Collaborating With Nature: The Installation

by James O’Barr

Left to right: Boucante and Gene Walker installing sculptures

Artist, sculptor, craftsman, builder, Boucante looks out across the water from the deck of a house at the edge of Totten Inlet. In the distance, the glaciers of Tahoma reach for heaven. Up close, out of the age-old carpet of oyster shells and the mud of the tidelands, a gaggle of pilings march away from the house and into the deep. Atop each of the 27 pilings is a figure, bodies mostly made of weathered wood, heads and faces of sculpted stone, distinctively dressed in all manner of antiquated machine and engine parts and salvaged odds and ends. The faces are wide-eyed and staring, the mouths open, the effect inscrutable or spooky, depending on the direction of the light.

Is there a story in the sculptures? Boucante demurs. “I know that the installation is very powerful, but I think it has its own story, and it will only be told if we give it our attention and forget our words for a moment. A friend of mine was talking about doing an artist’s statement, and how it can sound so contrived — I’ve always felt that. And she said someone told her that her work was “pre-verbal,” and maybe that describes my work as well! With sculpture, people always want to put words on them, but if the work is powerful enough, it will have its own voice.”

Boucante’s finished installation

Well, if not a story, surely a title! You must have given the installation a title. “Someone asked, ‘Do you have names for the figures?’ But that just trivializes them. Even a title for the installation — as soon as you try to put words or a title on it, they usually end up defining it, confining it. How do you describe something that’s “pre-verbal,” that comes from or can take you to a deeper level of energy, with words? I just call it the installation.”

Where did the idea for “the installation” come from? “Well, it wasn’t an idea, more like a wind, the one I’ve been riding since I started doing sculpture 30 years ago, and that took me to this place right here. Name that wind, you’d have your title! I was in my 40s, living in Vancouver where I’d grown up, and working in construction, when I suddenly had what I call a mid-life awakening, a need to make art I’d never felt before. Since I’d always worked with my hands, earned my living with them, I thought making pottery made perfect sense, until it didn’t. I needed a much bigger scale than I could find working on a potter’s wheel, and I needed a different material, not modeling clay but sculpting cement. I started doing that on my own, and I must have been getting good at it, because when I donated a piece for a fund-raising auction at the Victoria Art Gallery, it sold for $800. It created quite a stir and got a full-page article in the paper, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should take this more seriously!’ So I went round to the famous Butchart Gardens and ended up working on a number of interesting small projects for them, one of which led me to ask advice about mixing cement from a guy who did cast sculpture. He had a studio in an old abandoned cement plant, and he offered to share it with me. That’s where I started incorporating found objects and miscellaneous artifacts, of which there was an endless supply around the plant, into my work. When I moved to Olympia in 1997, I bought the house of Richard Byer, the sculptor who created the ‘kissing couple’ at Percival Landing. The place came with a studio and a 15-foot crane that enabled me to move large stones and rocks into place for sculpting. As I did more stonework projects, most of them for outside, I saw that they only fully come to life, not in my studio or in a gallery, and not just in the open air and in the light, but when they are in the right place, a place where they seem to belong.”

Boucante’s studio before installation
Boucante’s finished installation
Boucante’s installation, final with reflection

And that explains how the installation happened? “No, those are just some of the things that had to happen before it could happen. I’ve been working on those figures over the years, and have put them up around my house and yard, but I’ve been looking for a place to display them—you know, the right place, in public. I did have the idea that there might be a suitable gallery, but nothing came of it. So one day I was doing some work for a friend, the artist Susan Christian — her old oyster farm-of-a-house on Totten Inlet had gotten flooded by a king tide, and I was repairing the deck—when Susan, out of the blue, said, ‘You should have a showing!’ And I’m looking out over the water, and at the pilings, and seeing the truly beautiful view across the inlet and the trees and the mountains beyond, and it was like a gift from another dimension. I could see the figures mounted on the pilings, such a very right place, but the figures would just be one part of a much larger whole that includes the sky, the water, the light, the land, the earth, the universe. That’s the power of it for me—that art is capable of connecting us, even without words, to the whole of it, to everything that is.”

Boucante’s finished installation with fog

But what about people? You said you’d been looking for a place to show the work, a public venue, no?  “Yes, but when the right place for the sculptures turned out to be the wrong place for a public viewing, I began to think that instead of a conventional exhibit, the right place might be in photographs, as the subject of a book, sort of like Andy Goldsworthy does. So I brought in a fine photographer, Paul Mongillo, and Sage McClune, a cinematographer who uses drones. Susan Lasiter is a writer who will help me with the text. My intention is to leave them up, probably until mid-October, ‘til we get all the photos we need, in every kind of light, to make the book.”

Will the book have a title? “I’m waiting to hear what the installation has to say.”

Boucante installing his sculptures

Photos by Paul E. Mongillo.

Boucante’s installation of sculptural figures on pilings in Toten Inlet

Behind a private home on the inlet near Shelton, Washington
Viewing Boucante’s installation is by invitation only, call Boucante to arrange at (360) 280-7735

To remain in place until approximately Oct. 15

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