Bruce Lee — Artist

I’ve been thinking about my late friend Bruce Lee quite  a bit these past few days (I mentioned him before in relation to turning me on to Eddie Harris), partly because I’ve been sorting through boxes of books that go back to my college years and just after, partly because Bruce’s life didn’t turn out the way either of us would have predicted and at least in part that was because the world didn’t turn out anywhere near like what we knew it should.

Bruce was five years older than I was and we met the year after I finished college in Missoula. (I believe someone who reads this blog was with me the day he introduced himself.) He was also the first friend-peer who owned his own house, ran his own business (Butterfly Herbs) and managed to squeeze in an incredible garden.

I noticed Bruce had stored a marvelous painting — a variation on a Mayan mural theme — in his basement. It was quite a long time before I realized and he confirmed that it was his work. He was a gifted artist, but suffered from compulsive perfectionism. Even a few simple line drawings would be agony to turn out, making him tense and uptight and impossible to be around, for weeks.

He was forever vague about the extent of his study and training. He did tell me that he turned against his own creative impulses and destroyed nearly all of his work, renouncing it all. I know now that was a mistake. You could sense at times that he thought so, too. But he was an enormously stubborn person and renouncing the art was part of the official life story, goddammit. May have helped him cope with problems, may have not. Toward the end, he even began to neglect the garden.

But Bruce’s example helped me understand the wisdom of advice on writing that Richard Hugo passed on: insisting on perfect-as-possible execution and pure inspiration is a kind of artistic disease — a way to keep yourself from working. Keep turning out stuff regularly, close to every day if you can, and if it’s garbage, just chuck it and start again. This is by far the finest way to keep yourself ready, so that when you are hit with that pure inspiration, you will be able to execute as close as you can come to perfection.

(Butterfly Herbs has something of an online presence, though I find it odd and sad that it’s hard to discover the place was started by Bruce or that he and John P. Anderson were the creators of the hugely successful green tea blend Evening in Missoula.)

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