Blueberry Infinity

Texte d’accompagnement

by Normand Renaud


On veut… du bleu plein les yeux
Du bleu… pour les amoureux
Du bleu… dans les ananas
Du bleu, du bleu où il n’y en a pas

(lyrics to a song by Ginette Reno)[2]


A well supported review of the exhibition Mines de rien pas pour cinq cennes [1]might have used an epigraph from the semiology of tropes or figurative meanings. Such a learned reference might shed light on an important aspect of this collection of eloquent objects made from jaunty junctures of meaning. I hope that a specialist will someday study them; it would make for a interesting analysis.

But on second thought, the insights of a pop song are more appropriate. As an authoritative source, a pop song better reflects one of the foundations of Guillaume Boudrias-Plouffe’s artistic approach as a self-styled ravaudeux d’histoires[3] or ‘story-mender’. It is based on his appreciation for the genius of the people on display in commonplace cultural manifestations and its undervalued potential which he celebrates in his work. Ginette Reno’s joyful ditty actually puts a finger on a basic process at play in this installation, and perhaps even one of its meanings.

Éluard’s orange[4] has had its day. Henceforth, Earth is blue as a blueberry.

That is the poetic intuition of cosmic proportions that we are led to embrace in this exhibition, which is the… yes, the fruit of an act of engaged presence in a particular physical and human environment, namely Greater Sudbury. Basking in the warmth of an observer’s interested gaze, the humble berry has swelled with pride, so much so that it blueness has spread to everything, especially those who rub against it.

Upon entering the gallery, the visitor first sees large formless masses of Styrofoam that are meant to resemble the area’s rocky hills, which in summer are dotted with blueberries. But here, the ‘rock’ doesn’t have its usual charred black colour – a result of the mining industry’s acidic emissions – which used to be Sudbury’s dubious distinction. Here, it has acquired a purplish blue tint that one soon recognizes as blueberry blue. So, a tiny bit of the landscape has expanded to become its entirety; the small part is now the large whole; the component is now the context; the effect is now the cause; the place of origin is now the product. Metaphor? Metonymy? Synecdoche? Like I said, a bit of trope analysis might help.

A few steps away, the visitor notices two blue-tinged feet, perfectly molded in beeswax which gives them a slight whiff of honey. Did those blue feet trod on that blue rock for so long that they have acquired its colour? Is that how you find your feet, get a foothold, have both feet on the ground, on this ‘blue as a blueberry’ earth? Holy waxfeet[5]! – a yet-unknown oath – one might exclaim as a sort of eureka upon arriving at this sudden illumination.

But the humble blueberry can also expand its influence without extending its colour. This exhibition shows how, through a motley assortment of creations of popular ingenuity which flaunt blueberry panache. These artifacts are due to anonymous artisans in fields such as cooking, trinkets, oral tradition, community life, even popular mythology. But ultimately they are due to the approach used by our ‘story-mender’. He pulls them together and gives them new life by combining them in unexpected amalgams that bring forth novel thoughts.

For example, you can admire the geometric patterns of various pie crust motifs. But here, they are all the more admirable because they have been expertly cut out of a wide piece of wood, then perched like Christmas tree stars atop four slender pyramids. The pyramids are covered with countless little torn-up pieces of pictures of blueberries which have been painstakingly glued onto their sides, one by one. Quite the opposite of the harvester’s work, these berries weren’t picked up, but put back. Some of the pyramids are only half-covered in blueberries and the rest of their surface has a metallic finish. Mineral and vegetal have joined forces to compose the structure. These assemblages struck me as an inspiring representation of the power of bighearted devotion that turns toil into treats.

Other pie crust motifs appear in framed photos hung on the gallery wall. At first glance, they seem to be real pies placed on the ground upon the infamous Sudbury black-rock. But look carefully and you’ll see that they are in fact ceramic pies crafted with stunning illusionist realism. Here, we’re in the neighbourhood of Magritte’s treachery of things – “this is not a pie” – or perhaps of a surrealist “chance meeting” of a blueberry pie in a blueberry patch. We need only complete the scene with an astounded picker’s amazement upon discovering one, and the boasting that would ensue. “My blueberry patch is so incredibly good that I actually found a complete pie!”

Another incredible tale awaits the visitor who descends into the gallery’s basement and, with some amazement, encounters this scene: a bear is holding a post in one strong arm to prevent the earth from collapsing. The bear in question is in fact the costume worn by the person who plays the mascot for Sudbury’s annual Blueberry Festival: Sud-berry Bear. It was borrowed from the festival, while various other objects throughout the installation were borrowed from the personal trove of the festival’s stalwart organizer, Jeannine Larcher-Lalande. Her commitment to this long-standing community event was warmly acknowledged by the artist at the exhibition’s opening event.

But here, the blueberry festival’s mascot assumes the role of a heroic miner as he plays the title character in Réal Giguère’s 1960’s novelty song Gros Jambon[6]. This song tells the tale of a strong man who perished in a mining accident while saving his co-workers by propping up the crumbling drift with a post. As the blue bear holds his post in his outstretched palm, the ‘story-mender’ sings his modified version of the song a cappella in an audio recording: Gros Ours bleu… Gros Ours bleu… eu[7]. Our semiologist might call that a hypertext. In any case, it surely is a comical convergence of blueberry and mining mythologies. You can’t get much more oddly Sudburian than that.

Along with berries and ore, the ‘story-mender’ includes the third element of a local holy trinity: white pine. Back in 1883, Sainte-Anne-des-Pins (Ste. Anne of the Pines) was the unmistakably French-Canadian name of the village founded at ‘Sudbury Junction’ and the first natural resource to be ravaged in the area was its big white pines (long since gone from the landscape). Their contribution to the installation might seem a bit discrete at first glance. Nonetheless, it’s quite the achievement.

Leaning against two of the gallery’s walls, near the blue rocks, there are a dozen wooden poles, cylindrical, unpainted and unusually long, about ten feet if not more. No label indicates the type of wood, but the gallery’s personnel will tell you that they are made of white pine. You’ll find no such pieces of lumber in your usual lumberyards. That’s because they were fabricated by the artist himself, with help from local accomplices.

To fully appreciate these objects, one should know that the artist went to a local sawmill, Portelance Lumber, and located a rare beam of massive white pine, which the mill’s owner identified thanks to his knowledge of the subtle characteristics of various types of wood. Then, the artist enlisted the help of a technologist at the Laurentian School of Architecture, Francis Thorpe, who gave him access to a wood shop with the tools required to transform this squared beam into a dozen long stems. Does their shape evoke the core samples extracted by prospectors’ diamond drills, or the long drill bits used by miners to pierce the holes into which explosives are loaded?

Such attempts at interpretation are of a lesser interest compared to the appreciation of the process itself, the course of action which produced these objects. All that effort and trouble was motivated by the will to go out and explore a human and natural environment in order to extract its potential. That is the significance of these strange long poles. When the ‘story-mender’ explains that his encounters with people in his adopted setting are at the centre not only of his process, but of the artwork itself, we need only see these poles to realize what he’s saying. A French expression that means ‘to reach out to someone’ or ‘to offer help’ is tendre la perche: to extend a pole. The artist has literally extended several of them in this installation. To my mind, that is the significance we should grasp.

Local oral tradition, in the form of folk tales, also contributes to the installation. Just outside the gallery’s entrance, an audio recording plays in a loop a tale that itself forms a loop. In this recording, the artist delivers a folk tale drawn from the repertoire of Mon oncle Émile (Uncle Émile), a local storyteller who regrettably has passed away. It’s the story of a berry picker who is confronted by a bear, and again, and again, because the final words of the tale are the same as the first ones. There’s no escape from the blueberry’s infiniteness. Upon arriving or leaving the gallery, the visitor passes through a portal of perpetuity.

At the exhibition’s opening event, the ‘story-mender’ added an element of performance to his installation. Wearing a hard hat on which he fastened a candle as early miners did, he went among the spectators to provide each person with a share of ‘blueberry flour’. (I’m told it was really corn starch paste dyed blue, then dried and ground into powder.) After that, he invited everyone to come forward and deposit his or her little handful on the floor, forming six small piles. This gesture, he explained, recalls a local flour mill of bygone times that left six silos standing in a Sudbury neighbourhood, which today is still known as The Flour Mill / Le Moulin à fleur. Our semiologist might see a ‘triple isotopy’ here: a single thing is simultaneously farinaceous, mineralized and baccate[8]. In any case, handfuls of ‘blueberry flour’ symbolize the small contributions that all can make to the vitality of a cultural habitat by perpetuating its history and amplifying its imagination.

So, that’s how one goes about the trade of ravaudeux d’histoires, or story-mender. Take neighbouring realities and marry them together. A brick and a lantern[9], a mystery and a gumball[10]… from conjunction springs forth revelation. All things speak to each other, complete one another, expand into each other, mutually intensifying and enriching one another. It takes all things to make a world[11], a world to encompass all things, and world of people to make it all happen. Well, we happen to have a world, right outside our door and too often neglected. To better appreciate its worth, we need only explore it, choose a few of its ingredients and mix gently. And lo and behold, we’ll see a world with eyes of blue.

Normand Renaud, Sudbury, February 2016

[1] A number of expressions and notions throughout the original French version of this article are practically untranslatable, so expect a number of magnificent footnotes, beginning with the title of the exhibition. Mine de rien (literally, ‘having the appearance/demeanor of nothing’) can mean ‘nonchalantly, innocently, discretely’. But the artist is playing on the meaning of mine as ‘where minerals are extracted’; so he’s saying ‘a mine of nothing’. The expression pas pour cinq cennes is literally ‘not even a nickel’s worth’ and its meaning is ‘not in the least’. So here’s my attempt at a somewhat similar English play on words: ‘Ore-dinary? Not on my nickel’. Groan if you need to; that’s what puns are for.


[2] Before you read my translation of the lyrics, take into account that you can’t get the blues in French. In French imagery, blue is not the colour of gloom and melancholy; it’s the colour of blue-sky joyful feelings. (They didn’t call it ‘two solitudes’ for nothing.) So, it’s with hopeful generosity that Ginette Reno sings: “We want eyes full of blue / Blue for lovers / Blue in pineapples / Blue, blue, where there is none.” (Canadian Francophones can get the blues, avoir les bleus, due to neighbourly linguistic influence. You can see why that phenomenon can be worrisome. But in France, voir tout en bleu, ‘to see everything in blue’, means you’re feeling optimistic.)

[3] Ravaudeux d’histoires is the term the artist uses to name his artistic trade or profession. The invented word ravaudeux uses popular word morphology to create a noun based on the verb ravauder, which can mean to stitch, mend or repair somewhat imperfectly, to search or rummage around, or to string different things together. So, the artist presents himself as a stitcher, patcher or rearranger of stories… a ‘story-mender’.

[4] Paul Éluard famously wrote la terre est bleue comme une orange, “Earth is blue as an orange”. This line is often referenced as a classic example of surrealism in poetry.

[5] Here my French text invents the oath Pieds de ciarge!, literally ‘church-candle feet!’Trust me, it almost sounds normal in Canadian French. That’s because it is similar to other expletives in a rich lexicon that stems from a unique appreciation for liturgical paraphernalia.

[6] Gros jambon is literally ‘big ham’, but is understood as a nickname for a large and strong man. The song Gros Jambon is a French-Canadian version of a song that scored a hit for Jimmy Dean in 1961: Big Bad John. Note the assonance: Gros Jambon / Big Bad John. It’s bilingual ear-candy.

[7] ‘Big Blue Bear, Big Blue Bear… err’

[8] Farinaceous means ‘made of flour or meal’, while baccate means ‘berry-like’. Sometimes English words need footnotes too.

[9] This expression, and the one commented in the next footnote, are meant to be examples of unusual pairings. Une brique et un fanal is literally ‘a brick and a lantern’. The complete expression is j’attends avec une brique et un fanal: ‘I’m waiting with a brick and a lantern’. Nowadays, what is meant is an unfriendly welcome. Ironically, the origins of the expression, though uncertain, are thought to be the exact opposite. A heated brick and a lantern were needed for sleighs or buggies that were leaving to travel through a cold, dark night and the person providing them was waiting to deliver a much appreciated service.

[10] Mystère et boule de gomme is literally ‘a mystery and a gumball’. This expression is commonly used when one wants to say ‘it’s a real mystery’ in a more amusing way. Its origins are unknown. It is speculated that the ‘gumball’ might originally have meant that a fortune-teller using a cloudy crystal ball (made of something other than glass or crystal) would have a hard time revealing mysteries.

[11] The French expression is il faut de tout pour faire un monde, whereas the similar English expression says ‘it takes all kinds/sorts to make a world’. This seems to limit the notion to persons, whereas the French expression says that it takes ‘some of everything’.