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Use Your Allusion

Peter Bruun’s Art On Purpose Brings Outreach And The Gallery Together

By J. Bowers | Posted 10/5/2005

In a way, Peter Bruun founded his new community-oriented arts organization, Art on Purpose, by accident. Over the past five years or so, the Baltimore-based painter and curator has steadily amassed a portfolio of exhibits that combine his small-scale, geometric paintings with art created by children, college students, and other community members. He’s encouraged African-American elementary-school students to make the upper-class, white American environs of Evergreen House their very own through text and original artwork. He’s allowed masked college students to “steal” and rearrange his paintings in the middle of a wine and cheese art reception. He has facilitated and co-curated a wide range of programs at Baltimore County’s Park School that juxtapose student works with related exhibits by internationally known artists, often tackling complex issues such as gender and race.

In other words, a Peter Bruun show is never just a Peter Bruun show—in an occupation known for sporting a look-at-me attitude, he has always been the artist who says, “No, look at you.” Art on Purpose is Bruun’s way of gathering his myriad community-based projects under one umbrella, with the belief that “creativity and community service go hand-in-hand.”

“I always felt schizophrenic,” says Bruun, perched on a stool in his office at Park School, home of Art on Purpose’s inaugural exhibition, We Age. “People knew me as this Park School person, or people knew me as an artist doing this project, or this workshop. There was a vague sense that I did a lot of different things, but nobody really understood the hybrid nature of my projects. Every project that I did always involved multiple partners, and I was always ‘the artist,’ ostensibly, but I ended up being the artist, the educator, the curator, the organizer, the fundraiser. I had to start fresh every time. There was no sort of profile of, ‘Oh, Peter Bruun, this is what he does.’ So, it made sense to create an organization to produce shows that combine professional art with community-based work around some sort of theme that can function as a catalyst for really proactive action or advocacy or education.”

Bruun’s interest in community-based art exhibits began with his interest in creating self-portraits. It’s not immediately evident from looking at his hand-painted, squarish geometric shapes, but each canvas is a variation on the human face, and an exercise in self-discovery.

“I got really interested in how you can’t capture all of yourself in a single portrait,” Bruun says. “There’s always this kind of flux between how you perceive yourself, what you’re actually seeing, how you’re feeling about it. That was a really interesting thing to pursue for a while, in my own work. But then I got really interested in bringing in the works or words of others to affect the identity, meaning, and function of my work. And it became reciprocal—where my work was influencing the identity or meaning of the work of others.

“For me, the drive to do self-portraiture was all about the desire to be seen, and at a certain point, I realized that was a universal desire,” Bruun continues. “So, at this point, I think of the paintings I make as metaphorical pedestals, frames, or supports for the work of others. My first collaborative exhibit, [2000’s] Conversation Piece, was definitely more about me than the other participants, but that’s flipped, if anything. Now, it’s more about the people, and my work is doing my work if it’s about the people. I guess you could say people and paint are my media.”

Each Art on Purpose project, like most of Bruun’s recent curatorial work, relies on three key elements—top-notch art, community involvement, and real-world application. We Age, installed in the Park School’s Richman Gallery and adjoining hallways, finds Art on Purpose partnering with local sculptor/installation artist Allyn Massey, the Baltimore County Department of Aging, and the Park School to examine childhood, old age, memory, and death. Under Bruun’s direction, senior citizens from four Baltimore County senior centers created paintings and drawings of their fondest childhood memories, and provided humorous, heartfelt text to accompany each piece.

“My job was primarily to be a cheerleader, because usually, what they’d done in their art classes at the senior centers were things like ‘How to make a watercolor,’” Bruun says. “Very impersonal, technique-oriented workshops. What the senior citizens liked so much about this project was that it was personal. It was really a vehicle for telling their stories.”

In a similar vein, Bruun asked Park School faculty and staff to provide sculptures, doodles, and paintings that they created when they were kids, and share some memories about each piece. And, lest things get too joyful and carefree, he gave Massey free rein to create “Embrace,” an installation comprised of the simplest of materials, but eerily unsettling in its abstract meditation on loss, death, and the passage of time.

“The community work is a self-sufficient show, very upbeat, very positive,” Bruun says. “Because, on the one hand, we want to honor our elderly. But on the other, there’s the reality represented by Allyn’s piece—that as you get older, you are approaching death, losing your physical capacities, sometimes losing your mental capacities, just losing things—we’re all headed there. The question is, how can we not be drawn either too much to the dark, or too much to the light, and recognize the aging process as both?”

The transition from the celebratory, nostalgic nature of the senior citizens’ work into “Embrace” is jarring. You step out of the Park School’s bright hallway into a dark, forbidding space, filled with strangely familiar, yet unfamiliar things—long, transparent coils of vinyl tubing gurgling within nine buckets of water, an overturned antique armchair surmounted by a giant plaster ball, seven beds of dirt veiled by gauzy white fabric and punctuated with hanging lights. A crackling old recording of a man singing haunts the air, languid and strange. The images are surreal, yet packed with layers of meaning—echoing life-support systems, gravesites, and evenings spent at the foot of grandma’s favorite chair. There’s a sense of eerie wonder and otherworldliness in the room—a feeling so unusual that Park School administrators, together with Bruun, decided it best to limit access to upper- and middle-school students, and warn visitors about its hard-hitting impact with a one-sheet handout. Some people might call such restriction a defeat, but Bruun couldn’t be happier.

“I see it as a victory that we can have as powerful an installation as that available here at a school,” he says. “It allows people to project so much. It’s not just like a Rorschach test, but it allows for so many different feelings and projections. And to the school’s absolute credit, everybody here recognized that it’s really strong art, and worked to make it a positive experience for those who have access to it.”

In connection with We Age, Bruun is working with the Baltimore County Department of Aging to provide a chance for senior citizens to have assistance signing up for the forthcoming Federal Prescription Drug Plan. During the course of the show, buses of senior citizens from area senior centers will be brought to Park to check out the show and participate in computer workshops to register for the plan online—a process that many of them would not be able to complete otherwise. In the years to come, Bruun hopes that similar community-outreach programs in Baltimore will see Art on Purpose as a bridge enabling them to reach their own advocacy or educational goals.

“To me, that’s putting an exhibition to work,” Bruun says. “That’s the other aspect of Art on Purpose—trying to really actively serve communities that are affected by the themes we address with the shows. There are a lot of community-art organizations in Baltimore—Park School, the Choice program, T-CAP, city schools, OSI—and they all want to present programming that has a community-based element. There’s a lot of interest in putting art to work. You have workshops, you have art exhibits about things, you have issues, but rarely do you have someone who’s really leveraging all three, and working synergistically to bring all three elements together.”

Art on Purpose’s upcoming contracted projects include two more shows at Park School and collaborations with the Open Society Institute, the Creative Alliance, and other local arts organizations. Bruun’s busier than ever, and looking forward to what the future might bring.

“I think this organization has an enormous potential for growth, and the growth would depend on funding,” he says. “It’s not dependent on ideas or people wanting to do projects with me. For me personally, I just want to stay fresh, and keep it as a creative endeavor for me. I no longer make a distinction between my work as a curator and my work as an artist. Orchestrating the whole experience of each exhibit is an extension of my artistic mind, and I don’t want to lose that. I want whatever I’m doing with Art on Purpose to feel like I’m still being an artist.”

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