“I like to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Robert Brady over the phone from Berkeley, California. He was talking about making artwork based on intuition, the very idea of which has kind of a bad rap in the academic art world.
“People see it like you’re not really taking ownership in the results,” he said. But Brady, who’s spent a long career in that world, thinks that bad rap is not deserved. He was a member of Wooster High School’s first graduating class in 1964. He has art degrees from two California colleges, and he taught ceramics for over 30 years at California State University, Sacramento. These days, he’s still making sculptures.
“I really believe in trusting these intuitive responses and doing it and making it,” he said, “and then I look at it, and I make a decision about whether I was totally deluded.” He doesn’t mind that the process leads to a few bad drafts here and there.
“We all have an intelligence that’s more than we can tap into or grasp,” Brady added. “It has a way of expressing itself even when we don’t know it’s there. It has great potential.” He appreciates artists who “know how to dig down and find richness and surprise.”
Brady has found that richness and surprise in a lifetime of refining his techniques. He works with clay, metal and, most often, jelutong, a Malaysian wood that’s smooth in grain and just soft enough to carve easily. He’d worked primarily with ceramics until his mid-40s, when his wife asked him to make a cabinet.
“I couldn’t just make a simple cabinet,” he said. “I had to carve a figure out of the door or something.” He fell in love with wood as a material right then and there.
“That was about 30 years ago now,” he said. “I found that the wood allowed me to do things that I wish I could with clay. I could make tenuous connections that would be ridiculous in clay, or outright impossible. There’s an angel in there that’s over six feet tall,” he said, referring to a piece in his current exhibit at Stremmel Gallery, where he has a solo show approximately every two years. The elongated angel is connected to the base with just one leg, an example of a type of construction that would be next to impossible to achieve using clay.
Brady’s subject matter is mostly humans and animals, exaggerated or abstracted. His imagery has hints of cultural influences from many places and many times. Some of his faces could be from Japanese comic books. A few figures have the totem-like stature of some Native American work. A carved head in front of a painted wood panel contains hints of forests and castles, redolent of Brothers Grimm-era European fairy tales.
“In real general terms, the art or the stuff out there that has really fed me on a spiritual level was from non-Western sources,” he said. He likes the energy and the spirit of artwork that’s made for the sake of religion or that “comes from the heart.”
“I’m very aware of contemporary art, modernism or whatever,” he said. “I don’t overlook that kind of thing. I’m able to fold in aspects of that.”
The artwork Brady finds most interesting is based on this: “Somebody took something as a starting point, made something we love to look at.”