Timber Cove sculptor Bruce Johnson mourned after home studio accident

“It’s a big shock,” local resident Scott Farmer said. “There’s not a lot of us, and we’re so spread out, but we’re still close, and to lose somebody, it’s like losing a family member.”|

During the 50 years Timber Cove sculptor Bruce Johnson lived and worked on a forested ridge above the north Sonoma Coast, he built evermore intricate, cleverly fashioned artworks from the massive hunks of wood and metal that came his way.

Renowned for immense redwood and steel pieces with handcrafted detailing, copper etching and pounded metal, he created works so large they had to be moved and assembled using trucks and cranes.

At the same time, he forged a community of friends and admirers who are drawing together now to mourn his death Monday in an accident in his home studio at the age of 77.

Details of the incident have not been released, though friends said a piece of sculpture fell when he was moving or working on it. He suffered a head injury as a result, according to a friend speaking on behalf of Johnson’s two daughters, both Sonoma County residents.

An assistant was on the premises and ran to call for help, but it was not possible to save him, said Mary Entriken, a fellow artist and member of the Timber Cove Fire Protection District Board. Fire Chief Erich Lynn said the assistant did not witness the accident itself and wasn’t able to explain what had happened.

But the news has proved devastating for the surrounding community, a place one resident, Scott Farmer, described as surprisingly tight-knit.

“It’s a big shock,” Farmer said. “There’s not a lot of us, and we’re so spread out, but we’re still close, and to lose somebody, it’s like losing a family member.”

Locals remember him for his joy and laughter, his generosity and sensitivity. They spoke of how he donated to school projects, rebuilt a neighbor’s broken down fence, mentored local teens interested in art and learning to operate heavy equipment.

“He was just loved by the community,” Entriken said, “and he’s going to be so missed. It’s just a tragedy.”

“Bruce was very well-liked in the community,” said Fire Chief Lynn. “He was a really great guy. A lot of people are really grieving right now.”

Johnson studied to be a teacher at UC Davis, where he met his late wife, Marjie, a longtime teacher and principal at Fort Ross Elementary School. He arrived on the Sonoma Coast in 1973 to work on restoration of the 160-year-old Russian Orthodox Chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park.

He never left, and never stopped working, instead settling into homesteaded property off Seaview Road where the couple built a life and raised their two daughters, Kendra Katz, of Guerneville, and Tori Johnson, of Healdsburg. Johnson and his wife had three grandchildren as well. Marjie Johnson died in January 2021.

He developed a reputation for his artwork, as well, which is why people from the local art world suggested Paradise Ranch Winery founder Walter Byck seek him out in the mid-90s when the retired physician decided his Fountaingrove-area property would have a sculpture garden exhibiting large-scale works.

Byck, 90, describes Johnson as his “true best friend” and said his admiration and affection for the artist grew over four decades of exhibits, including several one-man shows, in what’s now known as Marijke’s Grove, a 4-acre area where Johnson has displayed his own work and helped other artists show theirs. He said it was Johnson who guided him through the process of curating exhibits and getting things going at the beginning.

“He was a wonderful gentleman, a wonderful man and a talented artist,” Byck said.

Michael Schwager, retired Sonoma State University gallery director and art professor, said Johnson loved working with his hands and working the materials to find the spirit in the grain of the wood. He sought to discover the textures he wanted to highlight and fashion a unified whole out of disparate parts.

Some of his pieces have silhouettes that echo those of Japanese temples and gateways.

Johnson once said, “I’ve often described my work as a cross between Shinto shrines and Stonehenge.”

But the connection between the place he worked and lived and the art were critical, too, Schwager said.

“He was a remarkable sculptor,” Schwager said. “He loved the process. He loved working with the material. He loved working with his hands, and he found recognition just because his work was so good and his craftsmanship was so lovely. But he wasn’t looking for that. He wasn’t driven by that.”

“He was very knowledgeable about the art world, but he never struck me as someone who was looking for that connection to fame and fortune,” Schwager said.

Sonoma County residents will know Johnson’s work from installations around the region that included the inaugural sculpture garden exhibit at the then-Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and the new Sutter hospital off Mark West Springs Road in 2015, before the 2017 Tubbs Fire.

Titled “Root 101,” the 16 pieces in the exhibit began as redwood trees stumps that Johnson would work until he found a the form and energy within in the same way stone sculptors sometimes describe a figure revealing itself as stone flakes are chipped away.

“Form and energy,” Johnson has said, was “what sculpture is about.”

Johnson’s work also is on display in the carved wooden benches, pillars and woodwork inside the nondenominational Sea Ranch Chapel off the east side of Highway 1 in The Sea Ranch.

Collette Michaud, CEO of the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, said she already was an admirer when Johnson approached her in 2015, shortly after the museum opened in Santa Rosa, about a piece called Megaflora that he thought might work as an interactive sculpture, she said.

“I had always been a huge fan of his work and secretly had hoped that one day we would have one of his sculptures at the museum,” she said. “So, needless to say, I was thrilled when he showed up out of the blue at the museum.”

Two years later it was installed, with landscaping done by his daughter, Tori, and “it has been a fan favorite ever since.”

“What I love about his sculpture is how beautifully organic it is. It’s completely unique in the world,” she said.

Johnson insisted on oiling and maintaining the sculpture himself, and Michaud said she assumed he would be coming soon, once the rain stopped. He was a vibrant man, and she always enjoyed his visits.

"It’s hard to believe he’s gone,“ she said.

One of his pieces — a large, Japanese-inspired gate-like structure called “Asia,” donated by Byck — also is permanently displayed outside the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, while others have been erected or shown locally at the Sonoma County Museum, the Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen and Paradise Ridge Winery.

One of his favorite pieces has been displayed publicly but resides on the property where he and his wife spent their lives, set away from the house he designed and finished, and the menagerie of giant sculptures among the trees. It’s a five-sided “Poetry House” fashioned after a Japanese tea house.

Byck recalled that when Johnson finished his third one-man show at Paradise Ridge, he celebrated by climbing on his bicycle in Portland, Oregon, and pedaled to Portland, Maine, and then rode back again, by himself.

It was one of many long-distance rides he took during his life, including one recently up and down the California coast, Byck said.

“I saw him two days before he died. He was the same strong man who just came back from one of his bicycle rides,” Byck said. “He was going to live a long time.”

To learn more about Johnson’s work, go to formandenergy.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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