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David Bolduc is seen in 1977 with one of his works. (James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail)
David Bolduc is seen in 1977 with one of his works. (James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail)

Artist David Bolduc 'went the way he wanted to go' Add to ...

What does it say about a man if more than one person, perhaps several, claim to have been his best friend in life? That seems to have been the case with artist David Bolduc, who died on April 8 at the age of 65, from brain cancer.

"I considered myself his best friend," says Alex Cameron - like Bolduc, one of Canada's foremost abstract painters.

"Everyone who knew him felt that way. David was like that. He was a very generous man, generous with his time."

They met in the early sixties, travelled frequently together, backpacking and painting in Canada and abroad, and worked out three times a week in the same midtown Toronto gym, Oliphant's Academy of Physical Culture.

For writer Michael Ondaatje, Bolduc was deeper and more learned than an infinite series of conversations would reveal.

"David was an essential friend," he said. "He was many-faceted. He was one of the best-read people I know, and so articulate. But you always felt there were many, many tributaries feeding into him."

Their relationship also had a strong professional dimension. Bolduc illustrated several Ondaatje projects, including Handwriting, a volume of poetry, drawings for Brick Magazine, when it was run by Ondaatje and his wife, Linda Spalding, and most recently, a suite of watercolour drawings for The Story, a project on behalf of the World Literacy Fund. He also provided drawings for Roy Kiyooka's Pear Tree Poems, and for poetry collections by Wayne Clifford, Victor Coleman and David Rosenberg.

When he was assembling Ink Lake, an anthology of his short stories, Ondaatje brought publisher Louise Dennys to Bolduc's studio. They intended to hire him to illustrate the cover.

He was happy to comply, but when he heard their vision, recommended another artist, K.M. Graham. "You should see her stuff," he said.

"How many artists would do that?" asks Ondaatje. "But that was typical of David. He was ambitious for himself, within himself, for his work, but not on the broader scale. He went the way he wanted to go."

Friend and gallery owner Jane Corkin echoes those sentiments. "There's no doubt that David was really a centrifugal force to the Toronto painters of his time," she says. "But he never cared much about the marketing of art. It was only about life and experience and travel - just to sit on a precipice or some beach in China and make drawings and sell them to tourists. It was about living the life. His imagination was really grand, and he was his own man from start to finish."

Writer and critic Gary Michael Dault also considered Bolduc his best friend. For the last several years, they met regularly for coffee at an Italian café on College Street and spent hours discussing books, movies and ideas.

"I never left without a list of books to read or films to see," Dault says. "He had one of the best-stocked minds I've ever encountered, enormously elastic. He saw tons of movies and read encyclopedically."

During his life, Bolduc occupied space in the most-respected ateliers of abstractionism.

Born on Feb. 10, 1945, and raised and educated in Toronto, he spent only one year at the Ontario College of Art (1962-63), then went to Montreal to study with Jean Goguen at the Museum of Fine Arts School (1964-65). His work was given a solo exhibition at the city's Elysee Theatre and included in a group showing at Galerie Soixante.

To earn money, Bolduc worked part time in a plastics factory, often crafting art from scrap pieces of polyethylene.

In 1966, he returned to Toronto and began working in the Royal Ontario Museum's conservation department - possibly his first and last full-time job. He mounted another solo show at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1967, the start of a long but not always genial relationship. Indeed, several years later, after another solo exhibition, Lamanna decided to keep most of Bolduc's unsold paintings. Naturally, he asked for them back.

The owner refused - apparently not the first artist to be so exploited. Bolduc hired a lawyer to sue for their return, but there are conflicting accounts on whether the suit succeeded.

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