Bruce Head was a mentor to me. All my life I have been surrounded by his art. Originally I lived across the street from him. Too young to realize the influence his abstract would take hold in me. Even growing up I was not the creative one. I didn’t go to Art School, and it was my sister that had all the drawing talent. I liked taking art in High School, but I was certainly not at the top of the class.
It was after Graduating from Interior Design that the first pieces of abstract started coming out in me. I spent some time looking at the many paintings I have and my parents have of Bruce’s. And then I started seeing more and more of his work. I started talking to him, and he encouraged me to push forward with my work. We would spend time on the phone talking about techniques, pricing, different styles of art. I was a sponge and I soaked it all up.
As my own style developed I could clearly see his influence in my work. When our family went out to the Retrospective of his work (50 years worth), that sealed it for me. I was hooked. I remember sitting in the gallery looking at a painting “Comeback Kid”, and almost crying I loved it so much. The ‘Supercheif’ was also at the Retrospective, and if I could afford it I would have purchased it…but it was already sold.
We enjoyed our conversations about art, and laughed at the fun ideas we passed back and forth to each other…which were the best cotton swabs to paint with. He had even talked about us doing a show together! Which of course at that time was outrageous to me, but wow, what a prospect.
I was honored when Bruce’s family asked me to come and speak at his memorial. I flew out to Winnipeg, and got ready to talk about Bruce, and his influence in front of a room of strangers, gallery owners, and HIS peers. Little me, talking about an artist who was huge levels above me.
At his retrospective years before 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.
His work continues to inspire me. When I am not sure what to do next, I can sit down and have a look at the book he published at his retrospective, leaf through the sketchbook Tara (his daughter) gave me, look through any pictures I have of his work to give me inspiration and encouragement.