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Bryon Draper: Embracing the Imperfections

Bryon Draper in his Provo studio. Photo by Tacie Hoffman.

He has an ageless sort of face, with piercing blue eyes and curly, light brown hair. As he sits at a neat desk, a few papers piled on one side of the keyboard, a pencil tucked behind his ear, his process is clearly visible in the setup of his studio: rugged rocks piled on the floor, wax models consigned to a corner, a large table in the center and a one-third lifesize model of a male arm on a metal bar near the far wall. Bryon Draper’s sculptures seem to come together before the eye, rocks finding bronze as they assemble and blend in beautiful compositions. The works can be inventive and rugged, organic and graceful but, above all, are honest.

Draper grew up in Cardston, Alberta, a small Canadian city located in the Rocky Mountains. After becoming interested in a sculpture growing up, Draper studied at BYU-Hawaii where he received his BFA in sculpture in 1990. “It was very figure-based training,” he explains. “I would mostly model the figure and learn about how the human body works and moves.” In keeping with a very academic training, Draper worked mostly from live models, a process that has informed his later work. His love for creating sculpture becomes apparent in his college transcript—Draper took twice as many sculpture classes as required for graduation. “I loved to re-create the human form in a way that seemed truthful to me and who I am,” he comments.

Part of this academic training included learning about the sculptural styles of earlier periods. Draper became fascinated with antiquity and the well-known seating and standing poses that are frequently copied in the art world. Though he admires Greek bronzes for their veracity and emotion, Draper has always been more influenced by Egyptian royal sculpture. “I like that it is stiff and almost…clunky,” he says. There is a conventional quality there he appreciates, like the artists are not trying to create an actual person, but rather a type. “I never copy the poses exactly, though,” he continues. “If I am looking at a sculpture of a pharaoh sitting in a throne, I’ll change the pose slightly: cross the legs, extend them, etc., so that I’m not just copying the works of other artists.”

To cast his bronzes, Draper uses a ceramic shell lost-wax casting method, a nod to his influences from antiquity as Greek and Roman sculptures nearly always used the lost-wax method when working with bronze. He begins by creating a model out of wax, often partially based on his own body. “I tend to do more male figures than females, mostly because I am a male and my own body is always with me,” Draper jokes, extending his arm and looking at it from different angles to illustrate his point. For his other models, Draper attends figure-sculpting sessions with his students, working from the same models as them — a similar experience to his training at BYU-Hawaii. After creating a wax model, Draper covers it with a ceramic mould. When he is ready to pour, the molten bronze melts the wax, hardening inside the shell in its place.

A litter of arm casts in Draper’s studio. Photo by Tacie Hoffman.

When Draper came to Utah to complete his MFA at BYU, he decided he wanted to push beyond simple representation and find his own voice. His first bronze/stone sculptures were near life-size, standing, elongated, column-like figures with sections of rock included. More recently, though, Draper has created smaller sculptures in a greater variety of poses and a less formulaic construction. “I’m experimenting a lot more with different poses than I did in my MFA work,” he says.

“Steward Looking Both Ways,” 14″ x 9″ x 10″

His sculptures, some of which can be seen this month at Park City’s Gallery MAR, are mixed-media pieces including partial figures and pieces of rock. Usually one sculpture contains only a single, posed, nude figure. Occasionally, the figures hold some symbolic object, a nod to that common aspect of Egyptian statuary. His “Steward Looking Both Ways” is somewhat of an anomaly in his work, in that it contains a sitting figure with two heads connected at the back looking side to side. The torso of this figure is made of limestone with the heads, shoulders, arms, and legs all cast in bronze. The sculpture is dull rather than shiny, the bronze emanating a soft glow against the hard rock.

Including rocks into his sculpture was one aspect of his personal style, but another is his way of working with bronze. Rather than sandblasting the ceramic shell away after the bronze has cooled, Draper picks it away by hand, strategically choosing to leave small sections of ceramic on the smooth bronze bodies. Furthermore, he always leaves the patina – the thin brown or green layer on top of the bronze – on his artworks.

Draper has received some pushback from galleries for his unconventional, hand-removed ceramic shells. “I’ve had some gallery owners say, ‘We love your work, but is there any way to clean it up a little?’ meaning they want it sandblasted smooth,” Draper says. “I just never felt right about that. It didn’t feel honest or real.” Plato described similar concerns with art, that representations were not the actual thing, and so were inherently dishonest. “It’s the same reason I include imperfections in my artwork. Sometimes, casting doesn’t always come out perfectly smooth. I think it adds more character and honestly to my work,” Draper says.

Though he removes the ceramic shells by hand, Draper uses plenty of modern technology in other aspects of his work, including a diamond saw to cut up his bronze sculptures. The contribution of new tools to old methods opens a dialogue with the past, freeing the mind to make interesting associations between new and antique artworks. “I wanted my pieces to feel familiar within the history of art, but also to be unique to my time. I think using new technology is a great way to do that,” he explains.

Studying art at the height of postmodernism, Draper says he was very influenced by the idea of layers of meaning. “I want my sculpture to be accessible at any level. There are people who appreciate my work simply for aesthetic reasons, but there’s also a deeper level commenting on the connection between the earth and humanity. I do not have one interpretation for my artwork; I like viewers to be able to come up with their own.”

Draper’s job as a professor — he’s been at BYU for the past 18 years — keeps him busy. Between mentoring students on their BFA projects, teaching classes, and grading work, Draper spends a lot of his time helping young students to become successful artists. While he loves his work with them, “It does not leave me a lot of time to do my own sculptures,” he comments. “I’m a slow starter. I generally need a few hours just to get into the frame of mind where I can actually work. Small windows of time don’t seem to work for me.” When he is teaching full time he generally produces five to six  sculptures a year, usually about one-third lifesize.

Photo by Tacie Hoffman.

Next semester, however, Draper will be on leave from teaching and hopes to use the time to finish a few of his projects, including one sculpture that has been sitting in the corner of his studio for several months. “Some sculptures come easily. I know what I want them to do and it happens very organically,” he explains. “Others, for whatever reason, take more time. I have to put them away and come back to them.” His process includes a lot of trial and error, with him constantly rearranging pieces, selecting different rocks, or fiddling with the composition.

When asked where he gets his rocks, Draper smiles sneakily. “I steal them. Not from people’s yards, of course,” he rushes to clarify, “From nature. I have a couple of secret spots where I get rocks I really like.” Draper’s rocks aren’t very flashy, they are mostly flat, neutral grays and browns. The muted colors, he explains, are on purpose: if everyone was super concerned about where he found a beautifully patterned rock, they might miss the actual message he is trying to convey with his art. When he cut open one recent find, oil spilled out from the inside coating the rock in a shiny, black surface on one side. Though he hasn’t decided what he will do specifically with this rock, Draper says he is saving it for something special.

Though some of his rocks come from specific areas, Draper is always on the lookout for a great addition to his collection. “One day I was hiking with my family (he and wife Cathenia have three children) and I found the most amazing rock,” he says. Not wanting to disrupt the family hike, Draper carried the rock all the way to the top of the mountain and back down. When he got back to his studio he encountered a problem. “I couldn’t find a good rock to match it. I ended up making that same hike again by myself just so I could find a match for it,” he says, chuckling.

The majority of his sculptures feature the brittle limestone that is common in Utah Valley. Though they are generally neutrals, occasionally the shining bronze of the figures bring out occlusions in the rock that make them appear bright or shiny. Whatever colors are found in the rocks are completely natural. “I never paint color on the rocks or treat them in any way,” Draper says. “I want them to look just as I found them, just cut or resized.”

The most important thing to Draper is that his work feels truthful. “I like viewers to be able to see my process in the artworks. If I have a cold pour, or my mould cracks I’ll often include it,” he says. Including defects is one way Draper feels he is accurately representing life. “Life is imperfect. Art, if it is to be a reflection of life, should have imperfections,” he says. The sentiment of truth in imperfections expresses the values that Draper holds for his artwork, down to the white specks of ceramic mould left on his bronze figures.

Photo by Tacie Hoffman.

 

Forging Ahead, paintings by Bridgette Meinhold with sculpture by Bryon Draper, Gallery MAR, Park City, through December 18.

Hannah Sandorf Davis is pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts at Brigham Young University. She is also a journalist for the BYU College of Humanities.

3 replies »

  1. I love Bryon’s work, it is elegant and thought-provoking! Thanks for featuring him in this article, it was great to read more about his process and career.

  2. Bravo! On your art magazine and the profiles. The general art magazines do not print many solid profiles on artists. Backstories matter. The can get more people interested in art and artists. Glad to have found you years ago. Good for you!!!!!!
    Bob Ragland-Denver, Colorado.

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