Reclusive artist created images of beauty, humor

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Reclusive artist created images of beauty, humor

If it weren’t for Bob Mizer, Harry Bush’s immense talent – and the bitterness and anger boiling underneath the hand that created stunning images of muscled men – may never have been realized.

Bush – his real name, as he so often needed to remind chuckling fans – broke into the art scene late in life, having worked as an employee at the Pentagon during America’s great ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950s. While “Physique Pictorial” was flourishing, Bush was one of the many faceless, closeted gay men reading it and fantasizing about the men who graced its pages.

It was Mizer who first introduced Bush to his readers, agreeing to publish a drawing by Bush in the mid-1960s. Like Mizer and so many other artists, Bush found that his talent was natural – he had an eye for the human form and was easily able to bring it to life on paper. He had only taken one community college drawing class, and now he was selling his wares to one of the most recognized names in gay publishing.

“Publishing Harry Bush, giving him an outlet through which his work would be seen and appreciated in a mass medium – that was one of the best business decisions that Bob ever made,” says Dennis Bell, founder and president of The Bob Mizer Foundation. “Readers were drawn to the beaming, sculpted, young men who romped in the pages of ‘Physique Pictorial.’ But most readers didn’t know that the playful, cherubic men that Bush drew were created by a man who was harboring a lot of ill will and frustration at the very community that supported him.”

Indeed, Bush was a man of contradictions in just about every way. Male physique collector Bob Mainardi, a friend of Bush who contributed to the coffee table book “Harry Bush: Hard Boys,” noted in his memoir that Bush refused to use a pseudonym in his work, yet lived in constant fear of retribution from his government employer. Most prominently, Bush drew his attractive subjects as forever-joyful, fun-seeking pictures of youth, while Bush himself lived reclusively, having cut himself off from his family and shirking the adoration of friends and fans alike.

He saved his most biting scorn for the gay community, about which he complained bitterly. He saw the men in gay circles as catty, superficial, image-obsessed divas – a scene of which he was happy to never be a part.

Mainardi, in his introduction to the book, offers his insight into the difficulty of becoming a friend to Bush – and, even more importantly, maintaining that friendship.

“In the course of our decade-long friendship, I learned just how unusual it was to remain Harry’s friend since, at one time or another, he had had a falling out with just about everyone he’d ever known,” Mainardi recalls in the book.  

Yes, the smiles of the young men who were born under Bush’s pencil belied an anguish that only a few people knew existed in the heart and mind of their creator. At several times late in his career, Bush even considered burning most of his works.

Mainardi and his partner, Trent Dunphy, saved them from obscurity, convincing Bush to sell his remaining original works to the pair.

The two men were honored by the trust Bush had to place in them at a time in his life when he had been swindled and conned by so many friends before – those who “borrowed” his original works and never returned them, or sold them to unscrupulous dealers. Bush, for all of his curmudgeonly ways, was innocent and trusting to a fault when it came to those he allowed into his world. Mainardi realized this trust engendered to him was a move not to be taken lightly, also acknowledging that Bush’s desire to burn his works was likely an act of self-preservation.

Mainardi and Dunphy received a glimpse into the reclusive Bush’s life when they entered the locked room in his home where he toiled tirelessly on his beaming man-gods – a scene of disarray, the room was littered with discarded sketches, empty soda cans, and a floor covered in a sea of black cigarette ash.

Ultimately, it was the cigarettes that killed Bush, who died of emphysema in 1994. Though his career had started with Mizer, the physique photographer whose fans were numerous and faithful, the stewards of his work were two such fans who began as collectors and finally became friends.

“There will never be another like Harry Bush, and Bob and Trent knew he was special, that his work had to be preserved,” Bell says. “There are no two better people to help keep Harry Bush’s memory alive.”