Surrounded by slabs of wood and dust, Bob Bruu shows off what, from even a short distance, looks like an ordinary sports cap. Looking closer reveals immaculate shading that follows the bends and folds in the lid of the cap and texture that mimics the jagged fabric surrounding the sports team logo — all sculpted out of a block of wood.
He crafts the lifelike sports caps in a 100-year-old barn that sits behind his house in historic downtown McKinney. It has become his work sanctuary for the past five months after retiring from the corporate word and becoming a full-time wood artist. He's in the process of remodeling his barn since it's where he spends his time crafting wood for art galleries and clients.
His retiree status means he has the 40 to 200 plus hours needed to create his realistic wooden hats, shirts and shoes. So far, he’s completed about 30 total wood projects, some of which have made their way into two galleries. He’s currently doing work for a national art consultant group, but also accepting commissions, lining up art shows and securing partnerships.
“I've just always wanted to see where I could take [woodworking] — if anywhere,” Bruu says.
Growing up in Queens, Bruu had a pen, pencil or crayon in hand at any given moment. He loved to draw. And art was practically coded into his DNA — he's the son of an artist and the grandson of a draftsman. Even if he hadn’t realized it at the time, art is a part of Bruu’s soul. Art acted as his “savior” and gave him a “place to hide and drift away” from the downs of life.
His grandfather owned a fence company in Hampton Bays, New York, where Bruu became acquainted with wood as an artistic canvas for the first time. Bruu’s grandfather’s business meant he had many leftover wood scraps in his workspace, which he repurposed through his grandkids.
“He'd gather us together, and he said, ‘I want you to go make something,’” Bruu recalls his grandfather telling the grandkids. “And so we would just build a door, we would build a fence, we would build a box, we would build a ramp so we can jump off stuff.”
When Bruu was 12, his family moved to California after his step-dad became an actor. As he went through high school, he became passionate about sports and put art on the backburner. And upon graduation, he put his career first, instead opting to join the corporate world.
“[My grandpa] always asked me as I was growing up, ‘What am I going to do? ‘Are you going to be an artist? Go to art school?’’ he says. “I said, ‘Nah, gramps. That's not my thing.’”
He started in the telecom industry before moving into software security. And throughout that, he got married, had kids and bought a house. The realities of adult life caused him to lose contact with art, his long-lost friend.
An Unexpected Love
Bruu was a lifelong artist in his early 20s stuck in the corporate world in the 1980s when duck decoys became all the rage. While many either decorated their homes with the ducks or laughed off the fad, Bruu found himself mesmerized by them. But it wasn’t the subject matter that intrigued him — it was the use of detail that made them look so realistic.
While visiting Saratoga, California, in the mid-80s, he went to a local duck decoy show, where he met a group of woodcarvers. After flooding them with questions, one of the men invited him to meet them at a local high school, where they would teach him how to carve.
A week later, Bruu showed up at the high school and couldn’t wait to get started. He expected the group of about 20-30 woodcarvers to give him detailed instructions on carving. Instead, they pointed at a block of wood and a small carved bear on the table and told him to carve the wood block until it looks like a bear. "Don't pull the knife towards you," one of the woodcarvers added. "Pull the knife away from you."
"That was it," Bruu says. "That was my instruction."
But Bruu wasn’t deterred. He sat down and carved for two hours until he turned that block of wood into a bear. He still has the bear to this day — a reminder of the passion he found and lost many times over the years, but eventually found and fell in love with again. And this time for good.
“I haven't touched [the bear] since that night,” Bruu says.
After his experience carving that wooden bear, Bruu became “hooked” on wood carving. He started carving ducks and birds whenever he could find time away from the corporate world where he was chasing title after title. Then, he visited an art gallery in Aspen, Colorado, and decided to try his hand at something other than bears, birds and ducks.
The gallery showcased hats and quilts made entirely of wood. He was struck by the realism of the art. The textures, colors and shadows reminded him of what he had originally loved about carving duck decoys. “It was spectacular,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Well, I can never do the quilts, but the hat I can try.’”
On his way home, Bruu picked up some wood and tools. Within a week, he carved his first hat out of wood, followed by another one, then another one, and another one.
He sent his carved hats to the gallery owner in Aspen. He asked for feedback on his work and wanted to find out how far away he was from matching the perfection of the hats and quilts he saw when he visited the gallery. "‘You'll be the cheaper version of Frazier, which was the artist,” he says. “And I said, ‘I'm in.’”
With that, Bruu got into his first gallery. About six months later, he sold his first art piece and then about half the art he sent to the gallery.
The art dealer wanted more, but Bruu got "wrapped up in his career." He pulled out of the gallery, and he and his art grew apart — again.
Bruu gently sets down the wooden ball cap on the desk. He spent hours crafting it into a life-like image. He slowly makes his way out of the barn, and then looks back at the beautiful mess of wood scraps and shavings. He's five months into a new phase of his life since he retired from the corporate world after 32 years.
He started working as a full-time wood artist almost immediately after retiring and began restoring the barn about the same time. He plans to make the downstairs his workshop and gallery space and the upstairs will become a loft for his family.
About five years ago, he and his wife Shannon bought the home and barn. They traced the barn’s origins back to 1902 — way before they came to McKinney from California in the 1990s. Bruu is restoring the barn, essentially, by himself. He had a contractor come in to do “some of the major work,” but the inside has been up to him.
While still a work-in-progress, it is clear that the barn symbolizes something much more to Bruu — the revival of something he loves.
“When somebody walks by my art and says, ‘Oh, that's nice that you have a couple of hats there, but I don't understand it,’" he says. "But then they look a little closer and go, ‘Oh, that's wood’ and say, ‘Oh my God,’ and they tap on it. That's the kind of reaction that I go for, and that's what keeps me interested in it.”