Artist Blog
















Bruce White is the best little brother a guy could ask for, especially when you've never had one, and in particular when he is your sculpture professor - infectious with enthusiasm not only for many types of contemporary art you've never considered, but interested too (and with a loud kidding voice) in what you yourself might be cooking up in his class and elsewhere.


That elsewhere for me would have been in painting to begin with, and I first encountered Bruce in 1975 as a junior, when I transferred into the art department at Northern Illinois University and wound up in his Beginning Sculpture class, an elective I had chosen more or less out of the blue. I was self-taught in painting since high school days, and having spent 2 years at another university studying architecture and then design, came to NIU with ideas about painting that did not groove well with my painting professor- to the point that I dropped that class and did not pursue others, and filled my time instead with materials and techniques I knew nothing about.



Enter Bruce White with a plaster free-form assignment, a second project no one can remember, but then oxyacetylene welding and I happily labored for weeks making a replica out of steel of one of my falling-apart hiking boots. So very cool- and I was hooked. Not only on art forms like wooden boxes and found objects, but hooked too, I realized later, on Bruce's personality and catholic range of interests. Married to Gail, a poet whose work years later I would become enamored with, he would meet me at concerts next door at the music building and wrestling meets in the field house, go off sailing with other student-friends of mine, or in later years bike rides with me. When he started to drive carloads of us into Chicago to see what was up in the galleries it was a chance to have more free-form conversations, and I was especially keen when we went in together, just he and I. And, as I began to be invited to his house for an occasional meal in later years, I realized the conversion was complete- something that I willfully engage in with select students when these days I occasionally teach, and which I consider to be a simple but real honor nonetheless - namely that I, student, had slowly become I, colleague. With all the ambition and seriousness that that comes with, how could I not become a sculpture major? And how could I not then stay for a graduate degree as well? I did both.





I call Bruce not a big, but rather a little brother, one who never pulls rank and yet is always happy and eager to share whatever he has up his sleeve, be it a collection of live spiders (just kidding- didn't happen), rollers he has built for one of his daughters to practice racing bicycles on, or the gargantuan sculptures of twisted steel and aluminum loaded routinely on flatbed trailers and hauled off to installations at various coordinates across the state and across the country. What resides in those sculptures, chiefly in abstract ways, are his engagement and wonder in looking at the world, at nature, at culture, at life. I am not surprised to learn of his early interest in boat-building; the curves and swoops and sails are there today, heirs. And while some pieces may seem completely abstract to passersby, a contemplation of their titles offers entry on levels obviously intended to connect with history, with mythology, with stargazing and beyond. Titles like ECHO, RIDDLE, GRIDLOCK, INTERLUDE, JUBILEE offer abstract ideas, of course, and CLOUDSCREEN, POMEGRANATE, TWIN FIN, CRUSTACEAN and TWISTER are clearly anchored iconographically in the natural world, even QUAKE, playfully. But you've got mythology and the Bible in names such as ARETAS, HELIOS' TRAIL, HEPHAESTUS (I have been looking for just the right title for a recent painting that has been exquisitely elusive; HEPHAESTUS may fit the bill), and astronomy in LYRA and VELA. In some, which are my favorites, iconography is clearly found in life: TWISTER and CRUSTACEAN again, of course, but also YELLOW BIRD (hopefully installed with footprints in the grass that tell the viewer "Stand Here"), DOBUKU (which I can envision at the entrance to the Asian collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and BREEZING UP, installed (also in my head) in the National Gallery adjacent to that iconic painting of the same name by Winslow Homer.


As an artist I have long enjoyed watching the development of ideas on the part of my colleagues (or partners in crime, depending on one's attitude). When we first met, Bruce was just beginning to go big. Long having hired students and post-students to help weld and grind works in steel and aluminum, he was just starting to go a step further by employing bridge and farm implement fabricators to take on (for him) even bigger tasks (still small for them). And I think what is gained, when you come up close to the results, is a sense of wonder not only at sheer scale, asking "what is this?" but also realizing someone in fact planned this out and made it. The works ask you to reposition your own coordinates in the world, ask you to see yourself in some new subordinate way next to them, share a sense of unfamiliarity but then, ultimately, discovery. I get a similar feeling walking around railyards looking at graffiti-covered boxcars, and along docklands looking at the ships of the world. Considering the placement of public sculpture these days, I wonder what Bruce would concoct were he commissioned for a piece that would, for instance, travel between cities by rail, or be put on a raft to continuously circle Manhattan? His engagement with recognizable imagery has been, to me, a welcome move, as is his interest in fractals that led to the surface perforations figuring prominently in more recent works. I think of dappled sunlight, and so when it comes to FOREST CANOPY I start to imagine it not only oriented horizontally, but suspended amid a forest and a mile in diameter, perhaps above ground at Fermilab, the National Accelerator Laboratory just outside Chicago, as an echo to the apparatus down beneath.


Forty-odd years ago I lived a block from Bruce's studio in Illinois, a brick industrial space he and Gail eventually moved into after selling off their hundred-year-old house in a neighboring town (again an example to fellow artists on the exigencies of artist life) but these days we live thousands of miles apart. The last time I saw him there just a few years ago, however, damned if he wasn't at age 80 standing on a table amid a couple of assistants, twisting with chains and some kind of winch a very long piece of aluminum that was just beginning to take shape- perhaps some Leviathan, or maybe, I should have suggested, Bruce, finally, a self-portrait? While he did not hail me in little brother fashion and ask if I wanted to see the miniature submarine he kept up his sleeve (I refer to his piece DELPHIN TRAIL) he could easily have and I would have loved it. And regardless, whenever I see him and his work he infects me with the urge to just throw my hat in the air in some long-overdue celebration.


Jack Balas

Spring, 2018

link to Bruce White's website:  


Bruce White at work in his studio, De Kalb, Illinois. 2014