Harry Sullivan

As a child growing up near Windsor Lake, I would spend my days in the forest behind my house. In one area, deep in the woods, I came upon a scattering of startling concrete faces nailed to the trees. These old men had marbles for eyes and crooked pipes in their mouths. It added a certain mystery to the woods that I never forgot. It was only by chance that I met the maker of these faces 25 years later.

I met with Harry Sullivan at his home in Torbay. It was early in the conversation when we realized we were once neighbours. The retired 84-year-old bricklayer has been making what he calls “folk art” for the past 13 years but he’s been making art, like the concrete faces, all his life.

Using scraps of wood paneling and 2x4s, beach rocks, feathers, cotton swabs, or old pieces of leather—basically anything that’s kicking around—Harry creates scenes of the food fishery, whale watching, ice fishing, and even a tableau of Billy Baldwin’s forge back when he was a kid growing up in Pouch Cove. He makes birdhouses, old men sawing up wood, Big Foot monsters, and “Mars Rovers” (that run off the smell of birch). Most recently he made a rock face of opposition leader, Yvonne Jones, as an expression of concern for her recent breast cancer surgery.

You make a lot of people and with great expressions!
“I was always interested in faces. When I was a bricklayer you’d have your pile of mortar on your board, and your trowel. You’d just hit your board and it would all float right off smooth. And I would just mark in it, eye, eye, nose, mouth—old man’s face just like that. I used to do that when the youngsters come along.”

Tell me about this one with the guy plowing his field.
“Up on the Southern Shore in Mobile, that’s the place where the goat spoke. That’s how I come to make this. There’s an old man in his garden, digging his potatoes. This is a true story, from years ago. And he went up and he caught an old billygoat. And he hold up the billygoat, over the fence, and the goat said, ‘Is you diggin’ em Dylan?’ And Dylan thought it was the goat that spoke. And that’s how I made it. ‘Is you diggin’ em Dylan?/Is you diggin’ em deep?/Is you diggin’ em Dylan in a great big heap?/Yes I’m diggin’ em said Dylan/Not enough to fill a boat/But I’d be diggin’em more if it wasn’t for you/You rotten stinkin’ goat.’ Look, he’s plowing up his ground.”

At your stand on Torbay Road there once was a sign that listed your contact information so people could come by your home and pay for the art. Did anyone steal anything?
“I had a sign like that, but I had a lot of stuff taken away from me. I thought people would be honest enough. It said, ‘Please give me a call or drop by.’ Now I’ve had people come by my place and pay me. ‘I took two of your birdhouses. I took a rooster,’ and so on and so forth. They’re honest people. The people who rob you, or do stuff like that, they’re not hurting me, they’re hurting themselves.”

Why do you make art?
“Just because I love to be doing it. I love what I think about. And what I make from my head. It’s good physical living and excellent for the body and for the soul. It’s what we’re all about. You got to enjoy what you make.”

Interview and photo by Ryan Davis

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