Editor's note: The following essay. is reprinted with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. An exhibition catalogue for the exhibit Figurative Connections: Selected Works by Eric Bransby (June 5-July 25, 2004) will be published in June, 2004. We express appreciation to Rebecca Yates, Editor, Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Eric Bransby: Draftsman and Muralist

by William Underwood Eiland

 

Bransby, ever dedicated to his students and to the advancement of knowledge in drawing and painting, was rewarded with the Veatch Award for Distinguished Research and Creative Activity in 1977. During that period and into the early 1980s, he also produced a number of lithographs. One more commission awaited before he left Kansas City: he won a six-state competition to design and execute a ten-paneled mural, dedicated in 1981, for the council chambers of the Liberty, Missouri city hall. While Bransby's "homework" for any mural commission concentrated on the figure and its placement on the wall, he also studied local history so that his mural reflected the intentions of those who commissioned it. Bransby is eloquent in explaining this part of his preparation in the brochure distributed at the unveiling of the mural: "The shape of a community is formed not so much by rivers, buildings and monuments as by the acts of man. The men and women of Liberty's past, a few famous, many others whose names are lost to us, have by their diligence, foresightedness, courage and faith shaped the character of this community. It is fitting then that human beings be the recurring image of the Liberty mural." Restating beliefs he learned from and shared with Benton and Charlot, Bransby was well aware that the mural itself was a reflection of the city's past, present and future: "The men and women who in the future will convene in the Liberty City Council Chamber, and whose actions will determine the direction of the continuing history of Liberty, will thus symbolically share the podium with the historical figures who formed the City's heritage." [19]

In 1984, Bransby was sixty-nine years old, and he retired from the university to return with his wife to Colorado Springs, where he had three mural projects "waiting in the wings," as he notes in his autobiographical sketch.

The first one must have been particularly dear to his heart, for upon arriving back in Colorado Springs, Bransby found the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center engaged in restoring the building to its original "look," one heavily indebted to the tenets of Art Deco (fig. 3). Sadly, Boardman Robinson's frescoes on the south entry's facade had been destroyed by a combination of ignorance and neglect as well as by the effects of sun and sand. Bransby, when given the commission to repaint the five panels, decided that the exposed surface was entirely unsuited to true fresco, and he settled instead on a German process that utilized a liquid form of silica that would bond to any ground already containing silica. However, as an aide-mémoire, he only had one black-and-white photograph, but he was armed as well with a knowledge of Robinson's working methods and technique. He, therefore, could only attempt "a reconstruction of [Robinson's] original intent, as far as possible. An oft-quoted Robinson statement that 'we unwind as we are wound' came to mind, as I was reminded that I was 'wound' by Benton, Charlot and Albers, as well as by Robinson. In the absence of any color reference, the color palette was strictly my own, as was the need to completely re-draw the figures from life."[20]

For the second of his "retirement murals," Bransby went to work on its execution for the St. Paul Parochial School in Skokie, Illinois. Relentless as ever in making sure that his work would not only fit and complement its setting but also to expand and interpret it, he had planned the project before leaving the university. He found the lobby where he was to install his panels severe, broken up by a stairwell and a balcony at its farthest end. Because of the four spectator viewpoints he identified, one from that almost intrusive balcony, he determined to arrange the panels as an abstract color design, because he believed that the panels could only be read satisfactorily for pictorial content when viewed from directly in front.

The central, twenty-foot, vertical panels treated the subject of St. Paul, his life and conversion, and the long horizontal panels, made to resemble a frieze en grisaille, interlocked with the vertical panels to create an overall cruciform shape. The panels were dependent for their iconography on Lutheran beliefs and practices, and when Bransby thought it necessary to include some invented Latin words, he was corrected by a young seminarian and instructed to leave the Latin to those who knew it, the theologians.

The third commission to occupy Bransby during this period was the decoration of the four-story atrium lobby of Nichols Hall at Kansas State University in Manhattan.[21] He placed the ten feet by forty feet panels twenty feet above the ground floor, directly opposite a staircase and balcony. One of the complexities of the space are the four large, triangular, industrial-type skylights in the ceiling; therefore, Bransby planned the large shapes of his angular panels accordingly, but he also foresaw that collectively they would form a rectangular mural, one that could be "read" from various viewpoints, and one that illustrated Student Achievement when visually digested as a whole (fig. 4, cat. no. 32).

Bransby exhibited widely in group shows during the 1980s and enjoyed a one-artist show at Park University in 1989, from which institution he would receive an honorary doctorate in 1993. In 1988, he completed a commission at the Loveland (Colorado) Museum on the subject of Historic Roots and Contemporary Culture. He and Mary Ann also participated in a seminar and catalogue devoted to the history of the Broadmoor Academy. All that time, believing that he could never have enough knowledge of the human body, its muscles, coordinates, and flexibility, he continued to study and draw the figure; he devoted one day a week to drawing from the model. During this decade, for the University of Colorado he taught a course on Italian Renaissance painting techniques, and for the University of Missouri he conducted a tour of Gothic and Renaissance murals in Italy.

The next decade was equally busy. Park University, in Kansas City, commissioned him to paint a fresco for the McAfee Memorial Library, which has an unusual location, underground in the limestone bluffs above the Missouri River. The walls of the library are literally tunneled into the solid limestone, and Bransby seized the opportunity as entirely suitable for the lime-based fresco process. He did, however, construct and paint portable panels based upon Diego Rivera's designs of the 1930s: "Since the projected murals was [sic] to be located under plant forms including trees, it seemed expedient to house the panels in steel frames, slightly in front of the wall itself; floating above the floor and below the ceiling, in the event of water seepage from the forested top of the bluffs." Bransby worked throughout the summer of 1991, and the Missouri Video Network videotaped thirty hours of the process for its archives. Bransby was particularly emphatic that all elements of the design and execution respond to this unique setting: "In recognition of the immediate limestone environment, a lime-based white pigment (bianco sangiovanni) was introduced into the palette, in its pure white form, among other color values. The total mural occupies a wall space 10' x 27', located at the bottom of descending stairs, at a turn in the corridor, leading to the library.[22] The mural's subject was the history of Park College.

One of Bransby's most accessible murals, in the sense that it hearkens back to the Section of Fine Art's emphasis on readily understood local history for the post offices of the 1930s, is the one he worked on for three years in the Pioneers Museum, located in the early twentieth-century El Paso County Courthouse in Colorado Springs. The subject is the history of the Pikes Peak region, and Bransby completed this massive undertaking -- the final mural is ten feet by seventy-five feet -- in 1994. The mural has over one hundred figures and depicts the history of the region from the 1770s through the late twentieth century. The architecture of the building dictated Bransby's style. The existing interior featured both faux and real decorative marble, colorful terrazzo floors, and lavish, decorative plasterwork in both walls and ceiling. Surrounding the mural are semi-circular arches. Adapting his panel and his composition to this interior, Bransby developed a complex palette that would neither clash with or lose itself in the surround, and he purposefully introduced arches, both whole and broken in a variety of configurations, of the same dimensions as the interior architecture of the building, into the mural itself: "The use of spandrels in the mural panels (as in the actual wall) returned the overall shapes of the panels to rectangles. Slightly larger painted figures, on larger superimposed panels served to emphasize historically important individuals in the mural, thus establishing a hierarchy, as in traditional altarpiece painting."[23]

In 1997, the University of Colorado awarded him a doctorate of humane letters, and the Colorado College Alumni Association honored him with a medal for lifetime achievement in 1998.

Perhaps such a medal was premature: Bransby had much work left to finish, including a collaboration with the architect Elizabeth Wright Igraham, granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, for the design of a non-objective mural for a monolithic concrete structure, situated on cliffs overlooking the dam of the Pueblo Reservoir, just west of Pueblo, Colorado. For this project, an exterior one subject to the ravages of weather, Bransby returned to the silicate process he had used for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; he painted the mural with Keims Mineral Colors on the smooth stucco ground, the silicates in the paint binding to the ones in the ground. In 1998 and 2000, he was one of twenty members of the National Society of Mural Painters invited to participate in the centennial celebration exhibitions at the Art Students League in New York. With Mary Ann,[24] he enjoyed a double retrospective at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 2001, the same year the Pollock Krasner Foundation awarded him a grant for further work and study. In 2002, the eighty-five-year-old Bransby was back on the scaffolding, with three assistants, to restore the ceiling mural at Colorado College that he had initially painted fifty-four years before in 1948.[25] In 2003, he was making preparatory drawings for a mural on the theme of Prometheus.

Eric Bransby minces no words when he talks about his career: "I paint for the masses."[26] In fact, in describing his convictions about art in general, he refers directly to Orozco's belief that mural painting is a social art form, and as such has a social responsibility. The muralist, according to Bransby, works in tandem with the architect, and in so doing structures his work so that the public -- the human masses who use the building -- gain a common appreciation of the space that both envelopes and unites them in a shared aim, a purpose that the murals themselves illuminate and reify.[27] Indeed, it is those honestly rendered men and women, a humanity of emotions and thought, not artificially constructed automatons, who give the energy of shared beliefs and common values, in short, life to space. No wonder, then, that his career as a painter has been an ongoing mission to put figures on the wall: They are the unifying lyrics that give meaning to the embracing music of architecture.

Notes:

1. Marianne Berardi, Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton (St. Joseph, Missouri: The Albrecht-Kemper Museum, 1993), 52.

2. Ibid, 56. Kathryn Andrus has rightly noted that throughout Bransby's career, his "elastic, plastic figures move through space with graceful deliberateness." See Andrus, op cit., np

3. Eric Bransby supplied much of the biographical material presented in this essay in letters to the author and to the curator of this exhibition, Marilyn Laufer: "Eric James Bransby-Biographic Sketch," 2003, 1, in the files of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens. Hereinafter cited as Biographic Sketch.

4. Ibid, 1. Bransby remarks that the textbook for all painting students was Max Doerner's Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting. Moreover, most students owned Benton's The Artist in America.

5. Berardi, Under The Influence, 52.

6. Richard J. Boyle, "Synopsis: The American Tempera Revival," in Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930-1950 (Chadds Ford, Pa.: Brandywine River Museum in association with the Washington University Press, 2002), 35-36; see also Erika Doss, "Coming Home to the American Scene: Realist Paintings, 1030-1950, in the Schoen Collection," in Coming Home: American Paintings 1930-1950 from the Schoen Collection (Athens, Ga.: Georgia Museum of Art, 2003), 19-36, for the Realist context in which Bransby emerged.

7. Ibid, 2. On Jean Charlot, especially his tenure at the University of Georgia, see Jean Charlot: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, Georgia Museum of Art Bulletin 2, no. 2 (Fall 1976).

8. See Renato González Mello and Diane Miliotes, eds., José Clemete Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934 (New York: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in association with W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), especially for Orozco's relationship with Jean Charlot.

9. Biographic sketch, 3.

10. Because this exhibition is primarily concerned with Bransby's remarkable drawings and their importance in the design of murals, it is instructive to look closely at his working method in painting this fresco: "A preliminary study involved placing posters along the projected mural walls to determine three specific points at which most spectators paused to look at the posters. A point approximately 4 feet inside both the entry and exit lobby doors appeared to be important, as well as a point midway in the lobby at the beginning of the upper level. Using an architectural model, horizontal lines generated by actual horizontal lines generated by the fenestration of both the entry and exit walls were to be projected into the mural design, optically tying the mural into the architecture and (as virtual 'perspective' lines) amplifying the feeling of space, in the murals. These projected lines would be 'keyed' optically to each of the 2 'spectator view points.' Sgraffito techniques would be employed to add a three-dimensional bas relief element." (Biographical Sketch, 4).

11. At this time, Bransby was also the secretary for the Academy's Fine Arts Committee, which dealt with architectural design on the campus as well as with the donation of works of art.

12. The committee for the mural at Brigham Young University had been dissatisfied with the projects presented by Mormon artists, and Bransby, trapped at home by a snow storm, constructed quickly a model, presented it to the committee and had it accepted, but not wholly without trepidation by the committee members. It is at this point that Bransby developed the practice of creating individual moveable panels. The effect astonished the committee when its members visited Bransby's studio. To allay their fears, he shipped the unfinished panels to Provo so that they could be viewed in situ and then had them sent back to Colorado Springs so that he could finish the painting. See Biographic Sketch as well as Henry Adams, "Eric Bransby and American Mural Painting," in From Roots to Soaring Visions: Eric and Mary Ann Bransby, A Retrospective (Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2001), n.p.

13. Adams, "Eric Bransby and American Mural Painting," n.p.

14. Biographic sketch, 7

15. Adams, "Eric Bransby and American Mural Painting," n.p.

16. Eric Bransby, "Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Murals of the Pikes Peak Region," unpaginated, undated brochure.

17. Ibid, n.p.

18. Biographic sketch, 8.

19. Eric James Bransby, "Liberty: The Heritage Years," n.d., n.p.

20. Biographic sketch, 9.

21. The genesis of this commission is noteworthy: "The original structure was burned out during student riots in the '60s, leaving only the original limestone 19th-century shell (in the style of a Norman castle). The students, on a 'guilt trip,' persuaded the University to retain the exterior walls and to construct a modern interior, within the original walls. The students raised funding for a work of art to adorn the central atrium lobby." Biographic sketch, 10.

22. Ibid, 11

23. Ibid, 11

24. Mary Ann Bransby is a distinguished artist in her own right and certainly is equal in her importance to the community of Colorado Springs for her involvement in the arts. She teaches art, is a leader in the Pikes Peak Watercolor Society, and one of the founders of the Chromatic Edge, a group of artists who work together not only on their own paintings but also to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts. See Joanna R. Roche, "Beyond Ornament: The Sculptural Body Art of Mary Ann Bransby," and Marianne Berardi, "Mary Ann Bransby's Organic Line," both in From Roots to Soaring Vision: Eric and Mary Ann Bransby, A Retrospective (Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2001), n.p. On Mary Ann Hemmie Bransby, also see Berardi, Under the Influence, 57-60.

25. See "Eric Bransby Restores the Cossitt Mural," The Colorado College Bulletin (July 2002), 9.

26. Eric Bransby, "Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Murals of the Pikes Peak Region," undated and unpaginated brochure.

27. "Dialogue: Eric Bransby," The Manhattan Mercury, 16 November 1986, D1ff.

 

William Underwood Eiland is Director of the Georgia Museum of Art


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