Milton artist 'paints with wood'
Robert Bruce Weston’s art is hard to categorize.
“There is this craft call marquetry, which is basically the attempt to make a picture using tiny pieces of wood [called veneer], put together like brush strokes,” Weston said. “I don’t do that. I work with veneer, but I rely heavily on the wood to make my picture work.”
One thing is clear: the 77-year-old Weston is a talented woodworker. He’s been recognized by the Delaware Division of the Arts with an Established Professional award and a $6,000 prize.
Weston grew up in northern New Jersey. Fresh out of Union High School, he got a job with an insurance company. He didn’t like it.
They moved him around within the company, trying to find a position that fit. At the time, the company fed their employees, and Weston ended up working as a food buyer. He didn’t like that either, but he did like being in the commissary. A coworker noticed and got him a job in the restaurant business.
Weston worked in restaurants for over a decade, at one point owning or co-owning three at once. But by his early 30s, he wanted out.
“It’s a young man’s business. It’s brutal,” he said.
His favorite part of the restaurant business was cooking, when he worked with his hands. He knew he wanted to do that much, but he couldn’t see himself out in the snow framing houses. He thought he might enjoy working on interiors, though.
“It was a broad, sudden thought, and it happened to work,” Weston said. “I am a grand proponent of throwing enough dung on the wall and seeing what sticks. I follow my nose. If something interests me, I do more of that.”
He got out the phone book and stumbled upon Alfredo’s Cabinet Shop in Whippany, New Jersey, a business owned by Robert G. Huyler.It turned out Huyler was looking for help, but only at minimum wage. Weston was 38 but he took the chance.
“I’m so glad I did. He is brilliant, probably one of the greatest furniture makers ever,” he said. “That was really good for me, having someone who really knew the basics of design. He was never stumbling. He immediately went to a really well-designed piece, which was a great shortcut for me.”
In the 80s, Weston owned and managed a 20-man, 18,000-square-foot commercial cabinetmaking shop called Affiliated Craftsmen Corp. That allowed him to work for and with a variety of New York architects and designers, exposing him to their design styles and installation methods.
Weston’s reputation as a veneer artist began to take shape when, in 1982, a designer asked him to create a contemporary bar with Asian scenery on the side panels. Weston created eight different scenes for each panel. The bar was a great success and helped shape his reputation as a furniture maker and artist in New York.
He downsized his business in 1987 in order to work with homeowners on one project at a time, creating furniture, installations and more. He worked on a constant backlog until his retirement. During that time Weston accumulated thousands of square feet of different veneers and honed his veneering skills.
“A very accomplished oil painter once came into my gallery and his first words were, ‘Oh my God, you paint with wood,’” Weston said. “Veneer is wood that has been shaved off of a log in very thin leaves. It gives you the ability to have a lot of consecutive leaves that are very similar in appearance. That’s why you can see a sheet of plywood that has very similar look across whole the sheet.”
Much of Weston’s work is abstract. However, lately, he’s been working on a new series in a style he calls “minimalistic landscaping.”
“They’re not realistic, they’re figurative, suggestive,” he said. “It’s novel. It’s interesting.”
Upon retirement in 2008, Weston and his wife moved to Milton. His basement woodworking studio has the bare essentials, using the smallest machines available.
“That’s what woodworking’s all about – machinery,” he said.
The $6,000 Delaware Division of the Arts fellowship came at just the right time for Weston. His veneer press had begun malfunctioning.
“I plan to use it to upgrade equipment and get new veneers I wouldn’t have been able to afford before,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
In addition to his artwork, Weston still builds his own furniture. If he needs a desk, he builds a desk (and he did). Outside of woodworking, he enjoys golfing and entertaining his wife, Suzanne Dietrich.
“If you met her, you’d understand,” he said.
Weston maintains memberships in five marquetry societies all over the world and belongs to a handful of local art leagues. He holds art sales in his basement studio about once a year.
For more about Robert Bruce Weston: facebook.com/woodinlayartist.
About the fellowships
“Individual Artist Fellowship grants provide the recognition and exposure that artists need to successfully promote their work,” said Paul Weagraff, director of Delaware Division of the Arts. “The financial award allows them to pursue advanced training, purchase equipment and materials or fulfill other needs to advance their careers.”
This year, 139 artists applied and 19 were awarded fellowships. The Masters Award and $10,000, went to Mark Unruh of Wilmington.
Twelve established artists, six emerging artists and two honorable mentions were selected. Full list: arts.delaware.gov/iafrecipients.
The work of the Fellows will be featured in a group exhibition, Award Winners XX, at the Biggs Museum in Dover June 5 to July 23, with an award ceremony and reception June 10. Selections will be displayed at CAMP Rehoboth Aug. 1-31 and at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington Sept. 4 to Oct. 25.