Art Grows Here
Words By Allison Paige | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
On Winslow Farm in West Falmouth, you are as likely to find fine art as you are fresh produce. Denis and Sarah Boudreau and family have made it their life’s work to create the best of both
Portland-born Denis Boudreau was nine years old when he peeked in the backyard studio of his next-door neighbor, artist William Dow. Entranced by the cottage full of magical things—paintings, masks on the wall, even a fireplace—Denis decided at that moment to become an artist—a vow he kept. Dow became his mentor, and 62 years on, Denis is still painting. “I started at nine and I’ll still be going at 99,” he declares.
Growing up, motorcycles and art were his twin passions. He’s owned more motorcycles than he can count and even met his wife, Sarah, at a motorcycle club on Fickett Street. “Denis was 29 years old and I was 19 and thought that 29 was so old!” she laughs. “I had hair parted straight down the middle, trying to look like Twiggy … or maybe pigtails?”
“A ponytail,” Denis remembers, smiling. They were married to other people, but when those unions ended and their paths crossed again, at the Seaman’s Chapel—a hippie joint that served carrot juice, no liquor—their relationship stuck. In 1984, Sarah and Denis married.
Denis considered Jon Legere, an accomplished artist and a fellow biker, his second mentor. He recalls how they would load canvases and paints on the backs of their choppers and head out “for a run.” The two often rode to Cape Elizabeth and painted landscapes, en plein air, like latter-day impressionists, Easy Rider-meets-Claude Monet.
They were members of the infamous Iron Horsemen, a club, not a gang, Denis insists and reveals that their motto, “Live free or die,” was inspired by a New Hampshire license plate. It took on another meaning when he was drafted to Vietnam. He served from 1967 to ’68 and sustained injuries from a landmine explosion that damaged and would ultimately claim his sight.
Back home, he gravitated to the Old Port, then a seedy district teeming with rats and derelicts. Denis says, “Even the cops were afraid to go down there.” But the artists weren’t. Rents were mercifully low. Denis settled into 45 Exchange Street with painter Michael Willis, paying his half, a mere $7. (It is difficult to imagine 45 Exchange, recently home to a gourmet popcorn store and upscale women’s boutique, ever being grimy or cheap.)
Denis reckons around 32 artists colonized the neighborhood, turning unheated lofts into beautiful havens. After a long day of painting, they caroused at the Old Port Tavern. To create a venue for their work, they launched the Old Port Festival in 1973, which still runs today.
Denis founded Alchem Co., a construction business, and renovated over 20 historic buildings in the West and East Ends. Sons Max and Ben were born in 1985 and 1990, respectively. Sarah and Denis bought Winslow Farm in West Falmouth in 1992 and built the barn four years later.
Today, the family farm is thriving, selling organic vegetables and flowers. Sarah runs the farm stand, and Max and his partner, Krysten, oversee vegetable growing. Ben covers the mechanical and irrigation systems. In midsummer, they open a pick-your-own highbush blueberry field. They have several employees and many volunteers. Even Max’s daughter, 1½-year-old Sabine, helps weed the berry bushes when she’s not sampling the crop.
On a studio visit, Denis ushers me upstairs. Along the stairwell of the attic-level room are woodcut prints of samurai. The open-slat stairs creak as we walk up, and he jokes that, like a warrior sleeping with one eye open, he is alerted to incoming visitors by the noisy treads.
The large skylit room is hung with paintings, tribal masks, kachina dolls, wooden sculptures, and all manner of intriguing ephemera. Overhead, lengths of white string intersect at the room’s center; Denis follows them to orient himself. Stacked against the walls are completed canvases, while the shelves brim with found art. Looking around, I feel some of the wonder Denis must have felt peering into his neighbor’s studio.
He considers himself a “Zen energy artist” and tells of a Zen master instructing a novice to paint enso, a circle in one continuous brushstroke. Tarry or overthink, and you’ll destroy the arc. “A painting may take years to create in the mind, but when it’s time to paint, it has to be done quickly,” Denis says. “It’s like 50, 60, years of learning everything you can and then, in front of the canvas, just forget about it.”
Denis’s painting evolved as his practice deepened and his sight lessened. He transitioned from representational landscapes to emotionally driven abstracts. “From wrist work to arm work,” he clarifies, demonstrating the different movements the styles require. “Big brushes make big statements.”
Sarah assists in the blending of paints—taking, say, a cadmium red or carbon black and making it warmer or cooler. Rather than canvas, Denis prefers to paint on Masonite now, which he lays on his studio floor. He follows the perimeter of the board with his feet and this helps align his hand. His swift process is evident in the lively, wide brushstrokes of his latest works—abstracts where, perhaps, he allows, a “landscape is hiding.”
As I depart, freshly harvested carrots, vivid orange and deep purple, are being sorted. At the farm stand, I select bright-yellow cherry tomatoes and a plump eggplant that looks hand-painted, violet and white. All around there is color and bounty—just like Denis’s paintings. Here, too, the walls display a large abstract by William Manning and two of Denis’s own. This commingling of art and produce feels wonderfully right. Nowadays, Denis’s wild rides may be behind him, and a day of painting may be followed by weeding rather than an Old Port bacchanal, but to me it looks like the perfect arc—some might even say a full circle—made in one masterly, steady stroke.