Pay close attention to the man wearing a respirator. Surrounded by strange paraphernalia, he hunches over a sheet of copper, mysteriously coaxing undulating swirls and vibrant hues to the surface. He’s no mad scientist, nor is he a tortured artist. Northern California native Stephen Bruce is not a cliché — he is a phenomenon.
Though he has only been showing work since June of 2006, his acid paintings on copper have already been seen in over 20 TV shows, such as (House, Revenge, Big Bang Theory, Law & Order LA, Californication) and movie sets (Iron Man 3, Horrible Bosses, The Avengers and The Social Network) to name a few, selected to decorate the 2008 Sunset Magazine Idea House and garnered art festival accolades.
The man behind the mask is genuinely overjoyed to be making art after decades spent supporting other artists and working in retail management. “For years I was an artist representative, consulting on presentation and development. Some encouraged me to focus on my own creativity, but I felt that my time to become an artist had past — that my creative spirit had not been revealed and developed as a child,” says Bruce. In that sense, his problem was the opposite of Picasso’s famous observation, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
One memory stuck with Bruce, as the call to express himself grew more insistent: “I used to make copper bracelets as a child. They kept turning green. My father gave me a lecture and explained that oxidation is merely acids affecting the surface of metal. As an adult, I just thought it through backwards: What if I introduced an array of acids to the metal? Could I manipulate oxidation and control the resulting effects of color and pattern and texture? I wanted to explore that nexus of art and science.”
Similar in style and philosophy to that of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, Bruce’s work has quickly gained followers and patrons around the country ranging from prestigious gallery owners to discriminating art lovers. “The contrasts from cyan to deep blue combined with the ocean greens are the effects we love the most,” enthuses Rob Bowley, a New York City client of Bruce’s.
Bruce’s gentle humility coupled with a unusually disciplined work ethic have much to do with his success: “My biggest artistic influence is the greatest artist ever, Mother Earth. Every artist is imitating her. My seascapes are inspired by the beauty of the ocean, perhaps an aerial view from the sky. My abstracts, an attempt to mimic the colors and patterns of some geological formations. And my landscapes are my best efforts to capture a fleeting moment in a sunset, a sunrise, or on the horizon.”
The Acid Painting Process
The concept of metal patination is centuries-old. Jewelers use the technique to age metals and create colors, while in the 1970s Andy Warhol did a series of oxidation paintings — one of which sold in 1997 for $1.9 million.
Patinas on metal can be created by painting with flame, or using hot or cold solutions. Bruce’s method of choice is cold patinas. He sprays, brushes, dips or sponges an acid solution and allows the metal to slowly react. “Previous experience tells me how the colors, patterns and textures will develop and how long it may take to happen. There are some processes that can completed in a day, but most take five to ten days to complete,” Bruce explains. “Other than my father’s lecture, I’m self-taught.”
The Oakland Arts Community
Born and raised in Sacramento, Bruce recently moved to Oakland, where he revels in the flourishing community of East Bay Bohemians. Working in a six-acre Oakland warehouse filled with artist studios, he now enjoys a closer relationship with many of his clients and the galleries that represent him — which once seemed an unattainable dream.
“In the 1990s, I used to go to the Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Oakland and dream about buying stuff there. Being shown in an art gallery was like being in a movie to me. When I became an artist myself, I didn’t even care about selling at first. But now I know that something special’s happening based on the attention the work is getting,” says Bruce.
Like his muse, this artist is staying in the flow. A member of the San Francisco fine arts organization Red Umbrellas, Bruce also serves on its board of directors, maintains a studio in Sacramento, and frequently travels to Los Angeles and around the country for festivals and installations.
“My biggest influence is the greatest artist ever, Mother Earth.
Every minute she is producing a new masterpiece. Some are etched into the canvas we call Earth. Most are washed away with time. Their beauty can be so subtle that many don’t even take notice, while others are so spectacular, we revisit them again and again. She is prolific, but humble. Her significance is present in every piece I create.”