Elegant portraits, flowers and animals painted on various forms of porcelain, such as lamps, vases, framed pieces and other antiques line the walls and fill the shelves of Barbara Bougher’s nearly 150-year-old home in Fort Wayne. Aside from what she has collected over the years, she painted most of this artwork herself.
Bougher, age 86, has been Catholic her whole life. As an artist, she has painted countless subjects, but the Blessed Virgin Mary has been one she is drawn to over and over again. “She’s beautiful,” said Bougher. Relating with Mary’s motherhood because of her own motherhood, Bougher noted, “I took to the Blessed Mother because she was a mother.”
Other religious figures have also been instrumental in her life. St. Anthony de Padua’s patronage has been especially prominent as she has found many a lost thing through his intercession. She has also gifted some of her grandchildren who have fallen away from the faith blessed medals of the saint in the hope that he will lead them back to the Church. Most recently, the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been close to her. An image of the Sacred Heart hangs on a wall next to a door in her house, but when asked if she had painted it, she shook her head. “He’s too precious to paint,” she replied.
Bougher expressed the importance of her Catholic faith when it comes to her art. “I don’t think I could do anything without my religion. Everything’s based on religion with me.”
Monsignor Robert Schulte, Pastor of St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne where Bougher is a parishioner, noticed her artistic abilities and asked her to paint portraits of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, patron saint of ecology and the environment, and St. Martin de Porres, patron of public health workers, mixed-race individuals, barbers and innkeepers. These portraits now hang in St. Jude School and took about three to four months to complete, she said.
“I didn’t know I had any talent,” confessed Bougher about her artistic gifts. While attending a summer camp as an elementary school student, she explained that she was surprised when she won a trophy in crafting art.
Sadly, her artistic skills remained unpracticed during the many years after that, and upon entering high school, she took a “typing, shorthand, bookkeeping” course to follow in her six older sisters’ footsteps, who were mostly secretaries. However, after a year of working for an insurance company, she knew she had to move on; that that was not the life for her. Instead, she received her beautician’s license.
She shared 61 years of marriage with her husband Bill, together raising eight children. Bill passed away last year.
Her artwork, Bougher said, was a creative outlet from her days of raising rambunctious youngsters. She dove into crafts, teaching herself to crochet and knit. While attending a ceramics show one day, she saw a company selling molds into which porcelain could be poured. The company was also exhibiting finished and painted porcelain pieces. “And I was just taken with it – the beautiful, delicate statues,” said Bougher. “And that just fascinated me to no end.” That very day she purchased a kiln – a furnace used for heating, or firing, various art mediums, including porcelain. This quickly became her lifelong passion.
Bougher traveled the world – Fatima, the Vatican, Ireland, to name a few places – to learn from the greatest teachers. She began traveling across the country teaching china painting. In the late 1970s, she began teaching adult night classes at Lakeside Middle School in Fort Wayne and later taught this class inside her own home, continuing to this day.
“You learn something new every time,” said a student of Bougher’s home class. “It just depends on what you’re painting.”
Bougher has won multiple ribbons for her china painting and has appeared in at least twenty magazines, including International Porcelain Artists and Teachers, Inc. and the World Organization of China Painters, both of which she has been a member.
Altogether, she said she has been working with porcelain for almost 50 years and estimated that she has taught porcelain painting for about 25 years. She also composed two journal-like books that teach artists how to paint roses and portraits on porcelain, aptly titled “Roses” and “Portraits.”
Bougher estimates that she has produced hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of artwork throughout her life. She has six kilns, four of which are in her basement where racks upon racks of plain crockery, vases and more all rest, waiting to be painted.
Last year, Bougher painted portraits of all her 22 grandchildren. Now, she is working on a portrait of St. Joseph and the child Jesus for St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel School in Fort Wayne. It remains to be seen which saint she might paint next.
“Whatever you do,” she said, “you’ve got to love it.”
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