A visit with Cheticamp folk artist Bill Roach
Folk artist Bill Roach recalls growing up in Cheticamp in the 1950s.
Bill Roach in front of his studio.
“In those days we didn’t have a tv, computers and cell phones. We had to find ways of entertaining ourselves. When the power went out there was only a kerosene lamp. We would make shadows with our hands. Many people used to knit and crochet including my mother. My mother was very artistic, and she encouraged me. Many of the boys my age were into baseball but I had an uncle (Auguste) who used to carve things. I took an interest in that. He gave me my first jackknife, and at the age of five I started carving in wood,” Roach told The Oran this week from his studio beside his home in Cheticamp.
Bill recalls tourists driving by while he sat in his woodpile carving as a child. Sometimes they’d stop and he’d give them something that he was carving. Years later, when he opened his own art gallery, some of these people returned with those little carvings to get them signed by the artist.
In his youth there wasn’t much for art classes in the schools either, so Bill was mainly self-taught. As a young man Bill also worked in the fishery and unloading boats.
“I knew as I got older I wouldn’t be able to continue with that type of work (which was very physical), and I made a decision that I was going to pursue what I loved,” said Roach.
Roach has come a long way from his days of carving with a jackknife, as a visit to his studio will confirm.
In the early years he carved and painted his folk art figures and sold them at shops owned by others. Eventually, in 1990, he and his wife Linda opened their own folk art gallery, selling Bill’s work and work by other artists.
“Frank Macdonald of The Oran came down shortly after that, and he did a story with me, and that’s when the media became interested in what I was doing. It really helped,” said Roach.
Sunset Art Gallery has been in operation now for well over twenty years, and Bill’s work is widely known and collected all over North America.
The gallery has expanded to include work by numerous other artists.
Over the years Sunset Art Gallery has become well known for its unique works and many “one of a kind” pieces.
Bill recalls one year when celebrities Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley stopped in and purchased one of his carved and painted roosters.
“A year or more later another woman stopped by and told me she had seen the rooster I had made for Billy Joel. I asked how she knew that, and she said she was his neighbour. She wanted one just like it, but I told her I would make one especially for her. I don’t like to repeat myself,” said Bill.
Bill is particularly fond of a recent large piece he designed and made called The Memory Pole.
“I did it in tribute to the Métis people. I am Métis, and I called it a memory pole instead of a totem pole in respect to our First Nations people,” said Roach.
Currently, Cape Breton University Press is working with Bill’s wife Linda and author Frank Macdonald in producing a book featuring Bill’s work.
“They were very upfront with me. I could probably make more money if I went with another larger publisher, but I’m pleased to see the book will be done here in Cape Breton,” said Roach.
While visiting the Sunset Art Gallery in season, visitors can also enjoy delicious treats and soak in the cozy atmosphere of the Frog Pond Café which specializes in fresh sourdough breads, pastries and coffees. Myron and Judy Syms make the pastries, and Bill and his family now run the café.
The Sunset Art Gallery operates from May 15th to October 20th from 9:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. seven days a week or by appointment.
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