COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Mural artist Eric Bransby hasn’t let anything deter him from his craft.
The list of potential disruptions dates back decades: parents who didn’t support his artistic interest, being drafted into military service during World War II and an art culture that suddenly changed direction at the start of his career.
The 98-year-old artist lives just south of Colorado Springs on a piece of property that includes his home and a large, light-filled studio crowded with framed drawings.
He walks slowly and with the help of an electric pink walker - the only color he can see easily in the dark. He wears a gray English cap and navy blue glasses. His hands are shaky, but he’s alert and brimming with fun stories.
“I didn’t need the courage,” he said about his choice to pursue an art career. “By the time I went to art school, I knew if I died in the process, I was going to do it. I knew I’d never get rich or really famous, but I would have a happy life.”
It was the 1930s, and the Great Depression reigned in the U.S. It was also the heyday of mural making, which helped alleviate the stress of the times.
“That’s one of the major things that distinguishes Eric’s work,” said Blake Milteer, executive museum director and chief curator at the Fine Arts Center. “He has his roots in the latter years of the WPA (Work Projects Administration) and had direct contact with artists involved with that at the time. That’s really where the heart and soul of his work is.”
Bransby eventually left a trail of murals across the nation, after studying under famed muralists Thomas Hart Benson at Kansas City Art Institute and Boardman Robinson at the Fine Arts Center School (formerly Broadmoor Art Academy).
Colorado Springs bears much of the Bransby stamp, including wall art at Air Force Academy, Colorado College, Pioneers Museum, Cheyenne Mountain Country Club and the FAC. Other pieces, including ones once displayed at Peak Theatre, St. Francis Hospital and Colorado Springs Medical Center, have been destroyed.
The FAC is home to his last mural, having commissioned Bransby in 2009 to complete a piece in time for its 75th anniversary in 2012. The mural depicts the visual and performing arts disciplines, as well as significant figures from the FAC’s history.
In 2011, during the painting of the mural, Bransby’s wife of almost 70 years died. Mary Ann was a prominent local artist who founded Chromatic Edge, a women’s watercolor group, and co-founded the Pikes Peak Watercolor Society. Her death prompted Bransby to change part of the mural, a risky decision considering it already had been approved by the museum.
“My friend said, ‘You’re going to put her in the mural, aren’t you,’” Bransby recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh yes,’ which I did to the best of my ability. She’s one of the two students working in the figure drawing.”
Bransby was born in 1916 in a tiny town in Iowa to conservative, English parents who didn’t understand his fascination with drawing. His father, a minister, was uneasy about his son’s determination to attend art school after high school, but in 1938 Bransby enrolled at Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied with the no-nonsense Benton. He spent half of his days drawing from a model and the other half doing printmaking and sculpture.
“I found heaven in it,” he said. “I really identified with it.”
In 1942, through the WPA, he completed his first professional mural.
During his school years, World War II occupied the minds and men of the country, and Bransby was drafted. He never made it to battle, though, and spent his days painting murals at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. At night, he’d pack up his painting supplies and creep down to the bathroom where he could continue painting under the lights. His determination led to being dubbed the “latrine painter.”
As soon as he left the service, Bransby and his wife moved to the Springs so he could study with Robinson and Jean Charlot, who helped oversee Bransby’s mural on the domed ceiling of CC’s Cossitt Hall in 1947.
“He (Charlot) told me, ‘You’re a bone and joint man,’” Bransby said. “I drew these skinny little figures. I was obsessed with how the figure worked. When I was a student in Kansas City, I had a friend who was in the mortuary, an embalmer. They’d do autopsies, and I’d go down and draw them to see how the figure worked inside and outside. I always had a proclivity toward a slender figure.”
The end of the war brought a dramatic shift in art culture, and Bransby found himself in a world that only wanted abstract expressionism - far from his cup of tea. It also came at a challenging time in his life as his daughter’s struggles with chronic asthma pushed her to the brink of death. He needed a secure income and a climate that offered her the best chance for survival. And he found it in the Springs.
Bransby remembers a bleak meeting he had with Denver painter Vance Kirkland, who had gone abstract and told Bransby he’d never see the figure in painting again or wall art.
“I came back here with my tail between my legs,” he said. “I was discouraged. But I came back, thought about it for a couple of weeks, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to be in this game if I can’t do both of those, and I’m going to do this whether they’re in fashion or not.’”
Bransby’s resume is long, with employers that include Air Force, Yale University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Along the way, he also earned prestigious grants and mural commissions.
After his family relocated to the Springs for good in the mid-80s, he got busy making his mark on the city. Shortly after returning, in 1986, he repainted Robinson’s mural on the facade of the FAC, and in 2001 shared a retrospective exhibit there with his wife. Toward the end of last year, he agreed to do his first sales show, “Transcending Figuration: Bransby in Retrospect,” at David Cook Galleries in Denver.
“I’m amazed at his tenacity,” Milteer said. “He is constantly in that studio drawing and constantly in that studio teaching others how to draw the figure.”
Bransby continues to hold a weekly figure drawing session in his studio.
“Greek art is beautiful, both the nude and the draped,” Bransby said. “I don’t find any other subject matter more interesting or delightful. The design of the human figure is gorgeous.”
And he’s still open to the idea of another mural.
“If it happens, it happens.”
Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com
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