Bob Boyer: His Life's Work

Essays:

On the road with Bob

By Carmen Robertson

As far as time goes, I guess you could say I hardly knew Bob. Yet, the day I started my new position as a faculty member teaching art history in the department of Indian Fine Arts at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC) in Regina during the summer of 2001, I realized right away that Bob and I could become fast friends. For one thing, in order to reach my office I had to walk right through his: a fact we both viewed as funny, in a quirky sort of way. It was then that I came to know the World According to Boyer.


Bob was my department head, friend and mentor. I think of the time I spent with him as an intriguing road trip with stretches that sometimes got a little bumpy — but a jaunt with twists and turns and endless side trips to keep things interesting. I took the position knowing Bob was something of a legend within contemporary Aboriginal art circles, but I was unprepared for the impact he made in so many diverse areas of education, research and community.


As an artist, a community activist, a political pundit, Elder’s helper, teacher, administrator, biker, and all-round schemer, Bob’s ventures were a little hard to keep track of. Listing his publicly-recognized achievements during the four years we worked together would be no small feat, but I want to share some of Bob’s lesser-known but equally inspiring achievements from the short time I was on the road with him.


Bob quickly claimed a big comfy chair I had moved into my office, and when he got to work in the morning, in his requisite leather vest, jeans, t-shirt and boots, he left his half-dome helmet on his desk (Bob rode his hog in from Rouleau as much as he possibly could) and settled into the chair for a discussion about the state of contemporary Aboriginal art, old SCANA meetings and plans, or how to get our students what they needed to succeed in university and in the art world. Bob’s sense of humour and the boyish twinkle in his eye heightened as the coffee and cigarettes kicked in, and the stories about the old days and his dreams for the days ahead unfolded.


During his twenty-something years at SIFC, Bob had built a vital studio program covering both contemporary and traditional media. It was the only place in Canada — and perhaps even the world — where you could create provocative installation art and also learn to properly pluck a porcupine.[1] The studio program had received its share of attention over the years for graduating a pool of talented artists. But Bob didn’t stop there. In consultation with Elders and administrators of SIFC courses, Bob inserted Indian art history into the Indian Fine Arts curriculum with a wide range of courses.[2] He was ahead of his time, as mainstream art history programs had yet to “discover” Indigenous arts, making this program unique in Canada.


Indian Fine Arts attracted a small but dynamic group of students who flourished in the basement of the “old College building” on College Avenue (fig. 12), and Bob’s office served as a beehive of activity. A wide range of visitors stopped by on any given day, from Buffy Sainte-Marie to Elder Willie Peigan. Bob was in and out as he juggled his teaching, administration and untold community ties. From the SIFC Powwow Committee to the Aboriginal Kinsmen, to the MacKenzie Art Gallery Board of Directors, there was always a meeting or an event that Bob was on his way out the door to attend.


College building, University of Regina, which formerly housed the Department of Indian Fine Arts, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, College Avenue. Photo: University of Regina Photography Department
Fig.12

College building, University of Regina, which formerly housed the Department of Indian Fine Arts, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, College Avenue.

Photo: University of Regina Photography Department


When the Cumberland Gallery at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building opened in 2001, they slated Bob’s new work for their inaugural exhibition. Although Bob had a busy day job, he always found time to get to the studio and paint in the evenings — a habit, he told me, he’d picked up when his boys were young and he couldn’t find any time except after they were in bed. While Bob’s show at the Cumberland benefited his career, he also envisaged this new gallery as a space that would support emerging Aboriginal artists. Bob struck a deal with the gallery director which had significant ramifications for our graduating students, providing them with an opportunity to exhibit at the Gallery.


Dan Fisher — son of Sanford Fisher and a talented painter about to graduate from SIFC — had his graduating Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) exhibition at the Cumberland Gallery a couple of months later in the spring of 2002. Part of the arrangement, in addition to an opening event with food and publicity, was an agreement that the Gallery could purchase a piece of art from the artist for their permanent collection at a fair price: a huge boost for any emerging artist.


Seldom does a BFA exhibition garner such attention as Dan’s show did that spring. Dan nervously gave his artist talk before a capacity crowd of well-wishers and local television crews, standing next to the painting he had sold to the Cumberland. For the next four years, SIFC graduates had the option to exhibit their work at the Cumberland. Emerging artists such as John Henry Fine Day and Dustin George exhibited in this space and saw their work become part of the Cumberland Gallery’s permanent collection.


When I first arrived, our department was housed in basement facilities, but plans had long been underway for the construction of a new building which would bring all departments together under one roof next to the University of Regina’s main campus (fig. 13). Bob was part of the group of staff and Elders who worked with architect Douglas Cardinal. As the building took shape, Bob found ways to include students and artists in the project and to create a lasting imprint upon the building far beyond our departmental facilities.


East view of First Nations University of Canada, Regina. Photo: First Nations University of Canada
Fig.13

East view of First Nations University of Canada, Regina.

Photo: First Nations University of Canada


One of the unique features of the new building was its futuristic glass and steel tipi, complete with its own high-tech ventilation system (fig. 14). The tipi would serve as the focal point of the new building’s public space and would be used by our Elders for ceremonies, feasts and teachings. The interior space of the tipi included a fire pit with a ring to be carved by a senior Maya carver from Guatemala. The material for the ring was meant to be pipestone because of its symbolic and sacred properties. This valuable stone — no longer easy to come by, because First Peoples now carefully control its precious source in the U.S. — was proving elusive. One morning, however, Bob came into my office, announcing he was being sent on a mission to try to get the prized stone for the fire-ring project. Then-University President Dr. Eber Hampton provided Bob with a letter of introduction and an explanation of why the stone was needed. With that, Bob and a young accomplice, Barry Crowe — Head of Purchasing and owner of a nice new truck — headed south to Minot, North Dakota in the middle of a snowstorm. Bob was thrilled to return with a number of large sections of the soft red stone mined in Pipestone, Minnesota. Se˝or Barreno set to work carving a low-relief braid of sweet grass around the edge of the circle. Upon completion of the fire ring, as the red dust settled over our new studios, Bob stacked the remainder of the stone in his new, but still empty, office to remind us of his successful adventure.


First Nations Veterans Memorial Tipi, First Nations University of Canada, Regina. Photo: First Nations University of Canada
Fig.14

First Nations Veterans Memorial Tipi, First Nations University of Canada, Regina.

Photo: First Nations University of Canada


While Bob and Barry negotiated for the pipestone in a storage shed in Minot, Bob spied a large supply of Sequoia redwood planks off to one side.[3] The Minot contact explained that the redwood was close to 2,000 years old. It had fallen during an avalanche in California, and the family on whose property it stood had split the tree into planks and had been selling them off for the past several years. The deep red lumber sparked Bob’s imagination and soon he was thinking up ways of incorporating the majestic wood into the new building.


When Bob and Barry returned to Regina with the stone, Bob pitched a new idea to senior management: the creation of wooden doors for the glass tipi, carved from the old-growth redwood! Explaining his vision, Bob excitedly described a rich symbolic union between old and new, similar to the linkage of SIFC with its new embodiment as First Nations University of Canada. It would be a combination of the ultramodern glass and metal of the tipi and the rich, ancient wood of the doors, while also representing the union between a foundation of Elders and the youth upon which the institution was built. To fully articulate this symbolic vision, Bob suggested that an Indian Fine Arts student carve the doors. His ideas were embraced and Bob and Barry headed south again. Barry’s truck was loaded up with thick planks of the redwood and the two crossed the Medicine Line once again, bringing with them this serendipitous treasure.


Carving doors from this ancient wood would be a mammoth job, but Bob never wavered in his resolve. He had no trouble recommending John Henry Fine Day for the formidable task of carving the doors. Confident that John Henry could capture the vision of the Elders who had suggested the design, Bob left John Henry to create one of the most important commissions for the building (fig. 15).


Detail of the ceremonial tipi doors carved by John Henry Fine Day in 2003 for First Nations University of Canada. Photo: Don Hall, courtesy of the First Nations University of Canada
Fig.15

Detail of the ceremonial tipi doors carved by John Henry Fine Day in 2003 for First Nations University of Canada.

Photo: Don Hall, courtesy of the First Nations University of Canada


John Henry had never worked on such a scale, nor had he ever used this difficult wood; however, his carving and other three-dimensional work stood apart from other students in our program. After meeting with the building committee and Elders concerning their wishes for the doors, Bob arranged for John Henry to work in our “new” studio facility for the summer.


In May 2003, when we were scheduled to finally move into our new facility, Bob and Ann left for Greifswald, Germany for a Visiting Artist residency. His timing was impeccable! I was left “in charge” of packing and moving years of accumulated materials and equipment into the shiny, new — but diminutive — space.


Bob had strong professional and personal ties to Germany through Dr. Hartmut Lutz of the University of Hamburg, and he had worked on creative projects with Daniel Rode and graduate students such as Kerstin Knopf and Angela Weber. Bob returned bursting with new creative energy and a new series of paintings. His renewed energy was infectious, and he challenged students and faculty alike to consider research and curricula in fresh ways as we embarked on an exciting new direction in our new facilities.


With the grand opening of our new building and a symbolic name change to First Nations University of Canada, Bob recognized that the institution’s existing collection of art was inadequate, given the profile and educational opportunities we now had for exhibiting Aboriginal art. While the Indian Fine Arts department studios had been severely limited due to budget cuts (as had most other areas), the gallery was saved and Bob, as department head of Indian Fine Arts, served as custodian of the permanent collection and art gallery. While I curated the first show in the gallery — an exhibition of Indian Fine Arts alumni for the grand opening — Bob sought opportunities to bring Aboriginal art into the institution.


A relationship was forged with the Native Heritage Foundation of Canada that had since 1978 collected Aboriginal art from across Canada under the direction of former Assiniboia Gallery owner John Kurtz in memory of his son James. The Foundation’s mandate was an educational one and fit the needs of our institution. After a number of positive meetings, it was decided that First Nations University would become custodian of the 188-piece collection, which would be housed and exhibited in the new building — although it was not until late fall that the official transfer occurred. Signing a Memorandum of Understanding during a November 2004 ceremony, shortly after Bob’s passing, was both difficult and celebratory.[4] Filling the gallery with paintings by Norval Morrisseau, Allen Sapp, Daphne Odjig, Bill Reid, Bob Boyer and others was a pleasure — and a teaching opportunity. Our students could now study this pivotal art firsthand. Still, orchestrating the housing of the Native Heritage Foundation collection at First Nations University of Canada was only one step in Bob’s efforts to raise the profile for contemporary Aboriginal art at First Nations University.


One of the most amazing things about Bob was his vast web of community connections. Whether it was related to his love of motorcycles, art, Aboriginal or Metis issues, hockey, education, the powwow, or collecting kitsch, Bob had links to people all over the province, and he always seemed to run into the person he needed at just the right time. The Aboriginal sculpture commission came together in this way. As was the case with art for the building, First Nations University had no budget to commission an artist to create a sculpture for our grounds, so Bob found a way to bring about a commission that would suit our needs. I really cannot tell you all the networking that went into creating the commission, but I do know Bob would pop into my office throughout the course of seemingly endless meetings to declare that we were one step closer to having the largest public commission of Aboriginal sculpture organized. When it was finally announced in 2004, stakeholders included the Province of Saskatchewan, the City of Regina’s Arts Commission, the University of Regina, First Nations University and the University of Regina’s Alumni Association. The announcement of the $100,000 commission — under the direction of Kathleen Irwin from Fine Arts at University of Regina and adjudicated by a panel including Bob — broke new ground in Regina as the first large-scale public commission of its kind for an Aboriginal artist. Bob did not live to see the installation of the final sculpture, but without his hard work I doubt it would have been created in such a timely fashion.


After Bob passed away, I took his place on the panel, adjudicating the short-listed candidates and organizing with Irwin; in October 2004, a media event announced the results. Cree artist Lionel Peyachew from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan won the commission with the submission of his sculpture titled The Four Directions (fig. 16), which beautifully reflected the vision Bob foresaw. A twenty-foot-high (six-metre-high) steel structure positions four stretched bows facing inwards. The sculpture references the healing force of education within a balanced, symbolic understanding of the directions of the medicine wheel and upholds the commitment to Indigenous education that Bob supported throughout his life.


Lionel Peyachew, The Four Directions, 2005, steel, boulders, Collection of the University of Regina. Photo: University of Regina Photography Department
Fig.16

Lionel Peyachew, The Four Directions, 2005, steel, boulders, Collection of the University of Regina.

Photo: University of Regina Photography Department


Bob and I took a couple of road trips that stand out for me as reflecting Bob’s spirit. Looking back, I see our trip to Prince Albert in spring 2004 as summing up my training under Bob’s tutelage. After receiving a provincial grant to turn Indian Art History 100 into a web-based course, Bob suggested hiring our alumnus Robin Brass as a researcher to help organize the course. A face-to-face meeting was in order and, since Robin lived in La Ronge, Prince Albert seemed like the perfect place to meet. Bob stopped by our house to pick me up in a brand-new truck he had rented for the occasion. It was massive and Bob loved it! I commented on what a gas-guzzler it must be, but Bob was adamant that this model was surprisingly fuel-efficient, because of engine specs he seemed to have memorized! I was happy to climb aboard. After a quick stop at Tim Horton’s for the requisite double-doubles, we headed north.


We hadn’t been on the road long when Bob announced we would be taking the scenic route. I didn’t know this part of the province, so Bob figured he’d introduce me to his neck of the woods. The drive flew by, as Bob had a never-ending supply of stories to tell. We stopped by Muenster, outside of Humboldt, where Bob pointed out the boarding school, St. Peter’s, that he had attended in his youth. His hockey stories kept us going until we arrived in St. Louis: a village where Bob’s mother and sister still lived, situated between Batoche and Prince Albert. The bridge, this road, that bush — each triggered stories of the Metis resistance, his family’s part in the Rebellion, and stories of growing up in this area. In no time, we were pulling up to the hotel in Prince Albert, and I felt honoured to have taken this trip through Bob’s youth.


After meeting with Robin that evening and the next morning, we headed home, taking a different route that sparked a new set of stories. Prophesies he’d been told by Elders, linkages in art traditions throughout the Americas, and a long narrative about the lack of respect given to contemporary Aboriginal art in Canada’s public art institutions, filled up the four-hour drive back home. Stopping for gas here and there — we didn’t really need gas, but a snack might be nice — Bob looked forward to new adventures that would come along as we travelled this road.


The passage of time has not diminished the impact Bob has had on the study of Indigenous art history and studio practice, and in the community in general. Former students and friends often remind me of this. For myself, I see a remarkable path ahead — because of my time spent on the road with Bob.


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Dr. Carmen Robertson is Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Regina.

Notes
1. While Sheila Orr mostly taught the traditional art program while I was at SIFC, Bob taught it in 2003. That year, he introduced students to some lesser-known traditional arts. Most memorable was the day Bob built a pit kiln behind the new building and brought hot dogs and pop for the students while they huddled around the heat of the firing that cold November morning.[Return to top]
2. Beginning with an introductory survey of Indian Arts of the Americas, students went on to take Traditional Arts of the Americas and Contemporary Art History courses related to Canadian Aboriginal art, providing them with a stronger comprehensive awareness of Indigenous arts.[Return to top]
3. Barry Crowe, conversation with the author, March 9, 2007.[Return to top]
4. The Board members were an amalgamation of the former Board with new members, including: Dr. Eber Hampton (President), Dr. Art Krentz (Treasurer), Vikas Khaladkar (Vice-President), Mary Hampton, Wes Stevenson and Gaylene Anaquod. John Kurtz was named our honorary Elder.[Return to top]