by Ronald Paul Larson
A visit to Bruce Niemi’s studio is an experience of contrast. One enters Niemi’s property in rural Bristol, WI, through a bucolic scene of oak trees and cornfields that give way to a garden of whimsical steel and bronze sculptures and a large metal hanger type building filled with plates of stainless steel, bronze, oxy-acetylene torches, and welding gear that could pass as a Department of Transportation garage. A soft, natural environment surrounding a studio in which hard metallic plates are cut by 6,000 degree flames.
Next to Niemi’s studio is a small but impressive gallery featuring dozens of artists, many of whom are out of state.
There are four openings a year. The next is Nov. 20-21, 2010.
Click HERE for more information.
A 1981 graduate of Northern Illinois University with a BFA in Sculpture, Bruce Niemi is a second-generation sculptor. His father, Frank J. Niemi, was an ornamental iron artist and sculptor who taught Bruce to weld at age 12. His father was a major influence on Bruce, “My earliest work was like his.”
Niemi creates large, stainless steel and bronze abstract sculptures that give the illusion of movement. His goal is to “stimulate and exercise the mind” of the viewer while creating a sculpture that “compliments the environment that it shares.” His inspiration is “the power and beauty of nature” and “the energy and balance of dance.”
So why does Niemi work in stainless steel and bronze? “They have longevity to them. Unless somebody purposely destroys it, it’s not ever going to go away. Stainless steel is a lot harder than steel. Steel tends to rust and joints break and have to be worked on. Clients don’t like to have things fixed, and I don’t like to rework pieces.”
Unfortunately working with such materials has taken a toll on Bruce’s body. “There is a lot of physicality in this. Sometimes you pick things up wrong or things shift when you are not expecting it. All the vibrations from the grinding are brutal. It causes numbness in the hands and the shoulder areas.” So Niemi works out regularly, which helps.
Bruce’s religious faith also strongly influences his art. “The most important thing is that God has given me a gift to be creative. My thought is to make something that is glorifying to God and to lift people’s spirits up.” When Niemi starts a project he will often “pray for ideas.” A Christian, the majority of his clients are Jewish. He recently finished a piece for a synagogue in Milwaukee. In Niemi’s view, it is a combination of his religious faith and his wife’s support that gave him the courage to be a full-time artist. “I’ve always had strong backing from people around me.”
Marketing is something Niemi sees as crucial to success. “Who in their right mind would trust selling enough artwork on a regular basis? The odds are very much against it unless they are really aggressive at marketing. You have to sell your work.” He started with “street shows” and did as many as 16 a year. In his case, doing a show means moving heavy metal pieces into and out of his truck and transporting them cross-country. It was because of a street show in Chicago in 1992 that Niemi was awarded his first big commission, the Eternal Flame War Memorial in Worth, IL.
Unfortunately, in Niemi’s opinion, “The galleries look down on you and the museums don’t give you much credit if you are street artist. But if you give your work to a gallery only you are not going to discover what people are really looking for.” Niemi thinks street shows are good for artists because it forces them “to approach people and talk to them” about their art. “It will develop your personality and help you with public speaking. I try to let the work do the sales, but you still need to let them understand where you are coming from.”
However, galleries definitely serve an important purpose. “I would probably be farther along in my career if I pursued them more.” This is because galleries “get specific clients who are only going to buy artwork through a gallery. I have clients like that. If it is in a big-name gallery, it gives [the work] credibility on the spot.”
Another important avenue of exposure for artists, in Niemi’s opinion, is “juried competitions” because they “build your resume, give you credibility, and expose your work.” Niemi also pursues public sculpture, especially the “Percent for Art” programs. These are programs that require cities to put a percentage of an expenditure on a public project toward public art. “Those help a lot because of the public exposure. You have thousands seeing these public pieces on a daily basis.”
The sculpture in Kenosha’s Union Park is an example of this type of exposure. “The publicity put my name out there. It’s marketing.” Currently, Niemi has ten pieces on public exhibition across the country and has recently renewed an exhibition in front of the public library in Flossmoor, IL.
Niemi also sees public art as a benefit to a city. “It is proven that public art will bring people and businesses to cities because there are people who search out sculpture. It shows an influence of culture. If you get public art in there, the city starts coming to life again.”
This is what he would like to see in Kenosha; a space dedicated to public art in the downtown area. He would also like to see the vacant buildings occupied and “the wealthier people of Kenosha step-up and patronize local artists.” Niemi feels embraced by the people of Kenosha and likes being centrally located between Chicago and Milwaukee. (And in Bristol “people don’t bug” him “about the noise” he makes!)
Perhaps the most important advice Bruce Niemi has for an artist is to “Make sure you can create work that can sell. Is there a market for it? Things don’t have to be cute or pretty but they have to be strong technically” and “not so far off the wall.”
However, artists still need passion and commitment. “You need to have a passion for what you are doing because it will show in your work. If I come up with an idea that I really like I could probably make more money by just slamming them out, but I don’t do that. I keep trying to come up with new ideas.” As for commitment, Niemi feels artists need “to put their entire life into their art to be successful. If you are just part-timing it, you are not going to make a living at it. It’s that leap of faith.” Bruce and his wife “pretty much live art.” Other than church activities and spending Sundays with his mother, “It is all art.”