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Meeting Mr. Lajeunesse - by Phillip Ross

It was one of those rare occasions when I felt like dusting. Jeanine was in France visiting her parents and was to arrive home soon, so I thought it would be nice to tidy up the place. I think it was the summer of 1990. Duster in hand, I picked up a piece of folk art which we had always admired, a “Chien Mechant” or “Mean Dog”, and I noticed that on the bottom of the piece it was signed by the artist, Henri Lamenesse, with an address, St. Melanie, and what looked like a phone number. I guess I had noticed it before but not really reacted. I recalled having seen the signature on several birds and animal carvings, all of which I admired. It struck me that when Jeanine got home we were planning a trip to Quebec, and I became determined to try to reach the artist if he was still alive, and traceable.

We found St. Melanie on our map of Quebec and figured that the town was about an hour north-east of Montreal. Jeanine tried the number on the bottom of the piece and we were surprised and delighted when someone answered the phone. It was Mr. Lajeunesse himself, and he confirmed that he was a carver. We asked if it might to possible to visit him. Mr. Lajeunesse was as nice as he could be, and welcomed us to come anytime, as he would be home and happy to receive us. Jeanine began to set up a rendezvous time for the following Monday when Mr. Lajeunesse interrupted and said “yes, anytime was fine, he would be in.”

I remember we were a little concerned on the drive up that he may have been a bit casual as to our arrival time and may not be in. We imagined him off to the store, or forgetting entirely and being off with friends, etc; but when we arrived at his given address we realized why he had said to “come anytime because I’m always home”. Mr. Lajeunesse was residing in a nursing home.

Lajeunesse's Mean Dog

"Chien Mechant" or "Mean Dog" by Henri Lajeunesse

We found Henri Lajeunesse at home as he had promised, and in expectation of our visit he had arranged for his son to bring in the 40 or so carvings that he had stored at the end of his folk art career. We walked into his room which resembled a hospital room, except for the personal items which furnished it. Mr. Lajeunesse (then 84) got up from his chair by the window and greeted us warmly. Looking frail, but still emitting a warmth and selfsameness not present in some men half his age, he thanked us for coming such a distance to meet him, and we started a dialogue which lasted for over an hour about his life and folk art. He showed us clippings and told of us about his life as a carver. I’m currently contacting his relatives to obtain a detailed biography which I will post here soon, but at the time we just let the conversation flow where Henri (as he asked us to call him) wished.

Lajeunesse Bird
Carved Bird by Henri Lajeunesse
While Henri talked about his life and family, we continued to glance at all the pieces surrounding us, spread out on every dresser and tale top, and across the bed. There was mostly birds, but also some jungle cats, a fantastic primitive cross with rooster on top, busts of people, and other animals. All in the 10” to 20” size and all individual pieces (no group scenes or vignettes). All were good to great pieces and each had a little piece of masking tape with a price on it, ranging from $25 to $150 each. Eventually, Henri asked if we wanted to look at his work, and we did so as he continued to talk. After awhile he shyly asked if we liked any of his work, and we eagerly replied that, yes, we liked it very much. He then ventured to ask if we may want to purchase one or two pieces as a memento, and we took one look at each other to confirm what we were both thinking, and promptly told him that if it was all right with him we thought we would take every piece. I still recall with great pleasure how the smile spread across Henri's face, and he eagerly said that it was just fine. We added up the lot and gave him cash, and while we packed the pieces in the boxes we had brought he told us that he had been thinking about asking his son to bring his carving tools to him, because although he hadn’t felt much like carving, now that all his pieces were sold he may enjoy carving a few more birds.

Henri encouraged us to check back in with him the following year, but when we did his phone line had been disconnected. We are pretty sure that he must have passed away, or became incapacitated. We felt sad, but privileged to have met him. It was a great experience. In the end, we were enriched and very happy to have had our one afternoon talking with Mr. Lajeunesse. I will always remember him smiling with pride as he watched the surprise of his neighbours in the home when we carried out the boxes full of carvings.

Leopard #1 Leopard #2
Two Leopards by Henri Lajeunesse

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