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Ohio based sculptor Brinsley Tyrrell has a gorgeous show at the William Busta Gallery in Cleveland running from November 18 through December 31. Hanging in Busta’s central space, Ohio Land’s Forever consists of eighteen rich and robust glass enamel on steel pictures which I referred to as paintings before Mr. Tyrrell corrected me…He is clear in identifying them as objects. Whatever they are, they are stunning snapshots of Ohio landscapes as filtered through the lens of Mr. Tyrrell.
Most Clevelander’s have likely come across Brinsley’s work; He is a Professor Emeritus at Kent State University and his resume is thick with public projects and commissions in Northeastern Ohio. The iron tree guards on Coventry (Coventry Tales, 2003) were created by Mr. Tyrrell in collaboration with Steve Jordon as well as the Butterfly Gate, Fly Gate, and Praying Mantis Gate (1999) at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. I first became acquainted with his work in Kent where his automobile sized sandstone carving of a brain stands sentry over a small plaza on campus.
I recently paid a visit to Mr. Tyrrell’s home and studio. In a field at the back of his barn/studio in rural Freedom Ohio, behind the chicken coop and newly constructed wood kiln, there was a thousands deep flock of starlings swirling around the late fall sky; dropping into a freshly harvested corn field and then back into the air. It was a gorgeous view, even without the birds. Charged full with the magic variety of static electricity with them. These enamels go a great distance towards emanating this same static, about as far as is possible in many cases. They are the work of an artist who has absorbed many seasons in this environment and put down for us to see, not so much a faithful rendering of the landscape itself, but an illustration of a relationship formed with it.
A native of Godstone, England, Mr. Tyrrell was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2011.
He was kind enough to speak with me about his work and teaching this past November.
AMS: Can you tell me a bit about the pictures in Ohio Land’s Forever?
Brinsley: Well, they are all coming from the landscape around the house… really from my feelings about the landscape, more than anything.
AMS: How do you know they are finished?
Brinsley: Well, being in enamel, I am trying to bring this thing to life, but every time you run it through the kiln it changes…so it’s a sort of dance really, trying to keep it fresh. I suppose when I feel it achieves a sort of balance and I feel like I can’t run it through (the kiln) anymore, then it is finished.
AMS: Landscapes are certainly one of the most timeless genres… if it’s a good one now it will still be a pleasure to look at in a thousand years…I’m not sure the same can be said about a lot of artistic production.
Brinsley: Well, things come into fashion, and things go out, but as long as we are human beings and we live in this world that will never really go away… And as for this work, I am trying to put down what I feel about the landscape more than the actual landscape itself.
AMS: I understand, and you’ve told me that these aren’t necessarily observational, coming more from the head…Can you tell me a bit about how you work through these paintings?
Brinsley: Sure…Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece and then go for a walk in the woods and it will dawn on me that the tree I’ve been trying to put down for days has fallen down five or six years ago…so it is not directly observational, but there is a lot of observation in it. It’s a kind of combination of what I have been seeing over the last 30 or so years…. Another thing is, don’t call them paintings! Because you know, I’m glazing them, fighting and wrestling with the glazes to get them to do what I want them to do and not really knowing for sure how it will turn out each time it goes through the kiln…they are much more objects than paintings…You can touch them…
AMS: So it is kind of like glazing in ceramic? Like it says blue but it doesn’t really look like any kind of blue going into the kiln?
Brinsley: They are often not the same as you think they will be, and every time it comes out of the kiln there are all of these eccentricities going on. They change every time…I mean I like paintings, but I don’t like painting myself…and I have to fight so hard to get these to do what I want them to do.
AMS: This is a lot of work, and I have to imagine there were others that were edited out… What is your process like? I know some people say you have to work and be in the studio every day…
Brinsley: I try to work every day, but you know it doesn’t always happen. I try to get into the studio all of the time, and sometimes this is a joy because there is a lot going on and things are happening. But sometimes there is not much happening and its miserable and feels rotten…but you still have to go in and work through it…it’s the only way that I know to get past this, to work through it.
AMS: Have you always been fairly prolific?
Brinsley: People tell me I’m prolific, but I don’t know that I am, I just try really hard to get something made that I think is worthwhile.
AMS: How did you get into the enamels…what attracted you to this process?
Brinsley: It started when I applied for a commission for a railway station. I originally had an idea to do a series of painted weather-vanes on the roof of the station, but then I thought that they might not stand up to the weather. I saw that there was an enameling shop down the street (at KSU) and I stopped in to see if I could use enamel instead of painting them. They invited me to try out some things and gave me some pieces of metal to experiment with and sort of play around on. Then I realized that there were all kinds of things you could do with enameling, and the enamel was durable. This was in 1993…and so then I won the commission, but they didn’t build the station for another13 years. They finally contacted me in 2007 and said that they were ready for the work. And then my wife died, and I didn’t want to pack up and go to work in my own quiet studio…so I worked there in the studio on campus where there was some activity… it was fun to work there. By then the idea had changed and it ended up being landscapes that were set into the tile wall, and being in enamel, you could touch them and they could take the changes in the weather and all the rest. So it was actually thirteen years later that I ended up doing the project.
AMS: So they just called you thirteen years later and were just like, “okay, we are ready for the work now…”?
Brinsley: Kind of like that…Over the years, the station was always going to be built in another two years; then you would phone them up in two years and they would say another two years. It was all pretty strange really…And so this is what it turned into.
AMS: I’ve heard you say that you are primarily a sculptor. Are you still most comfortable working in three dimensions?
Brinsley: Yes…I would say yes. I mean, I think I know more about sculpture, technically, so I think I am most comfortable in it, but I’m not sure the best work always comes out because you are comfortable. I think a good way to put it is that I don’t think I would ever want to teach enameling. I don’t know all the technical bits…In sculpture I understand the technical parts…at least I think I do anyway.
AMS: For me, the magic of a picture, or whatever, is the best and most interesting part, the static so to speak…but sometimes I feel like, after spending a certain amount of time in academic art institutions, it seems like the magic part takes a back seat…like technical process takes precedent in the bulk of conversations…and as a teacher now, I’m sure I am guilty of this as well…Do you know what I mean?
Brinsley: Sure, absolutely…You have to teach technique, but I don’t think art is really about that. The old saying goes that you have to learn it all so that you can forget about it. At some point you have to go by your instincts and trust that all you have learned is somewhere in the background informing it.
AMS: I noticed that there isn’t much in the way of architecture in this series of pictures, yet your property has all of these nice, beautifully weathered structures on it…will they ever work their way into your images?
Brinsley: There are one or two where they have, but mostly I am more interested in the plant forms, but I have done this once or twice. I don’t want to say where this thing is going though, because you never really know and all of a sudden I might get really interested in them.
AMS: And I see that this is not the first Ohio Land’s Forever show…can we look forward to more?
Brinsley: I don’t know. They are changing the kiln (at Kent State University), so I won’t be able to do pieces so big all in one go…and does anyone ever know? I mean something catches fire and then everything changes…This is the third show I’ve call Ohio Land’s Forever because it is a continuing series, but who knows, things could change, and I have done a lot of different stuff over the years.
AMS: You’ve got work all over Northern Ohio…I just realized that I’ve been tying up my bicycle to your iron tree protectors on Coventry ever since I moved to the neighborhood. Before that I was enjoying the brain you sculpted on the campus of Kent State University. This was before I had ever heard your name; I had been deliberately spending time with this thing… How did Ohio come to be your stomping grounds?
Brinsley: Well, my wife and I decided we wanted to travel a bit when we had two young kids, and we thought if we didn’t do it now we most likely never would. So we decided to come to America for two years. Well then we were in Manhattan and I was offered a job in Kent for a year. We were there for a while and then went back to England when one day my wife said “You really liked America, didn’t you?” And she asked, “Why don’t you try looking for another job?” And so I came back, and when Kent State heard that I was looking, they offered me a job. This is how we came to Ohio.
AMS: Has Ohio been good to you? Have you liked it thus far?
Brinsley: Yes and yes I do. And now my kids are here and my Grandkids are here, so I guess I’m staying. But I do like it, though the winters are a bit too long.
AMS: Yeah, I am originally from Cincinnati, and just five hours south and the winter is very different…
Brinsley: Yeah, well just imagine if you were five hours north!
AMS: I suspect that many who are going to read this will to be tied to the academic part of the art world in one way or another, so I wanted to ask a couple of questions geared towards that…
You studied at Camberwell in London. Did you study sculpture there?
Brinsley: Sculpture, yes.
Brinsley: Yes, the figure. It was a very realistic school, but they also made you take drawing classes the whole time. Then, when I left art school, I didn’t do any figurative work for say, ten years. I sort of tried to learn all of the stuff that I hadn’t learned in art school.
AMS: Any artists that you studied with that you can cite as major influences or whose work you are particularly fond of?
Brinsley: An English artist named Frank Aurbach (German born, London based painter. b.1931), he taught me drawing for one semester and I loathed him… and I couldn’t understand a word he said. And then, twenty years later, and here I am starting to understand what he was saying. So, you know, it’s not always the people who you think are nice and good to work with that have an effect.
AMS: It appears that you have managed to make a successful career and life for yourself as an artist and professor…any words of advice for a person just starting on this road?
Brinsley: Sure, I would say a few things: First, if you get into teaching, it is very important that you put your art first. It is that excitement generated from your own work that is going to make you teach well. So don’t let the fact that you are teaching…don’t let it kill your own juices. Of all of my teachers, the ones who were most involved in their own work were the most successful in projecting that excitement for the work, you need that excitement from your own work. Get used to rejection, we all know that one. And you have to be tenacious…it is not easy to keep working.
AMS: I have had great artists as teachers and in my experience, being an exceptional artist does not necessarily make an exceptional teacher… Can you speak about these differing roles?
Brinsley: I think that what you have to teach comes out of your excitement in making work, and that is the balance, to keep your own work alive.
AMS: Any new projects underway?
Brinsley: Right at the moment? Well, the enamel kiln (at Kent) will be changed for another soon, so I am trying to get as much work through there as I can…So right now I am in there every day doing the best I can.
AMS: Any major interests outside of the art world?
Brinsley: Nature and the Grandkids…
Brinsley Tyrrell’s work can be found all over Northern Ohio and Ohio Land’s Forever will be on view at William Busta Gallery through December 31.
Andrew Simmons is an artist and writer based in Cleveland, OH. View more articles by Andrew Simmons.