Q&A With Hillsdale Collegian

1. What got you interested in sculpture? Did anyone at Hillsdale College help guide you to your profession? Do you have any role models in the field?

Anthony Frudakis first introduced me to sculpture. He is one of the last, great teachers of classical figurative sculpture still alive today. Tony’s deep understanding of the craft, and his ability to communicate that understanding to his students is truly rare. I began studying with him while a student at Hillsdale, and since then my life has never been the same.

Certainly Frudakis was an early role model, as was and is Sabin Howard, who I am currently collaborating with. Outside of that, most of my role models have long since past, but I am still able to learn much from the work that these great artists have left behind. For this reason, New York has been a terrific place to live. If I ever have a spare afternoon, one of my favorite things to do in the city is to go sculpture-hunting. This past year I have especially enjoyed and learned a lot from the many public monuments of John Quincy Adams Ward and the few works of Edward McCartan. I also spend a lot of time in front of Carpeaux’s Ugolino at the Met. These, along with the many faces in the New York subway, are rich resources for me.

2. What does your day-to-day life look like?

These days, I work from my home-based studio on the Hudson River in southwest Brooklyn where I have 3-4 different projects going on at once. My wife and I live in a 1300 sq. ft. apartment with our three children, the oldest of which just turned four. As you can imagine, it can be a little crazy at times, but the nice thing is that it allows me to work every spare minute that I can, while also being available when the family needs me.

Most days I wake up well before the sun to take advantage of the quiet in the very-early mornings. Later this spring things will change as I will be joining Sabin Howard on the new WWI memorial for Washington D.C. and will need to divide my time between my own studio and at least 60 hours a week on that project. The most consistent day of the week is Sunday, which I take off to spend with my family and in worship.

3. What are your guiding principles as an artist?

That is a huge question, and probably the most important one. It is something everyone should be asking themselves all the time. Perhaps the best way to answer briefly is to take a thin slice from several different layers.

At the most fundamental level is the idea of purpose. I believe that everyone is here for something, that underneath the daily concerns, hungers, desires, and heartaches lies the fundamental and unavoidable current of purpose. You are personally known, intimately loved and intentionally made. You are here for something bigger than yourself because your purpose is inseparable from your relationship with God and the rest of the world. Whatever your personal purpose, rest assured it is for others.

From this basic sense of calling, everything else follows. I pursue my vocation out of my desire to join with God in the renewal of all things, to see relationship restored with the Father of Lights, to see His Kingdom come, and His will to be done on Earth. Honestly, my part requires more surrender than actual doing. It is about obedience, not ambition. In the end, He alone is telling this story, I simply want to play a good and willing part in it.

Visual art is a way of saying things that there are no words for. It’s not an end in itself, but a lens to look through to see something else more clearly. Seeing beauty is a way to discover truth. Practically speaking, I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from the math and science of the human body, especially where these design elements are consistent with those found elsewhere in nature. I am always fascinated at the way the infinitely creative mind of God chose to order things. I love the patterns and rhythms of His handiwork. There is always more to learn here, always further to dig. An artist never really arrives. He is always learning, always discovering, always expecting a beautiful surprise. Art, as in life, is more about the process of growth, than the arrival of old age. A listening ear, and clear intentionality in the present moment are the two most important qualities to have in any vocation and in every stage of life.

4. I read online that you worked on the Lincoln statue we have at the college. How did you get involved with that?

The story began when I accidentally broke one of Professor Frudakis’s statues. I was a music major on scholarship to sing principle in the College’s first full opera. My older brother was an art major at the college and had done some modelling with Tony for the George Washington statue on campus. At my brother’s prompting, I signed up for the Sculpture 1 course, Portraiture. One evening, as I was working late on a portrait, I somehow backed into a plaster cast of a young girl that was sitting on his desk. I’ll never forget feeling it wobble on the desk behind me and turning to see it falling. Tony was visiting a foundry in New York when it happened, and I had to wait an entire week for him to get back before I could tell him. The first chance I had, I went up to him to confess that I had broken it. Before I had spoken more than few words, he said, “You’re the one who broke my statue.” “Yes, sir. And I will do anything to make it right.” He calmly replied, “Yes, you will. Come to my studio next Saturday and we will begin putting it back together. I remember that feeling,” he said, “I broke one of my father’s statues once.”

I was a freshmen then, and after fixing it with him he told me that I did good work and offered me an apprenticeship. The college gave me a scholarship to get a second major in art and I spent the next six years working with Tony on a number of personal and public sculptures, including the Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson statues on campus. This is where I really learned to sculpt—in an old-fashioned, sculpture atelier with a master.

5. I also read a two part story you wrote for the Collegian about your boating accident. You mentioned that you only survived because God spared your life. Does your faith inform your work as well?

It is everything. I understand more than most that my life is not my own. I am only here because He wants me here. Every breath is His, a gift I don’t deserve but get to enjoy anyway.

6. Are you working on any commissions right now that you'd like to talk about?

I have recently been asked by a private American foundation to sculpt a colossal monument for social liberty to be installed in Paris, France, at one of the sites of the November 2015 terrorist attacks. Called, The Spirit of Liberty, she will continue the discussions that the Ellis Island Statue of Liberty began. On Ellis Island, Liberty is depicted as the Roman goddess Libertas bearing light to the world: a torch and a tabula ansata (tablet of law). Here, she teaches men how to live freely by prescribing written order and governance. This is the first step toward realizing social liberty. My depiction presses in further to explore the step beyond, to examine the nature of Liberty herself, to understand the spirit behind the law fundamentally recognized by selfless love for fellow man and true brotherhood. (Matthew 22:37-40) This compassionate spirit, the guiding motivation behind our law, is the bedrock of a free society. Properly realized, social liberty is the conscientious, responsible exercise of freedom in a way that regards, even prefers, the welfare of others, ensuring liberty for all. The greater a society’s moral code, the more fully it can enjoy freedom.

The Spirit of Liberty will be depicted as a female bronze figure sculpted in the highly-refined classical style, standing on top of a three-sided spire, wrapped in a whirlwind of spiraling fabric that spinnakers passionately around her, evoking a sense of otherworldliness while offering her full modesty. Shaped like a ray of light, the three sides of the pedestal she stands on represent France’s tripartite motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité. Each side is angled inward with unified purpose pointing toward Liberty’s triumphant, uplifted hand, which points to Truth itself. The motion of the figure is powerfully upward and forward in ascension, free of constraint. As she rises above all adversity, her gaze is directed over her shoulder where she reaches back with the other hand to the viewers beneath, compassionately beckoning them to follow. She is a comfort to all who have fallen in her name, and a call to all who live. She is a symbol of true compassion, undeviating light, and immovable wisdom. She is a vigilant beacon of friendship between free countries, and an icon that will become synonymous with Liberty’s victory over terror and her invitation to all people to be free.

7. What are your hopes for the future?

That my life will be useful to encourage the Kingdom of God on earth. That a thousand years from now, long after this artist has been forgotten, a work of his will still inspire the children of God to love bigger, and live better.

Brandon Irish1 Comment