Most folk artists don’t see much recognition for their work during their lifetime. To most it would never occur to them to expect it. So it is particularly satisfying to note that two years before his death, the Thunder Bay Art Galley gave Ewald Rentz a major exhibition called “The “Completed” work of Ewald Rentz “. This was not far from his village of Beardmore so many of his friends made it. His son Ernie told me that it meant a lot to him to have this recognition. Rentz wasn’t at all interested in the commercial aspect of his art. He just wanted to please people. He was a modest man.
Nova Scotia does a wonderful job of promoting it’s folk art and artists. I think it is fair to say that this is largely due to the tireless work of Bernie Riordan during his long tenure as the director of the Art Gallery of Nova scotia, and to Chris Huntington who has sold and promoted Nova Scotia folk art since he arrived in Eagle Head in 1974. n 1988, Chris was instrumental in helping to establish the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival which is held in Lunenburg during late July or early August of each year. There are many others of course, but these two really got the ball rolling.
My home province of Ontario on the other hand has done little to promote this type of artwork, and so it was of great interest to me when in 1988 I was contacted by our friend Susan Murray whom at the time was a powerful lobbyist (since retired) and dedicated folk art collector. She had set up a meeting with a person she met from The Royal Ontario Museum who expressed an interest in Canadian folk art. Susan was and is a dedicated promoter of Canadian Folk Art. The someone in question was Dr. Howard Collinson, head of the department of Art and Culture for the museum. This is what can come of rubbing elbows with the right people at the right parties, and having a very persuasive nature.
It was a very exciting potential that we considered on the way over to the meeting. I took to Howard immediately. He was friendly and personable, but direct. He got right to the point, that the basement galleries of the museum needed to be changed. For decades it housed a rather uninteresting, and frankly in some cases incorrect representation of furnished rooms of Canadian homes of various periods. It needed to go, and in it’s place he wanted something vital and relevant. What he had in mind was a show of some sort on Ontario Folk Art. We looked at pictures of several Ontario artist’s work, thinking this initial exhibit might be a cross section of artists, but when we got to the work of Ewald Rentz, he said “That’s it. I want it to be a solo exhibition of this man’s work”. Well alright then. I could see his reasoning. Rentz’s work is very friendly and approachable, just like the man himself. Let’s keep it simple and direct. We went down to see the basement space and then agreed to meet again in a month or so. The timeline for the show was for late the following year, and he had a lot on his plate to deal with before he could dedicate any time to the project. It all felt very positive and I began to look forward to getting started.
Unfortunately, as these things sometimes go, the next thing I knew I was being contacted by a pleasant-sounding woman who informed me that the museum had a new director, and that Dr. Collinson was no longer with the gallery. She had taken over his position. She stated that she was still interested in the project, but was currently unable to devote any time to it, having inherited many other more pressing issues. My heart sank. I could sense from her description of the current situation at the museum, and from her tone that the chances of an Ewald Rentz exhibition at the R.O.M. was quickly becoming slight or most likely not at all. The one that got away. I was right. She got back to me a few weeks later and said that the new director had imposed a completely different agenda for the department and that she could not see anything happening for the foreseeable future. I was disappointed of course, but still held the desire to push for an exhibition of Canadian folk art somewhere, at some time. I did realize this years later in 2005 with the Finding Folk Art exhibition at the Eva Brook Donley museum in Simcoe Ontario. Admittedly it was not nearly as high profile, but it was a very good exhibition of which I am still proud. But that’s a different story, for a different day.