ART

The country cousin takes a bow

Gillian MacKay March 21 1983
ART

The country cousin takes a bow

Gillian MacKay March 21 1983

The country cousin takes a bow

ART

Gillian MacKay

Folk art is the country cousin of the visual arts, as fresh-faced and endearing as its sophisticated relatives can be forbidding. In an age when mainstream modern art has grown demanding and is too often obscure and joyless, folk art has no loftier aim than the age-old one of delighting the eye. This spirit shines through From the Heart: Folk Art in Canada, a rare showing of almost 300 works from the collection of the National Museum of Man which opened at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary last week. As the exhibition tours the country over the next three years, it will introduce Canadians to long-forgotten carvers of butter moulds, to sculptors of weather vanes and, above all, to a vibrant but little-known group of contemporary folk artists who are carrying on the tradition in a witty and distinctively modern vein.

mainstream modern art has grown demanding and is too often obscure and joyless, folk art has no loftier aim than the age-old one of delighting the eye. This spirit shines through From the Heart: Folk Art in Canada, a rare showing of almost 300 works from the collection of the National Museum of Man which opened at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary last week. As the exhibition tours the country over the next three years, it will introduce Canadians to long-forgotten carvers of butter moulds, to sculptors of weather vanes and, above all, to a vibrant but little-known group of contemporary folk artists who are carrying on the tradition in a witty and distinctively modern vein.

While most of the artists are self-taught rural dwellers, the best are more than mere amateurs messing about in their workshops.

They possess an originality and force of expression that elevates them far above the level of craftsmen. Indeed, the finest folk art lends credence to the romantic notion that a pure creative energy thrives in the hinterland, unafflicted by the sterile sophistication of urban culture.

dence to the romantic notion that a pure creative energy thrives in the hinterland, unafflicted by the sterile sophistication of urban culture.

If that energy pervades From the Heart, however, it is almost in spite of the exhibition itself. Initially, the show’s lack of thematic focus, erratic shifts in quality and poor presentation are off-putting. The curators at the Museum of Man, in their attempt to mount the most comprehensive exhibit ever, have cast their net too wide: the result is a dizzying clutter of roasting forks, walking canes, tobacco cutters, coat racks, sugar moulds and embroidered handkerchiefs, in addition to painting and sculpture. The failure to distinguish between historic artifacts and works of art creates further confusion. A cabinet devoted to decoy ducks adjoins a rooster by Collins Eisenhauer, but the bird’s swaggering stance and exuberant sweep of tail feathers give it an artistic presence quite removed from the world of the decorative, expressionless ducks. Nor is there esthetic merit in every object. A drab 19th-century

wooden chest, touted as an example of Polish immigrant carving, is only of limited antiquarian interest. Finally, the fact that groups of sculptural objects are crammed together into corrallike enclosures seriously interferes with an appreciation of the works. A splendid selection of antique weather vanes is mounted so low as to cause visitors to peer down at them—an injustice to works designed to crown the rooftops of the country.

Although the exhibition seems at times like a garage-sale tour through the kitsch to find the treasures, the search is so rewarding that the irritations are quickly overcome. In some cases, the organizers have enriched the experience further by supplying bits of the artists’ personal history. A beautiful 19th-century quilt, exquisitely embroidered with tendrilous flowers, birds and horseback riders, was made by 14year-old Mary Morris for her hope chest. But the accompanying description reveals that she never married, probably because she was born with a club foot, and thus the quilt remained unused. In 1978 a 75-year-old New Brunswick woodsman, Alfred Morneault, carved a droll and vivid replica of an old-fashioned Madawaska lumber camp, complete with cook, carpenters and a hunter. He once explained, “It is a mission that I have to teach upcoming generations about the way of life of their ancestors.” An enormous, ungainly giraffe dappled with circles and spots was one of many exotic animals and figures sculpted in wood and plaster by Alcide Saint-Germain, a retired Quebecer, to decorate the front lawn of his Sainte Antoine-Abbé suburban home. Some of the creatures could be activated from inside the house to wave at passers-by, in order, he said, “to make them laugh.” In the century that separates Mary Morris from Alcide Saint-Germain, the conditions for making folk art have undergone a transformation. Indeed, some critics have claimed that there is no more folk art because there are no more folk. Supposedly, the breed is vanishing as the isolated and tightly knit communities in which their art once flourished are swallowed up by cities and by the homogenizing tendency of modern life. But the wealth of contemporary work contained in From the Heart suggests that folk art is not such a fragile flower. True, most of the contemporary artists in the show are elderly, but it is common for folk artists to blossom in their retirement years. As the catalogue indicates, they have adapted to modernity instead of being crushed by it.

unused. In 1978 a 75-year-old New Brunswick woodsman, Alfred Morneault, carved a droll and vivid replica of an old-fashioned Madawaska lumber camp, complete with cook, carpenters and a hunter. He once explained, “It is a mission that I have to teach upcoming generations about the way of life of their ancestors.” An enormous, ungainly giraffe dappled with circles and spots was one of many exotic animals and figures sculpted in wood and plaster by Alcide Saint-Germain, a retired Quebecer, to decorate the front lawn of his Sainte Antoine-Abbé suburban home. Some of the creatures could be activated from inside the house to wave at passers-by, in order, he said, “to make them laugh.” In the century that separates Mary Morris from Alcide Saint-Germain, the conditions for making folk art have undergone a transformation. Indeed, some critics have claimed that there is no more folk art because there are no more folk. Supposedly, the breed is vanishing as the

isolated and tightly knit communities in which their art once flourished are swallowed up by cities and by the homogenizing tendency of modern life. But the wealth of contemporary work contained in From the Heart suggests that folk art is not such a fragile flower. True, most of the contemporary artists in the show are elderly, but it is common for folk artists to blossom in their retirement years. As the catalogue indicates, they have adapted to modernity instead of being crushed by it.

Although these artists live in rural communities and draw heavily on a love of nature in their work, they are not sheltered from the world. In fact, images gleaned from radio, television and even fast-food outlets—the supposed enemy of all that is precious and individual-crop up regularly in the exhibition. For example, Eisenhauer has carved an elegantly slimmed-down Col. Sanders. Sam Spencer, who listened to hockey games on the radio in the heyday of the Toronto Maple Leafs, created a lively wooden plaque around a central figure of a Leaf player. Oscar Héon’s small wood carving of a young, barbelltoting mother was inspired by a morning exercise program on TV.

As certain traditional functions of folk art, such as embellishing utilitarian objects, have disappeared because of the mass production of household goods, it appears that the creative impulse has been increasingly channelled into works of whimsy and pure esthetic intent. The pinnacle of fantasy is a marvellous cabinet-sized music box with 50 moving figures created by the late Alphonse Grenier, who once described himself as a poor but happy Quebec farmer with “a good wife” and 18 children. The box’s three levels depict dancing revellers, a gory vision of Hell (including a naked Whore of Babylon with moving breasts), plus an old-fashioned scene of harvesting and the spinning of flax. Once, when someone suggested that he patent his creation, Grenier laughed and said that only “a madman like me” could duplicate the work. Other fanciful works include Nelphas Prévost’s handmade violin adorned with a carved lion’s head, Gilbert Plains’s wind-driven whirligig in which a bull chases a man and Ewald Rentz’s clever Bellhop, a monkey carrying two suitcases reading WE ARE ON TIME.

The finest pieces in the show are by artists who transcend whimsy and idiosyncracy to produce esthetically satisfying objects in their own right. The most accomplished group of works is by Eisenhauer, an 85-year-old Nova Scotian who only began to carve seriously in 1964. From small, erotic works like Leda and the Swan to the full-sized, elegantly poised Fiddler, his work consistently displays a subtle wit and distinctive character. Rentz’s magnificent Turkey, fashioned from painted tree burls and fungi, and Phillipe Roy’s painfully stylized figures of Adam and Eve are equally distinguished.

Americans have long revered their heritage, even enshrining it in the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. Canadians have been slower to pay attention. However, interest has been slowly growing over the past two decades as curators, collectors and gallery owners have scoured farm communities and fishing villages for hidden gold. As it sweeps across the country, From the Heart will bring that abundant wealth to light as never before.