Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Sculptor Dennis Brickell with a his 7-foot heart pine tree stump resting on black granite. It is topped with a bronze support that holds an alabaster shape representing a higher power or “Mother Nature” form. His exhibit “Of Stone and Ore” is on display at Carnegie Visual Arts Center.
forces of NATURE
Eva sculptor, art teacher depicts delicate balance of life and work
By Patrice Stewart
One weekend Dennis Brickell might be digging sand in the woods on the side of Lookout Mountain, or kayaking toward a dead stump at Lay Lake.
Another time, you might find him stoking the fire at Sloss Furnaces.
The sculptor and teacher relishes the use of unusual materials in his pieces, which are featured in “Of Stone and Ore,” a new exhibit at Decatur’s Carnegie Visual Arts Center.
Take a look at some of the sculptures he carved from foundry core sand, using materials dumped as byproducts of the steel industry 50 to 100 years ago. He gets a lot of it around Birmingham foundries.
Cast bronze snakes, titled “Made for Each Other,” are entwined in a commentary on relationships. Many of Dennis Brickell’s pieces are cast at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham.
“I thought it was natural sandstone at first, but then one day I carved into a cigarette butt, and my dad told me it had to be foundry sand, so I got some books and read up on metallurgy and core sand uses.”
The student who earned a degree in fine art at the University of Montevallo turned into a Birmingham area sculptor, an artist in residence and finally the art teacher at Eva School, where he has worked for 14 years.
He has always felt the artist’s conflict between the desire to create something striking and the need to pay the bills, and that comes through in much of his work.
Look for the small human figures suspended on chains in many of his abstract sculptures on display at the Carnegie through Aug. 4. They are hanging on for life, often with a heart, pyramid or sculpting tool in hand.
“That represents the life experience of trying to be human and an artist at the same time,” said Brickell, 52, “or trying to hold on to what’s important without jeopardizing your very existence, which some artists are unable to do.”
Some figures hang on with both hands, “because everybody has different priorities about what’s important in life.” They have titles such as “How Did I Get Down Here?”
The focal point of this 24-piece exhibit, “Balance of Nature,” says a lot in its own quiet way.
Dennis Brickell has developed an eye for spotting foundry core sand to use in his sculptures. It’s a soft sand that his art students at Eva School enjoy working with, too.
The 7-foot heart pine tree stump resting on black granite is topped with a bronze support that holds an alabaster shape representing a higher power or “Mother Nature” form. When you step closer, you notice the male and female figures inside swaying on chains.
“This shows our tenuous life with the environment and how we try to find a balance with nature while holding onto loftier ideals,” Brickell said. “I quite often use wood to change the whole perspective of a piece, and this is a rotten, deteriorated stump I retrieved from the bank of the Coosa River with my kayak to show the weathered part of nature.”
Brickell made this piece and about 10 others especially for this exhibit. Two pieces in red core sand from the side of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga were made on commission.
An art collector commissioned a piece contrasting the pure white alabaster with the red, and there won’t be many others because he is nearly out of the red sand.
“I found the red while on vacation and later went back for more,” said Brickell. “I’ve developed an eye for locating this foundry sand where it was dumped. Some of it has been outside for 50 years, and it doesn’t look red when I spot it — it’s graying, with moss growing on it and tree roots through it.”
Suspended figures are part of many of Dennis Brickell’s sculptures. “That represents the life experience of trying to be human and an artist at the same time,” he said.
“Geo Sand” and other pieces are made with a yellow-tan core sand found in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
Brickell has participated in many exhibitions in Atlanta, New York, Tampa, Kansas City and around Alabama, but he is proudest of the Whirlpool Foundation Sculpture Competition and Exhibition in San Diego, an early one that got him started. He had pieces in several of the Carnegie’s local art shows, too.
Brickell used to travel to 20 or 25 festivals and shows a year and win a lot of Best of Show awards, but he slowly cut back to balance the needs of his teaching job and his wife, son and stepson.
He participated in the Metal Arts program for iron and bronze casting at Sloss Furnaces beginning in 1992, did some teaching there and spends a lot of time on research. He casts some of his work at Tannehill Iron Works and has even invited friends to Eva for a “hot time.”
“This exhibit at the Carnegie has been a good thing for me — it’s pushed me to do a new series of work,” said Brickell.
He works out of his home basement at Eva now and still mourns the loss of the “great studio space” he had in an old ag building at Eva School that was torn down.
Tammie Jacob, director of the Camp Carnegie, said the youngsters “will find his work really fascinating” this summer, as she does. She and instructor Linda Miller “were going through his pieces, looking and asking ‘How did that get in there?’ ”
Brickell recalled that he got his start in the arts by attending a three-week summer fine arts camp in Georgia. He started out as a violinist but was exposed to the visual arts and switched over. Later, as a sculptor, he was asked to present programs at libraries, and that led to becoming an artist in residence for the Alabama State Council on the Arts and leading across-the-curriculum workshops for teachers statewide.
Along the way, he picked up enough about computers to serve as Eva’s technology coordinator, too, and he credits Sheila Burt as being his mentor. The Oden family and the Town Council gave him a lot of support, too.
At Eva, Brickell shows his students how to work with the soft-core sand, as well as papermaking, batik, candle-making, clay and ceramics. He likes working with all ages of students and especially enjoys his seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
“Kids have so many questions, and they’re not shy about offering their fresh, objective perspective. I learned a long time ago that I could learn a lot from my students.”
Brickell uses a variety of material, topics and processes in his sculpture. Many of his works have spiritual meanings, and some incorporate the pyramid of ancient Egypt.
He did a series of Banyon Tree sandstone sculptures after returning from Hawaii, and you can see some cast bronze snakes entwined in a commentary on relationships titled “Made for Each Other.” The aluminum piece “Water Worn” was inspired by the eel grass that grows in the water where he kayaks.
His sophisticated casting processes include expandable pattern casting and Styroburnout, and a series of pyramid-shaped boxes are decorated with cast Styrofoam beads from a beanbag chair. He used Styrofoam meat trays for other work.
A grouping of white alabaster pieces include an angel done as a birthday surprise for his wife, as well as “Translucence” and “Trinity.”
Also on display are photos of a favorite piece that now hangs in the New Song Worship Center in Huntsville’s First United Methodist Church. Titled “New Life, New Hope, New Song,” it features a 9-foot sculpted wooden cross of African mahogany, with alabaster doves and pieces of maple and steel. It was commissioned while the center was under construction and installed before the opening.
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