The Land He Sees

By Kay Kipling Photography by April 1, 2012

Mangrove Beach is one of Marsh’s rare works that does not include manmade structures.Artist Bruce Marsh says that throughout his life he has always “painted what’s around me,” whether it was the Southern California setting where he grew up, the cabin in the North Carolina woods he built from scratch, or what he now sees from the Ruskin home he shares with wife and fellow artist Dolores Coe.

Living off the beaten track in a rebuilt 1930s fishing shack on the Little Manatee River, he and Coe work in separate studios—hers overlooking the water, his without the view. “I’m too easily distracted,” he explains. But that doesn’t mean the former longtime professor at the University of South Florida doesn’t venture outdoors. Sometimes he packs up his paints and canvas and heads into nature to create plein air paintings, to “experiment with the challenge of sitting down in the morning and trying to make sense of what I see.” Other times, he works from photographs, returning to the studio to spend days and weeks crafting the finished piece.

Marsh on his dock on the Little Manatee River with his dog Mojo.Marsh, who’s exhibited his work all around the state and has pieces in the collections of the National Gallery of Art and the Ringling Museum (among others), says he started painting in his youth largely influenced by California Bay Area figurative artists and also dabbled early in abstraction. But at a turning point in his development as an artist, he found himself “really knocked out by landscape.” Here in Florida, he says, “The huge summer clouds, all the greenness, have had a huge effect on me.”

He’s intrigued by the possibilities of digital technology and frequently works with both prints and photographs. But at the same time, he says, “I enjoy the painting by hand. I absolutely love doing those plein air paintings”—even though, he admits, they do not necessarily account for most of his sales. (He’s represented both by Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art in Sarasota and the Clayton Galleries in Tampa and has also done a number of commissions for banks, hospitals, airports, hotels and other public buildings.)

Marsh’s works are not just beautiful reproductions of an untouched natural landscape. Most of his pieces (which are frequently very long and horizontal in format, impossible to take in with one glance) bear traces of how man and development have influenced the environment—and vice versa. Native foliage and great swaths of Florida sky may be juxtaposed with a jungle of street signs, cars and light poles; low-slung industrial buildings are dwarfed by ominous clouds; a vast borrow pit lies exposed in a vista that seems to go on forever. Even the smokestacks of the nearby TECO power plant, belching white smoke over a lagoon, make it into his paintings.

Spring Run, a study of native foliage; the plein air painting TECO Lagoon.“I like mixing the urban/suburban built environment with nature,” says Marsh, “and depicting the most ordinary kind of daily environment in a painterly fashion. I find you can move something that’s familiar slightly off center as a way of animating the painting.” But in his images of mangrove flats or swirling, choppy waves, Marsh does occasionally let nature hold full sway, reminding us of the unique and precious elements of the world we inhabit.

Lately Marsh has been spending a great deal of time spearheading the development of a new cultural center (the Firehouse Cultural Center, based in a vacated fire station) to bring more cultural experiences, from the visual arts to the literary to music and stage performances and classes, to the underserved Ruskin community. He and Coe have thrown themselves into that project, but he admits he can’t wait to get back full-time into his studio to continue the making of art—a pursuit he’s followed for more than 50 years.

The artist’s studio, set amid luxuriant plant life; below, glimpses inside Marsh’s studio.

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