The Heart of an Artist, And A Friend

He was, at first, the friendly guy who worked at the Dunkin Donuts in downtown Albany. Known to many of us downtown workers, he was perhaps best-recognized for his boisterous and infectious laugh – a bright, booming, glorious laugh – often accompanied by a slight throw-back of his head. It was one of those laughs that could veer from an insinuating chuckle to a full-blown guffaw, transforming into a lilting, musical peel or a gentle re-assuring cadence of bonhomie and grace. As a lonely worker in a new job, I found solace in that laugh, even if I didn’t frequent Dunkin Donuts on a regular basis.

I didn’t know who that mirthful creature was until a couple of years later, when I walked up the stairs to the Romaine Brooks Gallery of the Capital Pride Center, just off of Lark Street, and he stood there towering over all of us with a box of doughnuts, and a magnificent painting he had done of his work-place. This was the artist Kevin Bruce. Freed from behind the doughnut counter, he was even more grand than the larger-than-life person I had only watched from afar.

This was Mr. Bruce in his element – out and about at a gallery, hosting a solo exhibition of his paintings, and putting on a show as only he could. The box of colorfully-frosted doughnuts echoed the painting of people from the doughnut shop. It was quintessential Kevin Bruce – eye-popping and saturated with color and movement, shot through with humor, wit, and whimsy, and brimming with life, love, and a respectful nod toward community. Looking at that painting, one felt a little better about the world. Happier. Giddier. And more hopeful.

It was indicative of much of his work. Some artists have the enviable ability to perfectly translate their own exuberance for life into their work. You can tell instantly who did it, because it speaks in such a unique voice it could come from no one else. In Kevin’s case it comes across as a gregarious passion for the human condition. While there is humor and camp in much of his work, there are other elements as well. A sense of cunning and playfulness balances an edge of sexy naughtiness. More contemplative pieces feature somber pathos or the exploration of simpler, quieter moments. His body of work runs the gamut from laugh-out-loud hilarious to tear-inducing, thought-provoking reflection. It was this latter aspect that informed the piece I purchased a couple of years ago, seen here.

At the time, I was managing the Romaine Brooks Gallery, and wanted Kevin to do another solo show. He mentioned he’d be interested, and soon set about to cultivating a collection for which he’d recently been inspired. It would have a sexy harlequin theme – artistically fertile ground and perfectly suited to his style. It was as fantastic as most of us expected – a gorgeously-executed exhibition that expounded upon a familiar theme, yet turned it gleefully on its head a number of times. A few of the pieces were created in honor of those gallery managers who had come before me (of which Mr. Bruce was one of the first.) He managed to work our names into those pieces in whimsical ways, fitting into the harlequin theme of the show. On mine, a stack of blocks spelled out my last name, while a small jester sat on a pile of books. The figure is pensive and solitary, looking off to the side. Below, a ball emblazoned with a striking yellow star steals most of the focus. It is a bright spot in a dimmer, brick-backed microcosm, and marked the first piece of Mr. Bruce’s that I purchased.

I finally found the perfect space for it in the Boston condo last week. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have Kevin Bruce in my bedroom, but I may just be the most excited.

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