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ARTS FEATURE: An artist worth knowing

A Stinking Fish Studio Tour profile of East Sooke's Bonnie Coulter
Sculptor Bonnie Coulter stands in front of a piece she calls Lure Thief

Frank Mitchell

Special to the Gazette

Bonnie Coulter is a maker and a force of nature. Visitors to her cozy studio on the East Sooke waterfront quickly discover she oozes artistic creativity.

Her paintings and sculptures are constantly evolving as she explores new ideas, techniques and media, all the while refining earlier inventions to reflect her thoughts.

Bonnie did not start out as an artist. She was “the original tomboy” and wanted to go into trades. After being rejected by the Vancouver Vocational Institute of Technology because she didn’t have credits in high school shop (they were mostly denied to girls at the time) she convinced her old school to give her an extra term of shop. This time, VVI accepted her. She was the only girl entering in her year to make it past Christmas and graduated as a designer.

She married at 18 and she and husband, Keith, were all set up for the good life in suburban Newton. But they had a yen to farm. So they bought a quarter section near Soda Creek in the Cariboo and ran a mixed farm, with the whole range of crops and animals, including 20 mares for breeding mules.

Bonnie and Keith soon learned that most farmers only sustain their lifestyle with off-farm work. So Bonnie designed houses built by Keith; she also secured a variety of design/survey-related government jobs. After their kids left home, however, running the farm and doing outside work became increasingly onerous.

The need to provide health care for a family member dictated a move to south Vancouver Island in 2001. Keith continued to build houses, including their own in East Sooke, while Bonnie transferred to Victoria, rising to department head before “retiring” from the civil service in 2010.

Except when the fish are running, she spends four to five hours daily in her studio, making art for show or for the four or five commissions always underway.

Bonnie has always enjoyed art, but the move to East Sooke opened new doors. Most important was the encouragement and advice from her daughter Angela (Menzies), an established painter and a long-time member of the Stinking Fish Studio Tour, to explore new techniques and subject matter.

The appeal of Bonnie’s work is demonstrated by public comments – and purchases. It’s hard to define that appeal in words. A major factor is the play between unlikely materials and the ostensible subject matter. This is clearest in the case of her sculptural assemblies of mechanical parts and tools, many boat-related. People delight in the unexpected emergence of animals from hard manufactured objects, especially when those animals exhibit “attitude.”

Several of her painting techniques involve seeming conflicts between materials and subjects. Sometimes the attraction emerges from deeper emotions and personal memories. Other works communicate a deep-rooted love of nature and the need to nurture it. One thing is clear: in Bonnie’s words, “It’s not about pretty.”

She continues to explore new  ideas, most recently photo realism, partly in connection with a multi-year project to document the construction of a classic wooden ship. Bonnie’s work often appears in local galleries and since 2011, her studio has been included in the Stinking Fish Studio Tour.

On Tour

• The Stinking Fish Studio Tour happens July 23 to 27 at venues around greater Metchosin from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Brochures and contact details for artists can be found at many local locations and online at