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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » RHODE ISLAND » Moise Potvin - Artist, Entertainer, and Impresario
'Home Sweet Home' by Moise Potvin
Moise Potvin - Artist, Entertainer, and Impresario

Part 2 – A Human Dynamo

By Nicholas H. Kondon | September 19, 2011

Previous Article in this Series

In the first installment introducing Moise Potvin – Artist, Entertainer, and Impresario, I left my readers hanging between The Last Supper and a cattle stampede, an odd pause, even for me, but space was limited.

Potvin's carvings were Astonishingly Intricate

Not wishing to waste any more, let me dive in assuming that you’ve read Part 1.

Potvin, a fire hydrant of a man, who for the camera could create the mien of a bored aristocrat, was a peasant dynamo with boundless energy.   Whatever he attacked, his output was prodigious.

When silent movies were accompanied by musicians in orchestra pits, and violins were everywhere in evidence, Potvin claimed to have made 160 violins, and to have repaired over 1,000! How long must that have taken? No matter, because violins were only a tiny part of his life.   And, when talkies forced the mass layoffs of thousands of violinists, Potvin reinvented himself a successful sign painter.

And there was more… always more.   He, along with brothers and sisters, created The Ten Potvin Dramatic Company and mounted theatrical productions for the enjoyment of many appreciative French Canadians who, like Moise had emigrated to Rhode Island from the Montreal area.   And, Potvin free-lanced.   “I took part in some twenty amateur plays… as a rule I played the comedian.”

By 1925, Potvin had carved at least five of the major pieces that we later discovered in Niagara Falls.   One, The Violin Shop, is an obvious self-portrait wherein the artist presents himself as a jaunty, cross-legged master carver.

Others works manifested themselves in themes current in his time: Story Without Words, a stark, frozen tableau documenting the wretched conditions of a farm family with a drunkard father.   The seemingly self-explanatory, but in truth deeply ironic, Home Sweet Home, produced in the teeth of the Great Depression. This particular home is a stunningly detailed scene of conspicuous consumption, as found in the giant and baroque homes that graced Ocean Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Cattle Stampede

To give readers a feel for the scope and grandeur of these works, read Potvin’s description of Home Sweet Home.

“Our next exhibit represents the palatial home.   It is entirely made of wood except lights and mirrors.   The parquet floor is inlaid and contains 6,000 pieces of different woods; took over two years to build and is much admired for its elaborate design, workmanship, and perfect groupings.” (Of elegant people and expensive furniture.) To look on this masterpiece is to realize that Potvin was being modest.

Around this time, (1925) Moise partnered with a man named George Fleurant - although what Fluerant brought to the deal is unknown, as is anything else about him except “[H]e was a well know cornetist.”

Together they carted these massive works to the Atlantic City Boardwalk where they located in a storefront and charged strolling passersby a few cents to enter and be delighted.   There they “remained for a solid sixteen months.”

Clearly this must have provided sufficient income for two and encouragement for at least one because Potvin created still more colossal works and then decamped to New York City, eventually travelling to more than 100 cities across the United States and Canada.

The Last Supper

But, always, the fatigue-proof dynamo: “During these travels I took up clay modeling and made several busts of celebrities, governors, senators, and mayors of different cities. “(How did he meet these notables, and where are the busts and paintings?)

Through it all, he never stopped creating new, massive works that eventually developed into a road show that exceeded 100 feet in length; including a visitors’ guest book with which he “got about 10,000 signatures.”

In an oblique way Moise reveals what fueled his indefatiqueability, “I keep the jack knife working to keep the table knives working.” And, remember, there were thirteen table knives working at home.

I close for the time being where I left you dangling - between the Last Supper and the Cattle Stampede - complete with more than fifty individually carved steers, each rampaging in a unique pose.

Just note, if you will, that the photographs in this three-part series show Potvin’s work in “as found” condition - that is with fifty years of dust and dirt dampening some of the startling colors and countenances he produced.   In professionally cleaned condition, they rival any American folk art, the author has ever seen.

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