Stephen Bruce

Stephen at artists reception 2Stephen Bruce is a unique and driven individual. Don’t let his soft-spoken demeanor fool you, he is a hard-working, intensely focused artist making his living doing what he loves to do.

Stephen just returned from three weeks of shows in Oregon and Washington and we caught up with him while he was unloading his truck. His first comment? “Wow! I’ve missed this place!”

A.S. : What do you do?Stephen teaching
 I create fine art, painting on metal with acids. Primarily copper and brass. Some of my work suggests water or seascapes, others feel like earthy moss and tree bark, geological formations, landscapes or solar systems.

A.S. : What else do you do?
 The work I produce is a combination of art and science. I feel that artists have a high level of responsibility to share our gift with youth, especially with the absence of art programs in our school systems.

Back in 2009 I was asked how committed I was to this philosophy. I said, “Give me access and I will show you.” I got my first chance to do this at the Anna Yates Elementary School. Though the school is in Emeryville, 60% of the student body lives in West Oakland.

Stephen in progressThis gave me an opportunity to introduce science to kids in a way they can identify with it, de-mystifying science while elevating the concepts of art and creativity. This, in a way, put the “A” in the “STEM” program, which presently does not include Art.

Artists and scientists are synoymous. We experiment, we are surprised by results, we alter methodology to alter the outcome. This type of “play” actually empowers kids to explore, think, and create.

I continue to bring art to students and am now working with students locally at the West Oakland Middle School and as far away as the Raymond Fisher School in Los Gatos.

A.S. : Why do you do what you do?
 There is no better feeling than imagining something, creating it, and having someone respond to it. When someone brings a piece of my art into their home, it’s an incredible high. I am amazed that people can get excited about what I’m doing, because it’s so natural to me. It almost makes me feel like I am faking it because I am having so much fun.

AM : What brought you to Oakland?
 I show much of my work in San Francisco and I like the night life of Oakland. The arts are so alive here; live music any night of the week, visual art events, theatre performances. It’s all here in Oakland, or if need be 10 minutes across the bridge.

poplarAM : As a hybrid “industrial” and “technical” artist, it took you a while to find the right situation at American Steel Studios. What was that process like?
 When I first arrived back in 2009, and it took me a while to get used to being part of a new community. My kids had just become independent and I was looking forward to some additional freedom I hadn’t had in a while. I wasn’t interested in “sharing” my space.

Moving into my studio in the Poplar Building at American Steel Studios was a huge transformation for me. I have a perfect combination of seclusion and a supportive, creative community.

I spearheaded the build-out of the gallery space, it was my first great “community-minded” contribution here at American Steel. The gallery remains a vital asset to the population and the greater community. It gave an opportunity to artists who had never shown their work in a gallery to have a place to hang a show of their own. I remain proud of and inspired by that.

A.S. : Has working in proximity to so many other artists inspired and enhanced your process, or proven to be a distraction?
 Rarely is it a distraction. There is so much talent in this place. I tell people it’s like working in Disneyland. As artist I think we don’t always acknowledge the power of inspiration.

We walk past amazing creations every hour of every day. After a while it like Mickey and Minnie Mouse walking by Pluto in front of the Matterhorn. I especially love the Burning Man work season as dozens of artists are preparing their projects for the event. I get swept up in the energy and excitement and I don’t even go to Burning Man. But the work I produce during that time is awesome because of the effects of that seasonal swell of energy I am surrounded by.

I am inspired that when I leave here at 2am, the place is still buzzing! With artists and volunteers – people who may not be getting paid for the work they do but who are obsessed with it!

Bay SundayA.S. : It is often said that artists are the worst self-promoters, yet your work appears consistently in galleries, film and television sets and art-walks. How would you advise other artists about the best ways to stay on-top of self-promotion?

STEPHEN : I once heard an interview on local radio with Director Bill Duke (Sister Act2, Hoodlum, A Rage in Harlem) When asked how much of his time was spent on creativity verses business, he answered “70/30.” Seventy percent business and 30 percent creativity. “If you’re not about the business, there will be no business!”

Not to mention my mother’s words, “If the sun comes up on your watch, take the credit because if goes down on your watch, you will probably get the blame.” In other words, if you won’t talk about yourself, you can’t expect others to do it for you.

It takes some getting use to and chances are your modesty will get in the way, but you have to bypass modesty and realize it is essential. Promotion will be the fuel to your engine and will allow you the luxury of creating for a living.

AM : Have you stretched any boundaries lately?
Wow, That’s interesting because I really haven’t. Or, have I? Having just returned from a month of the road, I feel destitute and disoriented because I’ve been away from the studio for so long.

Stephen teachesRight before I left, the kids involved in The Art+Science Program at the Oakland Middle School were producing 5×7″ copper paintings I’d introduced them to. It was awesome to see because rather than choosing the acids and agents based upon the effect they create, the kids went for the ketchup, or pineapple juice or whatever ingredients they liked best. It was spontaneous and fun. I am anxious to follow up with that program when school resumes this Fall.

The bad thing about selling art is that I get caught up in going from show to show to show, and it keeps me out of my studio. Slowing down what I’m doing so I can back into the space where I can experiment is something I am looking forward to.

A.S. : You live and work in Oakland, do you shop locally?
I don’t cook a whole bunch, so I don’t grocery shop much.When I do, it’s Farmer Joe’s for me. I eat out more than I should but we have such great choices here in Oakland! For my work, I still buy my copper from my old supplier in Sacramento, but all my agents, acids and other consumables are sourced locally.

A.S. : How do you feel about the growth of American Steel Studios?Stephen at Art of Living Black
 I’m Excited! When I first came around in 2009, there were a number of artists and some dormant storage space in the building, and a fair amount of empty space. Now the warehouse is nearly full and it’s population is 90% artists! This place is dense with creativity and that is the biggest reason why I love it.

This place, what it is today, is not what it will be in a year from now. By then it will have evolved yet again. The management is having to turn people away at the moment because the place is nearly filled up! We’re contagious!

A.S. : What is your next big adventure?
 BURNING MAN 2013 !!!!!  I’ve never been and I think I’m the only person in the building that hasn’t. 🙂