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Obituary: John Bruce Douglas, 1938-2022

A spirit of activism infused this prolific artist's films and photographs

Published January 28, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated July 19, 2022 at 4:05 p.m.

John Bruce Douglas - COURTESY
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  • John Bruce Douglas
We have lost a lion of a man who is dearly beloved and grieved by a large circle of family and devoted friends. John Bruce Douglas peacefully departed this Earth on January 25, 2022, at the age of 83. He was attended by a caring team at the University of Vermont Medical Center and freed from the pain of cancer.

John was a prolific and engaged artist whose work was deeply informed by current events and their contributing forces. Viewers were both amused and awed by his art. He did not make art with a capital A. He believed art should carry a message. The spirit of activism infused his work, and he spoke his truth fearlessly.

John’s films and photographs were challenging and irreverent. In the 2000s, he developed a series of images called “Homeland Security” in which naked, vulnerable white men brandished automatic weapons in absurd scenarios. He layered multiple images of himself as an embodiment of ruling-class arrogance.

He also captured nature’s silent spectacles: broad sunsets, delicate flowers, birds and patterns of lake ice. “He was such a magnificent person,” wrote a friend. “So complex and so simple all at once.”

John was born on July 13, 1938, in Lake Forest, Ill. He attended Harvard University for a year, then dropped out to work as an artist in Boston. He was subsequently drafted into the U.S. Army, where his awareness of racial inequities in this country was awakened. John formed fierce sympathies and allegiances with people fighting for equal rights. He held his government accountable for every injustice.

John's moviemaking began in 1967 with Strike City, a film codirected with Tom Griffin, about plantation workers in Mississippi who had been thrown off the land for demanding a $5 hourly wage. That same year, John became a founding member of Newsreel, a filmmaking collective initially focused on ending the war in Vietnam. He contributed his cinematic genius and his resources; he made a lasting gift of an Arri SR motion picture camera, which is used to this day by Third World Newsreel, an offshoot of the original organization.

One successful filmmaker credits her career to John’s encouragement and to his gift. “I realized that, without this camera, Third World Newsreel would not survive,” she said. “He made history.”

Throughout the 1960s, John worked on films about draft resistance, communes and the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1969, he traveled to Hanoi, North Vietnam, with a delegation that was to take custody of U.S. prisoners of war. There they were invited to make a film with their North Vietnamese hosts, who were struggling to liberate their homeland from Western occupation.

Perhaps John’s masterpiece was Milestones, a three-and-a-half-hour film he codirected with Robert Kramer about post-Vietnam War activists who explore the U.S. while beginning to rebuild their lives. In 1975, Milestones won the Critics’ Choice at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1971, John and Robin Worn had a son, Leaf Worn. John became a devoted father, deeply engaged in his son’s life. Leaf remembers him as willing to uplift family and friends through any challenges with his hugely generous heart.

John moved to Charlotte, Vt., in 1981 and settled by Lake Champlain. He built a cabin, then a house, and moored his boat. He began to explore digital animation when it first became accessible and made short pieces that challenged the limits of the technology. Eventually, he crafted masterful, lengthier cinematic pieces. In addition to making his own work, John helped many a filmmaker, providing equipment, footage or keen editorial suggestions. In 1983, he filmed and codirected Grenada: The Future Coming Towards Us, which documents the new Grenadian democracy under Maurice Bishop, before the U.S. invasion.

In 1984, with Marianne Willtorp, John had a beloved daughter, Maya Douglas. Awaiting her birth in Sweden, he discovered long-blade ice skates that he later used to explore the frozen lake at home. “His fascination with nature,” said Maya, “and his commitment to social justice helped lay the tracks for my whole life.”

John lived simply and loved completely. A bit outrageous and certainly irreverent, he gave his friends permission to be themselves. His door was wide open, and friends flocked to his cabin. He shared meals and outings, cruising around rivers and lakes. Each New Year, John hosted a large bonfire, and each summer he held a big birthday celebration.

Whatever the season, John wore black pants, a cotton T-shirt, flip-flops with socks and his hair in a long blond ponytail. Eventually his hair turned white, but his deep, resonant voice remained strong.

For 31 years, John was the life partner of Bobbie Lanahan, the great love of his life. John also warmly embraced a host of family members — not only his own children but also Bobbie’s children, Nathan, Zach and Blake Hazard; and granddaughters, Chloe and Ella Hazard.

John continued to make and publicly exhibit his stunning artworks, slowing his pace only when the cancer demanded it. He sought treatment close to home, but, in his intrepid fashion, entered a clinical drug trial at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and ferried to and from Boston with Bobbie. On Tuesday, January 25, John suffered a stroke that hastened his departure, holding on just long enough to hear the loving goodbyes of his family.

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