Bruce Larsen’s steel seahorse rises above a bluff in Fairhope overlooking the bay. A thin wasp nest hangs from a gear in the curve of the chest and pine needles stick out of the roller chain tail. As the metal pieces rust in the salt air, the seahorse that Larsen made with John Rezner was inspired by nature and becomes a part of it. Larsen’s larger-than-life sculptures of animals and athletes are coastal landmarks that give identities to parks, museums, restaurants, and festivals. There is a connection and life in each piece that comes from the sculptor’s imagination and his generous soul. It is the tilt of a head, the stretch of fingers, or the swish of a tail. Details observed by a man with an awareness that this day is the only day he has and there may not be another.
Larsen moved from Atlanta to Fairhope because living close to the water gives him peace of mind to hear the voices in his head. “I had to be near water, and Fairhope draws in artists and people who appreciate the arts,” says Larsen. “It is also a good place to drop off the map and raise a family. I can make the art and do the movies and still be normal.”
His art is owned by Bill Clinton, Sting, Robert Plant, Philippe Cousteau, and the Crown Prince of Bahrain, but he will drop everything to help local students interested in art. He built animatronic movie horses for “The Patriot” and “Black Knight,” mangled bodies for Civil War battlefield scenes in “Lincoln,” and special effects for many commercials, movies, and television shows, but he helps friends construct sets for local plays and recitals. His sculptures are given as the prestigious “Big Fish” awards at the annual Riverkeepers gala in New York City, but he calls his three children his greatest creations.
He has airbrushed boats and surfboards for the mafia and motorcycles for the Commodores. He built the gorilla suit for the movie “Dumb and Dumberer” and played the role of the gorilla. His movie horses are so lifelike that the police were called when he threw the pieces away.
“Bruce gives energy and life to every day objects that everyone can recognize and relate to,” says the artist Nall, who divides his time between studios in France and Fairhope. “He knows the anatomy and animation of animals and people. Bruce is one of the most important artists in Alabama as well as the US and he should be better known.”
Larsen’s studio is his garage below his home on Fish River. It is stacked from floor to ceiling with shelves of odds and ends and the tools to bring them together. White plastic buckets are filled with doorknobs, driftwood, finials, twisted spindles, curved iron balusters, bald doll heads and a chestnut on a branch. Red Coca-Cola crates hold rusted wrenches, hooks, bells, tubing, and scraps of steel. Tables are covered with heads, torsos, and feet from the molds of his latest creature in the movie “Somnia.” A slimy green body cavity stands over bloodied fingers that stretch out from white plaster arms. Walls are lined with Craftsmen toolboxes. Extension cords and power tools hang from the ceiling. In the yard, chickens peck around a garden surrounded by a cemetery fence.
“Bruce makes his art just to share it with the public,” says Mac Walcott, principal at WAV Architects who owns Windmill Market in Fairhope with his wife Gina. “I met him when he brought his ‘Nefertiti’ into our office and left it there. We now have his work all over the Windmill Market and it creates conversation, community, and interest. He tells me he has a piece that would be perfect and the next day he walks in with eight screws and it is up. He also has a booth there where people can buy his work. He is very clear about who he is and his art.”
Larsen calls himself a modern archeologist assembling pieces of the past. “It starts with a knowledge of history and looking for signs,” he says. “I find things wherever they call me. From sewing machines and farm implements to arrowheads and hubcaps, these are parts of people’s lives. I feel these stories and the ghosts of each piece and think about the people who used it. I am aware of their pasts, but I also dance with them in the present.“
The spontaneous discovery of two pieces that fit together is the reward of his work. He connects each piece with hands that are scarred by cutting blades and splintered with steel shavings. “When you look at Bruce’s art or his monsters, you see his life, the things he has learned, and what he is going through,” says Scott Lumpkin, a film director from Fairhope who hired Larsen to create monsters and effects for his movies ‘Oculus’ and ‘Somnia.’ “He puts so much of himself into his work that you look at it and see him. He takes chances and has a cool creative energy that makes you want to go home and create something. His perception and interpretation of the world is a gift that most of us don’t have.”
As Larsen gives his creativity to the coast, the coast gives opportunities to him. The Academy unveils a new sculpture by Larsen at almost every annual board meeting. The campus is filled with his football players, a baseball player, weightlifter, basketball player, and gymnast. It will soon add a cyclist. His art is also featured each year at The Hangout Music Festival and this year he is working with the Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne to create a large sculpture for the festival.
“Bruce is a genius, and his work brings attention and visitors to the coast,” says Dr. Thomas Rosandich, President and CEO of the United States Sports Academy in Daphne. “People come to the Academy to photograph his sculptures and they take the pictures back to their homes all over the country. He has a work ethic like no one else in the world, but he is also giving with his time and art. He donated the Sprinter sculpture to us, voluntarily makes birds out of driftwood as gifts for VIPs that visit the Academy, and gives tours whenever I ask him.”
“I am the monster guy and the junk art guy,” says Larsen. “I have been putting things together since I was a kid and glued rocks together for my mother’s Christmas presents. When I was in college I saw the movie ‘Alien’ and I knew I wanted to make monsters. I have fun making things that interest or scare me. It makes me feel alive.”
Larsen’s need to feel alive has led to close calls with death. He has soared the jet streams on the wings of a glider, raced motorcycles, and parachuted out of planes. He gave those up to be around for his family and now channels that adrenaline into his art. “I know what it feels like to fall and to fly,” says Larsen. “I am constantly beating myself up, but that is a part of paying the piper. If you are going to live a big life you are going to have to pay emotionally and physically. I have always felt like I was living on borrowed time. I make angels because I feel like they are watching over me.”
Knowing that life is short pushes Larsen to work in two different worlds, creating art that will outlive him. “Movies are a different form of creating because it is storytelling in the here and now,” he says. “‘Somnia’ was shot quickly and making a monster out of silicone was new to me. I averaged two hours of sleep each night over the two months of the shoot but everything you do at four in the morning had better work. It was stress with a gun to your head. It was one of the hardest things I have done in my life, but I have to chase the movies. Monsters and special effects can be fine art and I want to merge the two together. I don’t know what is out there or how far I can go, but I have to try.”
To Larsen, beauty is a passion for life. “I had to wait 13 billion years to live this life and I am going to make the most of it,” says Larsen. “I know I am a bit of a gypsy blowing in the wind, but it is my personality to make order out of chaos. I question reality all of the time but while I am here I am going to push and have as much fun and as many experiences as I can. Making art for movies or making art out of junk, I am lucky that I get to do what I want to do and support my family doing it. “
“One of my effects was pulling the nail off of a finger in the movie ‘Oculus’,” says Larsen. “During that scene the director came out of his tent cringing. Just watching him get the horror out of his spine was great. I knew I got it right. “
This story originally appeared in “The Southern Rambler” magazine January 20, 2014 by Lynn Oldshue.