Cultivating Creativity: Claudette Boulanger’s art of ordinary things

Claudette Boulanger in Studio

“Art is a passion. It’s compulsive.”

By Kathryn MacDonald

It is the first rainy day during Belleville’s hot, humid summer that I meet Claudette Boulanger. We are sitting in her living room across from a large pair of windows. Through them, Boulanger sees a rain-streaked painting: “There,” she says, “a woman pushing a stroller, holding the hand of a toddler and juggling an umbrella.” In a couple of minutes, a man with a dog on a leash hurries past. “I did a whole series of dog-walkers; I like the kind of humour inherent in those scenes. But I’m also drawn to landscapes and backyards. Ordinary things.”

Around us are paintings set out for an upcoming show, among them are a number of backyard and streetscapes. These paintings remind me of the early work of Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald—their Toronto backyards before the iconic northern landscapes of the Group of Seven. Boulanger reminisces about her first art lessons and visits to galleries in Toronto.

Inspired and encouraged by Malvern Dollack, one of her first instructors, Boulanger says, “He taught night classes in an old house in downtown Toronto. I was still in high school, but I decided I was going to go to art college. I went out west, to Calgary.” At the Alberta College of Art (now ACAD) she studied with Stan Perrott, a prolific watercolourist and abstract expressionist. We walk down the hall to her studio where one of her small, rare abstract hangs. “My paintings are mostly representational,” Boulanger tells me.

One of the paintings in her home was inspired by a trip to Quebec where visitors were offered dogsled rides and the excited dogs yipped raucously. “The noise,” she says, “was incredible.” The painting’s glowing colours reflect a winter sunset, but for Boulanger, it is the dogs that are important. “As their handlers moved toward the boxes, the dogs barked furiously: Take me. Take me.”

Our eyes move from a snow-covered foreground to a split scene of wooden crates to the left and dogsleds on the lake’s edge to the right. Dark trees loom along the horizon backlit by the sinking sun. “I wish I’d taken a ride around the lake.” It is the only regret Claudette Boulanger utters this afternoon.

When asked about her greatest challenge, Boulanger says, “The obvious answer is getting to the place you want to be in a painting—every single one is a challenge. I just want people to enjoy them.”

Since 1964, people have been viewing and appreciating Boulanger’s art. Boulanger first exhibited at the Alberta College of Art where she earned a Fine Art Diploma. Between 1965 and 1980, she participated in numerous shows, including at the Pollock and Sisler Galleries in Toronto, and a “major solo exhibition” at Hart House, University of Toronto.

Claudette Boulanger’s work hangs in private and permanent collections, including the John and Gisela Sommer Collection and at Crayola Crayons (Binney & Smith). Among many awards, she was honoured at The 22nd Arts Recognition Awards Ceremony and the 5th annual Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts (2016) where she was celebrated as an arts supporter through her gallery work, teaching, and charitable donations.

Claudette Boulanger is one of the founding members of Gallery 121, a vibrant non-profit cooperative for visual artists (48 Bridge Street East, Belleville). She is a member of the Belleville Art Association where her paintings frequently hang (392 Front Street). She is also a member of the Quinte Arts Council.