Folk artist McPhail known for roosters, gentle spirit
By ELISSA BARNARD
Wed. Jan 16 - 6:58 AM
Annapolis Valley folk artist Garnet McPhail, who died Sunday, was well known for his roosters, as well as other carved animals and figures. His work is in collections throughout Canada and the United States. (Audrey Sandford)
Garnet McPhail, part of Nova Scotia’s first wave of folk artists, loved to make art and meet people.
The artist, who died Sunday at the age of 81, was a regular at the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival since it started in Lunenburg 20 years ago.
"He was just a real down-to-earth kind of guy," says festival co-founder David Stephens. "It wasn’t so much he was making money as he was making friends.
"He was really happy with what he was doing. I think he was surprised people would take an interest in his work."
McPhail’s work is in collections throughout Canada and the United States including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. He was featured in the National Film Board documentary Folk Art Found Me and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s 1997 exhibit A Life of Its Own.
"He’s one of the first wave of folk artists, the people who were at the first festival like Sid Howard, Lorne Reid and David Stephens," says Audrey Sandford, owner of the Black Sheep Gallery in West Jeddore Village.
Born in the Magdelan Islands, McPhail worked as a farmer, a cook, a mason’s helper, a woodsman, a tower forest ranger and from 1978 to 1987 in custodial services at Acadia University. It was there he was inspired to carve an alligator, says Stephens, also a folk artist living in Sydney.
"I remember asking Garnet how he got into carving." At Acadia "he would mop the floors at night. He never looked up too often. Then one day he happened to look up from his work and noticed an alligator skeleton and a stuffed alligator in a display case.
"He was so intrigued by this alligator that he went to the library and looked up several books on alligators and then went home and carved his very first alligator."
Sandford loves McPhail’s roosters.
"He was best known for his roosters and I’m looking at two of them right now, very primitive," she said, in a phone interview from Toronto. "He was one of the more primitive Nova Scotia folk artists.
"He did wonderful art."
McPhail’s pieces, carved with a chainsaw and other tools and featuring found objects, included spotted dogs, life-sized figures and a horse and wagon with a small spotted dog sitting beside a man in the wagon. "At one point he did the Titanic and it was huge, he had it at his shop."
Sandford has exhibited McPhail’s work since she opened her summertime folk art gallery nine years ago. "He was just a very gentle man, a sweet man and I remember going up to visit with my son and his new wife and I introduced them and he gave them a rooster. That was Garnet. He was really sweet and generous and gentle."
This year the Nova Scotia Folk Art Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary. "There are not too many of us left that came that first year," says Stephens, who compares McPhail’s work to that of the late Sid Howard, of Albert Bridge, Cape Breton.
"On the surface Garnet’s carvings were very basic — no subliminal messages — nothing too deep beneath the surface. However, for me I saw something different. I saw a sense of humanity, a love for nature and a sense of wonder. Garnet was exploring. He was making contact."
McPhail, who lived in Melanson, Kings County, is survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.