"Blue Eggs and Ham" by Bruce Lieberman.
"Mussels" by Bruce Lieberman.
Bruce Lieberman's painting "Papaya Compost."
Bruce Lieberman in his studio in Water Mill. DANA SHAW
Bruce Lieberman in his Water Mill studio. DANA SHAW
Bruce Lieberman had only stopped at home in Water Mill for 10 minutes before he was back in his truck, on the road again.
“My Toyota has become my office,” he said.
The artist was starting his hours-long odyssey to Montauk for a late-afternoon surf, after wrapping up his summer painting class as “Professor Bruce” at Stony Brook University — and enduring 90 minutes in traffic back to the East End.
But coming out of retirement is well worth the commute, he said. He had missed the classroom, having spent nearly four decades as an art teacher, first in Mineola and then in East Hampton — not far from where he will participate in the group show, “Open Table,” starting Saturday, August 10, at BCK Fine Arts Gallery in Montauk.
“When I’m home and busy, I don’t miss it. When I’m there, I miss it,” he said of teaching. “If I stayed there, it would be fine. But once I’m back in my studio, who wants to be interrupted?”
His 24-foot-by-24-foot-by-24-foot studio is a natural extension of his farmhouse-inspired home, which he built 25 years ago.
“My carpentry skills are pretty shitty, so it was the perfect aesthetic,” he said. “You have to really like that aesthetic or you’re in trouble.”
Decades later, his abilities have improved — “When I do something, it gets a little better, but not much. You still have to watch me to make sure I don’t get lazy,” he said — and his zeal for life has only maintained. Every anecdote is doused in enthusiasm, his humor ,sharp, and his unfailing inability to recall dates, consistent.
“If it wasn’t for teaching two days a week, I couldn’t tell you what day it was,” he said with a laugh. “I could tell you where the wind’s coming from and when low tide is, but I can’t tell you anything else. Like, how old am I now? I think I’m 61 or 62, something like that.”
With certainty, Mr. Lieberman was born in Brooklyn in 1958 and raised in Old Bethpage on the edge of a potato field that he would often roam. Complete with a milkman, “it was a Timmy and Lassie life,” he said, excluding his frequent trips to New York as a child. His parents would take him to the opera and the Museum of Modern Art, where he played on the floor in front of Picasso’s “Guernica.”
As he grew older, painting and drawing as a young boy morphed into aspirations of becoming a professional artist — what felt like a lofty goal at the time, he said.
“I didn’t think you could be an artist. I’ve always been interested in nature, so I went to college to study marine biology,” he said. “I don’t think I had study skills. The chemistry and the calculus, they got me. And I realized I liked biology from a poet’s point of view, not from a scientist’s.”
He promptly dropped out of college and moved to California, attracted to the surfing lifestyle that dissolved after a year.
“I ended up broke and sick — I had the ‘Russian flu’ — and I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “So I felt like, ‘I might as well go back to college and get a job. My mother didn’t raise me to be a bum,’ but I didn’t know what to study. So I figured I might as well study art.”
Mr. Lieberman landed at none other than Stony Brook University, where he learned from some of the greats — landscape artist Mel Pekarsky, art critics Lawrence Alloway and Donald Kuspit, and sculptor Robert White, who shifted the trajectory of the young painter’s future career.
“I went late to this figure drawing class, it’s a big class, and Robert White wanders around and stops at every single person,” he recalled. “But he gets to me and he’d sigh and grumble under his breath, and I was never hitting the mark.
“I remember I was surfing one day and I was thinking of dropping out because I wanted to be an artist and I couldn’t even draw and this guy didn’t approve,” he continued, “and I remember saying, ‘Well, screw it. I’m just gonna have fun.’”
At the next class, Mr. Lieberman tossed aside every rule he knew. He just attacked it, loose and free, his creativity emerging out of a fog — the same artistic process he uses in his still lifes to this day, from capturing scenes of table scraps to peaceful moments in the garden.
And when Mr. White made his way around the room this time, he slapped Mr. Lieberman on the back and said, “Now you’ve got it! What the hell happened to you?” before he moved on to the next.
“I was like, ‘Whoa.’ So the answer was throwing yourself 100 percent into it, but to lose yourself in the process,” he said. “That was a big moment to me. You’re trying to struggle to find out what ‘good’ is. In a way, it doesn’t matter. ‘Good’ is just when you’re honest to yourself.”
He tells this story to nearly every class he teaches, he said, and he hopes it encourages each of his students to find a voice and form of self-expression, as well as a little humility. And he is always sure to walk around the room, just as Mr. White did.
“I don’t think kids should come thinking they’re great geniuses and I don’t want to crush their little souls, but that’s part of the art of it,” he said. “I think I’m pretty hard on them. I want them to work like a son-of-a-bitch and then I’ll help them get through it.”
It is easy to suspect he is well liked among his students — “I might be an acquired taste,” he deadpanned — and finds himself learning from them daily.
“They keep me on my toes, I have to keep my brain active. You have 20 different personalities or 20 different problems you have to decipher,” he said. “There’s an excitement and an energy. They’re interested and it’s nice to exchange ideas with really intelligent people.
“They’re brilliant kids. It’s nice talking to young people and helping them on their way.”
“Open Table,” featuring work by Bruce Lieberman, Lynn Kotula and John Goodman, will open with a reception on Saturday, August 10, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at BCK Fine Arts Gallery @Montauk, located at 87 South Euclid Avenue in Montauk. The show will remain on view through Tuesday, August 27. For more information, call 631-594-1402 or visit bckfineartsgallery.com.
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