Inside Detroit sculptor Austen Brantley’s studio

The 27-year-old is finishing up his Tuskegee Airmen monument to Alexander Jefferson and other projects during our visit

Sep 13, 2023 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge Sculptor Austen Brantley surrounded by his creations in his Detroit studio. - Hyder Alfalih
Hyder Alfalih
Sculptor Austen Brantley surrounded by his creations in his Detroit studio.

A hulking clay arm, fist clenched in a Black Power salute, stands in the middle of the room. The smaller sculptures around it — a bust of a woman with a crown of cornrows and another with a hole broken clean through her face — look tiny and fragile in comparison. The starkly brown sculpture, a reddish brown like fresh clay on a Kenyan dirt road, is flanked by two naked men, who clutch the fist behind their backs as they keep a keen eye out for intruders. Its veiny arm feels phallic.

Their faces are solemn as if caught in a blip of introspection at the moment of deep-seated anguish. In one of their faces, in his eyes, is a reflection of sculptor Austen Brantley, the creator of this imposing, soon-to-be-public statue. He’s modeled this one after his own face — round and bald with curious eyes, brows slightly furrowed into a frown. Scraps of clay scatter the ground at their feet. He’s changed the expressions on the faces of this work in progress many times.

“They represent guardians,” Brantley says about the two men in the piece. “I want them to be angelic, I want them to be heroes, but I also want them to have this kind of pain in their eyes… because it’s not easy to be Black in this country. There’s a duality to being yourself, and a Black person, and still being an individual. We’re all carrying this thing.”

He’s on a time crunch to finish the mysterious statue, titled “Power in the Struggle,” that towers over him. The final design will be unveiled at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama for Martin Luther King Day. It may be Brantley’s biggest piece yet, and he considers it his first masterpiece.

We find it strange he refers to it that way, considering that at 27 years old, Brantley already has a slew of prominently displayed public sculptures, like the one of Negro Leagues baseball player Ernest Burke in Havre De Grace, Maryland, and another of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in a Detroit park named after her. There’s also his bronze statue of two Black students “Walking Together” outside his alma mater Berkley High School. He’s shown work at the London Art Biennale and is a 2023 Kresge Artist Fellow. His “Boy Holds Flower” piece sits peacefully in the Eastside Detroit park Canfield Consortium, a dedication to his inner child, the flora inked across his body, and a calling for all young Black boys to lean into softness.

Besides “Power in the Struggle,” Brantley is getting ready to reveal his monument to the late Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson, who passed away at 100 years old in 2022. The piece will have a permanent home in Rouge Park, where Jefferson flew model airplanes as a young boy, as part of the Jefferson Plaza, which honors the WWII hero. It’ll be unveiled in November. He also has a solo show, Faith Moves Mountains, at PAR Projects in Cincinnati opening on Sept. 22, pieces in a group show in New Orleans this October, and another solo show at M Contemporary Art in Ferndale planned for 2024.

You’ll never see the same piece from Brantley — work from his 2021 “Behind the Mask” exhibit with gaping holes revealing industrial wire and decay behind the subjects’ facade still hangs on the wall of his studio. As we sit in his studio he only has two weeks to finish all the new pieces for his Cincinnati solo show. He seems unfazed, however, even when he tells us that his creative process is a slow one.

In that looming deadline, he finds the spark for true creativity, spur of the moment, when he has no choice but to dig deep for what his hands, body, and soul are begging to bring to life.

“Then you gotta real creative. I love that pressure,” he says casually. “That’s when real art happens. Real art is spontaneous. It’s manic. For me, it’s really raw and it comes out very honest that way. You’re just living your life and something comes out of you, and you don’t really care what it does.”

Brantley’s talent for sculpting was stoked by Jeff Hartshorn, his high school ceramics teacher at Berkley High School, when he was in eleventh grade. Before that, Brantley was playing football and practicing wrestling — anything that seemed masculine to distract himself from the budding artist that was within.

“I was trying to look tough, so I didn’t really want to do art in the first place,” he says. “But every time I started to create something I would feel so at peace and it was like the whole world stopped. The first piece I ever made, I ended up damaging and breaking the head off, but I remember it felt like I was reinventing myself.”

click to enlarge Austen Brantley is under pressure — and up to the challenge. - Hyder Alfalih
Hyder Alfalih
Austen Brantley is under pressure — and up to the challenge.

After being denied a scholarship and not being able to afford art school otherwise, Brantely ventured out on his own, curating his own art school of sorts. He traveled to Italy twice in his early 20s for several workshops with European sculptors, and even though some of the artists didn’t speak English and Brantley didn’t speak Italian, the art spoke for itself.

One of the workshops was unplanned as he wandered into a sculptor’s studio that was next to a fried chicken joint. He was experiencing culture shock. It was his first time in Italy and the wafting smell of fried chicken felt familiar. But then he noticed the handmade ceramic tiles covering the shop next door. When he walked in, he met the sculptor’s son.

“I asked who made these and he said his dad, so I asked if he could teach me,” Brantley remembers. “Later they called me and said, ‘90 Euros and you can come.’ So I came for two weekends. I’d make a sculpture with him and we were just talking through the tools. They treated me like family and invited me to a cookout… Then I went back the following year.”

When we arrive at Brantley’s Detroit studio, he’s just returned from another workshop in England with Polish sculptor Grzegorz Gwiazda.

“I think what really helps me understand who I am as an artist is taking trips just like that,” he says. “When I’m alone and not with a bunch of people projecting who I am, it tells me a lot about myself. I get to learn about myself and self-reflect.”

He adds, reflecting on his informal education, “I’ve never had any formal training, but I wouldn’t say I’m all the way self-taught. I’m mostly self-trained, but I’ve had a lot of teachers and I’ve had a lot of mentors.”

“I was trying to look tough, so I didn’t really want to do art in the first place. But every time I started to create something I would feel so at peace and it was like the whole world stopped.”

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A sculpture sitting on a nearby table depicts a naked woman sitting atop a larger woman’s head with expressionless eyes, as if she’s riding her like a colossus. Brantley often molds figures on top of each other in his work and he also sometimes fashions his subject’s eyes out of cowrie shells, like in his Berkley High School piece.

“​​Those are both inspired by traditional West African art,” he says. “Sometimes they put cowrie shells in the eyes, and that connects you to water spirits or your ancestors. And they can kind of see through those cowrie shells… In certain masks, the figures of the ancestors are on the crown too. I find those so beautiful, so intricately made, and they just make me happy because they’re symmetrical.”

His work could be a Donatello or the bust of a Greecian goddess, but instead, the young artist crafts his subjects with distinctly Black features — full lips, kinky hair, and braids. Most public sculptures of Black subjects are either some sort of civil rights monument or otherwise reminder of a traumatic history. Brantley’s work, however, makes his subjects human. Humans, that just happen to be Black.

“I want us to see ourselves in the work because there’s not a lot of art in America that shows Black people without a historical context,” he says. “They’ll show the slavery era or an athlete or something like that, but I like it when you just see a Black person just being a Black person by themselves… it’s important that we get away from all that narrative and just show a human being.”

He adds referencing his “Boy Holds Flower” piece, “I’m just really sculpting myself at that point into my work. They’re just chilling like I do. Just doing what I do every day, pick[ing] up flowers and smell[ing] them.”

Photos of Alexander Jefferson are taped up around the room. He sits by the lake in a Tuskegee Airmen T-shirt and veteran’s hat in one and flashes a broad smile among family and friends in another. A sketch of the life-sized monument Brantley is working on has Jefferson standing on a granite base in uniform, a model airplane in his hand, hoisted toward the sky.

“There’s something really joyful and just adventurous about that piece,” Brantley says with a smile. “The [City of Detroit] Director of Arts and Culture Rochelle Riley came in and cried when she saw it. She said that was her friend and she was really proud. That made me proud… I can’t make anything more beautiful than somebody’s actual family member. That’s not a job anybody can do. What I can do is convey who he was and his presence, and I think I’ve done that.”

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