At Lucky Rabbit & Co.’s house of artisans Wayne Boucher is proudly introduced as “our art star.” The abstract painter does not act like a star. He likes to exhibit paintings in bathrooms – “captive audience!,” he says with a smile.
Boucher dresses casually, is modest and warm, and is entrenched in his community of Annapolis Royal, where he and his family have lived since 1976. This meditative artist, who starts his day with Tai Chi and a walk on the French Trail, produces dramatic, spiritually intense, colour-saturated paintings that shake people to their very souls.
“The intent of my work has always been for the viewer to ‘fall in and drown in the work’ and see things beyond the surface of the paintings,’” says Boucher.
Now the artist’s fans can experience his work in a new book, Beyond The Surface: The Art of Wayne Boucher (Xeno-Optic), and a new series of painted studies, The Annapolis Royal Garrison Graveyard Suite, or “The GG Suite,” recently exhibited at the Lucky Rabbit gallery and the Mad Hatter Book Store in Annapolis Royal. These eerie and beautiful works are based on the discovery of 19 unmarked Acadian graves at Fort Anne National Historic Site. This pastoral, seaside hunk of land was a battlefield between the French and the British in the 1600s and 1700s. In 2019 Boucher went to a presentation at King’s Theatre on What Lies Beneath: An Acadian Ancestry Project, by MAPANNAPOLIS, a volunteer group mapping social history; Parks Canada; Boreas Heritage Consulting Inc. and the Nova Scotia Community College’s Centre of Geographic Sciences.
Boreas Heritage, a Halifax company specializing in archaeology and ground information systems, used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and unmanned aerial vehicle photography to find the graves. What Boucher saw on the screen was a collision of history and art. “I was blown away by these large-scale projections. They looked like big, blue, abstract paintings but they had content. It was a mesmerizing presentation.” He asked Boreas to send him the GPR and LIDAR 3-D composite images to take “them into spiritual and transformative encounters.”
The key image from Boreas, exhibited at Mad Hatter, is a red-lined, deep blue square which represents an empty grassy area at the Fort Anne cemetery. Within the blue are white circles containing bright spots of light.
“The circles of light are the anomalies we believe to be unmarked burials,” says Sara Beanlands, principal and senior archaeologist at Boreas. “GPR determines them to be all at the same depth and they are all in lines, a pattern, equally spaced. We were able to say with a certain amount of confidence there were unmarked graves.” She is amazed by Boucher’s paintings. “He’s so ahead of the curve. He was taking the data and turning it into art a year before most people had heard of GPR. It’s quite ground-breaking art and it’s beautiful too.”
Boucher uses “portals” to lead people into the material and mystical depths of his work. His first “portal” to another world was a childhood experience of near drowning. “I slipped off a rock and went underwater and I remember all the beauty and the light; maybe it was five or 10 seconds. It was the wonder of being underneath and looking up and then thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’” He tells this story as an “easy portal” allowing viewers into radiant paintings about light, tone, brightness, darkness “and everything.”
“You want paintings that work on their own as paintings but also have some kind of dialogue and context.”
The portal in the GG series is the grid. With titles like “We’re All Buried Together,” the context is the multi-peopled and hidden history of Annapolis Royal, where the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, Scots, British and African-Americans all lived. The emotional notes are struggle, loss, grief, life and death, fear and peace. Boucher suggests bodies or spirits falling down or rising up through the portal. In “Blue for Buried Feature” he references the red rhododendron bush just outside the survey area.
It’s easy to connect this work to recent discoveries of unmarked children’s graves at residential schools. Boucher recently changed a red line in a painting to orange for two reasons: it makes it a better painting, and September 30 is Orange Shirt Day, in honour of the Indigenous children taken away to residential schools.
The GG suite continues Boucher’s concept of seeing “beyond the surface” and his use of signs like international maritime signal flags and schemata, inspired by studying aboriginal art history at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University).Boucher paints the yellow, black and green of the African national flag at the corners of his painting, “Rose Fortune is Buried Here Somewhere,” with an interior space of greens full of ghostly crosses with a red grid, a yellow circle and the blue outline of a coffin. Fortune was a Black Loyalist entrepreneur, also considered to be the first policewoman in Canada.
Several GG Suite works are overpainted inkjet prints of “Réveil,” commissioned by Grand-Pré National Historic Site for its new interpretation centre in 2004. This massive, heart-wrenching work has a central image of the French Cross in blues with ghostly faded figures – the deported Acadians – shuffling off to the viewer’s left and flames of destruction to the right. When prints of “Réveil” came back with “terrible” reds Boucher repainted them to include the geometry and stars of the British, Acadian, Mi’kmaw and Scottish flags.
Boucher is working small for this series after his Parker’s Cove studio was damaged by fire early this year. He had to clear out 16 years of work, fortunately not ruined, and find places all over the county to store large canvasses. “I love it. I think Cliff Eyland had it right. He could make small paintings look really big.”
The 90-page book, Beyond The Surface, is full of high quality prints of Boucher’s paintings through different series and is the most extensive publication on the Royal Canadian Academy member’s work to date. The Fredericton publisher Xeno-Optic worked with St. Thomas Universities Research Office and Fine Arts Department, student researchers, writers, and the artist himself to publish soft and hardcover formats (available by emailing email@example.com at Mad Hatter).The text includes a career profile and interview with Boucher, a critical essay by Saint John arts writer Jennifer Musgrave and a foreword by New Brunswick gallery owner Ingrid Mueller.
The final essay is a comical one by Boucher’s daughter Emily. As a 12-year-old at one of her dad’s openings she looked at a work titled The Turnkey and asked Boucher what it was about. He suggested she look more deeply. Having mistaken the title for Turkey she saw the orange leg of a turkey in a blue pool. “I ran over to my Dad, ‘I see it! I see it! I see the turkey … just his leg, but I see it.’ I had interrupted my father mid-sentence. When he understood what I had said, he stopped, ‘You mean The Turnkey?’ I let out a large sigh and looked at my feet. Defeated, I turned on my heel and went back to the cheese table.”
As an artist Boucher never gives up all his secrets.