For Austen Brantley, high school art class started out as “an easy A.” But in his junior year at Berkley High School in the suburbs of Detroit, he discovered clay and a knack for creating human faces and figures. His teacher, recognizing his talent, encouraged him to work on more than the typical high school pottery projects.
“Clay was like a therapeutic thing for me. I kind of just did it,” he told Madison365. “Firstly, it was like an easy A (in art class). And then after that, it kind of became a real passion for me. And it gave me a way to express myself in ways sports, other things, in ways nothing else could.”
He tried on a number of forms and styles before finding inspiration from the figurative sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance.
“I experimented with a lot of things. I think it took me a while to find my own voice,” he said.
Within two years, the art world was beginning to notice.
“Around 18, 19 (years old), I started getting picked up by art galleries and museums. And then that gave me kind of a platform to start creating work that will be noticed by people that would take a real interest in looking at it,” he said.
He had opportunities to attend some of the country’s more prestigious institutions, but instead took a course or two at a community college and has been self-taught otherwise.
Now 26, he’s been featured in dozens of gallery exhibitions, public art projects, juried exhibitions and other spaces around the world.
The most recent exhibit opens tomorrow night at the Truax Campus of Madison College.
Titled “Coarse,” the exhibition is an exploration of Black hair.
“It’s about turning the concept of black hair into landforms and just giving it a new perspective, basically,” he said. Many of the works were inspired by his recent travels in Mexico, Columbia and Greece where he paid special attention to the varied textures of the mountains and natural landforms.
Brantley is also on campus as a guest lecturer in ceramics classes and speaking at a number of events this week, including a dinner tonight at the Madison College Goodman South Campus from 4:30-8:30 p.m. where he will speak and host a question-and-answer session; an opening reception at the Truax Gallery Tuesday from 4 to 7 p.m., and an artist talk Wednesday from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at the Truax Gallery.
Brantley said he doesn’t necessarily have a speech prepared for the events.
“I like to just talk from my heart,” he said.
“He just seemed like a person who could really resonate and work well with students across campus,” said Madison College art historian and instructor Sarah Stolte, who is coordinating the exhibition and residency. “It just seemed really important to allow him to have this opportunity, for him to connect with our students, for also him to have this experience to work with the academic gallery space.”
Brantley said he has no specific expectations of what a viewer might glean from his work.
“I feel like everyone’s perspectives are very subjective,” he said. “I will say that what I hope somebody does do is approach my work with curiosity. There’s a lot of textures and surfaces that are very interesting, that I think people can take a lot of time to look at.”
Those interested in attending this evening’s dinner event can register here.
“Coarse” will remain on display at the Truax Gallery, 1301 Wright Street in Madison, until May 13.