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Against the grain: elevators as art form

Prairie icon dying breed, but lives on in paintings

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HOLLAND -- People's memories of grain elevators are of harvest time and delivering that first truckload of grain, or just of an elevator breaking up the prairie horizon or as a signpost you're almost home.

So it makes no sense when Joel Bouchard, who has more than 130 paintings of grain elevators, messes with people's memories by adding another prairie icon people aren't so nostalgic about: snow.

Bouchard said his paintings are exact depictions of Manitoba grain elevators except for two things: the skies -- "I like wide, open blue skies, not many clouds" -- and the seasons: he has a propensity towards winter.

"You don't like the heat in summer," his wife, Linda, said to him at the showing of his work at the Tiger Hills Art Gallery in Holland, 130 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

"I always like to go against the grain a bit," admitted Joel.

Bouchard has a small sample of his work at Tiger Hills this month, only 14 paintings. A wider selection can be viewed online at

His elevators get people where they live, figuratively, and where they used to live, literally. Then he sabotages it with the white stuff. Eight of the paintings on display have snow.

Actually, his snow is usually from the late stages of winter when it's melting. Ruts show through to the ground, and there are tufts of dead grass sticking up. "Winter is like the dead season but it's almost the most beautiful because it heralds a new season. Spring is coming," he said.

He depicts other seasons as well, particularly fall. You can almost smell the creosote in the railway ties. "There's a lot of perspective involved to get the right feeling. You see the tracks disappearing into the distance and the mist."

Bouchard, 69, grew up on a farm near Laurier, in the Parkland area south of Ste. Rose du Lac. He left the farm in 1964 to find a job in the city, and worked with the City of Winnipeg from 1966-96 before retiring.

In the late 1960s, he started to take photographs of elevators in order to put them on canvas. "That was when they started pulling out the rail lines. That was the death knell for elevators," he said.

It's a good thing he did. Grain elevators have been disappearing from the landscape faster than Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans this year.

There were 5,733 grain elevators in Western Canada in 1930. There was an elevator in every hamlet, and some towns had two or three, owned by different companies. Even in 1970, there were still just less than 5,000 elevators. By 1980, it was down to 3,400 elevators.

Then came the end of the Crowsnest Pass freight rate, deregulation and grain-company mergers. Elevators started to disappear at warp speed. Today, only 346 elevators stand in Western Canada, according to Canadian Grain Commission figures.

The drop in Manitoba is just as precipitous. The number of elevators here peaked at about 740 in 1930. Just 89 grain elevators are now left in Manitoba.

However, storage capacity for grain in Western Canada has changed little, staying at about 6 million tonnes, because the grain elevators that remain are much larger. Some farmers just have to drive two hours or more to deliver each load of grain now.

There isn't much esthetic in the exterior design of grain elevators. More recent models look like Jenga blocks set on end. But people's memories of them play out large. For example, Bouchard recently sold a painting of the Tilston elevator to a woman in Vancouver who bought it for her 96-year-old mother, who is originally from Tilston.

Bouchard's paintings retail in the $400-$600 range.

The Tiger Hills Art Gallery is housed in an old Union Bank building built in 1903. It is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m..

"People love elevators and everything about elevators," said gallery curator Beth Flemington. So Bouchard, who had a showing here two years ago, is already booked for another showing in 2015.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A13

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