hours ahead as they were making the highway into a divided four lane.  Desperately need by this point especially with all the summer tourists.  We sat there for a while discussing our progress, and what lay ahead.  We were grateful for the use of Brodie’s van, but it was noisy and fairly uncomfortable.  We realized we had a full day of crappy driving ahead just to reach Nova Scotia, and then we would only have a couple of days to look around before heading back.  Then our conversation turned to how much we loved Quebec City, and we could be there by late afternoon if we turned back.  It was an easy decision for us.  We called our favorite, cheap hotel in old Quebec, Le Manoir des Remparts and made a reservation for three nights.   We had a wonderful time, and felt happy and relaxed on the twelve hour drive home.  Resolving to make it to Nova Scotia another time.  Perhaps, looking into air fares.

A rooster for Sue

roost2People who are creative have a need to create.  It’s in them, and it needs to come out.  For some, it manifests in the way they lead their daily lives, for others it takes the form of performance, or composition, or the manufacturing of an object, be it painting, drawing, sculpture, or other media.  They get up in the morning, put their thoughts and intuition in motion, and they create something.

My wife Jeanine is such a person.  She was active as a fine artist through the seventies and early eighties; exhibiting and teaching sculpture and other art making forms at Beal Art School in London, and for the University of Windsor art school in Chatham Ontario.  She was the head of that school for a couple of years actually, and made the one hour trip (each way) three days a week from our home in Delaware to the Chatham campus.  She sold lots of work, won awards, had one woman shows, and received grants. She was well respected, and completely involved in the contemporary Canadian art scene.  In 1981 when we both quit our jobs and moved to the old Methodist church in Wyecombe, Ontario, she also stopped her professional life as an exhibiting artist.  She had had enough of the game, and had developed new priorities; but that doesn’t mean she stopped being creative.roost4

In a previous blog I talked about Jeanine’s decorative painting of furniture.  Today I am conveying a little tale of the time she made a special gift for a friend.

In the late eighties, we were doing a lot of antique shows with the same dealers, when one day an exciting new dealer came on the scene.  She was young, well in her thirties which is young for an antique dealer, had good taste in all things Canadiana and folk art, and was honest and dedicated.  She bought widely from the community and soon developed a sterling reputation.  We did some good business together, and quickly got to know and like Sue; so before long we were hanging out together, back and forth between our places, always having as a common bond a strong appreciation, and enthusiasm for folk art.  It came about one year that Jeanine wanted to make something special for Sue’s birthday.  Sue loved roosters.  She loved a lot of folk art, but she really loved roosters. So Jeanine decided to make a rooster for Sue. She confined herself to the workshop and set about with wire, paper-mache, and oil paint, and presto, several hours later emerged with a dandy of a large, cross-eyed, black and white rooster.  A fine specimen who portrayed the confidence and insolence of a truly fine cockerel.  We loved him, and were fairly confident that Sue would love him too.  At least we hoped so.  Giving people folk art, even to a folk art lover, can be a tricky business.roost3

And so Jeanine was feeling shy to present the work as her own for fear that Sue may not like it, but feel compelled to say she did because the artist was standing right there in front of her.  Thus we decided to create a folk artist to go along with the folk art.  Ah yes, now  M. Rooster was created by a previously unknown 65-year-old folk artist from the Baie St. Paul region of Quebec named Benoit Rotisserie.  Or something to that effect.  I honestly can’t remember. Then we dressed up Jeanine in old dungarees, fake mustache,a scarf and hat, and took a photograph of the artist next to his work.  We created a bio of the artist,document of authentication, and photo which all went into the box along with the sculpture.

Sue’s birthday came.  She opened the box and hooray, she was delighted with what she found inside; and we got to enjoy several minutes of snickering and grinning at each other before she began to put two and two together and started  to question the authentication.  Great fun was had by all, and Jeanine had the reassurance she desired.roost1

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

Madam Tessier, and her brother

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walking in the park

In the late 1980’s when we were antique shopping in Quebec on a regular basis, we would follow up on leads for new sources that were offered to us by other dealers.  We were told about a great shop in the town of Deschambault, which is on Rt. 138 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river between Trois Rivieres and Quebec city.  Rte. 138 was a popular tourist route back in the heyday of motoring vacations in the fifties and the sixties, but traffic dropped dramatically when the auto-route 40 opened and people’s attitude changed, and they started to just want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible.  There wasn’t much of the old “motoring” culture left along the route, but it was a gorgeous drive and every so often you would spot a handmade sign in front of a little roadside shack indicating “Souvenirs”.   Naturally we would stop and check it out.  You never know when and where you may find the next great folk artist or crafts-person. Most of these shops were a disappointment however in that they contained the St. Jean-Port-Jolie style tourist carvings, and the typical plastic commercial schlock, but once in a while we would find some crazy, old guy making something interesting, or in this case of this story, a great source of charming, original designed hand hooked rugs.

woven runners and mats

woven runners and mats

It was a fine summer morning as we rounded the bend just a few klicks from our destination of Deschambault, when we noticed several signs around an old frame house indicating “Souvenirs” “Quebec textiles”, “hand hooked rugs”, etc.  These signs had a charm all their own so we were hopeful that we may be on to something.  We went through the door indicated as “shop”, and entered into a long thin room which had an end to end run of long, thin, fabric cutting style tables, stacked with dozens of different varieties of hooked rugs and woven runners, and mats.  The back wall was covered with examples of rugs, and behind the tables stood a lovely looking elderly woman looking every bit the Victorian lady with piled up hair and white powder makeup.  Right out of central casting.  She had a radiant smile and seemed truly delighted to meet us.  She told us her name was Madam Tessier and all the textiles on sale where either made by her, or one of her three or four rug hooking neighbors.

a geometric

a geometric

Our attention moved from her to the rugs, and we were immediately taken with the charming original subjects, the vibrant colors, and the workmanship.  The expected florals and geometrics were interesting, but what caught our attention were the many depictions of rural Quebec life.  Scenes of bringing in the ducks at night, of workers stopping in the field to observe the “angelus” or moment of prayer at 6 pm, a sugaring scene in early spring, a farmer about to feed the animals, and so on.  There were also riffs on classic themes like a beaver on a log, a maple leaf. As well there were tables full of multi coloured runners. Rainbows in fabric everywhere you looked.  The prices were very reasonable considering the amount of work that went into them, and you could see that they were well made, and would wear well.  She was surprised and delighted when instead of choosing one or two, we bought a dozen or so.  We explained who we were and that we were buying for resale, and that if they should sell as we thought they would we would soon be back for more.  And so it was. They went like hotcakes and within a month we were back buying about twice as many as before.  Madam Tessier grew to look forward to us pulling up.

farmer and his yellow wagon

farmer and his yellow wagon

tesrug7

farmer in the yard

After a few visits she asked us into the adjacent house for tea.  She explained that she had lived there all her life with her brother, but that he had recently passed away so she was now there on her own.  She said she didn’t mind because she had many friends in the village and was never alone for very long. It was lovely to sit in her kitchen and have tea and listen to her story.  It took me several minutes before I noticed something peculiar about the walls.  As I looked more closely at the tongue and groove wood grained boards which ran from floor to ceiling, I realized that they were not wood paneling at all, but rather a hand painted facsimile.  I couldn’t believe it.  The whole room had been meticulously grain painted by hand.  Every groove and the wood grain was done free hand, one at time. Then I realized that where there was a painting on the wall, that the painting had been done in the same hand right on the wall with a painted frame around it, as it should be. Amazing.  Can you imagine how long it would take to do something like that?  I had to ask her.  “oh that.  Yes, that was my brother’s project later in life.  He volunteered to paint the place but then he got the idea of the wood grain so it took him several years.”  He completed many rooms before he died.”  You could see she was proud of her brother’s accomplishment.

beaver on a log

beaver on a log

It’s funny what sticks with you in life.  Sitting in that room, drinking tea with Madam Tessier and coming to the realization that the entire room I was sitting in was faux painted freehand by her brother remains as vivid in my memory today as the day it occurred.  I’d imagine that the conclusion of a psychiatrist would be obsessive/ compulsive behavior, but to me it felt like an act of a deep dedication to the concept of beauty and love of environment, not to mention persistence.  I had a deep feeling of warmth come over me, and I knew I was in the presence of true inspiration.   Madam Tessier there smiling benevolently with her white powder make up and piled up Victorian hair.

farmers pausing to pray the Angelus

farmers pausing to pray – the Angelus

Our times at The North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show

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a giant moose head that came along for the ride.

When, in about 1986 we decided to expand our show calendar beyond the weekly Toronto Harbourfront Market and the spring and fall Christie shows, we decided that we would like to include the North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show, held annually in early July in the beautiful Eastern Townships region of Quebec. Known as Canada’s oldest antique show, it also had and still has a deserved reputation for presenting top quality antique and folk art to an exclusive and appreciative clientele.  North Hatley is a picturesque charmer of a small town on the banks of Lake Massawippi, and a playground to the affluent and powerful of Montreal and surrounding areas. The show, put on by the local Recreational Society is held in the old curling club with about fifteen dealers set up where the ice would be, and another 6 or so set up in the onlooking lounge.  For the years we attended, until his death in 2007 it was run by the legendary Sam Pollock, who among many other things was the manager of the Montreal Canadians for 14 years, during which they won the Stanley Cup nine times.  As you can imagine, Sam ran a tight ship. Every year he, and his loyal fellow volunteers would do everything from planning and preparing, to set up, and everything else involved in running a top notch show right down to the  making of the delicious home-made egg salad sandwiches at the lunch bar. They may have been up in years, but those ladies knew their way around a good egg salad sandwich. northhat4

In those days, it was not easy to get invited to do the show.  We were lucky to have friends like Peter Baker and Gerry Marks who had been doing the show for years to recommend us.  The first year we had a tiny 10’ x 10’ booth wedged into a corner of the lounge area, which was mostly dedicated to book, pottery, and silver sellers, with the furniture dealers all being in the main room.  We didn’t mind because being an unknown in terms of results, the rent was cheaper and we came with a smaller truck. We focused mainly on folk art, which was what the promoters wanted from us because it was becoming increasingly popular with this crowd. It went very well, and we had a great time to boot.  Good sales, lovely people, and a stunning area to explore.

An interesting feature of the show is the gala Friday night opening.  From 6:30 to 9:00 on the Friday night a $30 ticket buys you first crack at the stuff, and all the delicious hors-d’oeuvres, and wine you want. Lovely young waiters and waitresses passing amongst the crowd with trays. The experienced dealers warned us that opening night it is packed, and it may seem that all they do is talk to each other, and glance over your stuff.  It is a big social event after all.  But not to despair because when they see something they like they are in a good and competitive mood to buy.  Also, they may go home and discuss it, and come back Saturday morning to buy.  It worked out pretty much just like that.  A few sales Friday night, then good sales all day Saturday, and even a few more on Sunday.

We kept the same booth for a couple of years and then moved to a bigger one in the same room when it became available. Then one year when I was doing the show by myself; I can’t remember when exactly, it must have been the late nineties, Sam came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking over a large room upstairs they had for the same price.  He pitched “You can spread out the art and make it like a gallery.  I think you can do well up there.”  I knew the space.  It was a big space, about 20’ x 30’ with two front facing windows which brought in a lot of natural light.  It must have been used for meetings.

my "gallery"  at the North Hatley show

my “gallery”
at the North Hatley show

“Well, yes Sam the space is great, but not to mention that everything has to go up and down the fire escape, I will be on my own up there, apart from the show. It might get pretty lonely”.  “Ah, but don’t forget Phil, that’s where the woman’s washroom is.  All the ladies will pass by eventually, and they’ll drag their husband’s up”.  I thought about it for a minute and decided he was probably right.  It just might work, and if it did the price was right. So I agreed, and started to haul everything up the steep fire escape that led directly to the room. A big task, but much easier than dragging everything through the inside.  It took the whole afternoon to set up, but in the end it looked like a gallery. I even had a table and chairs in front of the window where I could sit and do business, or read the paper in slow times. Not to mention eating egg salad sandwiches. So close. So tasty. So affordable.  I put up a little sign with an arrow pointing up at the base of the inside staircase announcing “Folk Art Upstairs”. I hoped that somebody might see it.

looking into my "gallery" from the hall

looking into my “gallery”
from the hall

6:30 arrived and at first I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake because I could hear the people coming in, chatting and having fun for a full thirty minutes before anyone showed their face.  But then it started.   The first lady poked her nose in, and was surprised to find me and my offerings.  Fortunately she was a folk art enthusiast and went directly to several pieces of carvers she recognized.   She bought three things right then and there, and I was off to the races.  It was out of the way, but when the folk art people found me, they really connected, and would not only buy, but go down and drag their friends up.   I met several people that year that became long -time friends and customers.  It was already a great show by Saturday at noon and then Pierre Riverin walked in.  I’d heard about the “collecting” mayor of the town of Eastman for several years but we had never crossed paths. We talked for over an hour, he bought several pieces, and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  It is a rare and precious moment when you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.   Even with all the effort of getting everything up and down those stairs, it was worth it many times over. I had a wonderful show and I was happy up there.  I repeated this for a few more years before the hauling up and down began to outweigh the benefit, so when a bigger booth on the main floor became available I grabbed it.

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

Over the years we got to know several of the Quebec dealers, designers, and collectors who frequent this unique annual show.  For a time many of us participating dealers would get together on Saturday night and enjoy the evening together at some wonderful local Inn or restaurant.  There are several to choose from.  Then through our friend Tom De Volpi, and our friends Jim and Ilona Fleming, we were invited to an annual Saturday night dealer’s dinner held at the nearby summer home of a lovely Montreal designer named Valery.  It was always a wonderful, warm get together, not to mention a delicious dinner; and we were grateful for her hospitality and the chance to spend some happy time with our fellows.

Eventually, as in all stories, the pages turn, and times change, and so it was that by 2008, (I remember it because, although still a good show, it just didn’t feel the same without Sam being there), along with slumping sales, we reached the point and age where we just couldn’t justify the ten hour drive to and from home, and all the work that doing the show entailed.  Mind you this was part of a larger retreat from doing shows altogether.  We truly don’t miss the work, but we do miss the people.  They were some very good times.

the "gang"  at Valerie and Henri's

the “gang”
at Valerie and Henri’s

“It’s not saleable!! It doesn’t get made in a minute” – The art of Edmund Chatigny

chat4We unfolded ourselves slowly out of the truck after the grueling ten-hour drive from our home in Wyecombe Ontario to Alan Chauvette’s picking barn near Victoriaville, Quebec.  We were met by a particularly animated Alan. He was excited, even for Alan who tends to run a little hot.  “What perfect timing.  I’ve got something exciting to show you.  Follow me to my house and we’ll come back here after”.   Ten minutes later we are entering Alan’s back yard and everywhere you look there are chip carved, splatter painted, flowers, birds, and other wildlife generally with a large figure at the center and a multitude of smaller components coming off in every direction.  Wild.   The total affect was that of a fantasy garden.  We were mesmerized. chat5

“They were all made by this crazy old guy in St. Isidore de Beauce who covered his yard completely. He’s gone into the retirement home and the family is selling the house, so I got them all.”  We were still looking around trying to take it all in.  “As you can see there are hundreds of pieces and I am selling them all as one lot. None of this picking the best, and leaving the rest.”  I was almost afraid to ask the price, but had to.  Alan gave me a serious look and a number in the high four figures. It was pretty much what I expected due to the quantity, but the first thing that sprang to mind was “We think it’s wonderful, but I wonder if anybody else will.  This is pretty eccentric stuff.”   We looked at each other for a moment, then I said to Alan.  “We’ll discuss it on the way back to the barn and give you an answer there.”  That was a pretty intense ten minutes that followed. We both loved the work, and “got” that his complex assemblages which could be reconfigured in different ways and still ‘work” was an exciting concept.chat1  Still, it was a lot of money to put down on an unknown horse. We talked it out and as we pulled in we concluded “What the hell. Let’s trust our instincts and do what we are here to do, so it was all big smiles and laughter, as we concluded the deal.  There were a couple of pickers standing nearby that we saw regularly, and they laughed at us.  “They’ll be burying you with that stuff”.  We didn’t care.  We owned the entire contents of Mr. Chatigny’s yard, and although we had never heard of him, we knew that it spoke to us as so few things do in this life.  We were half way home, somewhere around Brockville before we started to question ourselves.  We needn’t have.  Within a month we had sold enough to pay back our investment, and there was still a good half left.chat2

Edmond Chatigny was born in 1895 in St. Isidore de Beauce, Quebec. He was creative from an early age. “When I was young I used to take a knife and whittle.  My mother used to say “I think you could end up making something”.  He became a farmer. Married and had thirteen children.  Then the day came when he retired.  “When I was on the farm I used to work hard, then when I retired I had nothing to do and I became bored. That’s what decided me to start making little things – wooden flowers, birds, then all kinds of things. I do it with a little saw and a pocket knife.chat7 Sell them? They are not sellable. They are not made in a minute. It’s all green, white and red with a little brown. This year I think I am going to put a lot of green and white.  In the summer when I cut the grass, I clear them all off, then I put them all back.  It takes two days.” chat3

Although I never met M. Chatrigny, I am sure that it would bemuse him to hear me say that I think he was a uniquely innovative, and an important artist in his own right; and since I first laid eyes on his work, until present day, he remains one of my favourites.chat8

The “spontaneous” vision of Quebec carver Andre Laporte

Andre's Montreal Canadien goalie

Andre’s Montreal Canadien goalie

About 30 years ago we were rooting around in Alain Chauvette’s pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec when we happened upon a wonderful carving of a Montreal Canadien goalie.  A serious dude with a square head and a look of determination which would intimidate even the most veteran opponent.  We loved it and bought it for our own collection.  I’m looking at him right now and I’m still impressed with the expressiveness of his rough cut features, and the immediacy of the carving.  Problem was, he wasn’t signed.  We asked Alain if he knew the carver, and he did not so we had to be content to have found this one great piece by an unknown carver with the possibility of never knowing the maker, or seeing other work by him.  Then about six months later we found a carving that was obviously made by the same hands of a group of four cows, carved all in one piece in the round.  The same roughness and directness as the goalie.  This time it had the signature A Laporte on the bottom.  The picker still did not know the carver, but at least we had a name to go on.

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

a group of cows by Andre Laporte

So fast forward about fifteen years later.  We have found and bought another half dozen pieces by Mr. Laporte, all with the same strength and spontaneity of our goalie.  Still no one knew, or admitted to knowing anything about the artist.  Remember that any picker is extremely reluctant to put you in touch with a carver because then you buy from the artist and not them, so it is counterproductive.  Still, we were happy just to find the pieces and realize that the artist was most likely still active.

Andre sits on his front bench with his first carving

Then came that lucky day when by going through the phone book in La Prairie, and we found and met the carver Leo Fournier.  We were enjoying our conversation with Leo when his wife came into the room and said “Leo, Andre Laporte just phoned and I told him I would have you phone him back after you are finished here.” Eureka!  “Would your friend Andre Laporte be a carver by any chance?”  Why yes he is, a carver and an antique picker.  He lives a few miles from here in the town of Verdun.” “Would you mind giving us his phone number”. “Not at all.  I’m sure he would be happy to meet you”.  So before we left Leo called Andre back, gave him the scoop and put us on the phone.  It was late in the day, so we made arrangements to arrive at his place at 9 the next morning.  After getting directions Andre said “No one has ever wanted to meet me before.  I don’t have a lot of work to show you so I hope you are not disappointed. “.  “Not to worry Andre, we love your work and will be delighted just to meet you , and if you have anything to show us, that’s good too.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we arrived at Andre’s little house by the railway tracks precisely at 9, and there was Andre waiting on a bench by his front door.  You could see he was both excited and a little anxious. After exchanging greetings, we went inside and met his wife Lucie.  The place was small but filled with nice things including several of Andre’s carvings which were brought out and put on the dining room table.

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

A man enjoys an apple while his faithful dog looks on

Leo had briefed him on who we were and he was excited to think that we would be interested in him.  “So you actually like my work?”.  Why yes, we like it a lot. You have a unique style and energy which we find very attractive.”  “The other pickers who come by tell me my works too rough and nobody will want it, but that’s the only way I can work. “You see this horse there.”  We focused our attention on a very strong and expressive work horse. “That was my first carving.  They took down some hydro poles about seven years ago and left them across the street.  I cut up one of them into various sized “stumps”, and brought them home to burn, but then I started to look at them and after a while I saw this horse inside one of the stumps.  I thought about it for a long time, and then one day in 1984 I  just started chipping away at it, and after about ten hours this horse had emerged. That was it.  I was hooked. That’s the way I’ve worked ever since.  I see the form in the log, and then I carve, until I get it all out”.  I don’t glue pieces together or sand them more than I have to.  I like them rough and close to the way I see them in my head.” I can only work when I see the piece in the wood first, and then I can’t stop working until it is finished.  At this point Lucie jumps in.  “that’s right.  Once Andre starts to carve I know I’ve lost him until he is finished.  I drew the line when one night he put an old quilt on our bed and started to carve right there.”

Andre's bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre’s bust of Quebec strongman Louis Cyr

Andre represents what it is to be a natural, instinctive carver.  With no training or even having much experience of other work, his work is truly inspired and highly individual. His work deals with what is the pure essentials of his subject.  There is always a sense of vitality and movement.

We bought several pieces that day including his first carving of the horse which remains in our collection.  We continued to go by Andre’s place a couple of times a year for the many years that we continued to travel to Quebec, buying most of his output each time.  Even after we stopped going we would talk on the phone occasionally and he would describe what he had been working on.  Often we would send him a cheque and he would mail us pieces sight unseen.  Andre and Lucie have a hard life.  He was born in Verdun on May 20th, 1948 and has lived there all his life.  He has barely eked out a living being an antique picker of the door knocker variety.  For a while things went well for him when collector Pierre Laplante was buying almost everything he picked, but then they had a falling out and that stopped.  Andre and Lucie have three daughters and one grandchild.

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

an old man and his sheep by Andre Laporte

A few years ago I called to see how he and Lucie were doing and he informed me that sadly one of their daughters had been in a terrible car accident was grievously injured, and that now he had to take her every day to the hospital for treatment. There was never enough money in what Andre does to make a happy and secure life, and I’m sure that without the love and support of Lucie and his family he would not be able to survive. The last time I called was in 2007 when our mutual friend Leo Fournier died. We had a great chat about Leo.  How he was his own man, and Andre laughed and summarized it like this “I have always admired Leo.  He lived exactly as he wanted to, and never cared what anybody thought. He loved to drink and he died drunk.  It couldn’t have been better for him”.  I don’t know how things have gone for Leo since.  I should phone him.  That last time we spoke he said he hadn’t made any new work in a couple of years and he was still mainly preoccupied with helping his daughter to get back to a happy and productive life.  He and Lucie are the salt of the earth.  I really hope that things are getting easier for them.  He has real talent that in a better world would be enough to provide him and his family with a happy and secure life. Unfortunately, it rarely works out like that for artists in the world we live in today.

Andre surrounded by his creations

Andre surrounded by his creations

Meeting Aime Demeules , folk artist from St. Paul-de-la-Croix, Quebec

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Speckled horse by Aime Desmeules

In an earlier post I recall our meeting Felicien Levesque in the early nineties while touring the Bas -St. -Laurent region of Quebec.  Well, the very next day we rose early and made the half hour drive From Cacouna to St Paul de-la-Croix, knowing it was the hometown of the well-know carver Aime Desmeules.  We had been buying his animals for years from Victoriaville picker Marcel Gosselin, and we had always wanted to meet him.  It was not hard to get directions to his house in this small town of 367 people, and we were soon pulling in to the driveway of a neatly kept, small ranch style home.

moose by Aime Desmeules

moose by Aime Desmeules

Jeanine and I rang the bell, and were soon greeted by a puzzled looking older lady we took to be his wife.   We explained that we had come from Ontario and being big fans of Mr Desmeule’s work, we had made the trek to their home with the hopes of meeting him.  “Oh no, that will not be possible.  He doesn’t like to meet new people, and he has no work for sale in any case. No, I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”Just as she was about to slam the door in our faces, Jeanine added sweetly, “Well we don’t mind if there is no work for sale,  but please we have come a long way and we would be very grateful just to have the opportunity to make his acquaintance.”  She looked us up and down.  Long pause. “Very well, he’s not here right now as he is fetching wood, but I suppose if you come back in an hour he may be willing to talk to you.”  Whew, nice work Jeanine.  “Great, thanks, we’ll be back.”  So we went into town and had a delicious big breakfast, and lingered over our coffee to fill in the time.

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

Aime and his wife Marie-Jeanne at their home in 1993

One hour later we were greeted at the door by Aime.  Surprisingly, he was as friendly as can be, and invited us in to his work shop which was fairly full of finished carvings.  “Pardon us for saying, but your wife gave us the impression that you had no work for sale, so I suppose these pieces are commissioned.”  He Laughed.  “No these pieces are for sale, it’s just that when you arrived unexpectedly with your accents, she was worried that you may be from the tax department.”  I was starting to think that this would be the standard greeting we could expect arriving unannounced at Quebec carver’s homes, and upon reflection, I understand where they are coming from.

The next hour was pleasantly filled by Aime telling us the story of how he was 64 years old before he took up carving and at that time he was taught by his father to create the various animals in his father’s repertoire to be precisely like his father’s work.  It was only after his father’s death in 1986 at 95 years of age that Aime developed a few new animals of his own, along with some pieces depicting people such as the blacksmith shown here.

"Blacksmith" by Aime Desmeules

“Blacksmith” by Aime Desmeules

Mrs. Demeules joined us after awhile and expressed that she was sorry for the rude greeting, but that she could see now that we were truly fans and not inspectors, and she was happy that we came.  We bought a lot of his work, about twenty pieces or so, and we spent a pleasant morning getting to know each other, before loading up and heading out of town.

What I find interesting about Aime, is how he was content, to the point of taking pride in creating exact copies of his father’s work.  He even signed the pieces with a stylized “A” “D” with the “A” looking very much like a “G” as his father had signed.  It is quite difficult to distinguish the father’s work from the son’s, and you are pretty much dependent on patina and provenance. My understanding is that George quit working in the early 70’s, but then Aime only lived on until 1997.

Aime's signature on cat

Aime’s signature on cat

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f you consider other carving families, such as Damase Richard and his son Wilfred; although there is a similarity to their work, when you study them closely you can see quite a few differences which make them easy to distinguish.   When considering father and son carvers, Aime and George’s bond seems unique.

"brown Cow" by Aime Desmeules

“brown Cow” by Aime Desmeules