The master carvers of Saint-Jean Port-Joli

Saint-Jean Port-Joli has carved a place for itself as Quebec's -- and possibly all of Canada's -- crafts capital. It earned its reputation through wood sculpturing, a craft as much associated with the south shore Saint-Laurent villagers as soapstone carving is with the country's Eskimos and snowshoe fashioning with its Indians.

The handiwork of farmers and seafarers brought from France by the late-1600s settlers became the carved decoration in the village church. The depression of the 1930s gave the craft, which had diminished as a pastime with the demands of farm life, new meaning.

That was when the Saint-Jean Port-Joli born and bred Bourgault brothers revived the hobby to give their out-of-work neighbors something to do with idle hands. Medard and Jean-Julian concentrated on scriptural subjects. The third, Andre, popularized the craft by contributing the themes he knew from his life as a sailor. Taking a more practical outlook than his brothers, he gave the art commercial significance and eventually made the village a stop on tourists' routes. More important, however, he became the teacher of a new generation of carvers.

One of his pupils left home outside quebec City at the age of 16, the year most carving apprenticeships begin, to study with Andre. Now, 32 years later, Marcel Guay is one of the best-known and admired of Saint-Jean Port-Joli's more than 200 sculptors. Although repeatedly awarded in the annual Canadian National Exhibition, commissioned by Princess Margaret of England and honored by the government's choice of one of his works for representation on a stamp issued in 1969, Mr. Guay claims he is in demand simply because he gives demonstrations. But one has only to see his work to be convinced otherwise.

No. 35 inside the fleur-de-lis on his atelier corresponds to the number on the village map locating and identifying each resident artisan. (Maps are available from Quebec tourist information offices and at any studio in the village.) Just look for the life-size wooden fisherman, standing outside the door.

Inside, Mr. Guay works at an easel, transforming a three-by-four-foot piece of walnut into the subject of the pencil drawing tacked above it.The form, a plaque whose image is carved from the surface, is a recent product of Saint-Jean Port-Joli. So are bookmarks topped with flat ducks or birds, small items made to cater to the mass tourist market. Until 10 years ago, neither demand nor the technique to prevent cracking existed.

The subject of the plaque remains faithful to the traditional sculpture of the village: people and tableaus of the last century, figures or busts of farmers in caps or kerchiefs, or fishermen in mackintosh hats and boots, standing over their buckets and barrels and chores.

Examples surround Mr. Guay in the studio-showroom adjoining his house. When he began sculpturing, he, like the majority of current carvers, copied each piece many times and sold through Centrale D'Artisanat showrooms in Quebec and Montreal. The seven people who work for him -- five apprentices, three of them women -- do likewise. But he is one of about 20 whose success has earned the luxury to be an artist, creating unique works, like the prize-winning checkers players, and the awarded cabinet maker/carpenter/carver at tool-laden workbench representing 10 generations of woodworkers in the Guay family.

The continuation of the craft is ensured by the apprenticeship system that molded Deschenes, by the teaching of father to son and daughter (as Guay has done with his three children) and by La Vastingue, the school established by the son of Jean-Julian Bourgault, the only living reviver of the craft.

A number of motels, hotels, and cabins on the banks of the Saint-Laurent provide accommodations, but most American travelers make it a short visit on their way to Gaspe, some 500 miles east of Quebec City. The old road, Route 132 , from the provincial capital winds through farm towns -- or parishes --much like Saint-Jean Port-Joli.

Along the less picturesque but faster Highway 20, the drive takes between 1 and 1 1/2 hours from Levis, across the river from Quebec by bridge or 15-minute ferry service leaving every half hour ($1.50 car and driver, 75 cents each passenger). The Saint-Jean Port-Joli exit from 20 takes you a block east of the church; to start at the east end of town, exit at 285 North, toward L'Islet and St. Eugenie, and turn onto 132. Though ateliers adjoin the main road at neighborly distances, they are spread out for miles, making it necessary for visitors to have car transportation .

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