Published on Thursday 24 September 2009 in the Scotsman
Born: 28 August, 1931, in St Combs.
Died: 8 September, 2009 in Inverness, aged 78.
SCOTLAND has lost a most talented and inspired sculptor with the passing of Frank Bruce, creator of the Feshiebridge sculpture garden.
Originally from the fishing community of St Combs, near Fraserburgh, Frank always preferred being outside to being stuck in school, and rarely attended. He was more interested in the rock pools and the natural beauty of his environment, and a primary school jotter records his early attempts to express this love. “The most beautiful thing is the sun setting on a Sunday night,” he wrote. “The clouds were like mountains and the sky was like lochs and the sun shining on them.”
Hardly a word is untouched by the teacher’s red pen. Later in life he sympathised greatly with the character of Peter Buchan’s poem The Dunderheid and even composed his own reply.
Leaving school at 13 he went to work in a sawmill, the first of many jobs requiring strength and stamina, traits he was quite willing to show for fun or to prove a point. He also earned money the hard way, working in the six-man squads unloading coal boats in Peterhead, shovelling 260 tons of coal a day on piece rates of 2/6d (12p) per ton.
Frank’s love of the Highland environment led him to settle with his family in Aviemore in the 1960s, where he and his wife, Mabel, worked locally before building their own house and running a successful bed and breakfast business at “Hame” in Dalfaber Road.
Frank’s interest in the shapes of natural materials began to show as a boy when he would whittle a head shape from wood, but didn’t develop until a bad accident in his middle years permanently damaged his back and laid him up for a while. During his convalescence he thought he would have a go at carving a block of wood. This first attempt turned out “gey roch”, but, undaunted, he launched into carving a block of mahogany he had found as driftwood.
Eventually, the face of writer Compton Mackenzie, whose photograph he happened to have from a book, emerged out of the solid mass, brought to life by his hands. The difference between the two attempts was all the encouragement he needed. His sculptures eventually filled a house and he began carving some of the outside works for which he is now best known.
Massive icons of Scottish folk history and poetry wrought in wood, some of them standing 20ft tall, soon filled his garden. Still he was driven to complete more sculptures and had to find a bigger space to exhibit what he regarded as one whole work rather than a collection of individual pieces.
With the help of Banff Council, Frank created the Colleonard Sculpture Garden on a six-acre site about a mile from Banff town. Visitor numbers grew quickly and ordinary folk from all over the world would record in the visitor book that they felt more comfortable and welcome in the garden than in a stuffy art gallery.
Colleonard often featured in press and television and was the setting of an episode of Beech Grove Garden. There was never any vandalism at the site and Frank felt this was because local people shared an understanding and appreciation of his sculptures.
Frank refused contact with the commercial art world and would never put a price on his work. He insisted that it should always be available to everybody free of charge.
He also anticipated a relatively brief life for wooden sculptures and their eventual return to the earth. Since most of his pieces used fallen timber from Rothiemurchus and Inshriach forests, Frank welcomed the opportunity to move his work to the present location at Feshiebridge under the care of the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trust.
Used to accolades and ever suspicious of praise, Frank longed for a professional appraisal of his work from someone he could trust. He once asked Scottish Arts Council chairman Richard Holloway to tell him what he really thought. Richard kept his opinion for the opening of the sculpture trail at Feshiebridge, when he described Frank as “the Dave Brubeck of the Scottish sculpture scene … a great artist, an instinctive artist, a natural.”
Many aspects of his work, especially his detailed carvings of hands, have been copied by younger artists, much to Frank’s immense pleasure.
Some of his larger wooden figures are already showing the ravages of the weather and of woodpeckers, but some of his work in stone will endure. One of these, carved in the shape of a headstone, bears Frank’s own epitaph: “I was privileged to be.”
Those who knew him will feel that the privilege was all theirs to enjoy the art and company of the quiet man who worked his magic in the forest, who could discuss philosophy, art and life and could still have a laugh, sing a song or play a tune on the mouth organ.
Frank is survived by wife Mabel, children Elaine and Roddy and grandchildren Iona, Zane and Sorrel.