Looking into the private world of Fenton Dukeshire

d6Back in the 1990’s I would occasionally get a call from a friend, Marty Ahvenus, who owned and operated the Village Book Store on Queen St at the time.  He was a book seller by trade who also enjoyed folk art and making periodic trips to the East Coast.  When he returned from a trip he was in the habit of phoning me, and selling me the folk art which he had acquired enroute.  We would meet at a French restaurant on Baldwin Street which offered fish soup, a favourite of both of us, and I remember that the owner/chef would always come out to see who had ordered the soup as so few did.  But that’s another story.duke1

One day I met Marty and he had a dozen or so small and interesting fantasy buildings that he had just acquired from a very elderly gentleman from Wolfville Nova Scotia, who was living with his son in Toronto at the time.  I guess he had heard about him when he was out East and found out that he was living with his son who was teaching law in Toronto, so he arranged to go over and meet him.   Fenton Dukeshire’s son made it clear that Marty was welcome to come over and see the work, but that it was very unlikely that he would meet the artist. Fenton was a very private, and shy man who liked to keep to himself in a back bedroom of the house where he would spend hour after hour creating intricately detailed miniatures of buildings, bridges, locomotives, etc out of bits of found wood, matchsticks, and cardboard.  These all bore the mark of his individual imagination, and the patience required to bring such detailed pieces to realization.  Time was not a problem for Fenton.  He was in his element working, and he did so hour after hour, day after day.  Along with the individual sculptures of buildings, etc. he liked to create dioramas which involved people in dramatic situations.  Gunfighters facing each other down on the street.  A church scene with choir and unnoticed urchin with a sling shot about to hit the minister in the back of the head. Another church scene with a mother reaching out to save her baby who was teetering on the edge of the balcony banister.  All his people had a humorous, comic book aspect to them.  They are crowd pleasers. duke2

This intensely shy and unassuming man was born in Maitland Bridge, Annapolis County in 1917. He was a woodsman, sawmill worker, and farmer during his working life and only took up carving and model making in his 60’s.  His wife of 39 years died in 1985, and he has no other brothers, sisters, or other children.  He lived with his only son in Wolfville, then Toronto, and then back to Wolfville with his son when the work concluded in Toronto.  He lived there quietly producing his art until he died.  I cannot find the date of his death on-line but I know he was very old.

I like the fun of his dioramas with people, but I admire most the simple architectural elegance of his buildings. You can tell he created these to satisfy his own love and fascination with architecture, and had no commercial intentions.  duke5

So when Marty arrived at the house, he admired and agreed to purchase many recent works, but before he left he asked once again if he may at least meet the artist who was working away in his back room.  The son agreed to ask, and sure enough a few moments later a small grey man slid into the room.  Came up to Marty and put out his hand.  “how do you do?”.  They shook hands and Marty barely had time to say “what a pleasure it is to meet you” when Mr. Dukeshire spun on his heels and headed back into his room, closing the door behind him.duke4

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Four favourite folk art pieces by “unknown” artists

It is the day before Christmas eve, and I will soon be going downstairs to carve up apples for pies.  Here’s wishing you dear readers, a very Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays as the case may be, and the best to all in 2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out 2016.  I think we will all be glad to be done with you.

So rather than go into a researched account of things past, or detailed description of some refinishing procedure, I am simply going to show you four of my favourite pieces in our collection, whose maker is unknown, and talk a bit about them.  I think it will be fun, and I will be able to get to the kitchen quicker.

Much folk art is unsigned.  Many who make folk art do so for their own gratification and therefore don’t bother to sign.  Others are perhaps unsure as to whether they want to own up to it. For whatever reason, it can be frustrating to a collector when you come across something you really like, and then can find no clues as to how to find other pieces by the same hand.  Sometimes you continue to find pieces you recognize are by the same maker in the same places, so you know you are getting close, and eventually you may be in the right place at the right time to have someone tell you who made them. Other times you may find a piece which totally blows you away, and never, ever see another piece like it.

Walking around the house I have chosen these four pieces for your consideration.un3

  1. Elephant on a fungus

We came across this unsigned piece on the second floor of Alan Chauvette’s pickers barn in St. Valere Quebec, in about 1985.  I remember the excitement I felt as I pulled it out from underneath a pile of blankets, and immediately fell in love.  Obviously local, the creator was dreaming of exotic, far-off Africa, with palm trees carved in relief against a blue sky.  I have always had a thing for the tree fungus you come across in the woods, which seem to scream out “do something with me”, and after finding lots of pieces involving fungus, I realize that there are many who share my enthusiasm.  For a while there I collected fungus folk art.  That was before Jeanine expressed that she found many of the pieces ugly,  and she developed a theory that they may be releasing spores into our environment,  so she would prefer that I move on.  This piece however, because she loves it as much as I do, and because the fungus is painted clearly falls into a different category.  I cannot logically explain why this piece falls into as Chuck Heston so famously put it, “if you want it, you’ll have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands”.  But it truly delights me every time I look at it.un2

  1. Chief Sam Goose

This piece was again found in Alan Chauvette’s barn about the same time.  All we could learn about it was that it was picked in New Brunswick, and had stood at the entrance to a Mi’kmaq reservation for many years.  Oil paint on plywood, it is a wonderful example of how time and nature can have a hand in making a truly unique piece.  If I were to see it new, I would enjoy it for it’s graphic qualities, but it is the fact that the paint has deteriorated into the grain of the plywood in such a beautiful way that it  looks as if the chief is looking at us through the fog of time.   I bought this piece for next to nothing, and actually put it out at three or four shows with a price tag of about $175. Then one day when packing up I took a good look at it and thought “are you crazy. This is a wonderful thing.  They’ve had their chance, and now it’s mine.”un4

  1. A couple of stout fellows from New Brunswick

Again, it was love at first site.  This time it was in the early nineties and I was having a quick look around the Inside/Outside show held near the Toronto airport before the crowd was let in. I came across these fellows in the booth of Cathy Constantino, of Timber River Farms.  Cathy is a sweet woman and you can always count on her giving you a good deal so I simply asked for her best price.  She knew they were very good, but she gave me a reasonable price in any case based on her purchase price, which makes Cathy a “class act” in my books.  I put them in my case and didn’t show them to anyone for fear they would offer me “stupid” money, and I may be tempted by the bottom line.  You can’t eat art, but you can’t live without it either.  She actually did have the name of the artist, which I actually did write down in my day book which is how I kept track of everything in those days, but it would take me hours to go through those books to retrieve it now, and as I mentioned I am anxious to make pies. I will do it one day, and write it on a note underneath them but these fall into the category of “I never found another piece by the same artist.” So, it can wait.  Aren’t they just the greatest figures of manhood that you can possibly imagine.  They hit all my buttons.un5

 

  1. Two facing off Magpies

Last, but not least, we have a couple of Magpies facing down each other over a worm (missing). We acquired this at last spring’s Aberfoyle show, from the booth of Craig Gamache.  Jeanine has a large collection of bird carvings, and we knew right away that these fellows would have to be added, so it was with some relief that he offered them to us at a decent wholesale price.  He had no information on the artist but mentioned that there had been a twig, looking like a worm, between their beaks when he bought them; but the worm was broken when he found it, and had become lost.  One of these days I’ll get around to putting a new worm between them so the tug of war can continue, but in the meantime, it just looks like they are having an animated conversation.  As Magpies will do.