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Fabric Sculptor Geoffrey H. Bruce

Author: Terri Feder
Issue: October, 2013, Page 162
Photo by Garrett Cook

Geoffrey Bruce stands next to Parapend, one of his interior tensile sculptures. This gossamer piece measures 19'H x 14' in diameter and hangs in the stairwell of a home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.



Geoffrey Bruce’s Artistic Yen Sails in His Tensile Sculptures

When asked: “What is art,” most answer something akin to, “It is the artist’s self expression,” or “It is about creating something in a form that will inspire others to look closer.” Form alone, without the need to serve a utilitarian purpose, tends to rule in the art world. However, when it comes to Tucson artist Geoffrey H. Bruce, form and function often are of equal importance.

Although he creates sculpture, Bruce’s work isn’t what normally comes to mind when you hear this term. He doesn’t chisel slabs of marble like the well-known rock stars of the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Nor does he work in clay or bronze. Instead, he crafts his works out of pliable, stretchable fabric.

Coined “tensile sculpture,” these pieces of fabric architecture are visually stirring; sometimes of epic proportions; sometimes more intimate; and often are functional, providing protection from the elements and privacy. And although they are usually placed in exterior settings, this is not always so. At times, the sculptures are designed purely for their visual presence and may be slated for a special interior location.

Bruce, a practicing designer and artist for more than 50 years, has been marinating in the creative world all of his life. “I grew up in Boston, and both my father and mother were very creative. My father started out as a stage designer and then became an industrial designer. He could build anything with his two hands. I think I inherited that from him,” says the artist. 

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, Bruce moved to Scottsdale and dallied in the world of stained glass for several years. Later, he moved to graphic arts, a venture that lasted another decade or so. It wasn’t until 1992, when he met Bill Moss—designer of the Pop Tent—that Bruce finally hit his artistic stride. “The two major events that changed the course of my career and life were attending the Rhode Island School of Design and meeting Bill Moss,” explains the sculptor.

Repos de Papillon, 12'H x 40'W x 30'L, affords critical shade to an outdoor bar and lounge area at a Phoenix home.
Moss was known for creating innovative, high-performance camping tents and architectural structures, and it was under his tutelage that Bruce began designing tensile sculptures and understanding the nature of the special fabrics employed for these works. “We primarily use high-density polyethylene, or HDPE,” notes Bruce. This polyethylene thermoplastic is known for its large strength-to-density ratio. “It’s a good, recyclable knitted fabric; the knitting gives it incredible stretching capacity.”

Although he offers his compositions in a spate of colors, the artist says most of his pieces destined for Arizona are done in hues that blend into the surroundings. “We have bright and dark colors. There also are neutral hues—silver, gray, tan—and mid-value colors, such as sage and salmon. When you mix the sage fabric with an agave or other desert flora, it is incredibly beautiful,” states Bruce, with unmistakable passion for his profession and art.

The sculptures destined for the outdoors may be custom designed by Bruce or selected from a line of pre-engineered products through Tensile Shade Products, LLC—a company the artist formed with his colleague Noah Smith, another RISD graduate. Whether custom or repetitive in form, all are devised for their visual presence and to deflect the wind and rain. “The sculptures move, but it’s more of an undulation. They become animated with the wind, and shadows are cast as the sun moves,” the designer explains.

Bruce’s creations can be glimpsed throughout Arizona and the U.S., inside and outside private residences as well as public and commercial buildings, including the Univision Television Studios building in Phoenix. The Univision building, designed by Swaback Partners, was honored as one of the 18th greatest architectural achievements in Arizona by the American Institute of Architects and boasts the artist’s tensile sculptures over its exterior entryway.

When asked what he sees in the future, the sculptor replies, “I’m hoping the next leg of my journey brings me to new territories at home and abroad.” Although it took him a few years to find, Bruce feels tensile sculpture is his true life’s calling. “It’s amazing to me where I’ve ended up,” he states. “I have to pinch myself sometimes.”

Photos - From left: Ravens Play, 18'H x 18'W x 50'L. This sculpture greets the homeowners as they enter through a glass door, which leads to their yard and the main entrance to their residence in Palm Desert, California. • Lotus Flower, 9'H x 20'W x 16'L, is set directly into a pool in Phoenix.

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