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That was 49 years ago. Today, no one makes fun of Allen Sapp. In fact, many of his neighbours call him "Mr. Sapp," and he has justifiably earned the respect of both whites and natives.
In an inspiring and genuine rags-to-riches story, Sapp has emerged from nowhere in the past 10 years to become one of Canada's internationally best-known and most-in-demand artists. Sapp paintings fetch prices in the $3,000-$6,000 range at sales in Montreal, New York and Los Angeles.
His works adorn the collections of such well-known persons as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Premier Alan Blakeney, former federal NDP-leader David Lewis, film stars Robert Redford, Marlon Brando and John Wayne and historian-philosopher Will Durant.
It has been a few years since Sapp has held a sale in this, his home province, but he was in Regina recently attending an exhibition of his paintings at the Assiniboia Gallery.
Most of the paintings on display belong to the private collection of Dr. A.B. Goner, a North Battleford physician.
The main purpose of the exhibition, which runs until Dec., 31, is to publicize a new book called, A Cree Life: The Art of Allen Sapp. The book was co-written by John Warner, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Regina, and Thecla Bradshaw, a native-born freelance writer. It contains a brief introduction to the life and work of Sapp and a stunning selection of reproductions of his paintings-about a third of which are in full-colour. (The photos in the book, incidentally, are by Regina photographer Don Hall.)
Sapp has been painting and drawing most of his life. He never attended school long enough to read or write and he never took an art lesson in his life. His is a natural and original talent. Sapp once explained it by noting, "I got pictures in my mind."
Sapp was one of seven children born to his parents. Due to the ravages of disease, only three of the Sapp youngsters lived to reach adulthood.
Sapp spent his boyhood drawing with bits of charcoal on wood, leather, scraps of paper and anything else he could mark on. He was frequently at the side of his grandmother as she helped her husband with the chores around their farm. It was this early rural experience, more than any other, which has given Sapp the inspiration for many of his paintings.
In 1961, Sapp and his wife moved from the reserve into North Battleford in an effort to escape the grinding poverty, the disease, and the sense of hopelessness that pervaded the place. They set up housekeeping in a small apartment which contained a closet-sized space Sapp used as a studio.
Armed with a few brushes, some paints and supported by welfare cheques, Sapp proceeded to paint calendar art-oceans, moose, mountains and the like-that he hoped white people would buy. He also worked around Berryman's Hobby Shop and peddled his works on the streets. More than once, Sapp, who speaks little English even today, was arrested for vagrancy.
Then, one day in 1966, he wandered into the North Battleford Medical Clinic to try to sell something to Goner.
Goner was impressed with Sapp's work, but urged him to forget the mundane calendar art and try recapturing on canvas some of the scenes from his early life. He also began giving him small amounts of money with which to buy materials and pay his bills.
Early in 1967, Goner and his wife went to Montreal to show Sapp's work to some art people. Their response was enthusiastic so an exhibition of Sapp paintings was arranged. It was a great success and from there on, Sapp's career took off.
"There's a universal quality to Allen's work," Goner said. "It reaches beyond the singular experience of the Cree to encompass a description of many Canadian lives."
Sapp can, of course, be much more selective in what he paints nowadays, but according to both Goner and Warner, the popularity of his work hasn't changed him at all.
He's an unaffected and reserved man-almost to the point of being shy. As he talked, his great, brown eyes averted to a pen he nervously fidgeted with.
Sapp is a large, healthy looking man and you'd never guess that as a boy he was pallid and frequently ill.
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He chuckled often as admirers dropped copies of A Cree Life down on the table before him to be autographed.
GENTLE AND HONEST
"You know," said Goner as he looked on, "Allen is still the same man he was the day I met him. He's a very gentle and honest man who never says anything bad about anyone. He never refers to anyone else's art as not being good.
"There's a Cree proverb that says, 'You must never say anything bad about a man unless you have walked in his moccasins.' Allen lives by that."