Princeton’s Stealth Public Artist Moves to Gallery Walls

David Bush

David Bush

In the ceramic studio at the Hun School of Princeton, students flow in and out to view what has come out of the kiln. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” the bespectacled fine arts teacher, David Bush, says. “Don’t listen to the teacher.”

Stashed here and there are elements of his signature works—blue bottles. Through an open doorway one can see, atop a concrete wall that hides a dumpster, odd configurations of ceramic heads, as if serving as sentries. Bush, 65, indicates a spot past a grassy area where students are invited to throw ceramic projects they have chosen to part with.

Known for his outdoor installations, put up covertly in the night, of shoe pairs nailed onto telephone poles along roads and by-ways of Princeton, and, more recently, sculptures of blue bottles on fences and bridges in the surrounding countryside, Bush can be somewhat elusive about his past. “I’m website free,” he boasts, which is largely true except for his faculty bio on the Hun School site.

His paintings of abstracted landscapes—known as the “Rosie” paintings, made in homage to his young daughter 20 years ago—are on view in Objects Re-arranged at Art Times Two Gallery at the Princeton Brain and Spine Institute through October, along with work by Charles McVicker, Madelaine Shellaby and Ellie Wyeth. His exuberance for color and texture goes beyond the borders and onto the frames—just as his life does. An installation, “Shelf of Ceramics (replica),” groups distorted vessels and platters with references to the figure and animals. Looking like something that just came out of the oven, the pieces are more sculptural than functional.

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Bush has veered in and out of art throughout his life. After Princeton High School, he attended the University of Wisconsin on a diver scholarship, leaving after three years to travel the world. “My diving coaches always knew I was a rebel, an iconoclast. That’s the nature of creativity, you’re supposed to experiment. I wasn’t Manet of diving but I invented new ways and they didn’t like it.” Bush competed in the 1972 Olympics.

Ultimately returning to school at Rutgers, he discovered an interest in art. From his years in sports, “I recognized practice and how it differs from what you manifest, which is style and invention. Art is so much broader than a specific discipline you practice over and over. It was the first time school became interesting to me.”

When the teacher set up a still life and everyone groaned, “I didn’t see it as such a nasty thing. I was innocent of the disdain learned as an art student. I didn’t get that it was drudgery, I was learning how to paint and it was fun.”

With a bachelor’s degree in art, he went to work in the industry his father and grandfather worked in: Perfume. “I paid attention the nose, which few people do. I learned I had a nose.” During the years of “wearing a suit,” he noticed a pair of shoes on the side of the road. “They kept being there, a landmark, and when they were gone I felt their absence.”

The artist in him took over in the late 1970s. Living in Dutch Neck, amid abandoned farms and barns, he picked up detritus such as boards and Milk of Magnesia bottles, arranging the glassware on derelict barn windows, calling it his Blue Bottle Museum. “I loved the blue.” From there he began his anonymous public art projects, nailing shoes and other objects on boards and then to telephone poles where commuters would stop and see them. “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me, I’m not interested in being a promoter of myself. That’s the beauty of it—what it is is what it is.”

Like an uninvited artist-in-residence, “I carved out a space in the basement of the Arts Council (of Princeton), near the boiler room. It was before they had rules and regulations and made the basement all nice and tidy.” To support himself and his frequent forays around the world, Bush coached diving at the Peddie School. Along the way he married, had children, and took a job working with his brother selling plastic commodities from Taiwan. That lasted for two years before painting began calling again.

After teaching at the Peddie School and Princeton Friends, he joined the faculty at Hun in 1994, where he chairs the art department. When the ceramics teacher left, he switched from painting to making pots. “After a while, you don’t have a place to put the paintings anymore,” he said. And the pots? “It’s the age-old problem—what to do with what you make. But there is satisfaction in creating things—it’s a tricky business, you have to trick yourself to go on.”

Teaching became a form of artistic expression. “I am satisfied knowing I’m creative as a teacher, introducing kids to creativity. With ceramics, as with photography, there’s no stigma of ‘I can’t draw’—it’s accessible to everyone.”

Bush laments that few people—adults as well as children—make things anymore. “That internal recognition that they are part of making something is disappearing. We used to fix things, but can’t anymore because it’s too complicated. When crayons left our fingers and we learned to write, we’ve been trying to name things. When kids draw something, adults immediately ask ‘What is that?’ so kids learn to make recognizable things, and that’s OK, but the other gets lost. The language of art doesn’t have to be literal.”

Someday, he adds, “maybe when they approach things with no meaning they’ll understand it’s up to them to figure it out—and that’s a pretty great thing.”

The blue bottle sculptures started in the early 2000s, based on the African tradition of the bottle tree adapted in the U.S. South to ward off evil spirits. He planted a number of the sculptures in scenic locations until he found that what used to be a specialty item was becoming ubiquitous, manufactured for iced tea, water and wine. When a restaurant opened in Hopewell with the name Blue Bottle Café, “That killed it for me. I didn’t want to be an advertiser for them.”

But he admits an occasional thrill when someone makes the discovery: “Oh my god, you’re the guy…”

Art Times Two Gallery, Princeton Brain and Spine Institute, 731 Alexander Road, Princeton. By appointment, through October: 609.921.9001


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.


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