Born Detroit, 1996 / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
Clay sculptor Austen Brantley is unmistakably young—in his years and in his practice.
This is not a conversation Brantley likes to have. He knows, however, it’s where many people start when they talk about his artworks, primarily figurative. To ignore the obvious would be to miss part of the wonder of his work. There’s also this: he’s completely self-taught.
Of course, Brantley’s actual body of work contradicts much of what his youth and lack of formal training imply. His command of craft is evidenced in the lifelike quality of his sculptures. The eyes, the shapes, speak to a nuanced understanding of the human form as a language all its own, and to a disciplined commitment to learning by doing. Yet for those who must know, Brantley is 22. He’s only been making work since age 16 and only because he thought a ceramics class would equal an effortless A for his plunging high school GPA. The A eluded him (he earned a C) but a life’s passion emerged.
While classmates were learning to pinch pots, the soft-spoken Brantley lost — and found— himself in the clay’s limitless possibilities, creating eyes, noses, full faces; everything except the required assignments. When he couldn’t afford art school, he turned to community ceramics studios and visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts as his teachers. At the DIA, he was instantly drawn to work by African-American figurative sculptors Augusta Savage and Richmond Barthe. To this day, Brantley continues to find inspiration and “soul” in their work.
Brantley’s search for inspiration is part of a mission to be prolific. He’s too restless to offer an exact count, but estimates he’s made more than 500 finished cast objects, for commissions, art shows and the sheer delight of making. Dozens of uncast faces and forms line the windows and dust-covered tables of the Royal Oak warehouse where he works and lives. For every study form, Brantley is surrounded by dozens more highly detailed finished works, such as the serene, soulful Something Pure (2016). Each sculpture takes shape first, he says, in his imagination and is unlikely to be duplicated since he does not create molds for his artworks. “I have enough energy to make a thousand pieces,’’ he explains during a recent studio visit.
“I don’t know that that will be the case forever. But right now I really like the process of making work, the fact that each piece is literally coming from me. I’m not hiring a foundry on the other side of the world to patina my pieces, to cast them. I’m making them from scratch, from nothing.’’
It’s an equally apt metaphor for Brantley’s life. For his most well known body of work, an ongoing series entitled “Cocoon” (2013, 2014 and 2017), artist turns muse. The series features a collection of expressive ebony-colored clay figures wrapped in strips of stark white linen. Viewers of the sculptures are practically dared not to feel the weight of struggling toward, and ultimately finding, individual freedom. “That’s pretty much me battling,’’ he says. “Before I was doing art I was in this cocoon. I was just walking around every day, no purpose for my life, nothing that I really liked, just scared. I think everyone has some kind of personal bondage that they’re trying to break free from. ’’
The series continues to be both a personal study and a point of achievement. One particular work, Cocoon Unleashed (2014) was featured in the DIA’s “30 Americans” exhibition (2015). The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago recently selected two sculptures, Cocoon Wraps of Social Etiquette (2017) and Drea (2017), for its juried exhibit “Black Creativity” (2018). (The annual show is hailed as America’s oldest exhibition of African American art.) Cocoon Unleashed, which displays Brantley’s fascination with blending classical and African influences, was surely a defining factor in his selection as Kresge Arts in Detroit’s 2017 Gilda Award winner for visual arts. The award honors young artists “pushing the boundaries of their chosen art form.’’
The work that may prove more defining for Brantley lives, for now, tacked to a wooden beam, in the center of his studio. It’s a lone sketch, black and white, of a woman, a towering figure, with heels in hand, walking boldly forward. The woman is Viola Liuzzo, the white Civil Rights activist who drove to Selma in 1965 to help African-Americans register to vote. For her defiance, the mother of five was shot and killed. In Brantley’s hands, she’ll be forever remembered in bronze—a first for him.
His untitled vision of Liuzzo will be the eventual centerpiece of a Detroit park named in her honor, on the city’s west side. Brantley keeps the sketch hung high to mirror the significance he sees in its creation. “I have her feet stepping on a KKK hood,’’ he says, “I see her as someone who walked past hatred, past fear. She made her life big.’’
Nichole M. Christian, February 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018