Brad Spencer: Let the Bricks Speak

An Interview with the Brick Sculptor

To Build a Community, Brick art by Brad Spencer at Winston-Salem, NC

Brad Spencer is a forerunner among the artists who explored the potential of creating brick sculptures in recent times. In fact, he dedicated three decades of his life to perfecting his skills at this not–so–usual–art form. Due to the nature of the work, brick sculptures are particularly suited for public art projects.

Many prominent landmarks of Reidsville, North Carolina, where the artist lives, and beyond are now adorned with Brad’s sculptural essays. The visual lyricism of his art is self-evident.

Creating exquisite pieces of sculptures, including bas-reliefs, of bricks is actually an age-old process with an illustrious history dating back to 575 BC. The Ishtar Gate, reconstructed and preserved, is a proud possession of Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

But many who visit the museum to observe this architectural marvel do not seem to recognise the fact that this monument, dedicated to goddess Ishtar, is made entirely of bricks. Numerous rows of golden lions, dragons, aurochs and floral motifs studding the gate are nothing but carved bricks sculpted out of the blocks of clay glazed in an ethereally azure tone.

Babylonians were responsible for elevating brick sculptures to an art form. Artists and craftsmen of Babylon must have captivated Ishtar, the deity of love in Sumer and Babylon, with such an offering. Brick sculpture did not enjoy such exalted status after Babylon suffered cruel blows into the hands of time.

Nonetheless, ornate brick sculptures, more commonly bas-reliefs, appeared in different places around the world from time to time. These could be seen in the bas-reliefs of Shiva, Vishnu and Lakshmi on the interior walls of Prasat Kravan, Angkor, Cambodia.

The architecture and the sculptures of the temple, made of specially formulated ladrillo in 10th Century AD, are a testament to the skills of Khmer artisans. Champa in Vietnam also retains a few instances of brick sculptures among the ruins of Vijaya, its erstwhile capital of art and culture.

While instances of brick art in Gothic structures of central Europe are sparse, renaissance Italy too did not indulge in the romanticism of creating sculptural pieces made of bricks barring a few exceptions. Italian sculptors and architects were busier experimenting with and creating beautiful pieces in terracotta. Antoni Gaudí used bricks innovatively in many of his landmark buildings. Auguste Rodin devoted at least two decades of his career to decorative bricklaying.

Despite the best efforts of a handful of sculptors like Brad Spencer, the relative simplicity of the tools required in sculpting the figures and easy availability of the material, namely brick, this form of sculpture is yet to be embraced wholeheartedly by the budding artists. Perhaps in due time such works as A Mindful Journey and The Common Thread will help spur the ingenuity of many. Here Brad speaks exclusively to Lucky Compiler of his creative passion and his life beyond the realms of art.

Tell us about your childhood experiences and how the influences of your surroundings, at home or outside, made an impact on you.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My father did a lot of pheasant hunting and I remember examining the birds he brought home. I began drawing at age 5 and my subject matter was almost entirely hunting dogs and wildlife. I would also glue together parts from broken toys and plastic model cars to make unique creations. When I got a little older I began drawing portraits of my friends and adding colour with pastels.

How did you fell in love with art? How did you find your way into brick sculpture when sculpture itself was an elective subject for you during your undergraduate studies?

Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo intrigued me from a young age. My father travelled with his work and I would go with him and spend countless hours in art museums. The impact of being in the presence of famous works of art that I had previously seen only in books had a profound, almost spiritual impact on me.

I studied painting in college even though I had only a little experience working with colour. I found the act of mixing paint tedious and frustrating. I also took classes in printmaking, photography and sculpture. I discovered that modelling in clay was so much more direct and satisfying and I was more comfortable with the three–dimensional aspect. It was obvious to my teachers, my peers and to me that I was meant to be a sculptor.

Relief, though often used to be a part of ancient buildings and monuments, is not much in practice nowadays. How does it feel in being able to contribute towards its revival through your work?

Sculptures have historically been part of public buildings and are usually made from the same materials as the buildings themselves. It has a lot to do with the way we understand and judge the level of advancement of early civilizations.

To be part of that tradition is humbling and carries great responsibility. The work I do has the potential to survive hundreds of years after I am dead. In a time dominated by technology, I am using the same techniques sculptors used thousands of years ago.

Brick Sculpture by Brad Spencer in Downtown Greenville
CVS Pharmacy, Downtown Greenville, SC

Based on the location, how do you plan and decide on the theme of a public art project? What are the adjustments you need to make, considering the constraints of budgetary allocation and stakeholder issues, to execute a project successfully?

I find it important that my work relates to its location and to the people who will encounter it. Sometimes the theme and budget are predetermined. I then do research and design something that I can accomplish within the budget.

It is becoming common to work with a committee within the community to come up with a theme. They may even have some input during the design process. If the budget is not set I may develop more than one concept in different price ranges. Successful public artists must be patient during the often time-consuming design process.

What elements do you incorporate to enliven the work and enhance the interplay of light, specifically in bas reliefs? As a creator does it ever astonish you that simple tools, patience, hard work and imagination can produce such sophisticated form of art?

I use various textures to create a value range to increase the perception of depth. Since the reliefs may face in any direction I must consider how the sun will light them at different types of day and seasons of the year. If a relief is mostly in the shade I often use a wash glaze to create the illusion of shadow in textured areas.

The tools I use are remarkably simple. Most of them are basic clay modelling or pottery tools, hand tools, kitchen utensils, and dental tools. I make some of my tools. These various tools are used for removing large areas of clay, modelling, texturing and detailing.

You often engage yourself in workshops with young talents. Take us through the experiences of the creative exchanges that take place in such workshops. What is your impression of a student’s evolving interaction with the world of art?

I have worked with students of all ages. I sometimes demonstrate brick sculpture techniques for younger children. I have done one project with high school students as part of a State Arts Council grant where students helped with the design and made individual pieces that were incorporated into the final sculpture.

I also do seminars for college students that include brick sculpture history, demonstrations and ending with the students making their own small sculptures. This is an entirely new medium for these students and they tend to be cautious or even timid in the beginning. Once they get comfortable with the medium they become captivated by it. Often they ask to take some bricks home to continue their creative process.

Brick Sculpture by Brad Spencer in Downtown Gastonia
The Common Thread, Downtown Gastonia, NC

To date, which one sculptural work of yours do you hold dear to yourself? From past or present, which sculptural pieces captivate you most?

My most elaborate and perhaps favourite project was for a plaza in Gastonia, NC. At first, they wanted a sculpture in a proposed fountain. I convinced them to let me design the entire plaza that includes sculpture around the fountain, a gateway and seating.

The three-part sculpture alluded to the ancient history, including the indigenous people from the area, the more recent industrial history and the present day and hopes for the future. This was an opportunity to use all of my techniques in one sculpture including relief, three–dimensional, architectural and functional elements.

Brick Sculpture in detail by Brad Spencer
The Fountain in Detail

Describe your sensations as you see a sculpture coming to life as you have already conceived it in your mind’s eye.

Conceiving the design is the most exciting and creative part of the sculpture process. I first visit the site then visualize in my mind what might work well in the space. ‘Seeing’ the final design in my mind is perhaps the most thrilling part of the creative process.

It gives me the energy and enthusiasm to create the actual sculpture. I then make a detailed model that will often go through a number of changes. The model lets the client see exactly what the final product will look like and gives me a guide for scaling up to the final size. Changes may still be made during the sculpting process.

Tell us about your very deep relationship with music. Are there learnings in one art form that you utilise into the other?

My father was a professional musician when he was young and I’ve been interested in playing music most of my life. I have played a variety of styles over the years and currently play with Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. Her music is influenced by several world music styles.

Learning from the similarities and differences in music helps me define those things that I find most important. Also playing unfamiliar styles of music is challenging and expands the creative process. This entire concept applies to any creative medium including my sculptural pursuits.

Over the years, how do you think brick sculpture has evolved in your hands? If you are requested to sculpt your journey so far what would that reveal?

I started by making shallow relief sculpture, which is the most common. When I began competing for public art projects I realized that freestanding, three–dimensional sculpture would provide me more opportunities.

I became interested in pushing the limits of brick sculpture into unexpected areas. I am also working in very high relief on some projects. While I still prefer to focus on the human figure as a subject, my evolution can be best described by moving from shallow relief to totally three–dimensional sculpture.

I guess a sculpture of my journey so far would start in low relief with a man sitting and thinking, followed by a walking man in high relief and culminating in a totally three–dimensional man breaking free from his constraints.

Brad Spencer at work

Brad’s Life, an Open Book?

As for my favourite holiday destinations I like, North Carolina beaches, especially the outer banks barrier islands that are only a few hours away and my wife and I go there often. We have also enjoyed going to southern Mexico and visiting Mayan ruins. There is a lot of sculpture to see on these buildings.

When I was younger I was intrigued by biographical fictions about the artists. Irving Stone’s books The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo and Dear Theo about Vincent Van Gogh come to mind.

It’s hard to pick one favourite dish. My wife Tammy cooks a lot of international dishes. At times a good pizza is something I crave. I like spicy foods like Thai and Indian. I am also fond of other Italian cuisines. We eat a lot of seafood.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Brad Spencer