How can a 5-ton redwood root feel warm, even personal? If you want to experience the feeling of nature, power and amazement all at the same time, visit sculptor Bruce Johnson’s exhibit, “Root 101.”
I met Bruce Johnson at the 3-acre Wells Fargo Center for the Arts Sculpture Garden, greeted by Outburst, one of his 16 massive works on display. Outburst is an old-growth redwood stump turned upside down, tendrils skyward, the root lovingly crafted smooth, its mammoth trunk opening to balance four large copper balls, a 20-foot log thrust through the center, all producing an artistic endeavor of muscular proportions, as if raised arms are welcoming the world. Indeed, there is something jubilant about all of Bruce Johnson’s work. Looking out at the sculptures, I asked if he had a favorite. “Maybe, but I can’t say it out loud,” he said, laughing. “It’s just like children; you love them equally but for different reasons.”
Bruce sculpted his first work from wood as a teen in the Puget Sound region and says that area of Washington still informs who he is today… memories of making treehouses, what he calls “houses in the sky.” Raised mostly in forested areas of Oregon and California, he was a student at UC Davis where he stumbled into a sculpture class and couldn’t leave. Even though his track coach begged him to continue his winning athletic career—he’d found his calling.
All the wood that Bruce works with is salvaged and he speaks of “giving it new dignity.” While biking in Crescent City, he ran into 80 tons of redwood roots that had been wrenched from the earth by the 1964 epic Eel River flood. These he had loaded and shipped to his studio/home in Cazadero. Do you know, he explained with some urgency, that “95 percent of all old-growth redwoods are gone?” Some of the roots in his show have 800 to 1,000 growth rings. It makes one imagine what was going on here 1,000 years ago.
I wanted to know how Bruce approaches a piece, where inspiration comes from. “Being still enough to see and feel,” he answered, with a voice reflective of an artist, even a poet. What does he love most about creating a work? “The moment when I make the first cuts,” he said, “when the raw root begins to take a new form.” He tells that sometimes an urge arises to invite people over for this event, but, “I don’t,” he added, smiling. “They still wouldn’t get it, the long period of preparation, the months, even years before that day.”
As to finding the magic in each piece, he says it’s about familiarity. After loading and unloading the huge hunks, after turning, cleaning and trimming, after they sit in his yard for months, he comes to know the wood. “I might one day catch a piece just out of the corner of my eye, a moment of insight, and I am at the mercy of inspiration.”
What does it feel like when a piece is finished? “Not as good as when it is emerging,” he quickly responded, explaining that the most nerve-wracking part of the process is moving and installing the work. He also gets stressed by show opening events. “I spend the next day feeling incredibly guilty, worried whether I talked with everyone who took the time to come out.”
When an artwork is going to ‘live’ outside, besides the artistic concerns, longevity comes into play. Each piece sits through hot sun and pounding rain; what will it look like in five years, 20? Hammered copper is applied creatively here and there to the various roots, sometimes swirling, sometimes tucked into crevasses, as much utilitarian as aesthetic, to keep the water from sitting. Each year or two the sculpture is reburnished and oiled so that over time the textures of the wood are actually enhanced.
The Wells Fargo Sculpture Garden, free and open 24/7 to the public, was designed by Bay Area landscape architect Bill Mastick. Johnson and Mastick, working together, found the rhythms and intervals that make a setting like this successful. This inaugural exhibit ends in two years, after which the space will accommodate rotating shows.
How much trust in human nature does it take to give something you’ve labored over to the public; just to set it up and walk away—is vandalism a concern? Bruce works on the premise that if sculpture is carefully sited and well maintained it will be respected, “too beautiful to hurt.” His work is meant to be interactive, touched, climbed on, and this invitation also fosters respect.
Bruce has acquired local fame and his work is on display in many places in the county. He jokes: “I’m the best known sculptor from Jenner to Timber Cove!” But, Bruce Johnson’s sculptures show nationally and around the world. Responsible for promoting sculpture in Sonoma County, Bruce helped design the first show at Paradise Ridge Winery Sculpture Garden where his work can be seen as part of the winery’s permanent collection. Besides Paradise Ridge Winery and the Wells Fargo Garden, one might go on a ‘Bruce Johnson sculpture hunt’ and enjoy visiting interesting locations, such as, Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center, Sonoma County Museum, Sea Ranch Chapel, Fort Ross Chapel, Occidental town center, Matanzas Creek Winery, and outside the county at the Asian Art Museum, and San Francisco and Oakland city centers.
A craftsman, Bruce is inspired by the words of his university instructor and mentor Manuel Neri: Make it your own. Bruce says he is constantly testing that concept. Certainly, each of his sculptures has a personality. You are at once involved with the strength and massiveness of the object and awed by its beauty. One sculpture invites you to strike a long steel cylinder with a wooden mallet to ring out a meditative note that reverberates across the garden, toward the Wells Fargo Center and to the Sutter Hospital campus close by.
As someone who lives on a rural ridge overlooking the Pacific, it seems only natural that Bruce would be involved with the Coastal Hills Rural Preservation that is currently working to keep wilderness areas from corporate encroachment. Bruce said, “I’d much rather be making sculpture but sometimes you just have to stand up for the land you love.”
I asked if, approaching 70, he might take another bike ride across the US, like the 4,000-mile trip he took to celebrate his 60th. Does he think about retirement?
“You mean will I buy another 80 tons of wood?” Bruce said, laughing. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked for 40 years as a sculptor and have been able to do it my way.” The question, he said, is “What makes us feel fully alive?”
Bruce Johnson likes journeys and he loves wood, so, “Yeah,” he said, “more biking and definitely more wood.” SD
Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, Sculpture Garden and Art Walk
Bill Mastick, Quadriga Landscape Architecture and Planning
Sonoma Coastal Hills Rural Preservation
Photos by Vi Bottaro