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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » RHODE ISLAND » Moise Potvin - Artist, Entertainer, and Impresario
The Roosevelt Cabinet, Moise Potvin, 1935
Moise Potvin - Artist, Entertainer, and Impresario

Part 1 - The Discovery

By Nicholas H. Kondon | September 01, 2011

It was the early nineties. I followed my friends, a married couple, Gene and Linda, through a metal door into a warehouse in Niagara Fall, NY.

Moise Potvin

Inside it was pitch black except for the alley of sunlight that streamed in behind us through the open door.   Linda located a row of switches and the warehouse lit up like a night baseball game.   We found ourselves in a five thousand square foot steel building with banks and banks of fluorescent lights suspended from a ceiling we could not see when we looked up.

We had come to Niagara Falls because Gene had been offered an opportunity to examine and make an offer to buy the life’s work of a folk artist named Moise Potvin.

Three weeks before, I had no idea who Potvin was, or what his life’s work might consist of, and I’ll wager that even if you’ve lived your whole life in Rhode Island, you still haven’t heard of him.   That’s too bad because his wonderful work is now scattered among collectors around the country.   Still maybe I can give you a tiny taste.

The warehouse was about 5,000 square feet.   Here and there were canvas-covered mounds, dusty and yellowed, looking like late season ski slope moguls, or small, dirty icebergs.   What was under them?

Moise (pronounced like moist with the t dropped) Potvin was born in 1876 in West Farnham, Quebec, Canada.   In 1891 the Potvin family immigrated to West Warwick, RI.   Then and now, every Rhode Island city and town was comprised of villages.

In West Warwick, the Potvins - all nineteen of them (!) settled in the village of Arctic.   At a tender age, Moise, the oldest child, went to work as a weaver and loom repairman.   According to him, although he earned a wage at these trades for fifteen years, he “[D]abbled with many sidelines: drawing, sign painting, carving, theatricals, etc., etc.” He married at age twenty, and prolific as his parents, he fathered twelve children.

Potvin with Some of his Paintings

In the autobiographic list of things he endeavored, he omitted large-scale portraiture of the rich and powerful, and extraordinary violin making.   But, these were things we did not yet know.

Linda started to lift a piece of canvas, but quickly called out for help.   She had no idea what she might be exposing, and wanted to insure that the protective covering came off without damaging what it hid.   Gene and I each grabbed a side so that the three of us formed a triangle.   No sooner had we started to lift than Linda called, “Wait.   Wait. Wait.   I don’t know what I’m looking at.   Oh, my God!”

Oh, my God what? Amelia Earhart’s airplane? Jimmy Hoffa? Missing Florida ballot boxes? “Oh, she exclaimed, it’s the Roosevelt cabinet!” Furniture? I thought.   Slowly, the three of us lifted the drape from a six foot by four foot in-the-round tableau carving of each and every member of Roosevelt’s 1934 cabinet, seated in a semi-circular cabinet room compete with NRA eagles, inlaid floors, paneled walls, and FDR presiding.   I agreed with Linda.   Oh, my God!

This dramatic carving, authentic to its smallest detail, including Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins - first-ever female appointee to the cabinet, stunned us.

The Roosevelt Cabinet, Moise Potvin, 1935

We proceeded now to strip one mound after another, pausing less than an awestruck second to admire each new revelation.   We knew that we could revisit each at our leisure, but right at that moment, it was Christmas, and we were children, and the draw of the next wrapped package was stronger than the pull of what had already been revealed.

There were twelve or thirteen mounds in all.   Later, we would learn that Potvin had carved and named others, but they were not discovered by us on this day.   One piece that was discovered by us, but is not cataloged in Potvin’s papers, was a tiered stage on which stood twenty thoroughbred dogs displayed as if at Westminster.   Each breed perfect in its relative size, coloring, and conformation.

We discovered, too, that many of Potvin’s works were automatons that sprang into motion when a lever was thrown, or a plug found a socket.   Men, women, horses, doors - things everywhere came alive.

If lined up in a single row, the art we found would stretch fifty or sixty feet – each piece self-contained, each with a completely different theme.   From the Last Supper to a cattle stampede.

Why did he make them with such precision, and animation? Who and what were they for? More answers, and more pictures, next time.

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