Art has shaped John Boxtel’s life just as he has shaped a life for and from his sculptures. Creation is his destiny.
The 85-year-old sculptor lives in a secluded home he built near the river outside of Napanee. His sculptures rest in the forest, on his lawn, by the water and in his home. Everywhere I look, I see movement where none exists. A fairy flutters outside the back door.
There’s a passion to his work that matches the excitement an observer can see in Boxtel’s eyes as he walks around his property. Away from the outside world, it’s easy to believe that you’ve entered an enchanted land when visiting Boxtel’s home base.
During his career, in addition to woodworking and sculpting, he’s been a teacher, he’s built and repaired boats, and he’s designed a hotel.
He’s just returned from Lunenberg. He wanted to see where the Bluenose was built. Boxtel is a free spirit who meanders where the wind takes him.
His connection to his art is a constant. There’s a stability within him.
A pair of wooden shoes sit on a step at the entrance to Boxtel’s home, a reminder of his Dutch roots. Inside the front door hangs a pair of Dutch vintage skates—Boxtel’s own—hand-forged blades (theyr’e still sharp) under a wooden footplate, with tie-on straps.
Boxtel grew up in Holland and came to Canada in 1954.
“I was 24 going on 14,” he says. “I think I came because I wanted freedom. I said it was to get away from my mother. I needed space.”
Yet, when he approaches a sculpture of his mother in his yard, he rests a hand fondly on the shoulder of the life-size work of art.
“That’s me with my mother,” says Boxtel, as he looks at the sculpture of a pregnant woman holding a young girl on her lap. He points to the girl. “That’s my sister. She died as a young child. I am still inside my mother there. My mother wanted to replace my sister with me when I was born, and that just doesn’t work. It was difficult.”
He admits that there were other reasons for leaving his native Holland.
“The caste system was still very strong in Holland,” he says. “There was no way to move or grow, even laterally.”
Boxtel studied building technology in Holland but wasn’t happy.
“I never had a sense of direction,” he says. “I left on impulse and followed a path all over the globe. I found a new freedom in Canada.”
After arriving in Ontario more than 60 years ago, Boxtel met woodcarver Claude Taft, connected with the Kleinburg Gallery.
Boxtel eventually landed at the Ontario College of Art where he completed his degree over six years. Along the way he got married and had three children.
“I was so lucky,” he says. “At that time, all the great artists were still teaching at the college. Thomas Bowie taught me sculpture, Gould taught painting, [Richard] Nevitt taught life drawing. I got well educated from the ground up, then went on my own and did my thing. But I never really believed I was an artist. Only in the last five years have I accepted that I’m an artist. All of a sudden, it explains all these things, my restlessness.”
Divorced in 1967, Boxtel lived in Fenlon Falls, where he started an industrial program in the local high school. He taught architecture, drafting and design. In an odd twist, he also taught ballroom dancing.
“They were putting on a play, Annie Get Your Gun. I was friends with one of the English teachers, so they got me to create the set. It turned out no one knew how to dance for the show, so I also became the ballroom dance teacher.”
Teachers from Burlington visited Fenlon Falls and convinced Boxtel to move and teach at their larger school.
But by 1975 he was restless again.
“I took a year and bummed around Europe on a bicycle.”
Back in Canada, he continued his career in sculpting, woodworking and design. He even designed a hotel in Mexico and built all the furniture.
“My girlfriend at the time was a real estate agent,” he says. “She wanted to manage the hotel. I was supposed to be part and parcel under her management.”
He stops and smiles at me.
“I’m not very manageable, so I left.”
After retiring from his teaching duties, Boxtel left his home in Stoney Creek and bought a house on Wallace Island in the St. Lawrence River and lived there for about five years.
“For my dock light, I built a sculpture of Diogenes.”
Somehow that seems fitting, but the Goddess Libertas would have been equally apt.
From there, Boxtel moved to Portsmouth Village before finally settling at his current location outside Napanee.
The original model of one of his prized sculptures is in a field on the way to his home.
“It’s ten kids flying kites,” he says. “I didn’t sell it. After it was cast in brass, I donated it to my home town in Holland. I am celebrated, and I am absolutely happy. It made my life come full circle.”
He takes me to a room in his home where there is a giant wood carving on the wall. He touches and runs his hand across it.
“This was the first piece I ever carved,” he says. “I was in Holland recently and discovered it.”
He bought back the carving, created when he was 23, and brought it home to Canada.
Although Boxtel started carving when he was a kid, he didn’t seriously get into sculpting until 1960.
He’s been sculpting since. You can see his beautiful bust of Molly Brant in a courtyard behind Rideaucrest Home in Kingston, facing the river, just as Molly Brant’s home would have in the 18th century.
“I spent a lot of time in Deseronto and heard quite a bit about Molly Brant,” he says. “Molly Brant became my hero. I decided to do a sculpture of her head and donate it to the Native community for Kingston. But this guy from the ‘Hysterical Society’ wanted to put it on a cairn. I didn’t allow it. I designed a column and said I was donating the head but it had to be on the column.”
Boxtel says the organizers insisted on a cairn and he finally relented. He shakes his head and waves his arms as he explains this. In other words, this time it wasn’t worth his effort to fight the bureaucracy.
Now that Kingston’s newest school will be named in Molly Brant’s honor, Boxtel is proposing to create a full-sized sculpture of the First Nations woman. But after the trouble he had last time, this one won’t be a donation.
In Kingston, Boxtel became friends with Flora MacDonald. She sat for him as he created a sculpture of her. He hopes this sculpture finds a home in Kingston.
He takes me into his workshop and shows me large barrels full of clay.
“I’ve kept that clay damp for more than 50 years,” he says.
He dips his hand into the clay and looks at it. He holds it for a moment, then puts it back and gently covers it with a wet cloth. He closes the lid and rests his hand on top for an extra moment.
“Every piece I’ve ever created is in there. That’s the clay that’s formed everything I’ve done.”
At 85, John Boxtel continues to find new things to do.
“If there’s no hope, there no life anymore. I always assume there is a future. Life goes on. You live until you die. You can’t stop living or you die. A lot of people retire and then die.”
He still sculpts, but admits he pulled away from the scene for several years.
“I got sick of the politics,” he says.
He builds tree houses and does a lot of woodwork in his studio. He teaches drawing at the local outreach centre. He’s also completed a book—Studio—about his work. He’s looking forward to the book’s release next month.
This wonderful artist, who lives in his own idyllic setting, says life is not about the material.
“I don’t give a shit about money,” he says. “I always tell people I’m independently poor.”
Perhaps, but there’s a richness to his spirit and art that is priceless.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.