Bruce Cody | Keeping the Past Present


By Gussie Fauntleroy

Bruce Cody has a semi-serious theory about what type of people will grow up to become artists: poster contest winners. Young losers of poster drawing contests may have talent as well, but without encouragement early on, he says, they often don’t stick with it.

Cody was a city-wide poster contest winner as a small boy in Casper, WY. After winning one contest he clutched his $5 cash prize and thought, “I could make a living with art!” Throughout childhood, he adds, his artistic notoriety led to opportunities to hone his skills. The nuns at his school, for example, “took advantage” of the poster kids, always calling on them to make classroom displays and decorate bulletin boards. As a result Cody spent a lot of school time on art. “It retarded my academic career,” he jokes.

The effects don’t seem to have been disastrous. While he may have missed an unheard calling as a scientist or mathematician, Cody went on to spend many years in academia, teaching art at several universities. In 1983 he left teaching and settled in Denver to concentrate on his art, and nine years later he moved to Santa Fe. With his wife, Charlene, Cody opened the Charlene Cody Gallery, which represents a strong selection of prominent and emerging realist painters, including Peter Holbrook, David Foley, Stephen Day, and Robert Jackson. Cody’s own highly regarded work is in dozens of public, corporate, and private collections around the United States.

Cody currently divides his time between painting and helping run the gallery. While the arrangement leaves less time to paint, it also gives him more of a chance to think about what he wants to paint, which ends up making his studio time more efficient, he says. In the past he may have spent hours driving around in search of a subject; now he has a storehouse of ideas waiting to be realized.

GAS, CAFÉ, MO, OIL 24 X 44.
GAS, CAFÉ, MO, OIL 24 X 44.

In his cozy basement studio at the gallery, Cody offers me the only chair and then sits on a low crate, his tweed jacket and comfortable manner giving him a slightly professorial look. Surrounding us are some of his sources of inspiration. They are snapshots and paintings of the subjects that have held his attention for years: small-town filling stations with round-top gas pumps and 1950s-era cars and trucks; hand-lettered signs on sturdy brick and frame buildings; long shadows on empty street corners in the slanting evening sun.

There is a strong sense of comfortable familiarity in these images, even if we don’t know exactly where the places lie on a map. Cody says with a laugh that viewers often—mistakenly—feel absolutely certain they recognize locations depicted in his paintings. For Americans who grew up in the years shortly after World War II, especially in small towns and rural areas, these places are synonymous with youth. They document an important part of the past that will never again be as it was.

Many of Cody’s paintings are notable for their absence of people. Especially combined with the artist’s favorite lighting conditions—long shadows and rich sunset colors—the result is a sense of silence and twilight magic, as if the viewer has walked in on a moment frozen in time. “I don’t consider them nostalgic, but I guess it is nostalgia for a lot of viewers because what they see is a cleaned-up environment like the one they grew up in,” Cody muses. “I think what everybody likes about them is that these were wonderful places, and in a certain sense they were little oases of refreshment and entertainment. People look at them and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s when things were really fun.’”


Cody has his own connection with ’50s cars and hand-lettered signs. His father, a talented portrait painter in San Francisco, gave up portraiture in the 1940s to return with his family to his home state of Wyoming. There he opened a sign-painting shop—producing the first neon signs in Wyoming—where his son spent many hours painting background colors on plywood panels. Among Cody’s own paintings, one of his favorites is Two O’Clock Matinee, which depicts the Rialto Theater in Casper. The artist has vivid memories of re-painting the background panels on the theater’s large neon sign.

As a teen, he and a couple of other former “poster children” studied painting in night classes taught by the studio assistant of renowned New York illustrator Ben Stahl. With an early entrepreneurial drive, Cody also taught himself to paint pinstripes on cars and used the earnings from that work to buy art supplies and, later, to pay for part of his college tuition. Finally, when he was a high school junior, his father allowed him to begin doing lettering and learning the finer aspects of sign work, such as gold-leaf lettering on windows.

In sign painting, the artist points out, “There’s a sense of proportion, balance, and color, and to a great extent, control and accuracy. Which is probably also why I’m a realist painter, because there’s a precision to sign painting that lends itself to realism and is totally contrary to abstract painting.”

As an art student in the 1960s at the University of Wyoming, however, Cody felt constrained to paint in an abstract expressionist style. Art-school philosophy at the time insisted realism was passé. Yet even while this experience felt contrary to his natural inclination, Cody now sees in his work the lasting influence of abstraction. For instance, as with much abstract art, his paintings tend to contain multiple focal points, rather than a single center of interest. He likes it that way. He gestures toward a large cityscape painting encompassing several streets and prominent buildings.


“What I do is very contrary to what most artists would consider proper painting,” he explains. “But in life there’s not just one focal point. We don’t see just one thing that’s interesting; our eyes dart around. I had an artist stand here and say, ‘Well, shoot! You could make 10 paintings out of this and it would be better than one.’ But one point of interest is not more important than the others. It’s the interplay between them.”

With the human figure absent from most of his work, Cody also allows the viewer to “wander” more freely through the painting. Any figure in the image would immediately create a focal point and would suggest a narrative. Instead, he says, “You, as the viewer, are the person in the painting. When you look at it you take in the totality first, and then you ‘walk’ to someplace in the image. You’re on that loading dock, or you’re in that doorway.”

Early in his career Cody moved through periods of interest in lithography and etching, and for a time he worked in watercolors and acrylics as well. But he returned to oils in the mid-1970s, joining other Colorado painters on plein-air outings and frequently painting on location during a year-long sabbatical in London. In Europe he spent hours viewing masterpieces in museums, an experience that reinforced his belief in the critical importance of understanding art history.

Even with landscapes, however, he always found himself incorporating some element of manmade structure—even if it was only a fragment of a road sign at the edge of the painting. During 13 years in Fort Collins, CO, and later in Denver, he frequently painted cityscapes, often with buildings reflected in mirroring windows. In the past few years, the artist’s interest has returned to small town and roadside icons from an earlier era, including the quintessential symbol of mobile America, Route 66. Today he carries a disposable camera in his car wherever he goes. On a recent trip to Dallas, for example, he stopped frequently to take pictures of structures that may not be there much longer: abandoned cafés, gas stations, motels, and barber shops.


“I’ve taken out all the traffic, but everything I paint still actually exists,” he says. “The buildings are still there, and there is a certain spirit that’s still there. You know how you can walk into a place and feel someone’s presence? I can see a gas station and feel the presence of what was there in an earlier time.”

Cody is represented by Charlene Cody Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in February 2003