When I came to Bruce’s retrospective a couple of years ago I remember being in awe of the amount of work that he had in his studio as he toured us through. The awe didn’t go away as I sat alone this time soaking in the colours. I sat in the middle of his studio and just looked, not touching anything, and yet, I could see so much. But as I started digging through the racks, and piles of work my amazement grew.
When I came to Winnipeg this time I thought I would be able to sit in his studio with my brand-new sketchbook and be inspired. I thought I would be able to easily fill it up, but I couldn’t. I could not bring myself to sketch in his shadow. So I decided I would be one of his manipulated sponges (really I am). So I looked, and searched, and learned, and was fascinated.
I found laughter in the hand-made tools that he used so much in his paintings. Beware any recycle bin because I could imagine Bruce plunging in there and having a great time finding treasures. Now I discover myself double looking at everything before it heads into the trash, I can see the potential in it all. In his studio I opened drawers or peered into bins to find odd shaped bits and sculptural carvings in foam. There were bins of foam, sponges, brushes, rollers, string, stickers, various sorts of bits that were waiting for the master to recreate them in a new and artistic form.
I can see when he made tools he would try them out anywhere. He kept scraps of canvas for that purpose. But often there was a wall or piece of furniture that might get the attention of his quick graffiti. But much of it made it into his sketchbooks.
For me one of my favorite things is an artist’s sketchbook. I love seeing how artists treat their sketchbooks differently. Some use really beautiful ones to create small paintings that can easily be framed. Some use them to develop ideas, get them down fast and then build on them. That’s what Bruce did. I found sketchbooks that were hard to tell what side was up because he would just grab them haphazardly and put drawings in them whichever way. There were sketchbooks with alternating drawings with a grandchild’s drawing on every other page. I could see an idea form and then different renditions of the same style page after page. Concept drawings of his sculptures with messy hand-written notes beside them that were almost impossible to read. Ideas and forms for paintings, some of them familiar in their sketch state to the finished piece I see on the wall.
I looked closely at his artwork – real close. Each stroke and every dot. Sometimes I exclaim “why!” and point to a colour that has no reason to be there except that it works. Judy told me that she asked him that same question. She said “he just smiled and turned away, engrossed in his work”. Who can question brilliance? He just knew, and he was so particular about it. He told me that he would leave a painting, and then during the day, or night, he might just realize “That’s what it needs, a little bit of that colour there”.
I was looking through a leaning stack of paintings, and templates and boards only to pull them back and find a shelving unit behind that held a stack two feet deep of paintings on paper. I grabbed a handful and paged through them , each one was a celebration of his work. They reflected different periods of time when he tried new techniques but just didn’t quite finish the piece. There was so much work that I couldn’t see. Racks packed so tightly it would be a chore to pull the paintings out to see them all properly.
I took many breaks as I could only stay so long in the studio or my mind would go into overload (not to mention that It’s cold in Winnipeg, so also in the studio). Judy let me wear his red sweater for a while as I searched through things. I was looking for something in particular, a brush. Tara had suggested that I take one of her father’s brushes, and I felt honored to be given that gift. So I searched for one that was used, not in great shape, with paint on the handle, and now it’s mine. From his studio I also took a few of those funny tools (along with some Q-tips). It is strange that these few pieces of stuff would mean so much to me, to anyone else they are simply garbage. I could have filled a truck with all the wondrous items, but that’s not my right.
My love of his work is great. And many people have already seen his influence in my work. That worries me, because I don’t want to copy him, but I see now in my work I have a different touch. Even in the pieces I’ve started since I’ve come back he inspired but they are still mine, his work has just helped me to look differently and to help guide my way.