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Korean Ceramic Art Monthly AARON QUINN BROPHY

This text is the English translation of an article that appeared in the February 2004 issue.

Insight into International Ceramic Art
A Close Encounter with Mixed-Media Ceramic Sculptures


Written by Shin-Yeon Jeon

Translated by Mary W. Kim

 

I first met Aaron Brophy during the summer of 2003 in the Department of Ceramic Art at Montgomery College. I sought his expertise in life-sized figurative sculpture with the intention of learning from him how to depict the female form in clay. Brophy is the most outstanding ceramic artist that I have encountered in this region. He impresses me on a professional and personal level. The following article is based on an interview with the artist.
 

“People, like critics, mathematicians, and scientists are those who try to classify, draw boundaries, and impose restrictions; but artists are open to all possibilities.”
                                                                                    -Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)


             It is difficult to categorize Brophy’s artwork. His use of various materials in the same form can make it challenging to discern cast bronze from hand-built clay. Brophy remembers encountering clay in his Aunt Nancy’s studio at a very young age. Recalling his childhood days, there was never a moment when he was not involved with ceramics. His Aunt Nancy used to have a large kick wheel with a huge, round, heavy stone that young Brophy pushed with his foot in order to spin the wheel head.  It was reminiscent of a Neolithic rock from the Flinstones cartoon. Brophy remembers one occasion that he had the wheel spinning really fast when he slipped off the seat and fell down onto the revolving stone. Fortunately he escaped from the accident with just minor injuries and a healthy respect for his aunt’s kick wheel. 

Deeply absorbed in the pottery wheel, Brophy made functional vessels throughout his childhood and adolescence. Some of his earliest hand-built forms were created in the ceramics studio at George School. Brophy fondly recalls George School as a wonderful incubator for an aspiring artist. He admits to putting duct tape over the door locks so that he could sneak back into the ceramics studio after school to work in the solitude of the night. While at Alfred University in upstate New York, Brophy began to alter his thrown vessels. Eventually he would completely deny the functionality of his work by ripping, tearing, squeezing, and even punching his forms. Before long Brophy was creating clay torsos with the same rips and tears that were in his thrown vessels. Brophy slowly left the wheel behind and began focusing his energies exclusively on life-sized figurative forms. Upon graduating from Alfred University, Brophy did not really have a plan for his future. He just knew that he wanted to keep making art. That was seven years ago, and fortunately, he is still at it. 

At any given time Brophy has up to ten incomplete sculptures in his studio, which makes it challenging to bring individual pieces to completion. However, were his process otherwise, Brophy says that he might get bored. He claims that each piece needs time and space to evolve.  Sometimes Brophy becomes overwhelmed by the multitude of unfinished figures staring at him from the corners of the studio. It is typical for him to respond by starting yet another piece. Brophy cites Unfinished Man as an example of his artistic process. The title of this piece is appropriate, as Brophy states, “There is always the danger that if I finish a sculpture it will stop breathing.” He went on to describe the evolution of Unfinished Man.

Brophy made the left foot in 1995. It originally belonged to the reclining figure titled Fragmented Man. He cast the right foot in 1997 while still a student in upstate New York. The wood block pedestal was found at a boat yard in Baltimore in May of 1997.  Brophy created the torso in 1998, which was subsequently broken while being shipped to his Wyoming studio after an exhibition in Georgia. The wood of the figure’s left leg was procured in 1999. It came from a fallen tree in Washington D.C.  The right fiberglass leg was cut from a mannequin that Brophy bought in New York City in 2000.  It was not until 2001 that all of these elements became one.  Brophy describes his work as a process of “bringing various elements together, hoping that the materials will coalesce into a form that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Brophy continues, “Sculpture has no language barrier. Even a blind man can run his hands over my work and get something out of it.”  An artist’s work is a reflection of his or her past personal experiences. Brophy does not force his ideas on people, but he enjoys watching others interact with his sculptures and listening to their commentary. Sometimes the audience gives him clarity about what the work conveys. Brophy is usually so close to the sculpture that he’s not always sure what it will mean to the viewer. 

Of course most people interpret works of art based on their learned notions of existence. Life experience usually defines one’s perception of reality. Brophy’s work strongly affects the viewer on an emotional level. He wants his work to provoke. Brophy claims that he would prefer that a viewer hate his sculptures than not be moved by them at all. Brophy states that ambivalence is the worst reception a work of art can receive. When one is bothered by something it has power. 

Brophy’s passion for sculptural decay should be separated from his preoccupation with bodily decay. The latter has its roots in the artist’s personal experience. His father died of leukemia when Brophy was a teenager. He witnessed his father’s body deteriorate slowly over the course of nine years. Brophy’s early figures dealt explicitly with his father’s corporeal existence. He was trying to create “beautiful death.” It was a celebration of suffering. These works utilized fragmentation and amputation as symbols of disease and helplessness.  As Brophy began to incorporate more bronze and wood into the figures, he was able to distance himself from the explicit narrative. 

Observers of Brophy’s sculpture are usually unaware of the inspiration for his suffering figures. Their swollen spleens are often mistaken for pregnancy. Characteristic of his earliest figures, they are typically sitting, standing, or reclining in the face of imminent death. Brophy states, “When my work is most successful, it speaks to the ephemeral nature of our physical existence. I think many people spend their lives grappling with the illusion of the control that they have over their life. It is important to recognize that our life is nothing more than a collaboration with time.”  

Brophy asserts, “Over time I have found more subtle ways of addressing the frailty of the human condition.”  This sensitivity may be the result of his experiences gained while living in Cyprus.  He had ample opportunity to visit the ancient ruins of the Mediterranean, including those in Italy, Greece, Lebanon, and Egypt.  One particular grouping of sculptures that impressed Brophy is the Colossi of Memnon, overlooking the River Nile. These seated figures have been resting there for thousands of years. Witnesses to floods, sandstorms, earthquakes, and acid rain, these monolithic, fragmented figures exist somewhere between disintegration and wholeness. Brophy embraces decomposition as part of his creative process. Some viewers of his work express concern about the durability of his sculptures’ more fragile wooden components, but Brophy explains that the potential for natural deterioration contributes to his work’s vitality.

The artist’s most recent solo exhibition was held during the summer of 2003 in Georgetown. At this show he exhibited a delicate translucent torso. The shadow of the sculpture on the wall was as important as the object itself.  This piece resulted from cutting, melting, and shaping the plastic until he obtained a form that satisfied him. The process was inspired by Brophy’s experience watching students blow glass at Alfred University.

Though he has spent most of his life in the United States, many of Brophy’s ideas are inspired by his time in foreign lands. He has lived in the Mediterranean and traveled extensively through Western Europe and North America. Visits to Asia and the Middle East have also been inspirational.

Brophy works intuitively. He has reverence for the nature of his materials. The process of making often reveals the form of the figure. Each sculpture is usually a response to the one that preceded it. Brophy collects a variety of materials. This disparate trove of driftwood and found objects might sit in his studio for months before he discovers how to make use of a particular fragment. In this way much of Brophy’s process is also driven by a response to the materials.

Brophy is quoted as saying “Art isn’t done until it’s sold. I’m not sure if I agree with myself, but it wouldn’t be the first time.  I think that exhibiting and selling work is part of the creative process. By definition, art needs an audience in order to exist. And artists need money to buy food. When someone gives me money to do something that I love to do…I don’t mind that at all.” Several of Brophy’s figures are displayed in splendor throughout his living room. He claims that these pieces are not for sale, but in reality, everything has a price.

Brophy shared with me the names of many sculptors whom he admires and who have influenced his work. Brophy was fortunate to have briefly studied with Stephen Destaebler and Doug Jeck while at Alfred University. Some of his favorite works of art include, Peter Voulkos’ stacks, Giacometti’s standing figures, and Rodin’s truncated torso of 1877.  Among modern sculptors, Brophy also admires the work of Gillian Jagger, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Manuel Neri.

 
Biographical Data

Brophy was born in 1975 in Norfolk, Virginia. Raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he earned his International Baccalaureate diploma from George School in 1993. Brophy then attended Alfred University in New York State, graduating in 1997 with degrees in art and economics. In 1998 Brophy was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue post-graduate sculpture studies at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute on the island nation of Cyprus. Brophy returned to the United States in 1999 to take a position as Artist-in Residence at the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. In 2000 Brophy taught sculpture at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. In the same year he joined the art faculty at the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland. Since 2003 Brophy has also been an adjunct professor of ceramic art at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland.