More than 70 years ago, a young soldier was separated from his sweetheart by an ocean and World War II. He imagined the two of them gazing at the same constellations from different hemispheres, and wrote her the following lines:
”What are you doing tonight? How about a date? I’ve rented a moon, a beautiful night, a sky full of stars just for the two of us.”
Those charming words have been copied on to a sheet of paper by the Baltimore artist Peter Bruun. Above them, Bruun created a watercolor sketch of blue and black and dark purple lines that loop and swirl and are exuberantly entangled. The result is just one of an array of romantic, poignant — and sometimes heartbreaking — artworks on view in “Beyond Beautiful: One Thousand Love Letters.”
Because of its size, about 650 letters (roughly 250 aren’t on view, and Bruun expects to complete the final 100 later this year) are spread between two Baltimore galleries, Maryland Art Place and Area 405. The letters are organized into eight themes: family, poetic expressions of love, romantic love, letters written to deceased loved ones, self-love, letters about the barriers to love, letters to folks struggling with addiction and a miscellaneous category. The exhibits are free and Bruun also has organized a no-cost, public event tied to each theme.
“For many years I have been using art as a community building tool and as a way of bringing people together around issues and ideas,” said the 55-year-old artist, who divides his time between Baltimore and Maine. “Ultimately, this project is about healing.”
Bruun is founder of the Baltimore-based New Day Campaign, which mounts public art projects that tackle the stigmas surrounding mental illness and substance abuse, but this show is unrelated to that organization.
“I have two letters to drug courts,” Bruun said, “because the courts provided a structure that allowed the writers to get out of their bad way of thinking.”
The artworks are quirky, idiosyncratic, surprising. There’s a letter from a sexual assault victim to the long-dead grandfather who abused her. There are love letters to social service organizations, to spiritual entities and even to branches of government.
“I do believe, my dear man,” one letter reads, “if you were a country, I would display your flag high and sing your anthem with pride!”
There are letters from children (“thank you for getting me shoes and hats”) and Bruun’s research produced previously published letters from such famous folks as first lady Abigail Adams, anthropologist Margaret Mead and the artist Frida Kahlo, who wrote: “The hollow of your armpits is my shelter.”
Amy Cavanaugh, executive director of Maryland Art Place, said she didn’t have to think twice when she was approached about becoming the lead host venue for Bruun’s project.
Immersing herself in the artworks was for her like walking into a shaft of sunlight in a dark room.
Cavanaugh, the mother of an 8-year-old son, is going through a divorce after 18 years of marriage. She said the letters and drawings perfectly captured the mix of emotions she’s been experiencing.“I thought about how many other women are in their 40s and are the parents of young children and are dealing with divorce and still feeling love for their exes,” she said.
“Everyone has had a personal experience that will resonate with this show.”Cavanaugh said Bruun’s deceptively simple abstract drawings don’t merely illustrate the content of the letters — they enhance them.
“His lines really do speak to the narrative in the letters,” she said. “It’s pretty much a miracle.”
Though many letters refer to tragedies, nearly all are honeycombed with tenderness. Viewers may come away feeling calmer and more peaceful. That’s no accident; the exhibit represents the artist’s attempt to heal himself after the death of his eldest daughter, who died at age 24 from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. The show contain three letters written to Elisif Bruun by her father, including one composed during a period when he was temporarily caring for the pet she named “Ludacat.”
“I love your cat,” Bruun wrote, “silent, mysterious, furtive, loving, vulnerable, dangerous.”
As her father describes her, the beautiful Maine Coon’s personality was similar to his owner’s.
“Elisif was magnetic,” Peter Bruun said. “She didn’t care what anyone thought. Her hair was always changing color. She’d wear caution tape from construction sites.”
The phone call that Bruun received in 2014 telling him that Elisif had died flung the artist into the emotional equivalent of outer space.
“When something like that happens the old rules no longer apply,” Bruun said. “You give yourself permission to do things you never would have done before. My relationships transformed and became somewhat unconventional.”
For example, he became chastely obsessed with a young prostitute who reminded him of Elisif, and allowed her to live temporarily in his home.
That period was exhilarating, Bruun said, but also bewildering.
“I found myself three years later needing a ballast in this confusing ride,” he said. “I literally woke up one morning and thought, ‘I’m going to create a thousand drawings inspired by love letters.’ With this project, I could explore all the different ways that love manifests itself. I could use it to almost normalize my experience.”
He began soliciting love letters in 2017, first from friends and family members and then from participants in art workshops he conducted for youth development and drug programs. Bruun put out an online call for submissions through the Bruun Studios newsletter he founded, and Maryland Art Place also made an appeal on Twitter.
Most of the letter writers live in Maryland, but Bruun said he has received notes or emails from as far away as California, Arizona and Canada.
It’s probably a good sign, he thinks, that he’s starting to look forward to finishing his thousandth drawing and wrapping up the project. It’s an indication that “Beyond Beautiful” has served its purpose and that he’s ready to move on.
“This project has carried me through two confusing years,” he said, “and it has allowed me to understand that there is no normal in love.”
The project also has solidified Bruun’s connection to his eldest daughter. The interview for this article was conducted on Monday, the fifth anniversary of Elisif’s death.
“I did a Facebook post today ,” Bruun said, and then spread his arms to gesture around the room. “I spoke of her being in the air all around me. Five years later, she is still here.”