Marg and Stefan Bruggisser
Fri, July 12, 2013 at 19:00
Stephanie Hunt

 Auntie Bea Ballangarry nominates Margaret Bruggisser as the most interesting person she knows and Margaret subsequently nominates her husband, the sculptor Stefan Bruggisser.  After two interviews it strikes me that what is most interesting is their relationship itself - how two very different people are able to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

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Portrait of a Marriage

Marg was a single mother of two when she met Stefan Bruggiser , a sculptor recently arrived in Coffs Harbour with a determination to focus his energies on his art.  Their 30 year relationship has been far from traditional, but it has worked.  "The sum of us was more than they parts," they believe.

Tell me about when you first met.

Marg

I was working with the Arts Council, shepherding patrons into a performance at the Jetty Theatre.  My plan was to go home as soon as the show started, and that would be one less night of babysitting.

Stefan was new in town and someone had invited him along.  We had a sellout and there was no seat for him, but they were trying to let him into a seat at the back.  I was very cross that someone new was getting in when our regulars were missing out.

But then I thought he actually looked quite interesting and I decided to leave the babysitter and wait for a drink afterwards so I could meet him.

Stefan

I hadn’t been in town very long:  I think about 6-months but Margaret says it was only 3.  I was actually living and sculpting in a railway car out near Coramba.  I went along to this performance and suddenly there was this very angry woman chasing after me. 

We actually met afterward at the wine and cheese.  I think I appeared in need of help.  She put words in my mouth, which I didn’t appreciate so I told her I could talk for myself.  But I wanted to see her again.

What did your life look like at the time you first met?

Marg

My marriage had broken down 5 years earlier.  My husband had an affair during my third pregnancy and I had suddenly found 2 toddlers and myself with a 2-week-old baby.  It was more grief than shock – the grief of losing the family unit.   There was anger of course, and trying to enforce anything in the way of support was really difficult.  So it was a tough time. 

I went back to work when my youngest was 3, doing some part time nursing and I also volunteered with the Arts Council.  Eventually when they got some funding I became their first Arts Development Officer.

By the time I met Stefan I had decided that I was never going to meet anyone.  I had worked enough on myself to know that I needed to be happy by myself, which probably made me a bit insular and independent.

Stefan

My life was complicated. 

I had left Switzerland in 1972 to study microbiology and biochemistry in Brisbane.  In fact I was the first student to do a PhD in the pharmaceutical industry.  My goal was a Nobel Prize.

I probably would have gotten there….  I got a job at Sydney University and loved it – felt I could do something important.  But then when I was appointed to Group Leader, a job to which I was never suited, I had a break down.  I just started crying on the Harbour Bridge and couldn’t drive anymore.  After that I quit my job.

I worked in boat building for a while, but it was when I accompanied my then-girlfriend to an art school in Mexico that I discovered sculpture.

I had got my first real paid sculpting job down in the Riverina, working on a sculpture for the new forestry commission building.  I got this great big log and I just cut a hole in it and carved two hands, one an aboriginal hand with long fingers, the other had sausage hands like mine.  It was fabulous.

While I was there I had started writing letters to an old Swiss girlfriend who was living in Brisbane.  I went up there and it took 20 minutes to know that the decision we’d made to stay apart had been the right one.  So I bought myself a pushbike and cycled south.

I got as far as Coffs Harbour and found this land, where we now live, and stopped.  I had no income, but I managed to find space in an unused railway car in Coramba where I could live and work.

How did life change after you met?

Marg

Stefan was a 40-year-old bachelor and he took on three kids.  That was amazing.

We were living in Coffs, in the house from my first marriage.  But Stefan was in the process of buying the land in Coramba when I met him so we decided to put together and change the planned bachelor pad to a home.  We got married with just a shed up here.

Stefan

I was so f*$king determined when I was in the railway carriages.  I just wanted to make a name for myself.  It was survival for me.  You have to make a name for yourself to make a living as an artist.

Marg was concerned that being a father to the kids wouldn’t leave me enough time for my creativity.  But it’s funny because for some reason things started to fall into place.

Once you married, how did you divide the responsibilities?

Stefan

When I discovered sculpture it was like a light switch.  It just felt right.  But I knew that I would struggle to make a living from it.  I tried to make it clear to Marg that I didn’t want to take financial responsibility for the family.  I had always contributed financially in the past.  But it’s a funny thing, having found sculpting I was really scared to go back into a 9 to 5 job.  I just knew I couldn’t do that.  And Marg knew as well and for some reason she was able to accept it. 

I don’t think I was ever using her; my contribution was just of a different kind.

Marg

Well that’s a very male thing isn’t it…. being worried about his contribution.  We agreed from the beginning that if we had the things we wanted, we only needed one income.  He provided the things – he built this house and all the buildings around us – and I’ve provided the more steady income.

What about children?

Marg

I had told Stefan for a long time that he should think about the experience of having his own child.  He said my three were fine.  But then at some stage I thought I was pregnant and he was so excited and then so sorry when it turned out not to be true.  And I thought oh-oh.

I was 39 when we had Alexandra.  My youngest was already 10, and having teenage kids and a baby presents its own problems.  But it was a fantastic experience to have a child with the support of the father.  I think I’ve now got a unique understanding about what it’s like to be a single parent and a supported parent.  I do a lot of work with women, so it’s valuable to see things from both perspectives.

Stefan with one of his sculpturesStefan

I never really wanted kids because I thought there were already far too many people on this earth.  And then it just happened.  And now I think it is actually fundamentally important to be part of your own child.  Even though I enjoy the others just as much, I think your own blood is just a little different. 

What was life like once Alexandra came along?

Stefan

Marg went back to part time work two weeks after the birth and Alexandra was often in the workshop with me while I was working.  When she went to primary school I would walk her at least part of the way.  There was this old water tank and sometimes we would go in and read stories and play the recorder. It was an incredibly valuable time.

I don’t think many other women would have allowed me to do this.  I had no experience, how could I bring up a kid…and yet she gave me this opportunity.

Marg

I was very conscious that having Alexandra around might distract Stefan from what he needed to do.  To be creative he needed space.

Did having a young child conflict with the sculpting?

Stefan

I was determined to go on with my sculpture and when Alexandra was 5 or 6 months old I went to a 2-month sculpture symposium in the Barossa Valley.  I just walked away – the house was by no means finished, there were 4 kids – but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.

I remember it was difficult but Marg accepted that I needed to go…  Sometimes I can’t believe this really happened but it was just so important to me.  And Marg gave me this freedom.

Did you ever resent having to support Stefan’s freedom?

The house that Stef and Marg builtMarg

I didn’t want a caged bird – so there was no resentment.  We both helped one another really.  He gave me a sense of worth.  I grew up in an academic family and always felt like the slow learner.  I never really recognised my own abilities – but Stefan gave me confidence that my ideas were worthwhile.

He supported me when I changed career from nursing to teaching at TAFE.  Later, when I was trying to make sense of my own life, he didn’t question my decision to do my Masters in Social Ecology.  I’d be off in the bush working with kids for a couple of weeks at a time and he would be holding the fort at home. 

I certainly don’t feel that I’ve worked to support his art.  I’ve worked to support our lives… but that’s part of supporting yourself, isn’t it?

Can you describe something that you worked on together?

Marg

The Electricity Commission was going to put a high-voltage power line through our property.  We would have 5 stanchions across our land, one only 25m from Stefan’s workshop.  We were horrified.  Stefan wanted desperately to care for the forest – to put something back for the timber he was using in his work. 

We fought pretty hard and I became the spokesperson for the protest movement that formed.

Stefan

I had the technical know-how, because I have a background in science and engineering, and Marg knew how to talk to people and verbalise our position.

Marg

In the end they compensated us for the spiritual value of the land as an artistic space for Stefan.  We still got the power line, but there were concessions on the environmental and social justice issues that mattered to us.

What about art?  Did you ever work together on art projects?

Marg

We went to Switzerland 10 years after we were married and Stefan won a project in the former East Germany.  The wall had fallen and it was a difficult time of change for the German people.  The pharmaceutical company that commissioned Stefan wanted him to create a sculpture that would “build a bridge” between the scientists and the outside world.

Stefan

I just didn’t know what to do.  I knew they were thinking what does an Australian know about the changes happening in Germany.  I knew that there were 180 scientists who thought totally differently to the person who had ordered the job.  I was scared. 

Marg came in with her social ecology background and screened all the academics.   Suddenly it was no longer me that was making the sculpture but those 180 academics.  It wouldn’t have been possible without her.  She was just phenomenal.

There was a lot of letting go for both of us.  It brought me down from me pedestal.  Before I had felt so alone with my art.

Marg

It was the first time we had worked intensively on a project together.  I think we both saw that I could translate his artistic vision into something grounded.  It was the first time we realised that the sum of us was more than the parts.

 

The sculpture that Stefan built (with Marg's help) in Jena, East Germany

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A Collage of Stefan's Work

 

 

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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