The Visual Sound of Two Hands Stitching

In answering a question about how he makes his textile-rich wall sculptures, the Edmonton-based artist Richard Boulet says the process is “not overly complicated. It’s simply finding a balance between informed decision-making and just having fun.”

Well, simple is as complex does. Boulet’s way of making art layers the complicating influences of his life and art. Early on he began making connections among music, art, architecture and literature, and his conversation references everything from the writing and musical practice of John Cage to the effect of having been raised a “soft Catholic.” In a piece called FLAG, 2021, made with Marilyn Olson, he weaves together his method, his religious upbringing, his queer identity and his sense of absurd humour. The text on the fabric reads, “I AM THE TYPE OF MAN / WHO STITCHES / THE FEET OF QUEER ANGELS / DOWN ONTO HIS SOUL / WRAP IT UP / WRAP IT UP TIGHT.” (All his texts are in capital letters without punctuation.)

Richard Boulet (with anonymous contributors), Mother’s Wild Garden, 2018, mixed media textile, quilting, tatting, cross-stitch, knotting, crochet, machine embroidery, 200.66 × 144.78 cm. Courtesy DC3 Art Projects, Edmonton. Collection of Richard Boulet. Photo: Gabriela Gracia-Luna.

In October of this year, he participated in Arte Connecttiva at ArtVerona 13, where he installed a hand-drawn sign on the front of his table with sentences like “I like to talk about sewing, whether it be for art or for darning socks.” He thought of these lines (they were in Italian and English) as “conversational icebreakers” that would make people feel “a little more relaxed, or maybe even a bit bewildered.” The strategy worked. Curator Wayne Baerwaldt says, “In the centre of blue-chip corporate booths, Richard’s was the most popular in the whole fair.” Before going he had made a piece called The Eternal Firmament, 2023, to be included in a curated exhibition. Written on a lavender and green ground was a message that touches on Boulet’s ongoing spiritual search: “IL FIRMAMENTO ETERNO / È IL POTERE DELL’UNIONE” (The eternal firmament / is the power of union). His texts can also have a lyric delicacy (“IF ALL I HAD / WERE BITS OF / COLORED THREAD / I WOULD WEAVE / A WEB AND DANGLE / IT IN THE WIND / THAT BLEW AROUND / MY EYELASHES”) or a sense of poignant resignation (“ONE LONG BRUTALLY / MANGLED EPIPHANY / OH WELL”).

Boulet prefers his language to be epigrammatic, which explains his attraction to the kōan, the Zen Buddhist riddle that affirms enlightenment in questioning logic. He particularly admires a hybridized “painted poem” made by the American artist and writer Kenneth Patchen. On a page showing a whimsical menagerie that includes a cat-faced blue star, an owl, a furry squirrel and a two-legged horse walking upright, Patchen writes the paradoxical message, “The argument of innocence can only be lost if it is won.” Boulet works his own variation on kōaning; in Brothers in Drag, 2015, a mixed media work with quilting pins, he announces “I NEED RAGE SO I RAGE HOPE.” It is a favourite phrase and he repeats it at the top of Manifesto, 2015, a banner-like piece made with three collaborators, and then follows with a series of statements: “I LOVE HOT PINK,” “I HAVE MORE ANGELS THAN / I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH,” “TROUBLE AHEAD.” He ends with “I LOVE RED HERRINGS.” The red herring reference riddles the credibility of the manifesto.

Richard Boulet and Marilyn Olson, FLAG, 2021, cross-stitch, crochet, beading, mixed media textile, 26 × 20.96 cm. Courtesy DC3 Art Projects, Edmonton.

Richard Boulet, Roll Monk Sink Worm, 2021, cross-stitch, mixed media textile, 22.86 × 26.67 cm. Courtesy DC3 Art Projects, Edmonton.

There is much in Patchen’s work that is inspirational for Boulet. They share a focus on care as a human necessity and a freewheeling way of combining words and images. Where they are different is in the material they chose to work with: Patchen used mixed media on Japanese paper and construction paper, whereas Boulet’s mixed media textiles are quilted, cross-stitched, crocheted and embroidered.

Boulet had been studying architecture and fine arts at university when he experienced a debilitating psychic collapse. Then, as now, he was able to pull “art” out of what he calls his “toolbox for coping.” In 2014, he was experiencing “a mental health funk” that lasted for weeks, and his solution was “to straighten out a couple of bins of fabric and see what happens. A polka dot, sheer fabric came out and just running it through my fingertips calmed me down.” It was a highly effective tactile therapy. He called the piece made from that irregularly shaped polka-dot fabric, to which he added a cluster of knitted objects “gathered from other people’s labour,” A Jesus Shakedown. In an email Boulet indicated that the title does double time; a shakedown is a religious realignment and a hustle, so the work “represents 30-plus years of obsessive religious questioning brought on by schizophrenia.”

Richard Boulet, Howl, 2016, mixed media textile, 74.93 × 48.26 cm. Courtesy DC3 Art Projects, Edmonton.

Richard Boulet (with an anonymous contributor), See Self Hatred, 2016, mixed media textile, cross-stitch, crochet, machine embroidery, quilting pins, 81.28 × 45.72 cm. Courtesy DC3 Art Projects, Edmonton.

During his conversation at the exhibition opening, he talked candidly about the religious and secular confusions that have complicated his life. At its conclusion he summarized how he felt about his life in art. “So I have no lingering bone of contention in my life anymore. All my issues have been worked out.” What was believable about his affirmation was that on the walls of the gallery, everywhere you looked, you could see evidence of those issues having been faced and reconciled. They provide the answer to Boulet’s kōan: care and hope are the sound of two hands stitching. ❚

All quotes from Richard Boulet are taken from a conversation with Wayne Baerwaldt at the opening of “If I May Digress: Richard Boulet and Collaborators,” his exhibition in Architecture 2 Gallery at the University of Manitoba on October 23, 2023.