Bruce Mitchell: A balancing act in wood

David Briggs
Sculptures and works on paper by Bruce Mitchell are on exhibit at Gallery Route One.  

Behind a wood-and-metal gate on Redwood Avenue lies what woodworker Bruce Mitchell affectionately calls his “boneyard.” Instead of retired machinery, unwieldy hunks of wood sit silent and expectant, waiting for Mr. Mitchell’s gaze and chainsaw to unearth the sculptures waiting within them. 

The Inverness Park resident has been working with wood for more than 50 years. His new exhibit, “From a Language of Forms,” runs through Feb. 3 at Gallery Route One. It features wooden sculptures as well as a collection of ink drawings, acrylic washes and oil pastels—the first works on paper that he has shown. 

For Mr. Mitchell, art-making is about listening and uncovering that which lies within. “Every piece of wood has a personality,” he said. “There’s some intrinsic form that’s there, and the shape of that form, as I discover it, is about me as much as it is about the piece of wood.” He says he approaches each raw piece of material with a “textbook of experience,” along with his instinct. 

Mr. Mitchell’s interest in art began in childhood as he learned about creation myths, petroglyphs and other ancient, tangible forms of storytelling. He pored over the books, periodicals and records stacked around his home to discover early stone carvings in Europe and the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt. At museums, he gained insight into the tribal patterns and shapes that would go on to influence his work.  

Although the sources of his inspiration stretch across time and space, his woodworking career took shape in Inverness. On family trips to the area from Alameda during summer vacations, he would collect driftwood from beaches and carve it into small figurines. 

When Mr. Mitchell was 19, his mother struck up a conversation with local sculptor J.B. Blunk at Vladimir’s bar counter. She later asked her son if wanted to meet the acclaimed woodworker; upon arriving at Mr. Blunk’s studio, Mr. Mitchell recalled, “I just fell in love with everything he was doing.” Mr. Mitchell fashioned a wood scrap from the studio into a tray and presented it to his future mentor. Mr. Blunk liked what he saw; he told Mr. Mitchell that he would be working on a big project the following spring and offered to let him help. 

In 1969, Mr. Mitchell began working on "The Planet,” a monumental wooden sculpture that resides in the Oakland Museum of California. Mr. Mitchell’s principal job was to sand the three-and-a-half-ton work. He soon purchased his own chainsaw, and in three years was proficient enough with the tool that Mr. Blunk let him carve away at pieces, trusting that he would be able to obtain the right surface, edge or angle. 

It was his work with "The Planet,” Mr. Mitchell said, that led him to know “that’s what I wanted to do—and whatever it took to get there, I was going to follow that.”

One of the biggest lessons he learned from Mr. Blunk was knowing when to end a sculpture. “If you go too far, the piece looks overworked,” he said. “It has to have its own breathing room, its own identify and not just be the result of me adding one thing after another.” Mr. Mitchell describes the process of creating abstract art—which he prefers over literal pieces—as an “asymmetrical balancing act.” 

Sometimes, the shape of a piece of wood can inspire its eventual design. When he received planks of eucalyptus that were 16 inches wide and just two inches thick, he saw the makings of narrow, flat fish. “It was the ideal kind of form, other than a tabletop,” he explained. “Sometimes I can see a glimpse of what it’s going to be like. I have an idea of what’s going to be there, but the surprise is one of the things I live for.”

After striking out on his own in the late ’70s, Mr. Mitchell toured the craft-fair circuit for 15 years, traveling to retail shows across the country. He retired from the circuit in 1995, in part to spend more time with his wife, Nancy Hemmingway, and their two sons Drew and Owen. Afterwards, he worked for six years in a cabinet shop in Point Reyes Station, which helped to hone his precision and ability to wrangle rough, raw materials into elegant surfaces that fit together.

He hoped to rely on gallery shows to sell his art, but after the dot-com bubble burst, many galleries went under. “There was a huge attrition rate,” he said. “Some new ones have come up, but I got worn out with galleries.” 

Now, Mr. Mitchell is turning to the interior design industry, which he said has more opportunities and fewer overhead costs. In 2013, he produced 24 wooden stools for the Westfield Company. The stools are beautifully designed: smooth where the body would touch them and lightly textured on their other planes.

He and Ms. Hemmingway, whom he met at a Dance Palace craft fair over four decades ago, are both fixtures in the West Marin artist community. Mr. Mitchell helped create Point Reyes Open Studios 20 years ago, and the group’s meetings are held at his home in Inverness Park.

“He’s a link to that founding artistic community out here in the 1950s, ’60s,” said Inverness Park painter Tom Killion, a member of Open Studios. “He’s just one of those people that’s always there for everybody, has a kind word to say, comes to other people's events. To be successful as an artist, you have to find your way into networks of people and patrons, and I know that he’s helped many, many people start to find the networks that make art work for them.”

Mary Mountcastle Eubank, a member-artist at Gallery Route One, said that Mr. Mitchell has been “just wonderful.” She praised his use of natural materials, especially “the way he respects the materials [and] allows them to speak for themselves. That’s part of living out here.” 

Indeed, Mr. Mitchell’s work is birthed in Marin in more ways than one: he sources much of his wood from the county. “Having lived here since 1970, I’ve gotten to know all of the arborists,” he said. Tree workers often drop by with logs, and Mr. Mitchell keeps an eye out on Craigslist for intriguing raw materials. He keeps them in his boneyard, but is careful not to collect too many at a time lest he run out of room to maneuver his chainsaw.