It is hard not to think of warmth driving south out of Calgary in December. On your right are the Canadian Rockies — a forbidding barrier even in modern times; a threat to life to the early migrants. On your left, the empty, wind-swept snowscape of eastern Alberta. It never took an Ian Tyson to know the wind can sure blow cold away out there, although he made a million bucks noticing it.
Turning left onto the prairie, into the drive and knocking the snow off your boots at the shop of Jean-Claude and Talar Préfontaine, the sense of warmth prevails. Certainly, the furnace is working. However, the first workpiece that meets the eyes is a panel for a funeral urn. All wood, the panel presents a view of the Rockies with the sun coming in from the right, as it would on a summer evening. The blues and warm golds of the light glisten on the peaks as the scene falls into shadow.
This is marquetry: the art of inlaying thin strips of veneer, metal, shell, etc., on wood to create images or patterns.
Obviously not the purview of box stores or mass production systems, proficiency in marquetry automatically launches its practitioners into the coveted “high-end market.” Once there, however, one finds that rubbing shoulders with greatness can leave one with bruises.
Take, for example, the time Jean-Claude ordered a semi-load of 10-foot, two-by-10 anigre — an exotic African wood often specified by his customers. The truck approached the Canadian border from the States without the required phytosanitary certificate. Worse, the driver decided this was a good time to argue with border security. The cost? The entire load was burned, with an approximate value of $1,000 per board. Lesson learned: customs agents are not sensitive to artistry.
Jean-Claude and Talar did not arrive at the pinnacle of their craft overnight. Today, they exhibit work at the Alberta Craft Council Gallery in Edmonton, Talar is teaching marquetry next summer at Red Deer College, and their work is known internationally. Jean-Claude credits part of their success to being able to attract patrons —the oldest form of artistic success — some of whom have bought over 20 pieces over time, and the Préfontaines have associations with builders that create homes in the over-$10 million range.
However, Jean-Claude admits marketing can be a problem. Everybody targets the rich, and associates and patrons move on. Jean-Claude recalls wryly how one of his biggest fans had simply run out of places in the house to place more pieces. Jean-Claude joked with him that there was a fountain that could be removed from an alcove, providing room for one more piece. The point was well taken, and he got the commission, but after that, his only hope for that customer is that his patron will buy another home. Even the most responsive markets have a saturation point.
In the early days of patronage, the master would acquire an apprentice. Jean-Claude has not been so lucky. People have come to him in the past, he says, because they admire his work and want to work with him. “The problem is,” he laughs, “when they get here, they already know what they want to do, they have their own ideas and they want to quit at 5:00. Talar and I work all the time. It gets difficult to separate our work life from our personal life.”
How does one become a master in marquetry? According to the Préfontaines, it happened in much the same way as for others in the Canadian secondary wood sector: by a circuitous route. Jean-Claude, a francophone Quebecer from a farm background, started working with wood by making musical instruments. He met Talar while both were majoring in geography at McGill. A lack of people wanting to know the location of Rhodesia and a stint in the Alberta oil patch sent Jean-Claude back to his roots in creating things from solid wood, and a chance opened up in Calgary. At the core, says Jean-Claude, “I wanted to do it my own way.”
The demand at the time for solid-wood furniture created an opportunity in Alberta where none had existed, and, according to Jean-Claude, he and Talar found their niche: “making one-of-a-kind, high-end furniture” using Talar’s design sense and Jean-Claude’s intuitive skill with wood.
By accident, Jean-Claude got the ball rolling on marquetry when he created an inlay piece: “Some 25 years ago for Valentine’s Day,” he says. “I inlayed a heart into a piece of wood for my wife. It was very basic. I didn’t know anything about marquetry. It was all intuitive. Talar loved it so much she asked me to show her how to inlay. Her passion for inlaying took off from there.
She is self-taught in the Window method. She mainly read books from the library and studied the techniques and styles of the masters and also some contemporary artisans whose works she likes. Of her work, a competition jury member who has followed Talar’s work over the years and was reviewing Day Lilies, and who is familiar with European and British marquetry, has said her works ranks with some of the best current marqueteurs in the world.
“Talar and I are a team,” he says. “I do the building, and she does the design and marquetry.”