A Discussion with Monique Boudreau: Un Art Mi-Abstrait, Mi-Surréaliste

By Taryn Power

There is something enchanting about each of Monique Boudreau’s pieces: a clarity of colour, a depth to the canvases that sticks with you—almost reflects your inner thoughts. I asked her about this psychological quality in her work almost the second she joined me on our video call, bright and early on a Tuesday morning. She responded that psychology has always been key to her work and that understanding and connecting with others has long been a gift of hers:

“Since I was very young, people would come to me to tell me about their lives,” she explains. “I don’t know why, but it’s always been like that, even with strangers, no matter where I am, always. It’s always fascinated me how people give me the pleasure of hearing about their lives, hearing their stories, and afterwards they always say, ‘Oh, why did I say that? I never talk about that.’ It’s like I could live through the stories of moments of life that I’ve never experienced.”

As she tells me this, it’s easy to understand why people come to her with their stories, and she adds a story from one of the earliest stages of her artistic career. She tells me about someone she knew who approached her when she was just beginning her career as an artist, asking if she could create a piece for her. “She was suffering from an anxiety disorder,” Boudreau recalls. “I wanted to make a piece that, when she looked at it, would calm her, that would put quiet into her mind. That’s when I knew I wanted to focus my work in that direction — towards the psychological.”

At the core of Boudreau’s philosophy of art—whether it be her own work or art as a practice—is its capacity to create these connections between people; it is this very quality which gives such intriguing energy to her pieces. Our conversation turned to a specific piece of hers that stood out to me in particular: Tout est dans tout. It is a vibrantly coloured spiral that seems to draw your eye to the very heart of the piece, while black spots seem to pop out from the surface, almost shocking to the eye. Boudreau shares with me another story of someone who felt drawn to this piece, someone who saw in the piece’s black spots a reflection of the game of connect-the-dots, which life can often become. “She saw her life in this piece,” Boudreau summarizes. Reflecting on this connection between artist and viewer, she remarks, “When you finish a piece, it doesn’t belong to you any more; it’s in the eye of the beholder. I put my soul into my work, but it doesn’t touch me in the same way it touches someone else—it’s something extraordinary, isn’t it?”

But this is not the end of this work’s story: “You know, what’s interesting about this piece is there are holes all through it. That’s not what I wanted at the beginning,” Boudreau laughs, explaining the mishaps of working with spray paint as a medium for the first time. “But what happened here, is that the holes added a dimension.” This is the idea behind the title: Tout est dans tout: “Even negative things add something to the piece as a whole. They improve it. The difficulties made a better piece in the end,” Boudreau explains. 

Monique Bourdreau, Tout est dans tout, acrylic painting, 2020

This attitude seems fitting for Boudreau’s story and her journey towards her career in the Arts. Boudreau recalls that she has always loved to draw, and since she was a small child could be found with a pencil in hand but had few opportunities to explore this passion through studies or as a serious profession. She studied marketing and pursued a career in business for much of her life, in part due to the discouragement of her parents from pursuing a career in the art world—“Not that I’m advising everyone not to listen to your parents!” She recalls a moment when a course in interior architectural design sparked anew her passion for art, where she said to herself, “Okay, Monique, you have to decide: Do we go for it or not?” 

Even after she chose, with the support of her partner and family, to devote herself full-time to her art, she faced many difficulties: “The art world is not always pleasant. Sometimes it's filled with criticism: ‘You’re not good enough,’ ‘you’re not this,’ ‘you’re not that.’ The key is to never give in.” Art for her has always been a passion, always been personal, always been a way to express and nurture herself. For this reason, it is a necessity: “Once you care for yourself, you can care for others. And it is the same thing here: when you continue to nourish that flame that you put on the canvas, or however you express yourself, you care for yourself. If it pleases someone else, great; but you have to do it for you, not for others.”

“The art world is not always pleasant. Sometimes it's filled with criticism: ‘You’re not good enough,’ ‘you’re not this,’ ‘you’re not that.’ The key is to never give in.”

'Becoming my universe'. Mixed Media: tissue dampened in Paverpol, Mortier, Acrylic, Spray Paint, Resin

We turned to talking about how the environment around us is so important for finding inspiration, and how it touches her art. I ask Boudreau to talk a little bit about her relationship with Montreal, the city where she grew up: “I spent my childhood walking around the streets, all the time. It is all an inspiration to me.” She proudly pulls up one of her earliest pieces, a special request from her partner, which still hangs in her house. It shows a cook, dressed in an apron and blue shirt with rolled up sleeves, leaning against the open door of a restaurant kitchen, gazing out at the familiar site of a Montreal ruelle: red brick, cracked pavement, with balconies and electric wires looming overhead. The piece looks like a love letter to the sort of walks around the city that Boudreau described, and she confirms that it was created through this very process: Not using a single reference photo, she drew from her memory of the feelings and sites of the city. “This was the moment, the piece, where I truly believed that I could do this.”

Yet, this work’s realism is vastly different from most of her work. I ask her about the process she normally takes to create one of her pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist whose work is so deeply rooted in the conceptual and psychological, Boudreau tells me that it all starts with an idea, and that the ideas find her first. Her mind turns instantly to how she can put the idea onto a canvas, then to what methods to use: acrylics, spray paint, or media; sculptural or flat; and so on. “Often, I wake up in the night when I have an idea. It’s a passion. It keeps me from sleeping!” 

Boudreau tells me that it all starts with an idea, and that the ideas find her first.

She recalls one such moment: Watching TV one evening, she noticed that light from the television reflected off her tablet, that was lying shut-off on the table, creating a rainbow. Coming a few months into the pandemic, when rainbows and the motto Ca va bien aller had begun to test her patience, that moment sparked the inspiration for Ca va FINIR par bien aller, a title which she proudly proclaims is a bit tongue-in-cheek. “After awhile I thought, ‘Oh, stop telling me that! Maybe it will eventually go well, but it’s not going well now!” she quips. 

She explains how the pandemic has touched the art world in Montreal, and her work in particular, noting three cancelled exhibitions in the past year, as well as the difficulties of transitioning to online exhibitions and to advertising her art through exclusively online means. She notes the way in which it hinders her process of inspiration, of collecting ideas: “For many artists, inspiration comes from the little things we notice, the things we do everyday. When we are confined to the house, it’s often a block.” But she also emphasizes the value in slowing down, in having time to reflect and find what you love in life, what you need in life—“psychologically,” she laughs. “In the end, we will be able to appreciate the little moments we miss”—the small moments and stories that make us human, the moments of connection which drive Boudreau’s art—“all the more.” She laughs to herself and adds, “I guess, what I’m saying is ça va finir par bien aller.

Monique Boudreau’s work has been featured in several exhibitions across Quebec since 2013, including most recently Cheng Huai’s online exhibition Through the Looking Glass in 2020. She also received a mention d’excellence de jury from Césure in 2016. Her work can be found on her website as well as at Cadre Expert in Chateauguay.