While the life he spends above ground with customers and family may seem ordinary, Bougher leads another life in an underground world. A visit to Bougher’s basement is a trip to an artist’s lair. Like a mad scientist who surrounds himself with beakers and flasks bubbling over Bunsen burners, Bougher’s basement is a sculptor’s lab, filled with old drawings of brilliant ideas, clumps of modeling clay waiting to be formed and empty plaster molds that once held molten bronze. An assortment of unattached clay arms and wax heads fill the background of the photos I snatched of Bougher as he chatted, sharing his life history, artistic evolution and spiritual journey. A visit to this man’s basement reveals a talent that is overshadowed by the everyday responsibilities of life – earning a buck and caring for a cherished family.
Bougher attended St. Meinrad seminary from 1984-1988 where he prepared to become a priest. While he was there, he spent empty evenings and spare hours developing an amazing talent for drawing. Countless hours with a pencil in solitude resulted in some crazy drawing skills.
“My drawing style mimics etching,” says Bougher. But the personality of line created by his hand adds a layer of humanity that tends to be removed by the etching process. His drawing of Lakeside Park, which Bougher created for a fundraising effort back in 2001, captures the beauty of the park and surrounding foliage with a clever use of negative space, pointillism and thousands of tiny hash lines, some crossed, some faint and others bold. If you weren’t looking for it, you may not notice, but the drawing contains a reference to one of Bougher’s sculptures: a lion’s head fountain that spews water from the mouth into a half-circle bowl that connects directly to the face of the wall. The sculpture fits into its surrounding so perfectly, one may pass it without noticing the detail of the piece or giving thought to all the energy it took to create the piece. How complacent we have become, assuming beautiful things somehow form themselves miraculously with little effort.
As easy as Bougher’s skills appear, he has spent over two decades developing his craft. Drawing during his free time at the seminary later led to his attending classes at Fort Wayne’s Saint Francis University. Within six weeks of attending his first sculpture class, Bougher’s skills caught the eye of Sufi Ahmed, a renowned local sculptor. Ahmed hired Bougher as a studio assistant where the 20-something student worked alongside his mentor, learning as much as he could from the experience. Throughout his training, Bougher’s work habits were unmatched by other students.
“I had a different work ethic than most students,” he recalls. “I was the first to class and the last to leave, even while holding a job at the same time.”
After working with Ahmed for three years, Bougher spotted an opportunity to branch out on his own. The Allen County Courthouse had removed the Lady Liberty sculpture from the building’s pinnacle for cleaning and repair. Bougher asked if he could use the opportunity to study the piece. Courthouse officials agreed and allowed Bougher to work in the rotunda for three weeks. Scrambling to make a small-scale replica of the piece, Bougher became a curiosity for passing attorneys, visitors and community officials who observed the miniature Lady Liberty take shape. Bougher shared that during the night, “security guards would have fun with the piece and add their own details to my work, usually something to do with breasts.”
Despite the lack of respect by some, Bougher was able to finish his work before Lady Liberty was hoisted back to her perch atop the city. He sold four castings of his piece to local business people and caught the attention of others. The project led to more work: a commission for two busts of physicians for the Brooklyn Medical Center; a bust of Samuel Huntington; and cluster of three large figures including Christ, a monk and a student, which hang together at Bougher’s alma mater, Saint Meinrad. Most recently, on May 24, 2012, Bougher installed a piece titled, “The First Step Toward Salvation,” outside of Saint Jude Catholic Church at 2130 Pemberton Drive in Fort Wayne.
While Bougher’s list of work includes many significant pieces (the above description is only a partial sampling), he is still widely unknown. Most of his work has been completed at cost, meaning Bougher has made little or no money from his effort. While he may not be motivated by profits, he says that “cash is often a demotivational factor for me. I look for pieces that come from inspiration.” He does dream of one day being able to support his family through his work as an artist.
Witnessing such fine talent is yet another confirmation that Fort Wayne is in no way void of artistic talent. We are a community of uncovered and under-appreciated treasures. Bougher is just as committed to his work as any artist. He is a spiritual, passionate thinker, devoted to his work.
“You bring everything to your art. I bring my spirituality,” says Bougher. “When I finish a major piece I shut down for a while. I go through a period of separation anxiety from losing the piece.” Those aren’t the words of a man who simply tinkers in his basement; it is a statement from an artist who is at his core, consumed by the energy to create.
Bougher’s current work in progress stands like a pinnacle in his basement. Descending the narrow wooden steps, it was the first thing I noticed. Rising above the collection of clay sketches and molds, a great arm extends from a life-sized figure, gesturing upwards, leading me to conscious realization of my hopes, prayers and dreams for the future. Saint Anthony, a figure standing 6 feet tall, dominates the space. Constructed with help from a student intern from Saint Francis, Rebecca Till (can you say what goes around comes around?), the piece “is a combination of life casting, solid clay and foam, layered and sandwiched with glue,” said Bougher.
Without further prompting, Bougher took off with a whirlwind of vocabulary explaining his technique, inspiration and plans for the piece. Words like “posturization” and “triangular motion” spewed from his mouth faster than I could capture. No doubt, Bougher is on fire with passion for this piece. The work depicts a young boy offering his prayers to the saint, who receives them and ultimately sends the child’s wishes to the heavens via the flame of the Holy Spirit. With plans to finish the piece with a flame cast from red glass and etched with the symbol of the Spirit, one can’t help but join Bougher in his enthusiasm for the massive work in progress. It is the culmination of decades of practice, divine inspiration and interpretation of a complex religion by a man who treads around the earth unassumingly. For now, Saint Anthony is homeless, but with any luck he will soon be claimed by a buyer and can look forward to life outside of the basement.
If monetary value were based strictly on ability and skill, Bougher would have overflowing pockets. He is a talent that should be cherished. Luckily for us, Bougher still finds time to pursue a labor of love that decorates our city. It would be nice to see more of his work raised from the underground and shared with the general masses of surface dwellers.
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