Years ago, when Louisa Barton-Duguay lived in Moncton, New Brunswick, she was a social justice activist, including helping plan a summit for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Today, Barton-Duguay lives in Connecticut and is poor herself. She's homeless and gets by on a paltry widow's pension and the kindness of friends, who help her find temporary living spaces.
She still sees the big picture, though, focusing not on her own woes but on the oneness of all things on the planet. Her artwork, which can be seen in an exhibit opening Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, is an extension of this outlook.
"We are all connected. It's not just a Christian notion that we are all one. You see it in all religions and philosophies," said Barton-Duguay, a devout Christian. "The air we breathe has been breathed by millions of people. The water keeps on flowing for years and years."
Barton-Duguay says just about all of the works in the exhibit are part of her "Universe" series. She paints canvases with acrylic paint, often taking the form of a horizon with a sun or a moon, and enhances her images with collections of found objects. Her choice of items seems random — pottery, bits of glass, flowers, seeds, shells, little clippings from newspapers and magazines, bits of carved potato, bits of metal and wire — but that's the point.
"I combine objects that you don't expect to see together because we are all one," Barton-Duguay, 61, said. "I can put dill seed next to a little ceramic fish next to a piece of cinnamon, and they relate to each other."
Her paintings are mysterious and surreal. She has a hard time explaining what each work of art means. "I don't know much about them," she said. "It's intuitive. ... I like the feeling I get from looking at them. I don't have the words to go with them. I just go with the feeling."
Their unexplainability is all of a piece with her outlook on life. "There is a connection to the divine and the universe that you can have no way of understanding," she said.
But sometimes in her pieces, she lets poet John Keats and Native American Chief Seattle explain for her. On one piece, she quotes the Duwamish leader, whose sentiment she shares: "This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
Happiness And Heartbreak
The path that brought Barton-Duguay to Hartford, and into homelessness, may be difficult to understand, too, but she endures it with surprising calmness
She was born in a tiny town in Saskatchewan and raised in a little city in British Columbia. When her first husband died in a car crash, leaving her with three small children, she took the insurance money and moved across the country to New Brunswick to go to Mount Allison University art school.
In New Brunswick she graduated, made friends, exhibited, got arts grants and traveled to Paris and China. She became an activist, eventually earning a spot for one year on the Moncton city council and founding a small newspaper. She is especially proud that her activist group helped draw attention to a water-privatization plan, which eventually was abandoned, preserving union jobs.
Her time in New Brunswick had its share of misfortune, too. Her best friend, well-respected artist Guy Duguay, contracted AIDS. He was gay, but they got married so she could visit him in the hospital and help take care of him. He died just a few weeks later.
He left her his pottery tools. "I was hesitant to use them. It hadn't been part of my plan," she said. "I considered pottery a craft and I was an artist." She got good at pottery, though, and made a living as a potter. She kept up with her activism, which got more involved when she joined a church. She made her art on the side.
Barton-Duguay didn't last long on the city council. Her newspaper career was short, too. She spent all her money keeping her paper going. It folded when she went broke.
A few years ago, a friend lured her to Connecticut to help him with a family issue. "We started eating at soup kitchens to talk to the young people and help them," she said. "I felt like I was being called here, to be here for the people I was meeting." She moved here for good in 2009.
But misfortune followed her again. Her boyfriend died in 2012 and she lost the Hartford apartment they shared.
"I couldn't afford to live there on my own," she said. Since then she's lived with a variety of friends and has been helped greatly by her fellow parishioners at Grace Lutheran Church on Woodland Street. She works at the church as a full-time volunteer and writes for Beat of the Street, the local newspaper created by the community's homeless population.
She's looking forward to a more long-term living arrangement. A possibilty is on the horizon, as early as April 1. But it's not just housing she's looking for. She wants to go back to making art again.
"I don't have a space to work," she said. "I just want a permanent space. Then we'll see what's next."
ARTWORK BY LOUISA BARTON-DUGUAY will be at the Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave. in Hartford, from Feb. 7, when it opens wtih a reception from 5 to 7 p.m., until March 6. Gallery hours are weekdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.charteroakcenter.org.