The massive, top-heavy puppet version of early Nelson optometrist J.O. Patenaude currently on display at Touchstones Nelson is intricately detailed, with a bristled moustache and a large pair of wrap-around glasses.
And though it’s already a stunning feat of artistry, Kaslo artist Rose-Blanche Hudon still isn’t quite satisfied with how the glasses look.
So she’s currently building a whole second pair.
And it’s that sort of attention to detail and perfectionism that thrills Association des francophones des Kootenays Ouest (AFKO) director Lyne Chartier, who oversaw the project.
“He is a lot more beautiful than I was expecting — the costume, the detail of the face, the glasses. Some things are missing, like he was a Knight of Columbus so he’s going to have a badge, and an old watch you put in your pocket,” she said.
The puppet is the second in a planned series of three intended to honour francophone settlers. The first completed was Crescent Valley pioneer Joseph Bourgeois.
On Wednesday the Star met with Chartier, as well as her assistant Alex Pilon and francophone poet Vincent Deslauriers, to hear what the pioneer meant to them.
Chartier said Kootenay residents don’t always realize the contributions made by francophones.
“Sometimes people think francophones come from history in the book, or they’re just tree-planters, but there’s a lot of in-between where they had a lot of influence and nobody knows. Now we can look say yes, this is a part of my history.”
She said Patenaude’s influence is still felt in Nelson.
“Every time I speak with older people they say they never met him, but knew of him. He was a very generous man. You go to the Catholic church and he was always there to help. He had a good relationship with them.”
She noted Patenaude Hall at the Tenth Street campus of Selkirk College is named after him. “He gave a lot to students. He never had kids but he adopted some, and paid for tuition, and was so generous they named a hall after him.”
Pilon said it’s been fascinating to learn about Patenaude, who he wasn’t familiar with before. He said he felt honoured to be involved in the project, which included spending 16 hours getting the skin colour and details of the face right.
Deslauriers, who recently wrote a poem to commemorate the completion of the first puppet in the project, said the puppets transcend cultural divides.
“Like I say in my poem, before a question of language it’s a question of values. Hard work, perseverance, that is something that goes across the language border.”
AFKO plans to continue parading the puppets at a variety of community events. The final figure to be completed will be Slocan prospector Eli Carpenter (Carpentier), although plans have changed slightly for that puppet.
“There’s not going to be a third giant puppet. Eli Carpentier will be a huge mask, and he’s going to be dressed as a miner, and he’s going to be on stilts,” she said.
AFKO is aiming to complete the full project by summer.
“It shows something really powerful about art. This is also a cultural mediation project, by the fact we use art to create a place where angolophones and francophones can exchange ideas and come together,” said Deslauriers.
“It’s very cool to see the community is open to that.”
Who was J.O. Patenaude?
In 1897, francophone pioneer Joseph O. Patenaude arrived in Nelson. A 26-year- old aspiring optometrist, he could have continued in his travels and left the fledgling Kootenay Lake settlement behind. But he didn’t.
Patenaude opened his office at 366 Baker Street, and within a few years added a jewelry-making workshop and watch repair. His enterprise swelled to include 13 full-time employees.
Patenaude had more than one arrow in his quiver, however. In addition to jewelry, watches and optometry he also worked in silver.
He created a set of silver spoons in honour of the City of Nelson, with engravings of the church and various landmarks. He sat on city council in 1920 and was a long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Patenaude became one of the main benefactors of the Cathedral of Immaculate Mary, as well at St. Joseph primary and secondary schools.
He passed away at the age of 85 in 1956.