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Sculptor homestead full tour: 50 years building Utopia

Bruce Johnson, and his wife Margie, moved to California’s remote North Coast in 1973 to rebuild the historic Fort Ross Chapel, and stayed when Margie got a teaching job in town and Bruce fell in love with the abundant salvaged redwood that he began transforming into massive sculptures.

He describes his work as a cross between Shinto shrines and Stonehenge. From Stonehenge comes the primal sense of scale, mass and physical presence of his work, and from Shinto Shrines the elegant craft and exquisite detail of sacred architecture — including his innovative use of copper as scales to cap end grain and direct water, or to create copper boulders. Every copper or wood surface has a unique and deliberate texture.

“Fifty years ago, when I fell in love with these huge chunks of wood, I could not imagine the end of old growth forests. I saw abandoned redwood lying about in overwhelming abundance…. My immersion in wood became a part of my intimacy with the world.”

His art would later earn him worldwide recognition, but he simultaneously became a master builder creating buildings, furniture and even his own home. On five acres surrounded by second-growth redwoods, Johnson built a wooden home for his family in just one year to avoid sacrificing too much studio time, but nearly everything here is crafted by Bruce: copper-and-wood kitchen cupboards; salvaged walnut-wood dining table; a couch made from old wine barrels.

It’s obvious Bruce is a master builder, but there is plenty of whimsy here. He turned a metal “pineapple” – donated after an exhibit- into the stand of a living room lamp that turns on and off with by touching the metal. He carved a reading/sleeping nook out of the living room and wove copper and wood to create sliding doors for privacy.

His own sculptural work contains that same whimsy: he took us inside “Lookout”, a hollowed-out redwood stump from which we emerged into a metallic “sleeping quarters” from which we could stand and peer out at his sculpture yard.

After helping build the iconic Sea Ranch chapel in the ‘80s, he was inspired by create his own take on a sacred space. After years of drawing ideas of variations on a tea house, the concept morphed into a “poetry house” when he stumbled on a poem by Elizabeth Herron (current Sonoma County poet laureate). Built from a salvaged redwood log, the five-sided building was constructed to be deconstructed and moved. Built in the workshop, it traveled 30 miles for an exhibit before resettling in Johnson’s yard.

“What is a poetry house?” he asks. “It is a strange hybrid of a building, somewhat larger and more extravagant than a teahouse, but smaller and more humble than a temple; not as practical as a storage shed or as useless as an abandoned truck. Whatever the interpretation, this is how it came together.”

Update on March 29th, 2023: Bruce Johnson sadly passed away while at work. An article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat explains what happened. Hopefully, this video captures a glimpse of what we saw when we visited him: a genius sculptor thinking on incredible new projects. RIP.