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Michèle Bush: An artist in a strange land

Where do I start? The farting rock? The pug wedding? Or the Bushwoman chronicles? Hysterical Glamour or Home On Deranged? And what about her artist/prodigy of a twin brother and the rest of her ever-so-slightly-eccentric theatrical family? What about
Michele Bush

Where do I start? The farting rock? The pug wedding? Or the Bushwoman chronicles? Hysterical Glamour or Home On Deranged? And what about her artist/prodigy of a twin brother and the rest of her ever-so-slightly-eccentric theatrical family? What about the night she turned on the radio while driving up the canyon and listened to her new Whistler job go up in smoke (literally)? Or the year she spent running away to the circus? Or her venture into hand-painted underwear? Or her plans for home-delivered dinner theatre at Whistler…

How do I encapsulate such a bold sweep of a life? How do I do justice to this swath of bright colour splashed on Whistler’s social canvas? Painter, writer, actor, comedienne, designer, retailer, producer, innovator, director — and not a bad cook/bartender to boot — Michèle Bush is an imaginative storm unto herself. Indeed, her story defies a nicely laid-out, linear treatment. And she would be terribly disappointed if I tried…

So I won’t. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

People push their limits here all the time. It’s part of the Whistler style. Go hard, risk big and never show them you’re hurting. But “pushing limits” around here usually assumes some kind of athletic pursuit. Not so with Michèle Bush.

“I didn’t come here to ski,” she says, in that world-weary, been-there-done-that delivery of hers (in which I always feel there’s a punchline waiting to be delivered). “You see I’m not very sporty.” At this self-evident observation, she lets out a faux-giggle. And suddenly she’s channelling her cigarette-and-martini cougar archetype. “But you know darling, I felt I just had to move here,” she purrs. ”For deep in my heart, I knew Whistler needed a village idiot.”

That was back in 1980. Now nearly three decades later, she is a Whistler icon — a creative catalyst that inspires locals and visitors to take a walk on the wilder side of their imaginations.

Don’t get me wrong. It‘s not like she’s the only artistic type around. After all, Whistler is quickly earning a reputation with artsy types for the burgeoning scene here. It’s just that Michèle lives that life so fully — and has done so with very little compromise for so long — that I can’t help but feel that she’s had a bigger hand to play than most in establishing this place as something more than just another ski town.

And she’s still pushing hard. “I have so many good ideas,” she moans. “If only I could find a marketer-millionaire who would underwrite my efforts, I know it could be a very lucrative thing. So if you’re reading this, give me a call. I’m in the book!”

She grew up on the westside of Vancouver, in Kerrisdale to be precise. Her mother was a registered nurse and a frustrated entertainer. “My mom was an accomplished thespian,” Michèle tells me, “A real pro. In fact, she was named ‘Best Actress of 1964’ up in Grande Prairie, Alberta.” Another pause. Just a hint of a smile. “My dad used to direct plays there too.”

Growing up in the Bush family, she says, was highly entertaining. Her twin, Michael, was (and is) a talented painter while her sister became an accomplished ballerina. Her other brother, I have to assume, was just as creative. “Ours was a bit of a quirky household,” admits Bush. “We had no problem dressing up. In fact, we’d put on little plays and shows all the time.” She laughs. “You know, it’s funny now — but I always thought Michael and I would become the next Donny and Marie…”

They didn’t. But that didn’t stop Michele from venturing deeper into the arts-and-performance world. “I knew I was through my ‘formal education’ phase after graduating from high school,” she says with a straight face. “That’s because everything I wanted to pursue professionally — acting, writing, painting — isn’t taught in school.” She stops. Realizes what she’s just said. “Well,” she adds, “you know what I mean…”

She first came to Whistler for a windsurfing regatta. It was love at first sail. “Ok, I’ve already said it: I’m not very sporty,” she says. “But windsurfing was one sport that I really got into. And Alta Lake looked like a great place to pursue it.” She explains that her passion for sailing came from spending much of her youth exploring the B.C. coast on a Cal 25. “That was our family sport,” she explains. “Imagine squeezing two adults, four kids and a dog onto a 25-foot sailboat. Now imagine heading onto the water for a two-week trip to Jervis Inlet or Desolation Sound. Now that was adventure.”

It was on one such trip that Bush père introduced the family to a startling natural phenomenon near Squirrel Cove. “It was all so mysterious,” she recounts. “I remember my dad taking us through these tidal rapids in our little tender and entering this secluded lagoon. We beached the boat at the end of the lagoon and dad led us inland. Suddenly he stopped and pointed to two identical pieces of rock lying next to each there on the ground. This, dad told us very solemnly, was the site where he’d farted and split a rock in two.” While I desperately try to figure out the point of this story, Michèle just smiles. “You know, “ she says, “I went back there a few years ago to spread his ashes. Sadly, I’m not sure I found the right rock…”

But back to Whistler. Once she’d decided that this was the place where she wanted to live, Michèle set about finding a job. Already well versed in the restaurant trade (what budding actor/artist isn’t?), she saw an ad for work at the soon-to-open new Keg. So she applied, went through the interview process, and got the job. “A few days later I’m driving up from Vancouver with all my stuff,” she remembers. “The radio is on, but it’s just crackling with static. Suddenly I hear the announcer mention the Keg at Whistler. ‘Yeah — that’s cool,’ I think. So I start listening a little closer. Only then do I realize that he’s talking about a fire at the Keg. And that the place is burning to the ground!”

Poof — just like that, her job had been incinerated. But that didn’t stop her and her friends from gathering in the town centre that night. “The energy around that fire was unbelievable,” she recalls. “It was like there was this crazy magic in the air. Later, we went to a party at one of the Keg staff houses.” She stops speaking for a moment. Smiles at the memory. “I’m not sure, but it might be the greatest party I’ve ever attended at Whistler…”

And you know she’s seen her share of rippers over the years.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Michèle to find other work… or a place to stay. “I was really lucky,” she says. “I found a house on the lake. It was me and five other guys — which I thought was just fine.” She tries not to smile – but she can’t help herself. “All the guys were hardcore skiers and I didn’t ski. So I eventually found a day-job working at a jewelry store, First Run.” That’s where Michèle started experimenting with her own line of hand-painted underwear for men. “They flew out of the store,” she says proudly. I couldn’t make enough of them…”

Her success with the underwear — “and a whole bunch of other funny clothes I created,” she says — spurred her on to open her own shop: Hysterical Glamour. She was 24 years old and going strong. “The store went really well,” she says. “I just sat there and painted stuff.” But fate was about to hand her yet another jester’s card.

In some weird and wonderful way, it’s fitting that the daughter of the man who could fart and split rocks should eventually run away to join the circus. Let’s travel back to the mid 1980’s for a moment. “My boyfriend at the time, Brett Wood, was a freestyle skier,” she says. “One day, the folks at Ringling Brothers contacted him with an offer to join their circus for a new aerial act that they were developing called the Royal Canadian Ski Squadron. When he told me he’d accepted the job, I thought: ‘well, you don’t get to do that every day…’”

Michèle quickly sold her store (to the wife of impresario Sam Feldman) and followed her man to Florida. “For the next two years, we would live in a 9’X14’ railcar,” she explains. “It was totally romantic. We travelled the whole Eastern Seaboard. I was just the ‘spouse’ — but that didn’t stop me from harbouring fantasies about being a showgirl and riding the elephants.”

Her fantasies all came crashing down when Brett missed his landing one day during a tandem double back flip and wrecked both his knees. “I cried my eyes out when we left,” she admits. “I just loved the lifestyle. The absurdity of circus life really appealed to me.”

But so did coming back to Whistler. “It was no hardship,” she maintains. “Besides, the timing was great.” And with few exceptions, she’s been living and creating here ever since.

So what about the pug wedding? Or the Bushwoman chronicles? Or Home On Deranged? And what about her plans for a travelling dinner show starring her and boyfriend Johnny O? Or her thoughts on how muni contracts are awarded and why she hasn’t been contacted to work in street entertainment this summer (after an eight year run)? Alas, I’ve run out of words for this week. We’ll just have to visit with Michèle again real soon…