“A home filled with nothing but yourself. It’s heavy, that lightness.
It’s crushing, that emptiness.”
Margaret Atwood, The Tent
Is this what it means to be an artist? To be a committed, practicing artist over decades? Perhaps. If so, this world, this version of “home” is utterly familiar to Bruno LaVerdiere. His subject matter over these many decades has been nothing other than the simple shape of the home, the house, devoid of detail. Completely Zen in its presentation, could it be seen as a representation of the life of an artist himself – that heavy, that light, that crushing, that empty? For him, “It’s a spiritual thing.”
When you listen to Bruno, he describes the creative life with delight, from his childhood into his seventies, as something rich and full of magical experiences. And you get the idea that he would describe any path he had chosen in this way, so full of verve is he. Seen through the eyes of this peaceful, joyful man, the world and art seem both simple and complex. At times he is effusive with excitement about the creative life. At times, it is something beyond words. And in his “quiet moments,” he gives us a gentle wisdom through his persistent work.
– Mary Kathryn Jablonski
I remember I was about seven or eight years old. It was in Maine. My father had given me a jackknife and he encouraged me to carve and whittle, you know. What do kids do with a jackknife? It was during the Second World War and my father was an airplane mechanic, so I was pretty much into airplanes and I had a small piece of wood. I think it was a piece of lath. And I carved an airplane wing. And I remembered the shape of the wing, but then I also knew that the wing had a dip in it, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t carve that piece of wood in the shape of a wing with a dip in it. It was the most exciting thing I had done! And all of a sudden I felt I could do just about anything with that jackknife. This was sort of a beginning. And I felt this sense of – oh – what do you call it? I was kind of “in charge of it.” It gave me courage to continue with it. Confidence! It gave me a lot of confidence. It was the Beginning.
It was the beginning of having control over a craft – of being able to do something, and do something well. And so that feeling has continued with me several times, piece after piece, where there was a kind of breakthrough with the craft. And it didn’t have anything to do with “art.” It was control over a medium: to be able to make it do what you wanted it to do. And I remember being excited, very excited, about half way through a project, standing back and looking at it, starting to absolutely hyperventilate at the craft of it, not at the art of it.
Years later I remember going to the MOMA, looking closely, very closely, at a Matisse painting, studying, say, a one square foot area, and looking at his brush strokes, and having that same feeling, which he must have had when he looked at them or while laying down that paint, just right. But it had nothing to do with the art. The entire painting was… it was a process, a technique. Art is so much beyond that. You know, this emotional moment of feeling good about a craft is not at all the same thing you find in “art.” Art is a lot harder to do – to come by. I had a guru once who told me, “If there is a harder way to do it, it must be wonderful; tell me about it.” That is the beginning of art. But you can’t really tell anybody about it. It has to come from inside you someplace.
And I guess you can’t get away from the physicality of art-making. Whether you’re writing a book, a poem, choreographing a dance, creating music, drawing on a piece of paper with a pencil, painting. The physicality of it all; you can’t get away from it. But that’s not art. The art is almost a by-product of the physicality. And that’s not to demean it, not at all. It can’t exist without the physicality, but it’s an untouchable thing. It’s not a physical thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It comes from the heart, not from the hand, or from the mind. It’s a spiritual thing. Was there ever that moment, that honest moment where something just flowed that easily? You can’t talk about the spiritual because you destroy what you’re talking about.
The intellectual is when we try to pretend we’re doing something terribly intelligent. My efforts in this regard have been to try to create simple things that don’t take any intelligence to observe and give the chance for the person observing to have a spiritual moment… that is not hindered in anything else. That’s what simple things do. So, in a sense, you might say I learned things from the Pop Culture. Where you present people with something they might recognize immediately, like a Campbell’s soup can. They don’t have to think about it; where it came from. You bypass that, and that doesn’t enter into it, the spiritual moment. Although I don’t think Andy Warhol had that in mind, it opened the door. With my work, I do create quiet moments for myself or for the viewer.
I moved to the Adirondacks from New York City in about 1970 and left, I suppose, all the near influences of the galleries and other artists behind and became somewhat of a loner. The work took an enormous dive into a pothole that took me awhile to, uh, get past. But, I climbed out of it somehow. And a couple of years later I found a new source of inspiration. I remembered the old Adirondack graveyards. Before the bicentennial they cleaned them all up. The tress growing up in between the stones and the sort of mixture of natural chaotic nature and the order of man-made stones mixed together in great harmony was a huge influence on my work.
My sources have been historic, such as temples, shrines, the graveyards (of course for awhile) in places like the U.K. and Spain… What stayed with me the most was the house form, the home; the universal shape. All over the world people recognize it immediately. It’s just a little pointy structure, which was meant for many purposes in history I suppose: homes, barns, storage places, temples, churches, etc. Those became my work. And I simplified it down to just a little shape, a kind of “Monopoly” house, if you want to put it that way. And I’ve been working with it for ten years now. And I can’t let go of it.
Before that I was skipping around with not much of a specific idea; just creating things without having any kind of foundation to them. And because of that I had a really hard time getting into the market. Galleries just found it was too scattered. Now, because in my sixties and seventies I’m not looking for an art market anymore, just creating, I have this, this focus that I didn’t have back then, and I feel good about it. It’s hard to work with. It’s harder to work with than a continued change of menu.
Occasionally I’ll drift off from this particular source. A few years ago, I spent four years just drawing cats. And it was a great kind of release, but when I ran out of the pleasure of doing that, I fell back onto my “house” again. And let’s just say I feel like I came home! It’s always been a place that I’ve been able to come back to and feel like I’m on the right track.
Recently, in my later years, I have really slowed down a great deal, and I don’t venture into a new project very easily anymore. I’m not as prolific as I used to be. But I feel like I’m not making the huge mistakes I used to make. Not that I’m playing it safe; that is not at all what I mean, but I guess you reach a certain maturity in your work after 50, 60 years of working and you do find a certain comfort zone. Which doesn’t make it any easier, by the way. The work actually gets harder. I’m still working with clay. That was my main material throughout all of my years in the arts. Using it as a sculpture medium, more than a pottery medium, or a craft medium, I don’t think of it as a craft source anymore, although clay is associated with craft quite heavily. There are a lot of great artists who have used clay to create their statements both in pottery as well as in sculpture.
I’ve been working with color for the past four years with these houses, and the color has opened up a whole new world of art for me: the science of color. By using it as a means of portraying my house shapes, my little quiet spots: a cold area here and a hot area there, you know, the colors may introduce a kind of emotional thing, which color can do. I remember once going to the Guggenheim and almost crying because of color. The Guggenheim had a collection up with a Gauguin landscapes and I stood there and almost cried, not at the landscape, it wasn’t the subject matter, but at the color. Extremely powerful source of inspiration. It was so wonderful, so imposing on my senses. Not very often can it be said does this happen, where tears would come to your eyes because you were looking at a painting.
—All photos by M. Cheri Bordelon, copyright Bruno LaVerdiere
Born in Fairfield, Maine in 1937, Bruno LaVerdiere was a monk with the Benedictine Order at St. Martin’s Abbey, Olympia, Washington, from 1955 to 1969. He studied art at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1967. His work is held in numerous private and public collections including the American Craft Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, Everson Museum of Art, and the J. Patrick Lannan Collection. He received Artist’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and 1990, and an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1987. He received a three-month residency grant from the La Napoule Art Foundation in southern France in 1991, and shared the job of resident director of that Foundation from 1994 to 1996. He is a working artist living in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.