Talking to Bruce Raymond Brice in his open-house on St. Peter, a more serious, thoughtful man is revealed than the happy-go-lucky youth often represented in articles about him. Sure, he is flamboyant and witty, but underneath all of the laughter and jokes is an artist completely and seriously wrapped up in his work.
Born at 735 Burgundy, “right across from Buster Holmes restaurant,” Bruce has spent his life in the French Quarter developing his “Bruce-Brice-as-relates-to-primitive-style.” As a kid, he shined shoes and hung around several of the local artists, observing their craft. He found most of their work repetitious and was bored by it; but in 1955, when Bruce was 13, he began working with marionettes. This activity sparked his creative urge.
“I was really into puppets. They took over. They were more fascinating than the art I was seeing because there was something going on. I don't care if you dropped a few marionettes. It was always exciting making them… painting the faces and stuff. It put you in a little fantasy world. I used to go right into it easy. That's what I wanted to be at first — a puppeteer.”
Bruce was working with a puppeteer named Sidney Kittinger. They entertained at private parties, and also did puppet shows for NORD and the public library. Occasionally they appeared on Channel 6's Midday program. Their performances lasted only five minutes, but Bruce remembers the experience fondly. “I made five dollars a minute. That's the most money I ever made so quick!”
Bruce's paintings tell a story, and the human figures depicted in his paintings have evolved from the marionettes he worked with when he was a youngster.
As one of seven children, Bruce took to art early. “I used to do little crayon drawings out of the newspaper. I remember doing a scene for my grandfather a long time ago on corrugated board. It used to hang over his mantelpiece. He was one of the ones saying, ‘Keep it up. You gotta keep it up.’ Of course, I had no idea that I would go this far on my own, working for myself.”
Bruce painted out on the Square from the last part of '68 through 1970, then rented a studio. Before that, however, he had worked as a porter, a picture framer, jewelry salesman at the Flea Market, construction worker, etc. No matter what kind of job he had during the day, though, the determined artist would go home at night and paint.
“I feel compelled to paint. It's like when you're hungry, you gotta eat. I get everything out of painting! It relaxes me. It excites me. It puts me through different changes. I just quit the rest of the jobs I've had and said, ‘I am going to start working for myself. If not, just jump off a bridge or something — just give up. I've been working for other people for 20 years, I'm gonna give myself a chance.’ After that, I didn't have any problems.”
The jobs I've been on before, you would be there; then they'd hire the white guy. You would have to train him to become the manager. That's training somebody to make more money than you, and you're already qualified.”
At one time Bruce did picture framing for Larry Borenstein. He was especially impressed with one particular artist's work which Borenstein was promoting.
“The paintings looked like they were done in the seventeenth century. The artist had done just these real dead faces, you know, these real jivey faces. I was depressed. It was like somebody who's been through a lot. I was sure the artist was a much older man.”
The artist was Noel Rockmore. Bruce and Noel became friends, and Bruce credits Noel with inspiring and encouraging him. “Noel was doing something different, something creative. He was serious, real serious about his work and talking about art. He didn't play with art. Certain eople have a job and you don't kid with a job because this is what you're making money at. This is how he felt about art and this is the way it should be. Seeing his work inspired me to do more different things with painting — to loosen up.
Another person who influenced Bruce's art career was Allan Jaffe. Jaffe owned two buildings in the Treme section of town, where families were being evicted and buildings being torn down so that the New Orleans Theatre for the Performing Arts and the cultural complex could be built.
“Allan came to me and told me the story of what was happening in that area, and asked if I would like to do a mural. He furnished the paint and the wall and that's how it came about… I didn't think it would be as dynamite as it turned out to be. They have tour buses come by now. I wasn't thinking about tour buses passing there when I was doing it — no way!”
Bruce's work has been viewed by a national audience when it was presented on NBC's Today show in conjunction with an exhibition at the American Museum of Folk Art in New York. He was the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art Biennial Winner, and has a painting on permanent display there. As a successful artist, Bruce feels that art is not effectively promoted in the Crescent City.
“We have a fine museum, but they need more people to donate so they can get higher priced painters like Picasso. They need a larger budget for the museum. It's money. It's the money and the people at City Hall, you know… You just get them to push it. They got the money for the dome stadium together. We need more sculpture, more art, more murals, and different projects for groups of artists to participate in. It would be fine if they can get money to locate different artists at spots around the city and let them paint.”
Copyright © 1974–2005 Henry H. Mitchell.