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  Saint-Jean-Port-Joli: Woodcarvers' Mecca

by Mike Bloomquist

 

This little article is way overdue. In fact I couldn't believe it when I checked the dates of the pictures I had taken. Several years ago, during one of the first Northeast Woodcarvers Roundup events, a fellow woodcarver by the name of Elmer Jumper described to me his pilgrimage to a port town on the south side of the St. Lawrence called Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. Ever since then I had really wanted to make a pilgrimage of my own to this place. By my calculations, it was five years after I had heard about it that Yvonne (the long-suffering Mrs. Bloomquist) and I actually planned the trip. It's been three years since then before my writing about it... My apologies.

One of the
reasons foThe Way North r the long delay between hearing of this woodcarvers’ Mecca and actually making the trip, might have had to do with its location. Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is fairly deep into the provinc e of Québec and I had been told by others, not Elmer, about how intolerant the locals were of non-French-speaking visitors from outside the province. Unfortunately for us this turned out to by a huge heap of.... misinformation. With the exception of one restaurant in the town itself, everyone we interacted with were very accommodating to us even though Yvonne had not taken French in high school and I had barely scraped by two years of it. It was true, the further you got away from the beaten track the less likely the folks you encountered would be bilingual but even then they were always very helpful and we managed to communicate. My first experience with this French-speaking province came when we visited the information center on the other side of the border from New York. It was there that I brought in the woodcarving book whose author was one of the top goals of the trip, and the young lady behind the counter coached me in pronouncing the name of Benoi Deschênes. She also gave us great advice regarding the cities of Montréal and Québec as well as the best way to get to our final destination. I should have taken this as very encouraging and a good omen, but I pessimistically thought the information center would be a last-place they would put a person who was English hostile. This was so far from the truth it was embarrassing.

Montréal was our next stop where we stayed at a Day’s Inn which was slightly north and east of the Chinatown district. Early the next morning, after checking out, we briefly toured that district which was to begin an unfortunate pattern for the trip. When Yvonne and I travel one of us “owns” the trip and we plan activities for the other. Obviously this was “my trip” so visiting Montreal’s Chinatown was one of those activities for Yvonne. Unfortunately it was a di
sappointment as the Montréal Chinatown district didn't have the same "features" as the NYC Chinatown our daughter had taken her mother to earlier. On the other hand, I found two shops with loads of material for the Chinese brush painting that I was giving a try. Like I said, the beginnings of an unfortunate pattern. Soon after that we headed northeChocolate Clock ast to Québec, and our next hotel. After checking in we spent the remainder of that day touring several shops in Old Town Québec. Yvonne’s favorite was a cute little chocolate shop/museum with the history of chocolate making, and several impressive constructions made entirely out of chocolate. It also had some "killer" flavors of homemade ice cream. My favorite was an import shop which had an impressive collection of wood carvings from Indonesia. They were of a slightly better quality than I was used to and their prices reflected that. Still, I was very tempted to add one to my collection, but put off the decision. The next day in our trip would be totally dedicated to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli and who knew what waited for me there. If I came through financially unscathed, we could always return here before l eaving Quebec. This time I only had a slight advantage over Yvonne on our side activity, but the pattern continued.

The next day, using Route 20, we ran parallel to the St. Lawrence River for about an hour and a half, exited, and went north to the town of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli and the “main event” for our trip. I am not your stereo typical male. I have a very, very good sense of direction. I also have no trouble asking for directions when necessary (and I love maps). So, considering we were in unfamiliar territory and wanted to see as much as we possibly could, the first place we stopped was the tourist information building which conveniently located just off the main intersection. Now during trips, Yvonne is a pamphlet freak. She will pick up any available pamphlet regardless of how remote the chances are that we want to see that particular site and independent of the fact we already had that pamphlet from a previous stop. Me, I'm for the overall map of the area with the sites indexed by number and located on the map. After that I will pick 3 to 5 pamphlets specific to sites that I absolutely know we're going to see and be pleasantly surprised with anything else we stumble on along the way. Not really conflicting styles but my technique kills fewer trees.

Our first visit was to the sculpture park, Parc des Trois-Bérets (Three Hats Park?). This site hosts the International Sculpture Symposium held annually and it contains sculptures from several years of this event. Most of the carvings are very stylized and/or modern in nature. Definitely a "must see" regardless of your tastes in art style. All sculptures were bolted to their pads and had plaques giving their artist, their title, their country of origin, in the year they were in the symposium. I had a lucid moment and took pictures of each plaque so that I could translate them later. Sometimes this led to a pleasant discovery of the story behind the piece “Le legend du colibri (the legend of the hummingbird)” by Andre Sandel of
Three Hats ParkFrance. At first I thought it was a legend which told of a great fire that drove out the animals of the forest. As the animals stopped at the edge of a river they turned and bemoaned the destruction of their homes, but felt they could do nothing about it. A hummingbird however took water into its beak and flying over the forest dropped it onto the flames. When the animals mockingly asked the hummingbird what it was doing the hummingbird replied "I am doing what I can". Since the elven figure holding a hummingbird was somewhat demonic and flame like I bought into this version of the story. I have since found other myths involving a hummingbird being pursued by mosquitoes and finding refuge with elf like creatures. I have not been able to find "the final word", an explanation by the artist himself. The search goes on. The other sculpture that had a very strong impact on me was tucked away in the far corner of the park up against the fence. This piece was titled “A l’infini du reve (The infinite one of dreams?)” by Edith Croft of Canada. It was very powerful, very disturbing and because of that, one of the better sculptures in the park in my opinion.

Our next stop was the Musée Des Anciens Canadiens (Museum of Historic Canadiens?). Notice that I'm not quite sure of the translation but many of the carvings dealt specifically with the history of the area so you get the drift. As you enter the building you come directly into the gift shop area. This gift shop turned out to be higher quality than most of the other gift shops we saw later, but what you're here for primarily is the museum tour. There is a fee but it's very much worth it. They also have an artist in residence, and since we were there in the middle of the week and
The Woodcarving Museumthere was someone making chips, I believe this was a regular thing. Coincidently, woodcarver’s name was Deschènes. No, he did not know Benoi personally, but suspected they were distant cousins. The pictures from this museum that I include in this article are only a small fraction of the wonderful collection of wood carvings that were there. Hopefully they whet your appetite for seeing it all. The only disappointment at this museum came when I mentioned Benoi Deschênes name to the gift store manager. The manager most definitely knew of him, but thought he had closed the cottages that he rented out and his son was teaching the woodcarving classes, not Benoi. My hopes of meeting him were discouraged.

Next stop was the Boutique La Magie de Noël ("The Magic of Christmas Botique"). With the exception of a gnome on the front porch, the shop didn't have any woodcarving items, at least not for sale. But I did speak with the owner and when the subject of woodcarving came up he pulled out his scrapbook/brag book and I learned that, among other items, he carved animated Santas. The one I remember the most had Santa and Mrs. Clause in the kitchen making cookies. The power for the animation came from a windup music movement and it was connected to the figure of Mrs. Clause causing her to roll out the cookie dough. After a little more discussion with the shop owner, I found out he did have some carving books for sale in the back. Here I discovered a copy of 3-D wood s
culpture by the author of my quest, Benoi Deschênes. So my next question was, does he know M. Deschênes, and yes he does. Does he know if M. Deschênes still teaches and if he might be in the studio today? He answers this by picking up his cell phone and calling a number which he obviously knows very well and speaks in French with Mademoiselle Deschênes. Afterwards, he put the phone down and made a translation. I found out that yes, her husband is teaching... Yes, he is in the studio now, and, yes, I would be most welcome to come and visit. I'm embarrassed to say here that visiting this Christmas shop held the least anticipation for discovering woodcarvings or anything woodcarving related. Ya never can tell for sure! Truthfully, prior to walking into this shop, I felt our visit to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli was already a success regardless of whether I was able to meet Benoi Deschênes in person. Thanks to a common love for carving wood, this trip was only getting better anA huge Relief Carving d better. I did find a small cast figure of a gnome standing near mushrooms and holding a pumpkin and Yvonne discovered some ornaments for herself, but these were selected long before the other good fortune came about.  We made a pleasant visit last a bit longer, paid for our discoveries and started back through town toward M. Deschênes's studio/home.

When I remember my first impressions of the Mssr. Deschênes, the words "gracious" and "genteel" come to mind immediately. The studio had the feel of well-worn and comfortable shoes. There were four workstations scattered about the shop space. Each space had similar but not quite identical workbenches. The doorframe had a tendril of ivy growing through it. When I smiled and pointed it out, Benoi described it as summer mascot. The whole place had a feeling of natural Fen Shui which had evolved totally on its own... Probably the best kind. I apologize for not having any photographs, but I have an aversion to taking pictures when I'm visiting with people. Perhaps on my next visit when I'm a student. Anyway, you can find pictures of Benoi’s studio and works at http://www.benoideschenes.com. In the shop display case I found items for sale which included a third book of Benoi’s covering th
e local woodcarving history. I also found some fine "Swiss Made" gouges and had no problem locating a size and sweep that wasn't already in the arsenal… functional souvenirs… gotta love them. Just down the road from Benoi’s shop, back towards town, was our last visit and my conclusion that there must be a woodcarving gene associated with the name Deschênes.

Nicole Deschênes Duval lives just down the road a mile or two from Benoi. The only marker of her home/studio is a banner and sign beside the driveway where it meets the main road. The drive crosses through a mown field and disappears into a line of trees. There is no hint or promise of any building beyond. As you drive into trees there’s a left hand turn, the light level drops suddenly and you begin uphill through a sudden old growth forest with pines that look eons older than the line of sentinels that were facing the road. They grow out from beneath and between huge boulders, wrapping ancient roots around them like huge hands. It’s hard to describe the absolute teleportation that took place as we continue up towards a studio that still was not visible, but if you looked carefully beyond the trees nearest you, into the darkness, it wasn’t hard to imagine gnomes and tomtes and maybe things a little darker and more secretive squinting back at you. Through some landscapers clever trick it seemed that the roadway, despite being paved, had been there since before cars. Even the house, though it had some interesting lines and was de
finitely built within the last 60 or 70 years, belonged in that ancient setting as if it had grown there with the trees. Where the roadway ended at the house there was room for three, possibly four cars without appearing to be a parking lot. There was no garage, just a very inviting studio front full of windows through which you could see several displayed figure carvings and Mlls Deschênes Duval carving at a simple bench. Her specialty is children and adolescents and though her brochure lists bronze, stone, and wood as her mediums, there was only one bronze and no works of stone that I remember. The rest was butternut… butternut figures that had breath and told you stories with bright and shining eyes. Figures of butternut just as magical as the forest that enclosed her creative space. I wandered through that studio several times and found work of other artists as well. There was Geoffroy, whose work shows mostly a first people’s theme, Maurice Harvey, specializing in the female figures, Andrew Pelletier, displaying religious art and secular pieces and who was also a maker of violins, and Clermont Gagnon, also a carver of religious art and secular pieces and a former student of Benoi Deschênes from 1975 to 1980. On about the third circuit through this studio I thought I saw garage door tracks near the ceiling that were painted the same color as the wall for camouflage. This suggested that part of her shop/studio was actually a large converted garage, but after I tilted my head slightly and blinked quickly a couple times, that false image left and I returned to the true illusion of the magic place. Here http://www.nicoledeschenesduval.com/atelier.htm is a web link to Nicole’s work, but it just isn’t the same in two dimensions.

We tried one more “Yvonne activity” and visited the Quebec Aquarium. Now we both new that even thought the huge promotional banner for the aquarium had a humpback whale pictured that that it wasn’t large enough a facility for a tank large enough to actually displayed one, but the banner with the penguins reminded us that even the smaller aquariums usually had a display for one of Yvonne’s favorite animals. Nope. They had seals, they had polar bears, and they had sharks, but no penguins. Then the coup de grace came when that fellow with
Mike's Bonusthe live snowy owl (one of my favorite animals) on his arm came by and let me take all the reference pictures I wanted. Oh, and add one more incident to this pattern. The only restaurant miscommunication on the trip resulted in me eating two orders of spaghetti with a white seafood sauce that did not have just shrimp in it and Yvonne eating a Greek salad. Now that the "ugly pattern" was complete and we were on our way home, Yvonne was so joyous to discover an English speaking Ponderosa Steak House in Plattsburg, NY that it was embarrassing. Don’t feel bad for Yvonne though. Over the many trips we've taken since then the balance has more that swung her way… trust me!

No doubt about it, Elmer Jumper did not exaggerate that Saint-Jean-Port-Joli was a woodcarving Mecca, and that's just with what we had time to explore.  There were probably half a dozen woodcarver's studio we didn't make it to.  It is definitely worthy of the “bucket list” if you’re a fan of sculpture, but especially if you are a wood carver/sculptor. Well Gang, that’s my trip report for this issue. Sorry for the long absence. Keep those edges keen, the chips piled high, and...






Keep on carvin’
-Mike Bloomquist->


 


The Humming BirdThe Humming Bird PlaqueInfinity PlaqueInfinity

FamilyFamily (detail)

Into His Books

Museum Display 1

Harry Potter


Museum Display 2Museum Display 2 (detail)

Museum Display 3

Museum Display 5

Museum Display 6

Museum Display 7




Mike's mugMike Bloomquist is a carver and carving teacher, and a regular contributor to WOM.

You may visit Mike's web site, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving HERE or email him at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet.