When it comes to tile and Dennis Bruhn, the usual descriptors fail. Why not just call it art?
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
PHOTOS: James Bruce
The Tournament of Roses Parade is rightly famous for the spectacle, for the fun, for the flowers. And for the street scene that takes place the night before. It’s an amazing amalgamation of people of all stripes. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see a guy in a t-shirt, with long blond hair and a goatee closely checking out the Dalton Tile Murals at 240 S. Arroyo Parkway. Except in this case he appeared to be doing so with some discernment rather than an indifferent, alcoholic stare. Other than being impressed, as I always am, when anyone admires public art, I thought little of it. Until I encountered the same guy the day of the parade admiring the stone and glass mural at 125 N. Raymond Ave. I’d simply been cruising the outskirts of the parade looking for atmosphere and images, was he stalking me?
He acknowledged the fact of our previous encounter with a nod in my direction, so I assuaged my curiosity with a question. “You seem to have a thing for mosaics. I’ve run across you a few times, last night, on the other side of the boulevard, and then today. You’ve been pretty intent on the art,” I said. He looked at me and smiled. Then, he looked down and rubbed his hands a bit, and chipped at his nails while he thought. “I’m a tile guy actually. I’m just interested in the workmanship,” he said after a lengthy pause. As I learned that day, while “tile guy” might have been technically correct in some respects, it’s an epic failure when it comes to truly describing Dennis Bruhn. Fortunately, I had the sense to introduce myself and offered to buy him a beer.
I learned his name and we made our way over to Slater’s 50/50, since in addition to mosaics, Dennis said he had a thing for craft beer. There, over a few pints, Bruhn explained, in his soft Texas drawl, what he was doing at the Tournament of Roses Parade. A native of Texas, Bruhn is an accomplished drummer, and in addition to drumming with several bands, he had been supporting himself in Austin laying tile. “Lots and lots and lots of tile,” he said. When we had that first conversation in Slater’s, he’d been in Southern California for a couple of years. Like countless musicians before him, he’d come to Los Angeles to concentrate on music, and as he said, “It was a move away from tile and hopefully to spending less time kneeling on other people’s floors.”
By the time of our meeting however, while he was still playing a lot of music, he was back to doing tile work as well. As he put it, “You do what you know how to do.” It was tile work to be sure, but often with a twist. At the time Bruhn said, he was renting a room from a woman named Irene Yerkes; a woman who turned out to be a significant artistic inspiration. “Irene was just this incredible quilt maker. She had quilts all over the house, and hundreds of books of quilting patterns. I spent a lot of time with those books. That’s where I first started to understand customization and making money. I’d go into somebody’s house to do a pretty straightforward floor and I’d look and say, you know, I could do some kind of pattern here. They’d get something unique they really loved and I’d make a little more money.”
Where he had an amenable client, Bruhn’s tile work, often employing patterns based on quilting principles, became ever more complex. A life-long devotee of puzzles, he loves the detail, and increasing complexity. And to Bruhn it didn’t actually make the process “more complicated” at all. “Really, it’s incredibly simple,” he said, “its just a matter of how intricate do you want to make this simple thing? Fundamentally, it’s just about slowing down. People like to dream about slowing down and doing something really Zen and simple. And that’s what these patterns provide. But most people don’t really want to, or are incapable of actually slowing down as much as is required. They rush through the process always thinking about the result. You have to immerse yourself in the process and let the result appear.”
Bruhn and I met up a few times over the next couple of years, including at another parade. He explained that he’d become sort of obsessed with the float construction over the years. He’d begun seriously exploring mosaics and mixed media constructions in his spare time, and felt the floats were simply flower mosaics, though they were rarely referred to that way. “It’s a huge mosaic spectacle!” he says. But beyond the designs, Bruhn found the impermanence of art requiring such effort to create, an important part of the attraction. “I’m fascinated by the fact that they perish. They are impermanent. It’s that quality, like the Buddhist monks with their mandala sand art, the impermanence is part of the appeal,” he told me the last time we met. “It elevates process over result.”
Soon, however, Bruhn returned to Austin to start a successful, high-end custom bathroom and kitchen company with his nephew. Obsessively creative, Bruhn is rarely without a drumstick, a pencil or a piece of clay in his hand, when he’s not actually working on an installation. In Texas, while the core tile business was going well, Bruhn was already taking his work in another direction. He’d always sculpted for his own pleasure, and enjoyed working in concrete due to its formability, so he began to think in three dimensions. “At first I thought I’d just like to intertwine the two. I can make concrete any shape I want and cover it in mosaics. I love the thought that you can incorporate real utility in three dimensions. Not a lot of things are functional in two dimensions but you add a third and all of sudden your mosaic is a bowl, or a light or fountain.” Bruhn’s large decorative pots have become sought after by those who know, and selling for several thousand dollars each.
Our plans to meet at this year’s parade fell through, but once I got wind of what he was up to now I reached out by phone for an update. Despite his success with formed concrete mosaics and his ongoing kitchen and bath business, Bruhn has taken his craft and his art in yet another direction, but a direction involving all the turns previously taken. Lately, he has been taking commissions for work that incorporates three-dimensional sculpture, concrete forms, glass and stone mosaic, and other materials, into functional, artistic installations.
One of his first custom bathroom art commissions was for a cut stone mural in a stand up shower stall. Using colored cut stone, Bruhn created the image of a mountain waterfall cascading down the shower wall to the floor where “the water” culminates in a spiral around the shower drain. The installation is tactile, as well as visual, Bruhn says, with the stones of the waterfall being irregular to the touch.
As beautiful as the shower installation is, when it comes to functional art, Bruhn has only stepped up his game, while continuing to maintain utility as a key component. As he says, “Making something functional as well as beautiful is a whole different feeling for me. If you just try to impose function on something pleasing, it can degrade the art. But when you find the proper balance between art and utility, it lifts the whole project up.”
Custom art, even functional custom art, is obviously a very personal thing, however, and I wonder about his process and how and if he encourages client participation. “I want the concept we decide on to be something personal, and near and dear to the client. But then, in a dream world, I want to be let loose to pursue my vision. I think that’s probably a dream of all creative people who make things for other people,” he says.
By way of example he describes the process that led to his construction of a poolside installation for the Flores family, based on the traditions of Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. For this project, a large retaining wall that defined one side of the backyard pool, Bruhn began by asking the client to provide 10 to 15 personal objects of some meaning, memory triggers he called them, that they might want incorporated into the piece.
Bruhn took this box of precious detritus home, and among the 12 or so objects were three miniature skulls. The next morning, he retired to his office, or as he says, “I got a cup of coffee and I sat out by my fountain in the front yard in the sun. I do a lot of my thinking in the morning ‘cause that’s when I’ve got the clear mind. And I just started sketching.” He showed his wife Shelley what he’d come up with. “She thought about it a bit, and she had some serious questions about me suggesting putting skeletons around a swimming pool,” he says, laughing. It turns out though, that his original sketch (of two windows above a fountain, each occupied by a skeleton, one a guitar player, the other his female muse) was nearly identical to the ultimate finished design.
Bruhn says, “Having gone through the things they gave me, I just really felt this. I’d seen this thematically in L.A. as well, and respected the tradition. It’s a cultural thing. It’s not creepy. So I took the sketches over and they loved it. They pretty much turned me loose, however I wanted to accomplish it.” For Bruhn, that dovetailed exactly with his idea of the perfect situation. “Who doesn’t appreciate carte blanche?” he asks. But he goes on, “You have to make sure you’re going to make something they really love. It’s not a vanity project. You have to make sure somebody wants skeletons before you put skeletons around their pool or in their bathroom.”
In the end, it’s all about trust. Bruhn understands his own deep responsibility in the relationship. As he says, “I realize when someone is paying a lot of money for something that it’s important to them. You need to make sure it’s right. What I do is sort of like a tattoo. It’s not a piece of art you can just take off the wall and discard or stick it in the garage, this is a tattoo on your house. So I appreciate how difficult it is to step away from the process.” Much of Dennis Bruhn’s genius lies in his ability to engender the trust his clients need to step away, to give him the space he needs to create. “For me, real creativity requires me to get to a place where I’m not really even aware of myself. You’re taking this energy and you are just riding it like a surfer on a wave…Anything that will upset the flow and confidence is gonna be a negative thing. Sometimes that’s just the client worrying, wanting to make sure you’re gonna get this done the way they want it done. I try to avoid that worry by ensuring the client is confident at the beginning.”
In fact, it’s principally the knowledge that the client is confident in Bruhn’s vision and his ability to pull it off that gives him the mental space to do what he does. “It’s really their confidence that I feed off of. I need that more than anything from the client. They need to trust me and know that I will give them something that they will love,” he says.
By all accounts Bruhn is continuing to make amazing, functional pieces of art that people indeed love. When the Floreses sold the house with the pool installation, the new owners were so enamored of the existing work, they did their own research to track down Bruhn and invited him to design an installation in their bathroom. When Bruhn went for the design consultation, they had no firm ideas and asked him to “throw some things out to them.” He considered and suggested they continue a modified take on the already established skeletal theme. The client was thrilled. “I was hoping you’d say that,” she said. When I ask how he was able to nail that one so well Bruhn replies in his laconic prairie twang, “You know, she was wearing black fingernail polish when I met her so I figured maybe the skeletons would go over…I don’t know how to read people but I do know something about fingernail polish. Black is a go on skeletons.”
Believe what you like about the predictive powers of black polish but definitely know that Dennis Bruhn does in fact understand how to read people. I tell him that. He ponders for a bit. There is no rush in Bruhn, particularly if he’s considering something. Then he says, “If I have a talent it’s the way I see things. Time cannot matter. It’s letting go of everything. When I see people do stuff that I don’t know how to do, I marvel at it, we all do, and we think, ‘Wow you must have to be born to do something like that.’ What is that that makes them able to do that? I think it’s because they’re able to make the space in their mind to see it. For me, it’s really all about just slowing down and letting everything go. It’s like reducing your phone to being only able to make phone calls, removing all the apps, letting a phone do just what a phone does. And then all the energy just goes to that one thing. It’s just slowing down enough to really see something properly.”
It’s this vision that has resulted in a few recent tidy five-digit commissions. I tell him, given that, it doesn’t seem like things are slowing down, they appear to be picking up steam. As always he thinks before answering, and his unhurried drawl and deliberate reply only serve to underscore his point. “I’m not particularly interested in doing more than I can do. My nephew, Jacob Gardinier, and I are a two-man team. I couldn’t do what I do, including the art installations, without him. I’m moving away from the custom tile work, and looking more at commissions for these creative, sculptural installations. I don’t think I could do those with anybody but my nephew. He’s been with me eleven years. Those are personal to both the client and I. It’s not something I can teach or farm out.” For once, I stay silent and leave some space to ponder and am rewarded with some additional insight. “It just seems like the world is packed with people taking other people’s thoughts and making them their own. The Internet is rife with that. The commercial art I see, most of it is all mash up and repurposing. Copy and paste. A lot of people making their living that way. Fast, fast, fast. I’m just not interested. Whether it’s art, a tree, somebody’s face, it takes time and attention to really see something. You look, acknowledge its existence, but you aren’t seeing it. There is another level, its not that deep. Just under the surface. But you need the patience to see it.”
Easier said than done I think. How is it you’ve learned to get to that place, the zone where you can lose yourself completely in precisely what you are focusing on, so that time goes away and nothing else matters? Dennis laughs and for once answers without hesitation, “I think it’s my complete lack of education,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of space in my brain. It’s easy to lay out complex projects in a big open space.”
I laugh along, and before hanging up we make plans to get together at next year’s Rose Parade, an event Bruhn says he’ll definitely make. I start to say I can’t wait. But I don’t want to betray any impatience. “I’ll see you there,” I say instead. “Yup, you might,” drawls Dennis Bruhn, “as long as you remember to look.”