THEY’RE IN THE CHIPS
Want an inch-long miniature or a twelve-foot statue? The artists of St. Jean Port Joli, who carve for Vatican and frontier cabin, will execute it in wood
THE United States senator on tour hadn’t intended to stop in St. Jean Port Joli, but someone told him the tiny old town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence held North America’s finest wood carvers, and the senator used to be a whiz with a jackknife himself. His eyes widened as he looked down at the exquisite bust of “Christ Suffering” upon which Médard Bourgault worked. No tourist trinket this, but a work of art.
“I’ll take it,” said the senator.
Tall, greying Médard Bourgault selected another of the 140 specialized chisels which St. Jean Port
Job’s blacksmith forges for the wood carvers of the town. It was his brother and partner, Jean Julien Bourgault, who answered.
“That head is for a bttle church of Nova Scotia,” he said. “It is necessary that one order some months in advance, monsieur.”
The senator snorted. He was an important man, he wasn’t used to being put off this way. “Nonsense! He can always carve another for the church.” Acting on the theory that money talks, he reached for his wallet. “I’m in a hurry. How much does he want for it?”
“The price is $100.” A master carver in his own right, Jean Juben can be a droll fellow when he wishes. Now, though, he spoke with dignity. “But it is not for sale.”
• “I’ll give you $300 for it.”
“It is still not for sale.”
“All right, $400. That’s my final offer.” The senator extended the bills.
Apparently Jean Juben didn’t see them. “And this,” he said, “is our final refusal.”
“But! But—” The senator began to sputter. “I want that carving! I’ll pay—”
Médard, who once carved a “Christ Suffering” for the Holy Father himself, laid down his chisel. He turned to face the would-be buyer. The glacial glint in his blue eyes—that and something in his soft and mellow voice—brought the senator to an abrupt halt.
“Today is July 10,” Médard said. “If you wish a carving similar to this, come back and see me on July 12.”
Two days wasn’t long to wait, not for a masterpiece. But the senator’s grin froze as Médard added calmly, “On July 12 three years from now.”
Juben, courtesy itself, escorted their deflated visitor to the studio door. “Come around three in the afternoon,” Médard called as he removed another minute shaving from the figure that would bring beauty to a lost bttle church of the Maritimes.
The incident is typical of the brothers Bourgault, and of the town in which they and their fellow carvers shape the wood of native trees into religious and secular masterpieces. Time matters bttle in St. Jean Port Joli. The Catholic town wears its 327 years lightly, dreaming in the gateway of Gaspé, 59 miles east of Quebec City. Its two small factories spasmodically turn out stoves and furniture. It has five hotels, no theatre, but a church built in 1779. In it, for all the generations of its three centuries, artists have worked in wood.
The Bourgault’8 carvings range in size from
inch-long miniatures to
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They're in the Chips
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12-foot statues made in sections. They sell at from $100 to more than $5,000, depending on the size and the time spent at the job—half a day to half a year. Bourgault carvings can be found in practically every country, in churches, hotels and art galleries, in the homes of rich and poor alike.
Wood carving in St. Jean Port Joli is of two kinds—that typified by the Bourgault brothers and their followers, and that of pudgy, 51-year-old Eugene Leclerc, who for more than a generation has been carving, in intricate detail, models of old sailing ships, frigates and men-of-war. These, like the Bourgaults’ carvings, are sold all over the world.
They Make Art Pay
There are 62 professional wood carvers and several hundred minor and student carvers in St. Jean Port Joli. Actually, more than half the 1,200 residents are concerned with wood carving—either as an art or a business. Farmers of the district supply maple, basswood, aged pine, cedar, red birch and walnut. Village blacksmith Leo Pelletier forges carvers’ chisels from Italian, Swiss and German steel. Other villagers sell the work of minor carvers to the thousands of American and Canadian tourists who stop at their roadside stands each summer. But while the tourist may pay from $1 to $100 for a carving at a roadside stall, the best wood carvings are rarely for sale there. Most of the professionals sell their own work or, as is usually the case because of the great demand, work only to order.
One frequent visitor to the village of the wood carvers was the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An ardent sailor, he bought a $75-model sailing vessel from Eugene Leclerc, as well as several carvings from the Bourgaults. Today these samples of FrenchCanadian wood carving are to be seen in F. D. R’s Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga.
It was an ancestor of the Bourgaults who first introduced the European wood carving art to America in 1733. The Bourgaults’ father, who died eight years ago at the age of 74, was not a wood carver. He was a skilled carpenter. But their mother was Emily Legros, direct descendant of Canada’s first wood carver. Mrs. Bourgault was a carver herself and she passed on to her four children her knowledge of the ancient art. When Jean Julien was only eight years old he carved a cemetery complete with tombs, coffins, corpses and mourners. From this somewhat macabre beginning he blossomed into the gayest and most prolific of the St. Jean Port Joli wood carvers. Today it is his older brother Médttrd who specializes in religious carvings.
A third Bourgault brother, chubby, 53-year-old André, and a sister, Yvonne, operate a unique wood carving school for more than 50 students from Canada, the U. S., Mexico and South America, 1,000 yards down the road from the old frame house that serves as a studio for their brothers.
Médard lives next door to the studio in a yeliow frame house. For 20 years, in his spare time, he has been carving the interior. His office, the only room completely finished, is undoubtedly the most beautiful, if not the most valuable, office in Canada. The wall panels are each a separately carved mural reaching from floor to ceiling. The entire ceiling is one huge, beautiful mural in bas-relief. Everything in the
room is carved from wood. The desk took over two years to carve (an American executive tried, unsuccessfully, to buy it for $25,000); the chairs, the lamps, the ash trays—even the floor is carved. Hundreds of subjects from Biblical characters and angels to habitant farmers and animals are represented. The books in the carved bookcase have carved wooden jackets.
Médard is shy and reserved, reticent with strangers. Both he and Jean Julien have the high forehead and Roman nose of their mother. But the brothers, while alike in many ways, are entirely different personalities. Médard is a serious-minded, deeply religious man with a genuine, though quiet, sense of humor. He is a family man, a strict but gentle father. He likes old clothes and plain French-Canadian food. He drinks a little wine, an occasional beer, and puffs continuously at an old corncob pipe stuffed with pungent tabac Canadien which is grown in the district. Only for Sunday Mass does he wear a tie; he keeps his peaked cap on when working.
Though the Bourgaults expect good prices for their work, they are by no means slaves to money. Instead, they prefer to regard it as an unfortunate necessity.
They start work at eight each morning, and often work until eight in the evening, stopping only for lunch, afternoon coffee made on a burner in the studio, supper, and the mailman. The arrival of mail breaks the mo no ton y of steady chiseling and carving. The brothers leave the letters containing orders (Médard reads the French, Jean Julien the English ones, after work) in a pile in the corner, but always open the dozen or so fan letters that come in every day from all over the world. I he brothers answer their own fan letters and split the ones just addressed to “The Bourgaults.’1
Confirmed sentimentalists, they think nothing of postponing or even refusing a major commission in order to carve something for a lonely housewife in Alaska or an impoverished schoolteacher in Chicoutimi, Que.
Memorial for Heroes
Last year Médard was working on a set of bas-relief Stations of the Cross for the war-ravaged Cathedral of Caen, France, when a letter arrived from the Rousseau family of Montmagny, Que. It was an order for a set of Stations of the Cross for the parish church of the little French town of Igny, Pres Abricour, on the Franco - German border in Lorraine. The church, destroyed by a bomb during the war, was being restored. Why was a Quebec family buying a set of Stations of the Cross for this little French church? The letter explained. The Stations were to be a memorial to two sons of the Rousseau family who were killed in France during the war. Why did the family pick the church of Igny, Pres Abricour? One of the Rousseau boys, a parachutist with the Canadian Army, lost his life in the Normandy invasion. On the same day, his brother, a leader of French Maquis, was shot down by the Gestapo on the steps of the church of Igny, Pres Abricour.
Every member of the Rousseau family, which includes farmers, store clerks, businessmen, priests, nuns, factory workers and students, contributed part of the $1,400 needed to pay for the Stations. The letter explained that the anniversary of the death of the Rousseau boys was in five inonths, and asked that the Stations be delivered to the church by then.
It takes Médard four months to carve a set of Stations of the Cross (each Station measures 40 by 36inches),
and at the time he had just started the set for Caen Cathedral.
The day of the Rousseau anniversary was a holiday in Igny, Pres Abricour. Though the church had not yet been completely restored—part of one wall was still missing and most of the windows were without stained-glass panes—Father Allin Lenjer, curé of the parish, offered up a special Mass for the Rousseau brothers. In his sermon he spoke of the two Freñch-Canadian soldiers the town was honoring that day. Practically the entire population came to hear him, and to see the beautiful Stations of the Cross that hung on the unfinished walls—the Stations that had been carved out of white basswood by the French-Canadian wood carver Médard Bourgault— the .Stations that had originally been intended for the famous Cathedral of Caen.
Balding, puckish, 44-year-old Jean Julien is the more active and demonstrative of the two. When he talks—in a vibratingly alive voice which, even when he argues, seems to continuously ripple with laughter—he gesticulates wildly, and his lean, aquiline face with its thin black mustache goes into all manner of contortions.
He lives in a stone house in the town and hatches many of his ideas while walking to work. He likes the mile to and from the studio both summer and winter. Only on blizzardy days does he ride in the town’s battered “snowmobile” taxi.
Jean Julien carries a notebook on which he jots down ideas for carvings whenever they strike him. At night he keeps his notebook and pencil under his pillow, frequently waking in the early hours to scribble a new notion. This practice used to draw many a complaint from Jean Julien’s wife, who vigorously objected to his turning the light on whenever a nocturnal inspiration woke him. Jean Julien solved this marital problem by adding a pencil flashlight to his under-pillow workshop.
Named after a famous FrenchCanadian painter, Jean Julien often sketches his subject in his notebook before he begins to carve. In his spare time he paints with oils and water colors.
The inspiration for the best of his famous bas-relief murals of French-Canadian scenes came while he was attending a village council meeting. He spent over three months on this carving. It portrays a council meeting in the eighteenth century, and the characters display a wide range of emotions. An overturned chair, a cap on the floor, and a curious villager peering through the door, add humor to a truly great wood carving. Because Jean Julien likes it so well, and can’t bring himself to sell it, the mural now hangs in Auberge du Faubourg, St. Jean Port Job’s newest hotel, owned by a cousin of the Bourgaults.
Jean Julien is a practical joker. Most of his pranks are directed at Médard. Visitors to the village come away chuckling over a sample of the biggest practical joke Jean Julien ever played. It came about when Médard decided he should have personal cards so that he wouldn’t have to write down his address for every visitor to the studio. He made out a sample card and gave it to Jean Julien for correction, telling him to order enough so that he wouldn’t have to be bothered for a year or two. Under his name on the sample card, Médard scribbled: “Carver of religious subjects.” In a few weeks, the express company began to dump carton after carton on the Bourgault doorstep. As the boxes piled
up, Médard, bewildered and more than a little apprehensive, frowned at his brother who was innocently waxing a carving.
“What,” asked Medard, “is in all these boxes?”
“Ah, I believe they’re your cards,” replied Jean Julien. “I thought I had better get enough to last you the rest of your life while I was about it. So I ordered a million.”
Médard got an even bigger shock when he looked at his cards. They read: “Médard Bourgault, Carver of the Religious and Profane.”
Sometimes, though, staid Médard has the final word, as in the case of the impatient senator whom Médard had invited to come back “on July 12— three years from now, about three in the afternoon.”
Three years passed, and it was July 12 again. At three o’clock Jean Julien addressed his brother. “You didn’t really expect that one to return?”
Médard shrugged and smiled.
Six o’clock came, and they were preparing to knock off work, when a long black car with U. S. license plates stopped outside. The senator puffed up the lane to the studio.
“I’ve come for my carving,” he announced.
Without saying a word, Médard crossed to the storeroom. In a few minutes he emerged with a bust of “Christ Suffering,” a carving even more beautifully executed than the one which
had captivated the senator on his earlier visit.
“Here you are, monsieur,” he said.
The senator offered Médard four hundred-dollar bills. Médard handed two of the bills back.
“But I agreed to pay $400, remember?”
“My price is still $100,” Médard said.
“Then,” asked the puzzled senator, “why have you kept $200?”
Médard walked over to the far corner of the room and from a nail stuck in the wall pulled a sheaf of papers. From the bottom of the pile he extracted a dusty, frayed bill, scribbled on it, put it in an addressed but unsealed envelope, and handed it to the senator. It was the longoverdue bill for $100 for the carving shipped to the tiny, and poor, Nova Scotia church, three years before. “Paid” was scrawled over Médard’s signature.
“As you were so determined to buy that first carving and seem to have more money than you really need or know what to do with,” Médard said, “I felt sure you would enjoy the satisfaction of buying the first carving after all—for the church. Could you please mail the curé that receipt?”
Later, Jean Julien remarked wonderingly, “I don’t know how you could possibly have been sure that he would turn up. But you were right.”
“I wasn’t right,” replied Médard dryly, “he was three hours late.” ★