30 Seconds of Fame: Blowing My Own Horn

Originally posted on Ditmas Park Corner, I spent some time with Mary Bakija last Friday, who has gotten the neighborhood blog up and running and firmly embedded in the local consciousness. I have reposted the article with her permission.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” neighbor Bruce Zeines said. “All I knew was I had to. When I was five, and my brother drew spaceships and planets, I knew I had to draw.”

For parents who Bruce says were not artistic at all, his raised three creative children: Bruce, whose mural will be painted this spring on the Bonnie Youth Club at 1221 Church Avenue, his brother, who was a sculptor and cabinet-maker, and his sister, who’s a singer. But it wasn’t a straight and easy path for Bruce, who encountered challenges throughout his early life.

“You’re in the public school and you’re drawing all the time, and the teacher tries to get your attention—well, I wasn’t listening, I was doing my own thing,” he explained. “I think that’s what leads to the Free School,” he said. Bruce is a founding parent of Brooklyn Free School, which his son attends, and which he writes about at The Free School Apparent.

Later he ended up in a more creative environment at the School of Visual Arts, where he studied fine art, animation, and illustration. Looking for work as an illustrator, though, was a bit of a struggle. “I think I wore out two pairs of shoes, walking around with my portfolio,” he said. “I got a few jobs, but I saw that design work paid me a whole lot better.”

Bruce set up a home office in about 1991, using a bulky, expensive Macintosh IIsi for design work for hospitals, eventually branching out to do work for educational institutions, advertising agencies, and more. But having the computer led him down a new artistic path, into digital collage. He built a reputation, exhibiting in shows all over the world, but while he was doing digital work, he still working on “real” art.

“Digital was for me to make social commentary,” he said. “But somewhere after 9/11, something inside me decided I need to get back to drawing, to having my hand on the paper.”

His wife Sheryll Durrant, who currently works with Sustainable Flatbush, was very encouraging. “We got my drawing table out of storage, and I started producing this stuff,” he said.

“I was on fire from about 2003-2006. I was like a madman, drawing all the time,” he said, explaining that he was, in a way, using drawing to work through the issues he had had in his first marriage, which ended in ’96. “I still draw all the time, but there’s something about this period that was obsessive. The new stuff is quieter.”

For the Uncover Church Avenue mural design, Bruce treated the proposal like he would any project where he’s dealing with a client–he wanted to make sure it was something the Bonnies would be happy with.

“I couldn’t think of doing it in my quirky style, I didn’t think that was going to go,” he said. “So I went after an image that was in my mind since I was a kid, which was Roger Maris’ homerun swing.”

Memories from childhood are strong for Bruce, none more than the ones he tells now to his son. “They’re unusual,” Bruce said. “But people always tell me I’m a storyteller, that my drawings tell a story. Even if you don’t know what the story is, you know they’re saying something to you.”

He’s taking on the more literal idea of telling those stories with a graphic novel he’s currently working on. Though he’s never done a graphic novel, he’s read them–in fact, he says R. Crumb was an idol—and he’s interested in the challenge.

“It’s a really completely different approach to drawing, because I really have to plan,” he explained. “A lot of my stuff is automatic, in the moment, improvised, I just start and go and build from there. I have ways of controlling that now, but a graphic novel is a different animal.”

The other thing taking up his time at the moment is the Church Ave project, which is his first mural, though he’s just submitted a proposal for another, at the Newkirk Plaza passageway. “I’m trying to establish myself in that way,” he said, adding that he’s hoping it can turn into a paying gig.

“You really have to pay people, and for some reason, artists are often the ones they think of not paying,” he said. “Art if a way of life. To live off it, it’s not unreasonable to ask for. It’s my work. I don’t have a lot of unusual requirements–I want to make sure there’s enough food in the refrigerator, that my son has sneakers, that he can keep going to the school he’s going to. Sometimes I think our wishes are too modest.”

Bruce has an apartment full of art that he’s made, and much of it is for sale. Though he’s had open studios in the past, he says it’s difficult to be a maker and a seller. “It’s hard for the artist to sell his own work,” he said. “Putting on my sales hat. I really need someone else to do that for me.”

Even so, the apartment is set up in a way for people to come in and view his work. If you’re interested in buying a piece, contact Bruce at bzeines@optonline.net to set up a meeting. You can visit my Facebook fan page.

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