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Auburn Magazine a u a l u m . o r g


From heaps of broken images to the wasteland itself, artist Bruce Larsen ’86 finds truth, beauty and Sasquatch. b y

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The

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Whisperer

Whether he’s constructing animal sculptures for feature films or creating public art honoring famous sports figures, Fairhope artist Bruce Larsen ’86 is known for his ability to turn natural objects and man-made castoffs into enduring works of beauty.

Gear wheels and flywheels, oil pans and railroad ties. Clutch springs, clock springs, corkscrews and calipers. Hammerheads and broken blades, drill bits and shoots of rebar. Gathered in piles, weighted by rust. Decomposing into constituent elements, crescendoing in decay. A molecular symphony, if you could hear it. Bruce Larsen hears it. Presiding over one of many junk heaps, he grabs a flat, irregularly shaped piece of metal and pitches it onto the concrete. Glangk. Then another piece. Gladank. He bends down. Arranges them. Steps back. Reaches for another piece. “They kind of tell me,” he says of the selected scraps. “It’s weird. I can come out here, and they almost raise their hands and say, ‘Me, me, me! I want to be in the sculpture!’” It’s a little weird, conversing with clutter, but that’s how Larsen rolls. In some ways he comes off as a flaky sort of guy— even for an artist—but in other ways he seems more grounded than most folks. Yet to characterize Larsen as a study in contrast does him a disservice: He’s a veritable jumble of contrast. Artist and mechanic, philosopher and archaeologist, family man and adventurer, Luddite and futurist, dropout and graduate, Hollywood prop maker and backwoods carpenter. A man

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of the world with a soul sited squarely in Alabama. If you are charged with writing a story about Bruce Larsen, you have to start somewhere. But there are so many somewheres. So you could choose to begin here, in the open-air space beneath the raised, quirky house he has single-handedly cobbled together over more than a decade, and amid the chaos of rusting rubble that constitutes his studio. And you could listen. “Metal fascinates me,” Larsen says as he scrutinizes the impromptu sculpture materializing on the pavement. “People look at a rusty old tin can and say, ‘Aw, it’s just an old piece of junk.’ But if you can go to a molecular level, back in time, and follow that little chunk of steel flying through space before there was an Earth and then later slamming into it as a meteorite—that’s what these things are. And that’s sexy.” Larsen claims he was born to be an artist, but, with a slight jog to the left or right in his personal narrative, he might have turned out a poet. He’s surely got the soul of one: a restless wonderment about how things fit together in the universe. “The way I see it,” says Larsen, “I’ve been waiting 13 billion years to be here, right? I’ve been dead. “People fear death. I don’t. I’ve been there, done it for 13 billion friggin’ years.” The more you talk to Larsen and learn his story, who he is and how he is, the longer you hang out at his eccentric property outside of Fairhope, beside a river and amongst the pines with his wife, three kids, two cats, a couple of ponies and a world of junk waiting to be fashioned into art, the more you think: Dang, 13 billion years? Dude, it was probably worth the wait.

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n an age in which earning one’s keep is increasingly disconnected from who one is, Larsen supports his family by doing what he loves. He’s been called a “found-object artist” and a “repo-Renaissance master.” That he can assemble exquisitely graceful, vibrant and spirited forms out of discarded car parts, cow bones and driftwood, among other odds and ends, is nothing short of miraculous—an observation Larsen accepts with humility. “There are certain pieces that just want to be together,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just the facilitator.” Larsen is inexorably drawn to nature, and animals are among his favorite subjects. (His father, Harry S. Larsen, was a professor in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.) Myriad dragonflies and butterflies, a horse rearing on its haunches, a sprawling alligator and an elephant set whimsically atop an upended cast-iron tub constitute just a few of Larsen’s sculptures on public display in Mobile and elsewhere. If there is irony in honoring the natural world through the discarded relics of humankind, it’s Opposite: In his sprawllost in the beauty of Larsen’s work. ing workspace, Larsen is part metalworker, And there is a staggering amount of part wizard, employwork. Sit down at the computer with ing power tools and Larsen, and he’ll call up an endless ingenuity to find hidden shapes within bits of stream of images documenting his art, metal. Right: Larsen each piece representing more than the created a fierce, Sassum of its parts. “These are rakes,” says quatch-type monster for the film “Night Claws.” Larsen, pointing to the mid-section of a

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large fish sculpture. “And here’s a belt. When they used to hook up all that old machinery, they’d use belts like this.” Then there are the athletes. Among the most lucrative pieces Larsen produces are those of sports figures in action. One of his personal favorites is a sculpture of Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin, a Moscow-born gymnast frozen in the middle of a routine, her body inverted and arching backward. Nastia the Gymnast now poises permanently on a balance beam at the U.S. Sports Academy campus in Daphne. The organization named Larsen its Sports Artist of the Year in 2009; officials there also have hired him to create an epic piece of art commemorating one of the most heated rivalries in college football. In 2010, Larsen unveiled the first two sculptures of the Iron Bowl Monument, a work that will grow each year as Larsen adds more figures. Ironically, both head coaches in the annual Auburn vs. Alabama dogfight—Gene Chizik and Nick Saban— are collectors of Larsen’s work. The feeling apparently is not mutual, however. “I don’t follow football,” Larsen says. All told, Larsen’s sculptures are probably among the most recognizable works of art in Alabama and also can be found in public spaces in such far-flung outposts as Bahrain, China, East Timor, Germany, Italy, Malaysia and Switzerland, as well as at the homes of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, rock star Sting and radio host Robert Kennedy Jr. None of this, however, means Larsen has actually “made it” as an artist, he says, which is why, as a side job, he makes props and devises special effects for films. “It’s hard to make a living as a sculptor in Alabama,” says Larsen, ducking out of the room and returning with the head of a toothsome, nasty-looking creature. That would be the noodle of a Sasquatch, or at least a replica of one. Larsen was contracted to create it for a locally shot film called “Night Claws,” in which he himself plays Bigfoot.

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“It’s not a serious business,” says Larsen. “I got into it to do monsters and stuff like that.” Along the way, though, he’s done some pretty serious work. Last year Larsen manufactured 15 dead bodies for use as props in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. He made a gorilla suit for “Dumb and Dumber,” mechanical horses for “The Stand,” “The Patriot” and “Black Knight,” and special effects for “Nomad, the Warrior,” which took him to Kazakhstan for three months. “This is just fun for me,” says Larsen. “I think as long as I’m having fun, it’s all good.”

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arsen claims he’s not a religious man, but as the family breadwinner, he puts some stock into the possibility of benevolent influence. His wife, Joy, homeschools two of their children and is also “very good with money,” he explains. “I find that things just kind of happen,” Larsen says of the unconventional way he goes about making ends meet. “So when I get to the end of my rope, and I have no more money, something drops right in my lap.”

Left: Larsen is building fake corpses to serve as props for a battlefield scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Opposite: The Mobile sculptor created a stylized horse as a wedding gift for the prince of Bahrain.

He and Joy have found a way to live small on a couple of acres situated so remotely in southern Alabama that Larsen worries visitors won’t find him. “Call me if you get lost,” he advises. The family’s modest lifestyle reflects Larsen’s traditional sensibilities. “I’m a child of the Depression in my mind,” says the 53-year-old, referring to his odd affinity for the past and things gone by. As did his grandparents, he honors the “mentality of efficiency, of hard work.” Larsen’s pragmatic ethos received a decided boost from Hurricane Danny in 1997. The storm stalled near the mouth of Mobile Bay, dumping more than 30 inches of rain onto the area and 6 feet of water into the Larsens’ house. “We were flooded out, and we became instant minimalists,” says Larsen, who lost nearly everything in the flood. The experience would prove to be something of an epiphany. Larsen recalls standing waist-deep in rising water, enveloping the family’s Curtis Mathes TV in a bear hug to keep it dry. “It was still plugged in, and the cable was on, and it just went pssshhhh,” he says, simulating the sound of the boob tube as it splashed into the water and drowned. The house has since been gutted and rebuilt on 10-foot piers that Larsen erected with the help of a couple of neighbors. It remains a work in progress: At present, the second-floor boys’ bedroom may only be accessed by ladder. “I remember coming home one day, and Bruce was taking off the roof with a chainsaw,” recalls Joy. “I had three kids and a tiny little house,” explains her husband of his decision to add another story. “You have to start somewhere.” The strange thing is—and you can’t be certain Larsen realizes this—he’s constructing the house in much the same way he composes his sculpture. “That’s part of the house that someone gave me,” he says, pointing to a small room in the back. “I cut it in half, put it on a trailer, moved it over and then jacked it up with car jacks and put it up here.”

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he artist meanders through a field, his eyes casually scanning the ground. He spots a smooth, round piece of wood and bends to pick it up. “Kinda looks like a bird wing, doesn’t it?” A few minutes later, amid an old grove of oaks, he stumbles upon the remains of a rusted vehicle of some sort, all but buried in red Alabama clay. Judging from the lack of ornamental detail, Larsen decides it’s a piece of farm equipment. He excavates and pockets a small door hinge. As a kid, Larsen aspired to be an archaeologist. He also imagined himself building a rocket out of vacuum cleaner parts. He eventually traipsed into adulthood, landing somewhere in between. Along the way, there was a job making mechanical parts, an ill-fated attempt to study industrial design at Auburn, a period of living in a trailer in Waverly, a stint airbrushing T-shirts and surfboards in New Jersey, a successful return to Auburn as an

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art major, several years working as an animator and commercial sculptor in Atlanta, his marriage to Joy and, eventually, three kids. Countless disparate and unlikely pieces, fitting together to compose a life. “There are certain pieces that want to be together,” says Larsen, whose contemplations on found objects might also be applied to the cosmic coincidences that constitute the human condition. He takes this thought a step further, wondering about lives that have come before and how their reverberations have produced our own humble moments on the planet. “It’s a big privilege to be representing my ancestors,” Larsen says. “I’m the newest of the line. I’m rusting. I’m corroding, and I’ll fall apart. My fenders will fall off, but I’m going to run it until the wheel bearings lock up.”

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He illustrates with a final story about how, before he became a father, when he could afford to be cavalier, he was a bit of a daredevil. Hang gliding was his favorite pastime. Larsen remembers a particular 20 minutes spent 6,000 feet over Chattanooga, Tenn., circling on a thermal air current in time with a nearby hawk. “And I don’t know if he was even paying attention to me,” the artist recounts. “You see just that one eye. But I was paying attention to him.” At the time, Larsen began to think about previous generations of humans and how, over the millennia, they must have looked to the sky, wondering what it would be like to fly. “And I got to do it,” he says. “So I can’t help thinking about all those ancestors looking on and saying, ‘Yes!’”

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The Junk Whisperer