January 5, 2011
Text by Frances J. Folsom Photography by Chris Vaccaro
With a name that conjures an exotic shade of pinkish-orange, perhaps it’s only natural that Coral Bourgeois would use lots of rich, vivid color in her art. And given that she spent almost ten years making a living as a jewelry artist, it’s no wonder that the work she does today glitters like giant bits of jewelry for the home.
First-time visitors to Cade Tompkins Projects, the Providence, Rhode Island, gallery that represents Bourgeois, are floored by what they see. “They’re sort of bedazzled,” says gallery owner Cade Tompkins. “It’s such a visual blast, such an incredible surge of color, your eye tends to pop around all over.”
Bourgeois’s large-scale pieces defy easy categorization. Are they paintings or something else? Functional or pure art? All of the above, it turns out. Some of them hang on walls, sometimes singly but most often in multiples. Others have a purpose beyond their beauty, forming a kitchen backsplash, say, or taking the place of paint or wallpaper. “I would say they’re paintings, primarily,” Tompkins says, “but they use elements of collage—beads and resins and other applications.”
However one might describe them, the works are a logical next step in the artist’s career.
Born in Louisiana, reared in New Jersey and educated at North Texas State University, Bourgeois moved to New York City in the 1980s intending to focus on drawing and painting. She had some success, showing her work in city galleries while waiting on tables to make ends meet. On the side, she began crafting fanciful earrings. “Costume jewelry and art jewelry were really in at that time,” she recalls. She hit on a winning formula: hand-painted paper designs that she cut out, glued onto lightweight wooden disks and painted with epoxy resin. Neiman Marcus quickly became a client, and before she knew it, Bourgeois was running a jewelry company that at one point had fifteen employees. Success was welcome, but there was one problem. “I wasn’t happy,” she says simply. “I’m an artist at heart. Here I was, tied to the fashion trade where several times a year the jewelry line changed. I felt I was constantly reinventing the wheel.”
Coincidentally, she says, jewelry trends moved in a new direction. “People wanted either fine jewelry or really inexpensive jewelry. Mine was neither.”
She was still enchanted with the process she devised, however, and began to think about trying it out on a larger scale. In 1992, she and her husband moved to a nineteenth-century townhouse in one of Providence’s historic districts. In a new city and without the pressures of her own business, Bourgeois began the next stage of her career. Initially, she continued working on wood, designing and making decorative pieces for the home. “I cut it, painted it and decorated it with leftover sequins, gemstones and cut glass from my jewelry business,” she explains.
Local interior designers soon caught wind of her work and began commissioning her to make pieces for their clients. She switched to a ceramic tile base to take advantage of tile’s more standard sizing, but quickly decided tile was too heavy to use on a large scale. “My pieces started getting much bigger, and even a one-foot-square tile is really heavy,” she notes. “Plus, I hate to grout.”
Nowadays, Bourgeois uses medium-density fiberboard (MDF). “I wanted something flat and smooth, like tile, but not so heavy,” she says. “MDF can be used in a lot of places tile would be used.”
To make her pieces, Bourgeois draws the initial design on paper. Working in her studio in a converted mill building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, she cuts MDF into the sizes she needs, lays them on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle and affixes the paper designs to the boards. “Then I add beads, gemstones, metal-cut stampings . . . whatever. The last steps are painting the pieces and coating them with layers of epoxy resin,” she explains. “You don’t know what the color or texture will be until the resin sets, then—surprise.”
Her own home stands as a gallery of her work. “I’ve covered everything, from the kitchen with tiles depicting Moorish scenes to the stair risers with animal prints to a bathroom where the walls are covered with a mural of women of the 1930s,” she says. In a den she sheathed the doors of a bookcase with white pearlescent tiles. “I’ve even covered a bureau with images of old album covers: Janis Joplin, the Beatles, John Lennon, Sonny and Cher. My husband and son are musicians, so they use it to store sheet music.”
In other people’s houses, she takes her cue from the homeowners. One client mentioned she was a quilter, so Bourgeois fashioned a backsplash in a quilt pattern of one-inch tiles in blues, golds and reds. For a homeowner who loves music, she created a wall mural featuring images of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, guitars, a piano and musical notes surrounded by brilliantly colored peacocks, starbursts and checkerboards.
Today, Bourgeois’s work is moving toward yet another, larger stage. She still does art pieces to hang on walls and murals for people’s homes. But increasingly, she makes large-scale pieces for commercial clients. She has created murals for hospitals, restaurants and hotels around New England and in such far-flung places as Egypt and Dubai. At Boston’s Liberty Hotel, the former Charles Street Jail, a nineteen-foot-tall mural with a 1930s prison theme sits between the escalators that run from the street level to the lobby.
No matter the theme, her work always blends realistic and fantastical images. “The dynamic of the real and not real is what makes Coral’s art so interesting,” Tompkins notes. Asked where she gets her inspiration, Bourgeois says, “It springs from deep within me, by constantly thinking about the project, where it’s going, who will see it.” As for a favorite among her designs, she says, “It’s whichever one I’m working on. I get deep into my work; I’m always in the moment.”