P.S., a client of mine who likes to find orphaned paintings at thrift stores, purchased three oils on board locally, and puzzled over the signature, "Bruce Birkland." No gallery sale or auction result was found for this name, so I Googled and found a Bruce Birkland's address in Goleta. I sent a card in the mail asking if he had ever painted. He called recently, full of questions; we discussed his journey into art.
Not only is Bruce's story an interesting insight into the path of an artist in the Santa Barbara area, but my client was happy to know who painted these little plein air oils. Plein air is a style of painting that originated in the Impressionist period. French artists in the mid-19th century were overturning norms of painting, such as the actual work of painting, always previously done in a supervised studio, a style called Academic. Revolutionary French painters took studio gear with them and painted outdoors, "en plein air." Bruce was not aware his work followed this revered style of painting; the three paintings owned by P.S. were created more than 30 years ago, and Bruce said he actually did paint them in a studio at his mom's house in downtown Santa Barbara, where he still creates work.
The artist told me that he rarely paints straight realistic landscapes these days, noting his style has changed to be a blend of fantasy and surrealism. Today, I can see his love of color and naturalistic detail in P.S.'s canvases as well as his fantasy canvases. In the spirit of exotic mind travel, his favorite canvas is a fantasy piece entitled "Journey to Namaqualand," a place located between Namibia and South Africa along the West Coast, five hours north of Cape Town. The area is abundant with wildflower reserve parks, which bloom from a seemingly arid desert. In this work of art, Bruce pictures an elephant among the flowers, his huge ears represented as blue butterfly wings. From these three little older paintings, I see Bruce was a master at landscape. Today, he is inspired by his imaginings of landscapes. He told me, "I try to visually integrate the natural world with my emotional and mental reaction to it." Thus his journey into fantasy landscapes, leaving plein air behind.
I asked him how he discovered this unique talent of his, blending the real and the surreal. ALL artists stand upon former artist's shoulders. Bruce was influenced by a canvas of Belgian artist Rene Magritte called "Castle of the Pyrenees," which is an image of a small castle perched on a massive rock floating in the sky over a sea. Like so many good artists, Bruce has a visual memory that will not quit. So when he saw Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he latched onto the image of a gigantic spacecraft in the deserted Wyoming landscape. Another such arresting and enduring image for Bruce was the dreamlike palette of Maxfield Parrish. Bruce said, "I may be inspired by a certain pattern, a colorful life form, plants and flowers, an unusual combination of elements, which creates an internal vision upon which I become fixated." That's truly what inspiration and dedication mean.?
Not only has Bruce's artist heritage been important, but also his family heritage has influenced his work. His paternal grandfather, Tom Birkland, was a painter of Alaskan and western wildlife on canvas and in mural form. His cousins are designers in Camarillo. His maternal great-grandfather, Aurelio Castro, was a landscape painter — and Aurelio's children were painters as well. His maternal grandmother, Hotencia Cuellar, was a pianist and a prima ballerina, and her brother, Oscar, was a flamenco guitarist. Art is part of his DNA.
The idea of a blooming desert has influenced Bruce's other work of art, his garden here in Goleta, and, of course, our area is known for its hospitability for tropical plants such as tree ferns, palms and philodendrons, which he curates. A spirit of exoticism lives in his real-life landscape as well.
So, P.S., your works of art were created in the 1980s by a local and experienced artist, who continually ran out of crayons and paper as a child (his artistic parents understood) and who continued his training among the best teachers. Today, Bruce prefers not to be represented by a gallery but sells privately. The paintings owned now by P.S. are entitled "Mountain Aspens," "Desert Yellow Blossoms" and "Arizona Dry Gulch." The artist tells me they are worth about $3,000 for the group.
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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