Wes Bruce is a professional fort-maker, meaning that for the past five years, he's scored a paycheck doing what he's loved since boyhood: going on scavenging adventures and collecting all the cool stuff he finds, then giving those objects a second life within the intricate hideaways he builds.
In 2010, Bruce built a 2,000-squarefoot, 25-room fort at the California Center for the Arts that he called "Ms. Augustine Greane" after the fictional character whose house he imagined it to be. The whimsical, three-month exhibition brought visitors back to their childhoods as they crawled and dwelled within the space and pondered the former lives of objects that Bruce gathered.
Now Bruce has two new, very different spaces to explore for his latest exhibition, Structures Poetry Humans, opening Thursday, Oct. 25, at Lux Art Institute in Encinitas. It'll be on view through Dec. 29.
Through the San Diego Foundation's Creative Catalyst Fund, Bruce was paired up with Lux for a year-long, crowd-sourcing project that will culminate with the opening of the exhibit. For Structures Poetry Humans, Bruce set up a website and asked readers from around the world to write in and share memories they have of structures—from their homes to churches and tent-trailers—to better understand the relationships people have with, and within, these buildings.
The two structures Bruce built at Lux are meant to be understood as one space, he says, that explore the duality that buildings have in people's lives as places of joy and mourning. The letters have given him insight into the human condition, the search for purpose and the interaction between celebration and grief.
"Everything that I've done in the past couple years has been nostalgic, and in that realm," Bruce says. "With this [project], I went in to give voice to mourning, and the other side."
He took stories that people sent in and transformed them into two- to three-line poems on thousands of pieces of paper that he's collected from San Diego to the Salton Sea.
"You'll get an overall wash of all these different, circumstantial moments and insights that are deeply personal," he says. "It's a huge amount of content, thousands of ideas and all these different lives in the same place, at the same time, creating this sort of atmosphere."
To craft the poems, Bruce pretended he was each of the people who wrote in, to give it cohesiveness. The poems will hang from string inside, along with photographs that people sent in. "So, as a viewer inside the structure," he says, "you'll step in and have a chance to read as many as you want as you pass through the building."
Many of the stories dealt with the recession and loss of homes.
"As much as you can move on, not having a place to really feel like yourself and express yourself is a big thing," Bruce says. "Through this whole process, I've tried to draw back from associating my identity with a specific house or building."
But when it comes to structures he's built, Bruce admits that attachment is his Achilles heel.
"It feels like the death of something," he says, about when it's time for his forts to come down, and that it's deeply sad to him. He says he either burns the items, gives them away or leaves them in alleys for someone else. "It's this process of letting the stuff die, or go to a different place to sit and wait for its next chapter."