Can a small boutique in Andover provide the foundation for an artist/writer collaborative in the Merrimack Valley? If Michele Bourgeau Lea has her way, it will. Bourgeau Lea, a multimedia artist, poet and passionate believer in integrating the arts, has a vision to bring artists together to pool their creativity.
Bourgeau Lea grew up one of nine siblings in a subdivision outside of Detroit. Though her maternal grandparents were wealthy owners of a general store in South Dakota once visited by U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Bourgeau Lea’s nuclear family struggled to make ends meet. One of the recurring themes in her life was art — her maternal grandmother eventually worked for a Women’s Exchange, an organization that helps women achieve economic stability through the sale of fine-quality, hand-crafted items, creating “clothing for all the wealthy in Detroit, like the Fords.” Her grandmother also painted and played piano. Bourgeau Lea’s father drew cartoon figures and painted with acrylics, but it was her mother who had the most artistic influence on her. She encouraged creativity in her children, so gifts and cards were mainly handmade. “My mother had to cook dinner every day for 11 people, but she always lit candles at dinnertime,” Bourgeau Lea says . She loved the aesthetics.”
Bourgeau Lea used the natural world as her playground. When her grandparents moved from South Dakota to the shores of Lake Michigan, her grandfather began growing and selling nursery items including walnut trees, rhododendrons and trumpet vines. Bourgeau Lea spent hours exploring the farm — “our only vacation” — and she captures the feeling of wonder she felt in a poem titled “Marrs Road” that’s included in her book “The Hope Chest” (self-published, 2007).
Down a long, dusty drive
Surrounded by walnut trees
Concord grapes, azalea bushes
Six-foot hollyhocks arrayed in long lofty phalanx
Rooted by his strong, weathered hands
Bourgeau Lea came to Andover in 1982 with her first husband. Their home, built in 1802, once served as a tavern. When asked what brought her here, she said, “I know it sounds weird, but it was the apple tree [in the backyard] that spoke to me. …I wanted to set down roots because I [used to have] rich ones and I was far away from family.”
Eventually becoming a single mother to four children, she returned to school in search of “a passion.” After graduating with degrees from Wellesley College and Lesley University, jobs included creating a children’s summer program at North Andover’s Smolak Farms that combined nature, farming, art and literature.
Her own art, exhibited in such places as the Essex Art Center and MassArt, runs the gamut from watercolor to Chinese brush paint, from pen and ink to copperplate prints and pastels. Any medium you can think of (and even some you may not know, such as collagraphy), she’s tried. “It ties in with the fact I’m a lifelong learner. …I’m not drawn to one particular medium except the one I am doing right now,” Bourgeau Lea says . “At the moment, I’m painting furniture and creating wreaths for the shop.”
In 2012, she remarried. Tim Bourgeau Lea is her partner in more ways than one. A carpenter by trade who is helping her repurpose furniture, he also restores Shelby autos, a muscle car from the ’60s. In their backyard sits a wooden bench he built and gifted to Michele, a replica of the bench on which they first met. Tim says of his wife: “What I find amazing about her is her passion. She has a way of lighting up when she looks at something. She helps me look at things differently in life.”
The shop they own is inspired by the French markets they visited on their honeymoon, a mix of handmade clothing, antique furniture and fabrics. “[The French] understand the importance of working with your hands,” Michele says.
In keeping with the market theme, her shop, Voilà! Artisinal Marché, features the work of creative New Englanders, including fiber artist Phyllis Poor of Bedford, Mass., and White River Junction, Vt., lampshade artist Ken Blaisdell. “I’m inspired by people who have a passion, and I’m hoping we can somehow channel it into a direction like the French markets … to represent the community, Michele says.” She also uses local upholsterers and seamstresses to repurpose found items, in the same way she worked with found objects as a child. Tim is renovating their garage into a studio, where Bourgeau Lea hopes to host art classes and book readings.
The artistic tradition continues in each of her children, talented photographers, writers and artists. And though the apple tree that drew Bourgeau Lea to Andover fell during a storm, a trumpet vine continues to wind around a pergola, shading her patio. It’s a descendant of the vines her grandfather grew on Marrs Road. With her roots now strongly planted in the community, Bourgeau Lea continues to take creative risks: “I’m that kid out in the woods, still dreaming.”
Voilá! Artisinal Marché