Time Doesn’t Mean Value: Creation And Destruction With Sculptor Bruce Howdle

“In the arts, we don’t think about time,” said sculptor Bruce Howdle, his flip flops slapping softly on the floor of his studio in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. “Sometimes it takes a lot of time, sometimes it doesn’t. Time doesn’t mean value, because sometimes you’ve spent all the time in the world on a piece and you throw most of it in the trash barrel. Time is not the essence of value.”

I popped into the front door of Bruce’s shop a few minutes before it closed for the day. Most of the 25 art studios and galleries in the tiny, art-saturated town of Mineral Point close within a few minutes of each other, a neighborly nod toward cooperation and that ever elusive (but oh-so-attractive) myth of work life balance. Bruce took the last few minutes of his day to explain his huge and distinctive ceramic murals and show my son and myself around the former hotel that he converted into a multi-story studio, shop and apartment. He did much of the painstaking restoration himself and with friends, clearing out decades worth of accumulated trash, scouting the landscape for suitable paving stones and placing them all by hand.

On that late summer day, the studio was filled with his strange and whimsical animal sculptures. (“I focus on the little critters,” he deadpanned wryly, eyes bright behind round glasses.) Impish little piglets held court in the shop, while their unglazed cousins waited patiently in Bruce’s studio. Elegant winged predators — sandhill cranes, ravens, a horned owl — presided over a series of platters. Their prey (skittering mice, silvery minnows, crawfish, frogs) converged on dinner plates, awaiting their fate, the circle of life illustrated on a collector’s dinner table.


An unfinished example of one of Bruce Howdle’s platters

Bruce told me he was a lifelong educator and mentor. I was teaching my first class about creativity, so I had a lot of questions for him. We talked about art, of the illusion of time management, and of the frustrations that come from being a creative person in a society that values the final product but not the often long and frustrating creative process. We chatted about how to use the hours in our days, and traded strategies for catching the flow of ideas and juggling the thousand little details of a productive life. We talked about how to divert a trickle into an orderly little revenue stream and the best time to jump right into an idea and swim around for a while. We discussed the thrill of creation and its shadow side, destruction.

Then he was off to dinner with his wife, so we made plans to connect again. As I often do when discussing creativity with other people who create things for a live, I left feeling lighter.


Bruce Howdle in his studio in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

I stopped back to see him before I left town, but the shingle by the front door of the shop said he’d stepped out. No matter. The art world is small and Mineral Point is even smaller. I knew where to find him. As I started writing this story few weeks later, I realized I’d misplaced Bruce’s card, so I searched his name to get the phone number at his studio.

His obituary popped up instead.

He’d died of a heart attack 17 days after our chat. I was stunned.

Our conversation seemed weirdly prophetic, although maybe that’s just my mind looking for meaning after the fact. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the last six years of writing full time, so I know it’s statistically likely that one of them will pass away before a follow up interview. But that knowledge does nothing to dispel my feeling of profound gratitude. I’m glad that I walked deeper into what seemed to be as deserted shop to say hello, grateful that Bruce took the last few minutes of his work day (and then some) to chat and relieved that, despite a curious five-year-old in tow, I was in a mental place where I could properly receive and appreciate what he said.

I’ve needed his words and example a lot this season. Intellectually, I know that creation and destruction are two halves of the same circle, the same cycle. But I’m firmly in the destruction cycle right now and this is terribly hard for my industrious little heart to bear. I’m an artist, yes, but I’m also a Midwestern Protestant who reveres results, activity and a relentless, coffee-fueled work ethic perhaps a wee bit more than is strictly healthy. (It’s normal to be propelled entirely by caffeine and sheer force of will, right? Right?!)


This used to be my motto. 

You might have noticed that I’ve been quiet on this site lately. (Okay honestly, you probably haven’t. It’s fine.) You probably haven’t noticed that the last Prairie Style File post is from almost a year ago. This was definitely not what I intended for 2019.

I was clipping along nicely in late 2018. I’d gotten back from Germany and was happily working on several stories I’m quite proud of for various publications that I respect. I decided to use my increasingly non-existent free time to get ahead on posts for Prairie Style File, since I knew December through March would be very busy. I spent hours writing and photographing the stories I was most excited to tell you about and scheduling them ahead of time so this winter and spring would run like a well-oiled machine.

That didn’t happen. Instead, my website crashed, three back-ups and every thoughtfully considered safeguard failed and a technological quirk wiped out everything I’d written on Prairie Style File. Ever. Six years worth of work just disappeared.

Stunned, I stumbled into the The Arts Partnership’s art market with an armful of books, sat down at my vendor’s table and stared into the middle distance for much longer than is socially acceptable.  I told the artists setting up next to me that my metaphorical studio had basically burned to the ground, with most of everything I’d ever done still in it. I thought I was being quite gallant about it, but their looks of quiet sympathy told me nobody bought that act except for me.

Luckily, that turned out not to be quite true. I’ve since been able to recover shards of about three quarters of the stories I’ve created over the life of this site, which means that I can (albeit with excruciating slowness), piece most things back together again. (Although everything for this year and the majority of 2018 are just irretrievably gone. I won’t lie, that still aches.)

If I could come up with thousands of dollars (ha!) or hundreds of hours for this picky, painstaking work, I could have bounced back quickly. But I don’t have hundreds of hours and I definitely don’t have thousands of dollars, so I have been very quiet here. I’ve struggled mightily to summon the will to create anything new when I cannot even maintain the old. Since I have basically worked overtime for months to get about halfway to where I was a year ago, I’ve been kind of depressed. When you add in my camera breaking, my car being totaled in a hit and run and an irritating winter sickness I can’t seem to shake, it’s been a rough few months. I feel like Sisyphus with multiple stones.

Now when people ask me how I’m doing, I kind of want to hold the notebook shown above up over my face so that I don’t blurt out what I really want to say, which is, “I am frantically working with time I don’t have to get back to where I was and it’s not working!” While honest, that reply is hardly gracious (and definitely not Midwestern, where unless you’re currently amputating your own leg with a pocket knife, the only acceptable answer to this question is “fine”), but it’s better than maniacal laughter or utter despair, which are what I was working with a few weeks ago.

And you know what? That’s life. We can do everything right and sometimes things still go wrong. My circumstances might be unique, but this feeling of frustration certainly isn’t. I’m writing this at a moment when many of  you are battling late season blizzards and floods (sometimes simultaneously). It’s a particularly baffling illustration of life’s frustrations, but also the very thing that helps heartland’s soil replenish itself so it can feed the nation. I’m a farmer’s daughter and I can’t unsee cycles. I know that destruction and creation go hand in hand.  And of course, injuries, heartbreak and loss come for all of us, regardless of how carefully we’ve plotted to avoid running into them.

I’ve been lucky enough to have good friends, family members and colleagues in my orbit who can remind me of this and help me chill the hell out. (In hour-long intervals, at least.) I’ve appreciated hearing other creative people and social media friends be frank about their own struggles, burnout, anxiety and depression. It’s been a huge relief to hear about the dark days instead of staring at the always-sunny highlight reel.

Because the truth is, creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes you work hard and you have to throw it all away. Sometimes you spend a lot of time on something and nothing comes of it at all. Sometimes life is frustrating and infuriating and we just want to lie down on the floor and kick and scream like a toddler, but we don’t. (In public, anyway.) We reach down and pull out a reason to keep going.

And that, my friends, is enough.

How are you doing these days? Really?
What has this winter taught you?
What do you want to see on these pages in future? (I’ve been forced to reorganize everything, so this is the time to tell me what you want!)

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

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