Every time I travel to Toronto, it means at least one trip to the Gardiner Museum. They have an enormous permanent collection and a small area of contemporary ceramics. To the curators and staff who change these exhibitions regularly, I am most grateful. You keep us coming back discovering new artists that we did not know. And that is the case today with Edouard Jasmin (1905-87). I had never seen the work of Jasmin and it is fascinating. Jasmin lived in Montreal. It was only in his later years, long after his retirement, that he began to work with clay creating what some have called ‘sentimental memories’ of his childhood (Matthieu, ‘Speaking Volumes: Pottery and the Word’, Studio Potter).
Jasmin’s work was included in an exhibition curated by Sandra Alfoldy, ‘Folk/Funk,‘ at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2018. Here Alfoldy juxtaposed the work of trained ceramic artists against those untrained. The show was hailed as a whimsical look at the connections both in subject and methodology by these two very distinct groups of individuals.
Folk art is not new to the Maritimes. In the time that I lived there, six wonderful years, I came to appreciate the work of those around me more and more. My neighbour, Margaret Chubb, used to bring over the boxes of Christmas cards and painted scallop shells that Maud Lewis had given her. By the time I had moved to Nova Scotia, the work of Lewis was in high demand as was that of the folk artists that lived in the hills around Wolfville. Buses would come in the summer and fall loaded with enthusiastic collectors. Of course, the early years for Lewis were difficult. She would paint the scallop shells for Margaret’s father who would sell them in exchange for giving her food to eat. She lived in a tiny house covered with her work that is now part of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Jasmin worked with red earthenware clay and made images complete with ever-growing text that amused him. Some captured significant events in the history of Quebec while others recall scenes of his childhood. The featured image is General Store of 1982. For many in Canada, it is nostalgia. Every small village had a general store where they could get their mail, buy a few groceries, get gas, and order chicks in the spring that would be killed for food in the fall. Ada and Howard Stephenson owned the general store in Graysville, Manitoba. It was the heart of the village outside of the local school and the church. Usually stacked high or under some counter, almost anything you could ever want could be found. If not, there was always an alternative. This was the centre of community gossip. For me, they would know when I had gone into the ditch during the first winter store almost before I did. It was also the site of helpful advice and ice creams during the long hot days of summer. Most of these general stores have disappeared along with many of the local schools. The railway line from Winnipeg that ran through Graysville on its way to Snow Valley Ski Resort is now grown over and the general store at Roseisle, another treasure, is now ‘fancy and bright’.
Patenteaux a la Recherche du Mouvement Perpetuel or The Inventor in Search of Petual Motion (1983) shows a man in his workshop full of bits and bobs, wheels, cabinets full of curiosities. The man reaches out as if he is trying to speak to us, a sign at the back providing the title of the piece.
Spinner in the Attic was completed in 1982. A child holding a toy looks on as their mother (?) spins yarn at the wheel. The scene is framed by the contours of many Canadian attics, small windows fixed at the gable ends. An old trunk with leather straps is the only treasure to be seen. Indeed, Jasmin’s attic is quite different than most which were chock full the history of the families that lived in them. Jasmin abandons in this work the crowded scenes such as those of the inventor and focuses on the central activity of the wheel.
The last work of Jasmin’s included in the contemporary section of the Gardiner is Ecole St. Conveyon (St. Conveyon School) of 1982.
Like the general stores, the spinners of yarn, and the inventors, the one-room schoolhouse is a part of Canadian history. Many had closed by the time that Jasmin created this work in the early 1980s. The teacher wearing a striped dress has written on the board a question in her attempts to find out who in the class had been messing with the cuckoo clock and overturned it on its shelf. An old pot belly stove separates the teacher behind her desk and the children laughing in their seats as she attempts to quiet them.
While many of the facial features are the same in Jasmin’s work – often a limitation of someone not trained – there remains a sense of naiveness in capturing a moment in these tableaus. They are joyful and freer. Jasmin has no hesitation in trying to smooth the clay out or make the lines precise. It is this that gives them their charm. Each tells a story, and in the instance of the works held by the Gardiner, they are reminders of things in the past, gone forever in a world everchanging by technology.