After 10 years in Paris, Bruce Colburn '86 is beginning to hit his stride as a paiter.
"You know, when you put things up in your house, as an artist, the piece usually ends up moving from the living room to the hallway to upstairs and then to the attic before I throw it out. But Bruce’s paintings are beautiful.”
Professor of Fine Arts Chris Cairns remembers the first time he met Bruce Colburn.
“We were casting in the foundry behind Hilles on a hot September day,” he recalls, “and this lanky freshman just walks in and starts to help out. We were always looking for help and Bruce ended up being involved for four years, just like that.”
Athletic Director and Associate Dean Greg Kannerstein ’63, was head baseball coach when Colburn attended Haverford. “Bruce comes from a baseball family. His father, Bob [Class of 1959] played here and has coached the team at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware for a long time. His mother, Dorothy, went to Bryn Mawr. Bruce was tall and had good form so I talked him into pitching batting practice for us,” he says. “He became a nice JV pitcher and I think the experience was rewarding for him. For a batting-practice pitcher to throw strikes like he did and not get all wrapped up in an ego trip—those are things you’re looking for in a player. He’s going to do things to help the team. He threw strikes, unlike some of our pitchers.”
It’s ironic that Bruce Colburn ended up throwing strikes at Haverford—or at any college, for that matter. The idea of a formal education was not that appealing to him. “I’m autodidactic by nature,” he says, “and even though I knew what Haverford was about from my dad, I was against college to begin with. The idea of fraternities and four years of partying—I didn’t want any of that. I visited for one weekend, though, and when I saw that there was so much going on, I loved it. If I was going to go to college, Haverford was going to be it.” And the Colburn tradition at Haverford didn’t stop there. Kannerstein, Haverford’s richest source of athletic lore, points out that Bruce’s sister, Kathryn ’91, also a fine arts major, excelled at field hockey and lacrosse and later married Marc Melitz ’89, a mathematics major and basketball player who came to Haverford from Paris.
After Haverford, Colburn pursued a path that seemed to unfold organically according to what he deemed best for him at the particular moment. “He takes control on his own terms,” Cairns explains, “and he does things that other people wouldn’t even dream of doing. He spent three years painting in St. Croix, where people go for vacation and do nothing but drink. Would you do that? But Pisarro came from St. Thomas, and Bruce knew that. It doesn’t matter where Bruce is. He enlivens the place.”
“I went to the Virgin Islands because the American art scene was starting to get to me,” Colburn says. “Sometimes you need to drown out the other voices so you can hear your own. When you paint, you have your own world inside. It’s almost like your immediate physical surroundings are not important. It is wrenching to be uprooted, yes, but if you are so well-rooted in an interior world you can do it.”
The cleansing experience in St. Croix prepared Colburn for a fresh start in Paris, where he moved to be with Agnes Couffinhal, who was working on herPh.D. in health economics. The two are now married. What he didn’t realize was that the Paris art world did not value his education or his experience. After Haverford, Colburn attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. For three years, he worked in Boston for the abstract painter Nell Blaine. Then came the three-year stint in the islands. None of that mattered now; the American tradition of resume-building was not going to work in Paris. “It’s just a different world,” he explains. “I came here mentally ready but I encountered a different code. I had done solid work. Skowhegan has the strongest arts curriculum in the United States but it’s unknown here. I was back at square one as an artist.”
What Colburn also discovered was that he needed to have a job, something to pay the bills but still leave ample time for painting. The trick is, he says, to do something that “doesn’t take too much of your mind so you can get in the saddle and get to the easel with your head screwed on right.” He started to teach English, then moved into translation work. For four years now, he’s been translating the nightly national news for satellite receivers in the United States. This leaves him four to five hours for painting, six days a week. His studio takes up the largest room in his and Couffinhal’s 11th arrondissement apartment.
In many ways, the one-man show Colburn mounted in late September in the Marais was a critical point in his career trajectory. “This show is the dividing line,” he explains. “I’ve put everything up and I’m really taking stock of things. I go from show to show and sometimes I’m in big collective shows. But this show marks a point for me. By the time I’m 40, I should be latched onto a gallery that will formally represent me and my work.”
Cairns feels a particular kinship with Colburn. Both men are from Delaware and take a decidedly intense approach to art and life. Cairns makes a habit of visiting Colburn in Paris. And he has encouraged his son, Pete, to spend time with Colburn while he’s in Paris on a Watson Fellowship. “I think Bruce is going about this the right way,” Cairns says. “He’s not cluttering his mind with shit. He’s tenacious. It’s very rewarding to spend time with him. He’s great to go to museums with. He’s an eclectic listener of music and he reads. His reading intensity is different than mine but he’s dependent on reading for inspiration. Literature is huge and you can tear off a piece for yourself. I feel sort of guilty sending people to see him when they’re over there—Swarthmore students, Haverford students—but he’s good about it. He likes talking about stuff and he remembers what it was like here on campus and hegives it back.”
Haverford remains for Colburn a place where he discovered some tantalizing possibilities, where his eclectic approach was allowed to flourish. He encountered people like Cairns and Charles Stegeman (who now lives about 50 miles from Colburn) and found them to be completely immersed in the moment, immersed in their craft. “We did some weird stuff, like working on a dig in Italy, thanks to a recommendation from [BMC] Professor Brunilde Ridgway. She just had this astonishing memory and could recall a certain roof tile she saw 20 years ago. I don’t know if that’s normal or not, but I’ve run into that kind of intensity repeatedly with Haverford people.”
Colburn also met up with people who weren’t afraid to do what they wanted to do. “It was completely normal,” he says, “if you wanted to play baseball and paint. You weren’t a freak if you did something like that. Guys would come back from practice and knock off three or four hours studying astrophysics. There were no limits—it was the closest I’ve ever come to the Greek ideal of healthy mind, healthy body.”
“He just wandered around here for four years and got enmeshed in things,” Cairns explains. “As a teacher, you teach an attitude as much as anything else. You get a glimpse of people when they’re here and you never know what’s going to happen at the other end. Cathy Koshland [Class of 1972] painted here and then she surfaced 10 years later as an engineer. She’s so bright but it was unexpected. It surprised me. Mark Chehi ’78 was another one. A very bright art student here, now a lawyer who’s done very well by himself.
“I keep up with a lot of my students and Bruce turned out to be one of the most earnest and aggressive pursuers of his education. Bruce was looking for something and I think he learned a ferocious independence from Stegeman and from me. That's the great thing about teaching at Haverford. I have two of Bruce's paintings and I give him sculptures from time to time. You know, when you put things up in your house, as an artist, the piece usually ends up moving from the living room to the hallway to upstairs and then to the attic before I throw it out. But Bruce's paintings are beautiful."