As many others before and after, the American artist Laura Bruce came to Berlin for love.
Artist Laura Bruce studied for her MFA at the Slade School of Art in London and has since worked in the fields of painting, video, and sculpture, with a focus on drawing over the last years. Bruce’s drawings combine her interest in examining narrative, references to domesticity, nature, and a precariousness of life. Here, Bruce who lives and works in Berlin, speaks to Julia Rosenbaum from “Studio Visits” about working between two countries, how teaching art influences her, and what’s it like to part with an artwork you love.
In your early practice you used performance, sculpture, video and painting. What brought you to drawing? Why does it hold such a force for you?LAURA BRUCE
I actually originally came from drawing. Even though I first studied painting, drawing was always closest to me. Sculpture and installation and painting are an active part of my practice, but while I was studying for my MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the mid-nineties, I started working with video, which eventually led to a series of multiple projection pieces that focused on intimate domestic family life and how this reflected larger universal themes such as gender, roles and role playing, and philosophical questions. This in turn led to performance, when I had ideas for pieces where I was featured as a certain “character”. But after working like this for several years, I realized I was always sitting on the computer or with lots of equipment and electric cables. I liked dealing with the sound people, the techies and the teams, but I was missing something smaller and more intimate. I first started drawing from stills from my video works. But during a residency at Schloss Wiepersdorf in Brandenburg, where the landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful and bare, I started drawing landscapes, first using single horizontal lines and strokes of single colors that mixed when seen from a distance, sort of like Pointillism, but also recalled the lines on a TV when a video is stilled. This eventually developed further to the large-scale black and white drawings. Why it holds as you say such a powerful force I can’t really say. But I think there is a sensual relationship between every artist and their medium of preference. With drawing, I like the feel, the sound, and the simplicity of soft graphite on paper.
Many relate your work to this series of drawings you just mentioned. They also reveal your interest in North American suburban architecture and nature and examining narrative and domesticity. What inspired you to the relationship between houses and landscape?LAURA BRUCE
This series has its origins in the first landscapes I mentioned before. I always found the relationship between houses and landscape fascinating, and this is really interesting in the States especially where I come from, where the trees and lakes and everything is so much larger and more forceful-looking than the small wooden houses they surround. I also liked the idea of how landowners are always trying to keep nature at bay. It’s a constant struggle to keep the grass short, the trees cut back so they don’t grow into the house (a beautiful idea), the water under control so it doesn’t flood, the cold under control, the heat under control… the weeds out of the flower beds, the flowers out of the vegetable garden, and so on and so on… this struggle between nature and her forces and the built human world just fascinates me. The first large graphite drawing is called “Oil Lawn” and it shows a man mowing a big oily dark lawn with large trees and a house in the background.
You moved to Berlin over twenty-five years ago. Where is home for you?LAURA BRUCE
I guess both places. In the States I seem to my friends and family more European, here always American. I think for anyone who really moves to another country, there will always be that issue. One foot here and one foot there.
In 2015 you finished an enormous permanent public mural, your first work of this kind, in a summer residency in Aschersleben, Saxony-Anhalt. What did it mean to you to work on this scale?LAURA BRUCE
This was a great project – the residency too in the Bestehornpark Building. The work is a permanent public art mural, called “De Septentrione ad Austrum (From North to South)”. It is 60-square-meters in size on a wall that is 10 m x 6 m. I needed to climb 10 meters on scaffolding when working at the top and work my way down. I first had to get over my fear of heights, which actually happened after climbing up and down so high and so many times. But it was fascinating to work on that scale. It took awhile to get used to it. I used no overhead projector or any pre-sketches to help adapt the work to the true scale. I had to climb down often at the beginning to see where I was in the drawing, but after a while I developed a sense of the scale. It was a version of a map of the Caspian Sea drawn in the 17th century by a man named Adam Olearius and was drawn using a technique similar to the one I mentioned above, using small single strokes of color that seem to mix when seen from a distance.
You have been teaching art at a school in Berlin-Neukölln for some years now, with a great percentage of children with migration background. How do you see your role as an artist in this context?LAURA BRUCE
I came upon this job by chance and thought it would last about 3 months. But now after 4 years it’s very important to me. The work with these kids who are between eleven and sixteen years old and mostly from Turkish, Arab, Central European, and now Syrian backgrounds is fun, challenging, and very gratifying. I think to reach kids like these, or any young people, through drawing, painting, building things is important and should be an essential part of school, which it isn’t in the States. Art doesn’t have many prescribed answers as does for instance Math, Biology, or Geography. You set yourself a “problem” and work on its “solution.” It’s all yours. I guess that’s what being creative is all about. And to encourage a creative mind and critical thinking is just a wonderful thing to be able to do. And this creativity can be applied to any area of life, not only to the arts. I think here my role as an artist serves to show them that there is a possibility to use their talents and to be creative, maybe even to become an artist. But that isn’t the goal really. I do think for these kids that art can give them a good sense of self worth and open up the world. It did for me in school. I bring them to contemporary art shows, to studios, as well as to a mosque, where the walls have been ornately carved from plaster. Teaching has also influenced me in some ways, one being that I started drawing with pastels and oil pastels on blackboard paint, because I just like the feel of it as well as the reference to school and learning, and something full of history.
Beside your artistic practice you are the lead singer of the country punk band “Dangerpony”. Does one discipline influence the other?LAURA BRUCE
I think it does but not in such a very direct way. For instance, I have always thought of sounds and rhythm when making art. Also the type of songs we do also come from the southern states of America and belong to the world that my drawings of that period depict. I come from there. I know those songs and those people, the houses, the tornados and hurricanes. But I think moving to Germany so long ago allowed me to look back from a different perspective, from a certain distance, to be able to see it and work with it from both a deep closeness and a critical distance. My work would probably have developed differently had I stayed in the States.
You spoke about having “one foot here and one foot there” in relation to your European and American connection – does this also reflect in your collector base?LAURA BRUCE
No, it doesn’t or hasn’t started yet. Most of my collectors are based in Europe and some in the UK, which is funny because I come from the States and my American experience plays a large role in my work. But I’ve always been more active here and am represented by New Art Projects in London and work in Berlin with Alexander Ochs.
Have you seen a difference in the type of collector?LAURA BRUCE
Perhaps a bit younger, more international. I have work in most institutions in Berlin, and hope to expand this to other German cities, European cities. I’m fascinated by the “Kupferstichkabinetts” in Germany. Institutions that concentrate on drawing. That doesn’t exist in the States.
Has teaching directly impacted your own practiceLAURA BRUCE
Indirectly, yes. I came into teaching very by chance and loved it and stuck with it. I don’t think it has influenced my work directly, but it has made me clearer and more focused and heightened my self-reflection. I think it did inspire the works on blackboard paint, but I had also wanted to do drawings like that for longer than I’ve been teaching.
How important is it for you to see where your artwork ends up once someone buys it?LAURA BRUCE
Quite important, but I also know it’s not always possible. I have a large landscape drawing at Rudolf and Dorothea Zwirners’, who also live in Berlin. After they purchased it and installed it, they invited me to dinner. They gave me the opportunity of seeing where my work was installed, who it was installed next to. And the room was perfect for it, it hung at a perfect height, perfect lighting. I was very thankful for that opportunity, so yes, although it’s not always possible, it’s important.
Photos by Michael Danner.
CURATED BY JULIA ROSENBAUM, STUDIO VISITS OFFERS AN EXCLUSIVE AND INDEPENDENT JOURNEY INTO THE WORLD OF ARTIST’S STUDIOS. FIRST-HAND STUDIO TOURS FOCUS ON PERSONAL DIALOGUES REVEALING ARTISTIC INSIGHTS FROM THE VERY BEGINNINGS TO THE END RESULT; TO HELP UNDERSTAND THE ARTISTS’ CREATIVE PROCESS, INSPIRATIONS AND CHALLENGES.