News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 8, 2019
Bruce Bulger: It’s all about trees

Old tools

Bruce Bulger uses heavy, old equipment to create his works of art, like this antique Yates-American band saw.

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Joan Scott

The title of the exhibit now on display at the Seamark Gallery in Deer Isle—“It’s all about trees”—well describes the preoccupation of artist, cabinetmaker, and sculptor Bruce Bulger—a Renaissance man if there ever was one.

In this collection of his work there are forests and trees, unique, amazing trees. There’s a water color of a gnarly huge oak in North Carolina, another of an oak in Cinnamon Bay, St. John’s island—these are close-ups of the intricate tangle of limbs, the scaly bark, the large knots. Then there are two striking watercolors depicting the rush of browns and greens as he saw them on a trip down the Kennebec River, blurs of color as the boat sped past them; looking at the painting you get the feeling of seeing those trees from the river’s perspective.

There are some ink drawings with a variety of brush strokes that echo the complexity of the grain of cut wood. There’s a tree painted on a shingle, as a protest, Bruce says, against the degradation of the pine. “I put some art on the wood,” he told me, “to raise the value of the shingle.” Pine is one of his favorites. He wrote a piece in 1997 called “The Lost Respect for White Pine.” In the show, there’s a pine cabinet he made with an unfinished interior; as you look at it he tells you to take a deep breath and he opens its door. “When you open a pine chest the aroma escapes; the forest whispers to you forever.” The smell is always different, he adds, depending on the particular minerals the tree has absorbed from the earth.

There’s a sculpture called the Book of Knot, made of a single piece of wood, sliced sequentially to form a very large book. There are chairs (beautiful to the eye, comfortable to sit on), hand carved chess pieces, and whimsical sculptures of wood and the tools used to work it. In addition, placed on tables around the gallery, there are many small notebooks full of drawings he will later paint. Turning the pages of these books, you get a feel for his eye, his ability to capture unusual sights, their composition, their colors, their visual poetry. These little books are Bruce’s substitute for a camera; the sketches are more personal than a photograph, already marked by his unique vision.

Bulger arrived on Deer Isle from Eastport in 1975, recruited by a friend, Hank Whitsett, who needed help fixing up his new acquisition, the Tewksbury Building in Stonington. Bulger, who grew up in Connecticut, had graduated a few years earlier from the Philadelphia College of Art where he trained to do book illustrations. (You can see some of these in a 1972 copy of The Complete Hitchhiker, long out of print—but he found a copy on the internet.) He’d come to Maine to seek his fortune, improvising a way to earn a living and do art. On Deer Isle, he made friends with Lou and Edna Gallet, who hired him as a handyman on their property; he also did a drawing of their house for them. The Gallets were eager to keep young people on the island and so they offered to lease him some of their land on which he could build a studio. Bruce consulted books of all kinds and designed and built the house himself. Figuring out how to create things is a challenge he always finds a way to meet, acquiring the needed skills—from books, from other craftsmen—as he goes along. Eventually, he bought the property from the Gallets; he and his wife, Holly Mead (an artist/decorator in her own right) live there still.

The experience building the house led him to draw windows and doors, he did some illustrations for Fine Woodworking and WoodenBoat magazines. He began getting commissions to build things out of wood. “It wasn’t the money,” Bruce says a bit ruefully, “it was the connection to the wood, to its beauty.” Somewhere along the line he got a commission to make a case for a grandfather clock. (The wood casings, he explained, protect the delicate works from dust.) That led to a research grant at Harvard so he could use the libraries to study the history of clocks; “horology became my fascination,” he tells me. He read widely, found clocks (“only the most beautiful”) to observe in museums; he measured their moldings and their proportions, stunned by the beauty of what he saw and eager to replicate it—which he did. There’s a gorgeous clock of his downstairs from the main gallery at Seamark.

Seamark came into being as the name for a company that Bulger, Mead, and Richard Lindloff incorporated in the 1970s. The company made Easter displays for the Staten Island (NY) Mall. When they got a contract to make a Christmas display as well (elaborate set-ups with a huge appliquéd curtain, a three-quarter scale posted beam wooden house, marionettes, and other figures, all crafted by hand by several local artists), they needed a big place to work. In 1979, he made a bid on the former McKinley High School building on Deer Isle using the contract for the Christmas display as collateral. Seamark was the only bidder, and it became the place we know today. It’s a noble, ungentrified place; there’s no pretension or fancy about it, like Bulger. The entire downstairs is his woodworking shop—full of machines and planks of every kind of wood, whose stories he can tell you in intimate detail. Wood shavings litter the floor, dust has accumulated over the years. In the midst of it all, Bulger proudly shows me a work-in-progress—a walnut cabinet, held together with elongated dove-tails, its doors raised panels—unfinished, but already beautiful to behold.

Seamark is a creative hub for the arts in Deer Isle Village. It has been the start-up home for many entrepreneurial endeavors: DIAA Gallery, Seamark Community Arts, Guyot Designs, 44 North, and various artists’ studios. Mead has a studio of her own at the back of what is now the gallery—she does quilting, makes pine-filled pillows (oh, the aroma!), and offers a range of decorating services. This summer there are drawing, painting, woodworking, and sewing classes at the building, taught by Bulger, Mead, and their son Aaron.

The building is always evolving with its owner. Indeed, for Bulger, evolution is the name of the game. The dictionary definition well describes the artist and his medium: evolution is “an unfolding, a process of opening out what is contained or implied within.” Bulger’s art reveals something of the inner man as he uncovers for us the poetry that lies within those trees.

As I take my leave, he wants to show me one more thing: a poem by Herman Melville, copied by his hand into one of those ever-present notebooks. It’s his credo:

In placid hours well pleased we dream
of many a brave embodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
what unlike things must meet and mate.
A flame to melt, a wind to freeze,
sad patience, joyous energies—
humility—yet pride and scorn,
instinct and study, love and hate,
audacity—reverence, these must mate
and fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
to wrestle with the Angel—Art!

Joan Scott is a longtime summer resident of Deer Isle. She is a retired professor of history from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Book of Knot

This piece consists of thin cuts from the same piece of wood, exposing the knot within.

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz
Old tools

Bruce Bulger uses heavy, old equipment to create his works of art, like this antique Yates-American band saw.

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz