Philly’s own ‘grapewood’ artisan sells unlikely creations

hunter bruin works on a basket near Fairmount Park.
Hunter Bruin, a local artisan who makes elaborate creations from dried vines he collects from the woods, at work on a basket near Fairmount Park. Credit: Charles Mostoller

Across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of masterpieces, a very different kind of art is being peddled by an itinerant craftsman.

Hunter Bruin, 54, made his first piece by threading grape vines together when he was 20 years old. It’s been his main job ever since, he said.

“My philosophy of what I’m doing is I want to make something useful, that people will use,” Bruin said. “Being an artist is so political, like selling yourself. With crafts it wouldn’t be about you, or your name. A person can see the integrity of the thing you made just by looking at it.”

Like a modern-day Hokusai refining his craft, Bruin has spent most of the past 34 years making wreaths and baskets for sale to flower shops or other small businesses. But now the pieces he hangs on the side of his truck include birch-bark masks, animals including dolphins, and hearts.

Some of his newer pieces include a cozy chair of woven grape-vine, and a life-size dog piece.

In the near future, he plans to create larger and larger animals, he said.

What sets Bruin’s work apart from typical woven-wood artisans, who mostly use oak to create wicker items, is that they use smooth, uniform strands of wicker. Bruin exclusively works with grape vines, which are considered an invasive plant that park lovers have thanked him for clearing in the past.

As grape vine hardens, it becomes stiff and solid – what Bruin calls “grapewood.”

“Grape is the woodiest of vines,” Bruin said. “It’s useful, plentiful and strong, and it grows in these little areas between houses, where there aren’t many trees.”

Native American used the same material on the outside of bows, with hickory or ash on the inside, Bruin said.

“It’s almost like the Indian plastic,” he said.

Bruin, who lives in North Philly, has been in Philadelphia for five years. He has previously lived in 15 states and Canada, but grew up in New Jersey.

He typically sets out his wares on Pennsylvania Avenue near Fairmount and the Art Museum and waits for customers to come along as he weaves together the latest of his grapewood creations.

“I like to find things that people actually respond to,” Bruin said. “And then, when they buy it, it tells me I need to make another one.”

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