Winter wonderland

(c) Jenny McBain
Published on Tuesday 25 December 2007 in the Scotsman

THERE was little in Frank Bruce’s early life to suggest he would become an artist. The youngest of nine children born to a fisherman in a small Aberdeenshire village between Peterhead and Fraserburgh, he left school, aged 13, in 1944. However, Bruce was determined to educate himself. He overcame his dyslexia and taught himself to read using comic books, then other literature.

Then a small, philanthropic gesture inspired a lifetime of creativity. His older sister was in service at the time and the lady of the house where she worked lent Bruce an encyclopaedia. Within its pages he discovered Greek sculpture and was captivated by the way the ancients had expressed themselves in three dimensions without a need for written language. Bruce went on to earn his living through a series of manual jobs, but all his spare time involved experiments with wood and chisels.

The success of his endeavours speaks for itself. A major exhibition of his giant sculptures is now in place in Inshriach Forest outside Aviemore. The Forestry Commission, galvanised by the local community, has invested 65,000 in transporting and installing 12 pieces of work, which are united under the title Patriotism and Poverty.

This exhibition offers an opportunity for a walk in the country with a difference. Wandering among the woodland brings you alongside living larch and conifer. Then, every so often, an imposing piece of sculpture presents itself. The work belongs here in this dank, breathing gallery of slatted light, yet it makes a statement. It is both pleasing and disturbing.

Many of the pieces have been made from felled trees and still have all the knots and twists imposed by life. Bruce has worked with nature, making selective cuts to draw out a theme. One piece, The Walker, stands over eight metres high. It is made from the trunk of a pine tree which has been upturned. We see a man striding out, dominating the forest. His face is set deep in the wooden trunk. This personification of trees is a recurring theme in Bruce’s work, but by no means its sum total.

The exhibition was opened by Richard Holloway, who was acting in a personal capacity outside his role as chairman of the Scottish Arts Council. The thing about Frank is that he is an instinctive artist and has done astonishing things with these trees,’ he says. In a sense, that emphasises their naturalness. If you actually look at them they grow out of and develop from nature, and he is letting them rot back into nature. I think it’s an astonishing thing.’

Bruce may not talk the critical talk which is common currency in the art world, but he doesn’t have to, as the ideas behind his work are easily understood. Asked what inspired him to create these works, he is typically succinct: Essentially, the reason for the sculptures was to say that I’m still here. I am here and I’ve got something to say.

Having lost a brother to the Second World War in 1941, Bruce is concerned with patriotism. In one of his sculptures, two truncated figures, each missing an arm, face each other in a warlike posture. What is the artist trying to say? It takes two patriots to make a war. Hitler needed patriots and Churchill needed patriots. I’m not saying patriotism is wrong; I’m just saying if Hitler hadn’t had patriots he would not have been able to go to war himself.’

Another nod to patriotism is the piece titled The Man’s the Gowd, inspired by Bruce’s love of the Burns poem A Man’s a Man for A’ That. The strutting lord has an ineffable sense of superiority, but the artist’s sympathy, like that of Burns, is with the quiet dignity of working man.

There are artistic references in the exhibitions. Rodin’s famous bronze, The Thinker, took a classical form reminiscent of the work of Michelangelo, whereby men were godlike in their perfection. Rodin’s Thinker represented Dante contemplating the gates of hell. Bruce’s Thinker depicts a more humble figure without limbs and locked statically into the wood. It has been cleverly sited at the edge of a small pond, so we are presented with the echoing influence of previous artists and the physical reflection of the actual sculpture in the water.

The Forestry Commission is not usually associated with patronage of art. Their district manager for Inverness, David Jardine, explains why they chose to get involved with this project. A visit to the site made us think this is worth thinking about further, because some of the pieces are made from local trees,’ he says. The Forestry Commission has done some sculpture projects. There was one in Aberdeen and there was one in the Lake District. This particular collection, though not linked with the natural world, is actually linked with people, and some of the features within it are really well connected with the modern forestry agenda of forests and people.’

Jardine points to the three figures which make up Third World as having a relevant message. This trio represents the affluent nations. In the centre is a piece called Conscience, which shows a mother holding a starving child. The child is being ignored by the larger figures, which have their eyes on the horizon and do not want to see what is going on in developing nations. Forestry is a sustainable industry but not just locally, also worldwide,’ says Jardine. There is an issue about how we are managing our forests, the resources that all mankind will need in the future.

There is now a Frank Bruce Sculpture Trust, which is run by volunteers. Valerie Fairweather, a retired arts curator from Stirling University, chairs the group. Frank has a global world conscience,’ she says. There’s something quite fascinating about his work, and he’s driven. If he’d been a writer he would have written polemics, but he is a creative man and he saw these trees and he saw these tortured and tormented figures and powerful figures within these dying trees. I am completely bowled over by it.’

Bruce’s talents are not confined to working with wood. The exhibition meanders from the woodland into a former walled garden and there, in among the fruit trees, are some examples of what he can do with stone. Millennium shows a face covered by a hand. The unyielding nature of the stone has been worked in such a way that the man is emerging from the liquid slime or primordial soup from which all life derived.

The sheer scale of the sculptures presented logistical problems when it came to getting them into the woodland. Now concerns are centred on the long-term future of the work. Bruce was originally happy to allow the wooden pieces to decay and dissolve naturally, but now that his work is being seen by an increasing number of admirers, he is beginning to think conservation would be a good idea. Fairweather has experience in this sort of work and is looking into various options.

A building may be put up on the site to accommodate some of the smaller works that are currently in storage and to give visitors a chance to take part in workshops. So, as he approaches the end of his eighth decade, this self-taught artist can rest in the knowledge that future generations will be able to enjoy his work. It is work that has been lovingly produced over more than four decades without the time constraints that haunt those whose art is their living. And perhaps, most importantly, it comes from a powerful, raw creativity which is unfettered by institutional or academic interference. See it and a walk in the country will never be quite the same again.