The Painterly Life of Bob Boyer
by Jennifer Jacoby-Smith
"Well, I gotta go. Gilmore Girls is on tonight," said Metis artist Bob Boyer, preparing to head home to Rouleau, Saskatchewan, after coffee at the Assiniboia Art Gallery in Regina with owner Mary Weimer.
It was an ordinary confession, but Weimer says such unpretentiousness seemed so curious from an artist of Boyer's calibre. "He traveled the world; made these strong political statements. You'd think he'd be quite serious."
Weimer adds with a chuckle, "And here he is going home to have pizza and watch this quirky television show with his wife."
Weimer, and husband Jeremy, took over the Assiniboia Gallery five years ago, but Boyer's association with the gallery goes back 25 years. Weimer notes that it wasn't uncommon to see Boyer drive up on his Harley Davidson just to have coffee with them. "He'd come in in his jeans and a t-shirt, with his helmet under his arm," says Weimer. "He was so friendly, kind, and down to earth."
Boyer was born in 1948 near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He graduated from the Regina campus of the University of Saskatchewan in 1971, (which later became the University of Regina) with a Bachelor's degree in Education.
During his time at the U of S, he was influenced heavily by a group of internationally-celebrated abstract artists known as the Regina Five. The abstracted style Boyer learned from his formal training blended well with the use of traditional Native American images. The results produced a powerful presence.
After a trip to Japan and China in 1983, Boyer's work took a critical turn, as he began painting on cotton blankets. He explains in Karen Duffek's book Bob Boyer: A Blanket Statement, "There were paintings on silk or cloth and gradually this whole thing about art not having to be made on stretched canvas really began to get through to me."
Boyer used his newfound medium to paint pointed critiques of colonialism. Often using a symbol of Canadian identity - the Hudson's Bay Blankets - Boyer drew critical acclaim for what he called his "Blanket Statements."
A Minor Sport in Canada (1985)
In one example, a piece called A Minor Sport in Canada, splotches of red paint, symbolizing the blood spilled at the Battle of Batoche, surround a Union Jack which slowly blends into traditional motifs of the Plains Indians. The work was inspired by the cavalier attitude of the British as they rode into Batoche - viewing the killing of native people as mere recreational amusement.
His use of blankets generally is also significant; it alludes subtly to the decimation of native peoples on the North American continent by disease. Gifts of Hudson's Bay Blankets were often tainted with infectious illnesses, such as small pox, that quickly spread disease and death.
Despite the politically-charged message of this work, Boyer insists in the caption dated 1992, "I don't consider myself political, I'm just very socially aware, which is different. If I were politically aware, I'd be afraid of some of the things that I do."
His passionate commentary through his "Blanket Statements" continued until the early 90's. In 1994, in coordination with the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Boyer curated a retrospective of the work of renowned Saskatchewan artist Allen Sapp.
Boyer said of Sapp's work, "Whereas Sapp's early work often represented a somber past, his recent work is free of angst and portrays an eternal Plains Cree Community. His work has stood its ground, not quaintly, but with strength."
As a result of his experience with Sapp, Boyer resolved not to do blanket painting again. His work took on a new focus.
"Once he felt that this approach had been taken as far as it could go, his work transformed into more subtle reflections on spiritual and personal aspects of his life," says Lee-Ann Martin, Curator of Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec. "His relationships with family, friends, elders and people on the powwow circuit also became his subject matter, which he expressed in multiple mediums with a broad colour pallete."
Boyer in powwow regalia
The Powwow came to mean a great deal to Boyer, as he participated in dances all over North America. He saw it as a celebration of a strong, vital Native people. It was during a powwow in Nebraska in August 2004, that Boyer died after suffering a heart attack at the age of 56.
His friends and colleagues remembered a deeply passionate man, who was also very kind and unassuming.
Martin remembers, "He was a very supportive person with keen insights, personal integrity, and outrageous sense of play."
That sense of humour and fun came clear to Weimer in 1998 when Martin, then Head Curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, collaborated with Boyer on an exhibition called The Powwow: An Art History. The publicity poster for the event featured two bears. At the opening of the exhibition Weimer recalls, "Lee-Ann and Bob dressed up like bears just like on the poster. This big important opening, and here are these two in goofy costumes."
Of all Boyer's achievements, everyone credits his most significant legacy as the contribution he made to the Aboriginal artists of tomorrow.
In 1980, Boyer became Associate Professor and served as Department Head of The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College Fine Arts Department (now First Nations University of Canada) in Regina until 1997. He took over the job again in 2003.
"His role as an instructor of Indian art and art history at First Nations University has broad-reaching impact for subsequent generations of artists," says Martin. "He was a strong advocate for First Nations art to be recognized as art equal to any other art forms."
Despite his great success, he never lost his enthusiasm for giving back to the community by guiding and inspiring another generation of artists.
"He had this great talent. He could have been a fulltime artist tucked away in a studio somewhere - painting and doing shows," Weimer points out. "But he also gave back so much."
Boyer's work now hangs in private and public collections across Canada, a true testament to the many people that were touched by both his work and his life. The synthesis of the Plains Indian imagery of his Native heritage with the European tradition that provided him abstract expression has created a unique, lasting legacy.