Interview with Bruce Herman, artist and
Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts
at Gordon College, Wenham, MA.
Edited from our phone conversation on 20 April 2011
Bruce is one of the finest painters working today from within the Christian tradition. His reputation among the [Christian] faith-and-arts community ranks with that of Makoto Fujimura and others who are ushering in a rebirth of Christian humanism. Even wikipedia recognizes this resurgence: on its “Christian art” page, there is a sub-heading entitled “The re-birth of Christian fine art,” which claims:
The last part of the 20th and the first part of the 21st century have seen a focused effort by artists who claim faith in Christ to re-establish art with themes that revolve around faith, Christ, God, the Church, the Bible and other classic Christian themes as worthy of respect by the secular art world. Artists such as Makoto Fujimura have had significant influence both in sacred and secular arts. Other notable artists include Carlos Cazares, Gary P. Bergel, John August Swanson, Deborah Sokolove.I added Bruce's name to the list.
His works are a stunning combination of Medieval mystical vision with postmodern human sensibility. I have written about him before on this blog: at the end of this post about “layers of revelation” and at the beginning of this Ekphrasis report.
Although our conversation back in April was providentially apposite to my own thoughts, concerns, and interests at the time, I have had to save it for now due to my other writing and publishing deadlines. His insights remain permanently relevant and essential. As an added blessing, Bruce recently edited the cover image for my upcoming poetry collection, Caduceus, which is due out from David Robert Books in February of 2012. Please enjoy this interview all week; I'm posting it in 5 parts for your reading pleasure.
Part 1: Tradition and Communication
IA: I've been looking around at your website; I like how the paintings are arranged chronologically (under “catalog”). It was really fun to look around and see how your work has developed over time. It seemed to me as if you have worked your way into your distinctive style. I would describe your style as looking like a combination of the Medieval and the Modern: the way you have the gold backgrounds and sacramental settings, and yet the people feel immediate to me. I feel an immediate connection to the characters. Is that what you're going for, a combination of the timeless and the contemporary?
BH: Well, sure. One way of framing it for me is that I understand tradition—whether it's poetry or paintings or music—I don't think of tradition as being a body of work that's in the past that needs to be preserved and “museum-ized.” <.b>I think of tradition as a living conversation. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “Being dead should be no disqualification for voting.” I want to be in conversation with Rembrandt as much as I want to be in conversation with Brice Marden, the important contemporary/living American painter. That is the nature of art and the arts in general: because they touch on perennial human themes and deal with the big questions, the first-level questions (Who are we? Why are we here? What went wrong? Where are we going? What's our destination? etc. etc.)—because it deals with those first-level question, they are always alive. It doesn't matter if it was made 500 years ago or 1000 years ago or 15 minutes ago! If it is a genuine work of art, it participates in that larger conversation, which I think of as tradition.
IA: Is this also true in terms of your technique as well as in terms of the content? Can you describe how you create that? How do you create that gold, shiny effect?
BH: That's a very traditional technique. I use the same technique that icon painters have used for over a thousand years. I work on a wooden panel. They didn't have plywood back then, but I have high-quality plywood panels that I cradle on the back with regular lumber in order to make them stiff and rigid so that they don't warp. Then I prepare the surface of the plywood (it's usually birch wood) with what's called traditional gesso, which is a hide glue, in my case rabbit skin glue, mixed with marble dust and calcium carbonate (which is chalk). That traditional gesso is put on in many, many layers, sometimes as many as fifteen to twenty very thin layers. It's white, a very luminous color white, and it gets polished and sanded to a glasslike surface. Then I employ what's called a water gilding. I use actual gold, 23-carat gold that comes in microscopically thin sheets. I lay it over the top of the wet surface of the gesso. Sometimes I’ll go over the gesso with another substance that's called bole. It's a gilder's clay, a highly refined terracotta clay that's fixed with a hide glue and turns into a kind of soupy runny red paint. And then that's polished and sanded in many layers, and then the gold leaf goes over the top of that.
All that process can take a long time, as you can imagine. During that whole time, traditional icon painters used to pray all the time that they were doing that preparation so that when they begin to paint the icon, the panel is so prayed-into that it's imbued with a kind of spiritual quality to begin with. And then the figure of the saint, whether it's a Christ figure or a Madonna, that figure then is given a holy place, as it were, to be, to live, in the space of the icon: the emotional, psychological, spiritual space of the icon, which is also a physical space.
By the time I actually begin painting on the gold leaf, I have put in a lot of time loving creating a space on the surface that my figures, or the narrative, or even some of the abstractions that I’ve been doing, which have a kind of spiritual intention behind them, if I had to summarize it quickly I would say, the gold itself, expensive as it is, and the labor-intensive process of preparing the surface for the image I’m going to paint is so costly both in terms of time and actual value of the gold, that it actually puts me into a place where I know that this is a sacrifice. Here's the thing that's hard. It's very hard for anybody. Once you've done all that, you kind of wreck it by painting on it!
BH: Really! Because unless you are like the icon painters, which I am not, icon painters have a formula that they follow for applying the paint in just the right way to create just the right image. But I find my image in the process of painting the way modern painters do, like abstract painters or expressionists, or whatever. I find the image in the process of painting. So there is a kind of wrecking that goes on along the way. I paint, scrape it out, repaint.... Over the course of 25-100 hours, I lose and find the image dozens of times. If anyone actually x-rayed one of my paintings, they wouldn't find a painting underneath, they'd find a bunch of paintings underneath! That's why there's such a textured quality to the look of the paintings.
My painting process is very rigorous. I add and subtract layer after layer after layer of paint. I scrape through the layers, and I sand; sometimes I even take out an electric sander and sand through layers of the painting. That excites me visually, because I see those vestiges of the former image that's being painted over top of, coming through again; they kind of re-emerge, like a palimpsest. I find that fascinating, that old writings that have been scraped off the parchment reemerge hundreds of years later as kind of ghost words. I see that happening in my paintings, with under-layers breaking through again. That gets me really excited to keep working on a painting.
IA: Do you read each step of this process metaphorically? You said at the beginning that there are layers of prayer worked in. and then each of the materials and each of the surfaces seems to me to be spiritually significant, and also each process: like you said, it's sacrifice, it's layers of meaning... Do you read the whole process spiritually?
IA: Is that why or how you worked your way into this method?
BH: Well, yes. That's how I understand the whole meaning of what I’m doing all together. If it isn't costly and if it isn't a real sacrifice, for me it's just merely self-expression. And honestly, Sorina, I might have started off when I was in my teens as an artist very concerned with self-expression, but as I’ve gotten older and over the nearly 40 years I’ve been painting, I’ve lost interest in self-expression. I don't really care to express myself. For me, my style, my self-expression is automatic. I can't help it. But that's not what my art is about. For me, my desire is to communicate, to have people look at my paintings and to be in communication with them as well as with the “dead poets”—with Dante, with Blake, with Bach, with Rembrandt. For me that's what the tradition is. And I’m part of that tradition. I'm in that tradition. I'm standing in the living tradition. So self-expression is inevitable, but that's not the point of it. The real point is dialogue. The point is entering into real communication.
I also find it interesting that the word “communication” shares a root with the word “communion.” They used to say that someone who participated in the Lord's Supper was a “communicant,” and they would “communicate.” To “communicate” meant to participate in the Communion. I find that really interesting and compelling and very much what I’m trying to get at with my work as a painter.
IA: So it's dialogue, and its conversation, and it's also community, as well?
BH: Communion and community. Yes.
IA: So it's the community of all the previous artists who have gone before, and all the ones who are working now, and the audience?
BH: Right, and all those who have not yet been born.
IA: And in communion and communication with God, as well?
BH: Absolutely. In fact, in some ways, I think that what Jesus did when He instituted what we call the Last Supper or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist—when He instituted that meal, it's interesting He that chose the most common elements: bread and wine. In that day, those were the most common foods. The word “common” also shares the root of “community” and “communion.” That's actually where the words “communion” and “community” come from, from the word “common.” The idea that we can share something in common, all of us human beings, not only with the living, but also with the dead, with that communion of saints, that cloud of witnesses, as the book of Hebrews put its, for me that's just absolutely compelling. That what makes me move as an artist: the idea that there is a continuity with the those who have gone before us.
IA: Would you go so far as to say that your method is sacramental?
BH: All that great cloud of witnesses, those who are listed in that chapter, at the very end of that chapter the writer of Hebrews says, “All of these died without having received the promises.” Because they were waiting until we should be born, because they were waiting for a better thing to be given so that we would participate with them. So I have thought that it is so profoundly simple, actually. When heaven finally comes to earth, wen the bridegroom comes to the bride beautifully prepared for her Husband, all of us will be there. In that moment, all of time is consummated. So past, present, and future become one thing.
IA: Are you expressing that in any one given painting, or would you say it is more like you are participating in it?
BH: I'm just participating in it. I'm just a little tiny part of that bigger conversation. I would say that's true of every one of my paintings. Each single painting is a small part of a larger body of work that I’ve been doing now for many years and so in one sense ever single painting is about that larger conversation, just as the whole body of my work from when I first began until when I finally die and stop working, that whole body of work will be part of the conversation as well, I hope.
Like every artist, I make a lot of really bad paintings. I tell my students, “Don't be afraid to make mistakes; that's how you learn.” If you're always insisting that every painting has to be perfect, you’ll never make a single work of art.
IA: How long does one painting take you from start to finish?
BH: Oh, gosh, I have no idea! I'm sure it varies a lot. My response, when people look at a painting with me and say, “How long does it take to do this”? I sort of smile and say, “Forty years.”
IA: Right! Exactly. So it must be hard for you to part with a painting when you sell it.
BH: No, it isn't. I'm very happy for a painting to go where it belongs. It doesn’t belong in my studio.
IA: But unlike me with my writing, I can sell thousands of copies of my writing (I wish I would!) and I still have it—there's no “original,” with writing. Whereas with you, there's the original, the piece itself, and a copy has no soul.
BH: It isn't hard for me to part with it, but what's hard for me (and I haven't figured this out yet, and I don't think any painter has) is that I wish everyone could have the original. If someone sees a photograph of a painting, or sees it on the internet, no matter how good that photograph is or that digital facsimile is, it's nothing like the original in its real presence. The surface of the painting is the skin of the painting. It's like the difference between a real person and a photograph of the person. I guess one thing that bothers me is that I can't make enough paintings to give to everybody. That's why I think museums are wonderful. Once an artist has been dead for a long time and even the people who originally owned their paintings have been dead for a long time, that painting often ends up in some public space where anybody can come and look at them. I love to visit the large museums. There are some favorite ones I go back and look at all the time. I think, “Wow, someone owned this great Rembrandt self-portrait, and then someone else owned it, and then someone else owned it, and finally the last person who owned it gave it as a gift to this museum, the Metropolitan or whatever, and now I get to have it.”
IA: We've all had that experience that there's a painting we have known very well in copies, in prints, and then we see it “live” and it's overwhelming.
BH: Yes, that's true.
IA: Now, are there many other American painters who are using this time-honored icon-painting tradition?
BH: There are lots of icon painters out there, but do you mean contemporary artists like me using it?
IA: Yes, contemporary artists using the methods: the gesso, the bole, the building up of layers and then painting over top of that.
BH: I honestly don't know. I think there probably are some. I don't personally know any, but there may be.
IA: So you are working in this exhausting, time-consuming method, and it's almost unique.
BH: I wouldn't assume that it's unique, but it may be. When we first started talking, you said something about my style. Whenever I hear the word “style” I kind of wince, because I think an honest style is like the way you walk or the way you talk. It's just natural to you. It's not something you self-consciously decide to do. If you started thinking about the way you walk, you'd get very awkward very quickly. It's more natural to just honestly pursue something in your work and then the style emerges. As a writer, you probably know this too. Your style of writing isn't something you decide to do; it's the natural way that you end up writing. Your voice ends up coming through what you write, correct?
IA: Yes. But you do grow into it as you move from being an apprentice to mastering the techniques.
BH: Yes. There are no shortcuts for getting to the point when your voice as an author gets heard in the text. I think that's true in painting. It takes years and years of painting, of trial and error, to get to the point where you get over your self-consciousness and begin to paint unselfconsciously. That's when your style really emerges.
IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to a certain school or movement of painters? Do you have a title for what you do? Do you call yourself, I am a such-and-such type of artist? Or to say it a different way: A hundred years from now, when people are looking back and describing your work, how do you think they will categorize you?
BH: Oh, gosh. I think you'd be better equipped to answer that than I would. When historians or critics or people who analyze a work of art look at it, I think they see it more clearly than the actual artist or the author. For instance, I don't think Flannery O'Connor thought of herself as a “Southern Gothic”; she just wrote her stories.
IA: And she's a famously bad critic of her own writing.
BH: Oh, I believe that. I don't trust my own assessment of my work.
IA: You're so close to it, you're living in it, that you don't step back and analyze it.
BH: Right. And if I wanted to join some self-consciously styled title like, We are the Boston Neo-Religious Expressionists or something, it would end up being a glib, forced, self-conscious label and it wouldn't be honest.
IA: Well, we'll wait a hundred years and then we'll look at that question again.
BH: I'm happy to wait with you.