In the Studio: Bruce Mitchell
A chat with sculptor Bruce Mitchell about his practice.
So, Bruce, take us to the beginning. Where does your work begin, what did that time look like in terms of your input and output. In other words, what were you absorbing, what was influencing you to begin creating, and what did those early works look like?
To begin with, I feel exceptionally fortunate to have grown up in a household that had so many things to satisfy my curiosity about the world. My parents were well-read, open-minded college graduates who always encouraged my brother, sister and me to appreciate and explore the collection of paintings and artifacts collected from their travels and to peruse the library of books and periodicals that spanned a wide range of subjects. I found myself particularly drawn to the subjects of art, world history, music and archeology. We had a vinyl record collection of classic, Latin, jazz and folk music to enjoy and a stamp and coin collection to peruse. At the age of nine, I began what would become a three-year course of piano lessons and discovered the importance of time signatures to the structure of music and how composers rely on that universal language as the baseline for their creativity.
What is your earliest memory of working with wood? Is there a lineage, a history of this being a family profession or vocation?
I firmly believe that the most pivotal moment of my life that foretold my future as an artist occurred when my parents took us to see the Van Gough Retrospective at the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco in 1960 when I was ten years old. Seeing those paintings so full of exquisite colors and raw power was such a transformative moment for me. In subsequent visits to the DeYoung I felt myself drawn to its collections of Asian, African, Oceanic and PreColumbian art. I realized how much I absorbed from all of those visits when I was a freshman in high school when I felt the urge to start working with clay in an art class. I turned to wood as a preferred medium during my first year of college because it wasn’t so fragile and began carving fish-like figures from driftwood picked up from the beaches near our summer home in Inverness. My father built some furniture for our house and would occasionally carve figurines which prompted me to buy more carving tools. At that point I began making rectangular serving trays and oblong bowls and plates from whatever chunks of wood I could find.
You live and work in Inverness, correct? How long have you been there?
I’ve been living and working in Inverness full time since 1968 but my Inverness roots go back to when my grandmother Edith Sutherland came to Inverness in 1943 and purchased two houses. One was a rental and the other became a summer home for my mother and her sister's families. My wife Nancy and I bought our own property on the outskirts of Inverness in 1984 and eventually designed and built our home and studio where we’ve been living since 2004.
Inverness is home to some amazing artists and artisans, many of whom we’re lucky to call friends. What is it about Inverness that seems to foster this incredible sense of spirit and community here, that conjures up such great work?
One of the reasons Inverness has been such a magnet for artists, writers and musicians for decades is the primal connection with nature one can find here.The forested hills provide an ideal sanctuary of solitude that nurtures the creative passion of those seeking to practice their art.The community of artists I have come to know here have always enjoyed sharing their thoughts about aesthetic views, materials and techniques for as long as I can remember. There’s a natural inclination among artists to connect with their peers as a way to enrich their lives and work through friendships, collaborations and social gatherings that is part of the process of doing great and inspired work.
Are you a collector? Of other people’s work, of found objects, of experiences?
Yes, I’m a collector, and because my wife Nancy has very similar tastes in painting, textiles, ceramics, works in metal and other media, we’ve had an easy collaboration in developing our collection together. Some of our favorite pieces have come from trading or purchases from artists we know. The myriad shapes of found objects like the stones and bones we like to collect on our hikes at nearby beaches are an endless source of inspiration to me. Being that experiences are so ephemeral, my recollections of them are the one tangible way I have to savor and appreciate those moments in time. The use of scale is directly connected to how you want your audience to respond and interact with an object. By virtue of their size and function the bowls I make can be held in the hands so they proclaim a certain physical intimacy in how they’re used. Stools like the ones I’ve been making for Commune are obviously a step up in size from bowls and it’s essential that I make them to fit a certain ergonomic size so they’re comfortable to use.
Between the beautiful stools and bowls you lovingly craft for our projects and your larger monumental works, what does scale mean or represent to you as an artist? Is there a preference for either side of the spectrum?
Form, material, and surface treatment are the really vital components of monumental scale sculpture. When those elements are successfully realized in the finished work they have the power to be appreciated both from a distance and in an up close, tactile way. In 1969 I worked for three months as JB Blunk’s assistant on his monumental seating sculpture titled PLANET for the Oakland Museum of Art. What I will always remember about that experience is how comfortable I felt working on that 3-1/2 ton ring of redwood root that was the virtual starting point of my career as a wood sculptor. And when I look back on how many different objects of every size and shape that I’ve made over the years, I can see that same level of comfort translated into how I balance all of the essential elements that make a form successful.
Where does the process begin and how does it flow through to completion? Do you meditate on the work, do you begin by drawing or are you inspired by the source material? How do you know when a work is finished?
When I’m about to begin a new piece, I study the shape, color and grain patterns of a chunk of wood to search for an intrinsic form within it. I rarely make sketches because I prefer to work spontaneously, visualizing the finished piece three-dimensionally in my mind as the form takes shape. Knowing when a work is finished is the most critical moment of the process and for the asymmetrical balancing act that is essential for abstract sculpture, I rely on instinct and my textbook of experience to tell me when a piece is really done.
Lastly, I know you were just traveling, seeing megalithic sites in and around Ireland. What is your takeaway from those experiences?
The trip Nancy and I made to Ireland last month was inspired by a long-time fascination with megalithic stone structures that started when I read an article in National Geographic about Mach Pichu when I was 10 years old. Nancy and I went there during a 6 month trip from Mexico to Bolivia in 1976 that was too amazing for words. One of the highlights of our journey to Ireland was a pilgrimage to see the 5,000 year old passage tombs of New Grange and Knowth and to pay homage to the master masons who built them. While in Dublin we visited Trinity College to see the Book Kells exhibit where we saw a number of photo murals reproduced from several of its pages. What was so jaw-dropping for me was that one of them looked like a stylized human figure that one might see in a glyph from a Mayan temple wall! This was the kind of revelatory moment that makes travel so rewarding and I know for a fact that that experience and so many others from our trip will be reverberating through my dreams for years to come.
Photos by Roman Alonso.