Ralph and Winnie Are Not Artists: The legacy of Nova Scotia folk art icons

Ralph Eyre (1917-2007)

“I’m not an artist; I’m not a wood carver!” Ralph was emphatic, “I don’t know how to take a piece of wood and make anything.” With strong calloused hands, Ralph Eyre held a gnarled silver gray piece of driftwood up to the light filtering through a sawdust caked window of the century old shed that was his workshop. “I just see the bird in the wood; I don’t carve it. It’s there.” His finger touched the smooth wood and traced the outline of the neck then the beak. “See, there’s its eye,” his finger pointed to a small dark knot then flowed down a graceful back to the end of its tail feathers. His blue eyes gleamed with a child’s reality of the obvious. This was not a metaphysical moment. The bird was in the driftwood, and I could clearly see its presence. After a dozen years visiting Ralph, purchasing many of his birds, watching him work and listening to his stories, I didn’t just believe him; I saw the bird before his finger touched the wood.

Ralph and Winne Eyre in 2002

For forty years, with the assistance and fierce devotion of his wife, Winnie, Ralph Eyre found over 20,000 birds hiding in the driftwood roots of native Nova Scotia spruce, sumac, white cedar and barberry. I had the great fortune of interviewing Ralph and Winnie in 2002, their last year at the 100 acre farm outside Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Winnie passed away in 2006 and Ralph followed in 2007 at the age of 90, but their legacy lives on.

Like living birds, no two of Ralph’s driftwood creatures are alike. “It’s nature’s way of imitating art. I just release them from the wood,” he said without pretension. Mounted on exquisite pieces of driftwood, they have found homes throughout North America, Europe, Japan, and “I know there are a few in Vietnam.” With no advertising, Ralph was living proof that it it’s good enough they will come. And they came back to the Eyre’s farm summer after summer, bringing friends, relatives and the friends of relatives. I know; I was one of them. I also know I’m not the only one who gave more as gifts than I kept.

Each bird began its life as a weathered piece of driftwood, 90% of which were tree roots. Ralph became fascinated with the intrinsic beauty of tree root driftwood in the late 1940’s while stationed in the Yukon. He observed the techniques and styles of several First Nation craftsmen. In the late 1950’s, while on a camping trip to Nova Scotia’s Lake Rossignol, Ralph was stunned by the quality and quantity of its driftwood. “It must have been stacked 20 to 30 feet tall on the shore.” While others were looking for First Nation artifacts, “I loaded my canoe. It must have looked like a crazy driftwood freighter.”

As Ralph and Winnie explained the process, I watched their eyes sparkle from both the pleasure they found in their work and the obvious love for each other – when Winnie passed away in 2006 they had just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. Their tools and methods were simple. “I start with collecting tree roots that have been submerged in the lake maybe for 30 or 40 years. They’re dead but preserved. Many are riddled with worm holes. That gives them character and texture.” For at least a year hundreds of pieces lay on long wooden tables outside his workshop drying in the sun. He studied a seasoned piece of wood, discovered the bird and traced its outline using a black crayon. Depending on the size of the piece, he used a chain saw and/or hand axe to cut away the wood trapping the animal. A wood rasp and disk sander was applied to reveal its form. Winnie then joined the process by hand sanding, giving each piece a smoothness that rivals silk and highlighting the subtle shadings of color and grain unique to each piece of wood. After applying sanding sealer and roughing the surface slightly with steel wool, she used ordinary neutral Kiwi shoe polish that added a soft, rich glow. “No verithane,” Ralph said, “too glossy.”

Another piece of driftwood was carefully selected to provide the base. Nothing was altered on this piece, “I want a polished bird on a natural wood base. Maybe it’s a single bird resting, or ready to take off, or a family with the daddy bird off to the side protecting the mother as she looks at her eggs.” Eggs were beautifully painted nodules of sea kelp resting in a nest of hay in a natural hollow in the wood. “Selecting the right piece of wood for the base is important”, Ralph added, “It gives the bird a story.”

seal resting on the shore

Stories were important to Ralph and Winnie. A back room of their barn/showroom was the “museum.” They discovered more than just birds in the wood. On one table was an exquisite driftwood shoe complete with the Old Women and all her children. Within a wire cage was a driftwood tree with dozens of swinging monkeys from its branches. A collection of mermaids and sea animals sun themselves on ocean worn rocks.  An entire circus train with each wooden carriage containing animals is now part of the permanent folk art collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia – the premiere museum in Halifax. None of these were ever for sale, but I knew more than one child that was gifted with a dinosaur or lizard while their parents perused the hundreds of birds on display.

Mermaid and sea animals sunning on the shore

Ralph’s vision didn’t stop at animals. He discovered the perfect piece of driftwood, weighted with just enough embedded rocks to make a fascinating lamp base. Or the correct oval piece, with a slight indentation, for a free form fruit bowl.

Their playfulness and joy in living makes using the term “National Treasure” trite, and they would have been embarrassed if I had insisted on that title. Yet the prices that they placed on their creations were an embarrassment.  After 40 years (late 1950s – early 2000s) and 500 works of art per year, the average prices ranged from $10 to $25. On many occasions Ralph would tell me that few people would want to pay more for his simple birds. When I ask again, “Why do you sell the birds for so little?” Winnie jumped right in without hesitation and with genuine enthusiasm, “Because of all the people who come and visit us! We love the people. We get cards at Christmas from all over, and they come back and bring their friends. It’s just wonderful! They might not come back if we charge more.”

Many a business person would question this economic wisdom, but for Ralph and Winnie Eyre, they saw a treasure hiding in the driftwood that few people will ever discover – the secret to a life fulfilled through the sheer pleasure of following their passion.

log cabin on small lake Ralph built for picnics on their Yarmouth farm

10 thoughts on “Ralph and Winnie Are Not Artists: The legacy of Nova Scotia folk art icons”

  1. What a nice story. Winnie’s lovely response to your question about why they charge so little for their birds (“Because… we love the people!”) turns our culture’s thinking about monetary value on its head. There is the “pricey” which our consumption culture has come to see as “the best”, and then there is the “priceless” – which is what Ralph and Winnie seem to have been. Wish I’d gotten to meet them!

    My mom hand-beaded American Indian medicine pouches that took her over 80 HOURS to make. How does one put a price tag on such an endeavor? She took an occasional commission (from friends only), and charged $200 per necklace. Does this mean her time was worth $2/hour? She was an educated woman, raised five children, pinched her pennies fiercely and kept a beautiful home. What if she had outsourced? But then it wouldn’t be the same product any more… it wouldn’t have the same value, which is… priceless!

    A few years ago, Mom impulsively gave one of the medicine pouch necklaces to a colleague of mine. I’d seen one like it in an upscale shop in Maui a few years ago, and the pricetag was $600. And it wasn’t nearly as nice as her work! Well – much to my chagrin, this colleague “lost” the necklace. It was clear that he hadn’t valued an old woman’s loving efforts as much as – say – something that had been written up in a tony magazine catering to the upscale-minded. And yet when I show her work to professional beaders, they are awed by her beautiful and meticulous work. Go figure!!!!!

  2. Winnie and Ralph were the parents of my beautiful, loving, caring Aunt Heather. I am only 36 and didn’t get to know them well but I always had fond memories of going to Winnie and Ralph’s house. They were such a sweet couple and Heather takes after them. The last time I saw Winnie was at her daughter’s house in NB. I had my son with me. He is only eight now. He saw no sign of Alzheimer’s, which was quite apparent to us, that was plaguing Winnie. He sat down right next to her and “chatted.” It was a touching moment. You could still see kindness and love in Winnie’s soul.
    Ralph’s driftwood can be found around Ray and Heather’s house. Many beautiful pieces including lamps and a table and outside in the field beneath a tree, my children and I stumpled upon some more hidden treasures; Ralph’s unfinished driftwood. I asked Heather if we could have a piece and she was pleasantly surpised that someone would want it. It’s beautiful. A medium/large piece of wood with a bird. The pieces of wood I believe he is famous for.
    Grace, beauty, kind, generous, loving, compassionate, sensible people who seemed truly thankful and blessed for everything they did or had.
    I miss having them in our family. Our kids would have loved them. 🙂

    That being said, thank you for writing this story. I have never seen it until now.

  3. hello Marc, and thank you for the article. i am the daughter of Winnie and Ralph who also got tangled up with a d’Entremont 43 years ago.. married Raymond a Louis a Pierre a Dick….I have several pieces of their wood along with my brother and I have a whole pile of wood spread out in my back yard that they never got around to “finishing”. but I keep them and smile when I go by the pile…

    1. Thank you very much Heather. That means a lot. I really admired your parents and treasure the time I was able to spend with them. A couple years ago the Yarmouth Library requested a copy for their archives. My wife and I were thrilled a few months ago when I discovered, and purchased, one of your father’s folk art pieces on line available from a Lunenberg gallery. I will add it to the article and send you a pic vie email.

  4. I am the grand-nephew of Winnie and Ralph. Every summer in the 1970s and 80s, my family would spend a week with my grandparents who lived a few miles down the road. Some of my greatest childhood memories were from the times we spent on Winnie and Ralph’s farm. I even participated in several of his driftwood collecting expeditions. My parents own many of Ralph and Winnie’s driftwood creations. Both beautiful and whimsical, these 30+ year old creations still adorn their house. I was fortunate to see them one last time in 2002 before they moved to NB.

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