Memorial Tribute to Glen Brunken
Glen Brunken, American Artist (1943 – 2013)
PHOTO: Glen Brunken, November 1987
Martha Gault Art Gallery, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.
The professor had a euphoric smile as he paused during one of our daily breaks. He gathered his circle of art students in one corner of the life drawing classroom. We all sat around him in a semi-circle, our focus directed towards the man who taught us about life drawing. But, it was far more than just a quick glance at the model. We were learning to look deep inside those nude bodies, to find bone structure, rising and falling muscles, the very breath of life in a human body. We learned that if we did not know how to draw the body, we would never be able to grab the essence of anything else. “The figure is a landscape,” he said, “and you have to learn every nuance of the figure before you can paint anything else. Without this skill, all the rest of your art will be weak and have no inner life.”
He leaned back in his chair, tilted his head just enough that it looked strangely slanted. His gray-blue eyes focused towards the long row of ceiling high windows; the late morning flowed into the spacious room. His face appeared translucent because it was illuminated by the natural light. His brown leather work boots were weather worn and looked unevenly smooth on the bottoms. Our professor’s clothing indicated he was fond of faded jeans and T-shirts and he seemed more like a rural coal miner or steelworker rather than the stuffy image people often have of a university professor. In the old room, the age-worn wooden plank floors and the professor’s boots reminded me of the history of this place where hundreds of students walked coming and going to classes. The building was known as West Hall.
Our drawing professor seemed to become a child again as he spoke about the joy of expressing life with our charcoal lines on a large page of newsprint paper. At times, he spoke directly to us, individually. It was a one-on-one commentary on what he observed on our drawing paper. With his back turned away from our hefty tubular metal easels, he examined the smudged, jagged, smoothed, or delicate drawings. He looked into our eyes as he gave his critique of what he observed. He made a joke and laughed about what he saw on the page. We laughed with him. He had a sharp wit, a critical eye; his ability to focus in on a tiny bit of information was uncanny.
Spontaneous sessions, gathered around him, were special moments that we all enjoyed with him every day when we took our morning break. He affirmed our own discoveries about life and living when we, too, become a child again. He urged us to scribble with abandon. No restraint. For the first time in our adult lives we realized there would never again be anyone looking over our shoulder and demanding that we “color inside of the lines.” This was the message of the day. It was such a simple truth that it cut deeply into my soul and took root when I eventually realized I was free to make a mess, scribble, and splash inks and paints with abandon on a page of drawing paper. Enthusiastic flying hands and frenzied minds were not only okay with Prof. Glen Brunken. Our acutely focused minds discovered the feeling that he proclaimed a truth that he buried inside of me forever. I was free to play and enjoy the physical activity of drawing with a passion. “Drawing is a sport,” Yes, he proclaimed it!
“Drawing is a sport,” he continued speaking in his clear, slow Oklahoma drawl. “You are athletes! You’d better be standing at your easel when the Muse arrives!” I sat up straighter and pulled back on my shoulders, taking in a long breath of pride in my profession. “I am an artist!”
I first encountered the paintings of Glen Brunken one afternoon when I walked slowly through a museum exhibition; I stopped suddenly when I came to a painting that was named, “Little Yellow Painting.” I had the feeling that I didn’t need to breathe anymore; all I wanted was to just stand there forever, gazing into the deep brush strokes and thick slashes of vibrant yellow oil paint. This little gem of a painting was done on stretched canvas. I had to tear my eyes away from the surface of this brilliant ray of vivacious, powerful strokes to have a look at the tag on the gallery wall:
“Little Yellow Painting.”
Acrylic on Canvas
Glen Brunken, American (1943- )
I recognized his name and I knew he taught at a local university. In that moment, I knew this was an inspired teacher who danced with the mysteries in his paintings. I enrolled in his summer drawing class at the university. And, this is how I became one of his students, sitting in the circle, as he proclaimed the duties and the joy of being an artist.
During the regular semesters, he offered printmaking courses but it was his summer drawing classes where I learned what it meant to be an artist. The early morning figure drawing classes were intense because we absorbed life lessons as well as developing our drawing skills. It was hard work. Learning to see is a difficult journey. In our daily discussions, we expanded our core philosophy and talked about making art. Like all fine arts professors, Glen was well read in philosophy and literature. He spoke about various genres in a way that directed us to weigh out our ideas on a broad spectrum of intuition that crossed all boundaries and disciplines. Glen sharpened our minds. I became a pencil that had been rubbed on sand paper. Sharp.
In the heat of the early morning, our summer drawing classes were intense. We were dedicated workers who stood at our easels hour after hour, day after day.
Prof. Brunken once reminded me,
“Making art is a profession. It’s your job. You go to work every day, just as if you worked in a factory. You bring your lunch bucket to work and you take your place at your easel.”
He instilled in us a sense of pride in our profession and a strong work ethic. We had business to do and we needed to understand that we had to focus on getting the work done. This was our life work, our calling, and our mission.
We did not have air conditioning but the wall of open windows was adequate. A slight breeze wafted across the large room; it was enough to keep us going. Our minds focused on the lines we were putting down on the paper. We labored at our easels, drawing from the live model. We stood in a circle around the nude model’s platform. The rudiments of making art soaked our consciousness. This was the battlefield where we struggled to find the forms and planes; we kept our eyes focused on the variety of models who took a pose on the model’s platform. That square, foot-high, wooden platform became the center of concentration and the apex of the world that connected us to our internal longings to find balance and purpose. As our model stood tall, reached out, bent from the waist, twisted sideways, or lunged into a classical Greek warrior pose, each art student guided pieces of black charcoal sticks, worn down or sharply ground lead pencils, blocks of waxy crayons, or even brushes and paints. In turn, we slashed, swooped, smudged, splattered, jabbed, or trickled our materials onto the intimidating sheets of drawing papers. Our daily skirmishes with thick drawing boards held upright on tall metal easels were the challenge we all faced.
After four hours of drawing, my hands, arms, face, and clothing was covered with the materials I had used for my drawings. I felt like a small child who was playing in the mud – joyous and forbidden. It seemed that for the first time in my adult life, I could get very dirty and I was breaking the rules – and it was all okay. I relished my days making drawings with my classmates and I felt like I was part of something so powerful it could never be expressed in words.
Prior to entering the university to begin work on a degree in art, I had already studied painting for 6 years. I was passionately in love with the act of painting. My paintings appeared in national exhibitions and I won many awards at juried shows across the country. I was a painter who was enchanted with the landscape and made paintings that are called, “painterly realism.” I already understood painting was my calling in life. I read art books and studied the photographs of drawings and paintings. I visited art exhibitions and looked closely at each work that interested me. I learned from them first-hand and brought information and techniques into my own art. Now, I wanted to earn degrees in fine art so I could move forward into my dream job. My intention was to become a professor of fine art. There was no “Plan B” in my life.
At the age of forty-two, I was a nervous freshman student surrounded in the classroom by young students who were the age of my own children. In fact, I had grandchildren, too! I tried not to be self-conscious or intimidated by their youth. I stayed focused on my inner sense of purpose. I was at the university to learn everything as I scanned the possibilities of courses available, I felt like a child who was on a merry-go-round.
Prof. Brunken challenged his students.
“Take courses in everything and particularly in the things you know nothing about,” he said. Many of us began the adventure into the studies of everything, with courses in Geology, Biology, Psychology, Philosophy, and Literature. Mythology and Sociology. It all opened up a universe of new things to learn and new imagery to bring into the art we created. He urged us forward, “Put everything you learn into your art. Every discipline offers you new information to bring back to art!” he exclaimed as his pale blue eyes flashed quickly around the walls of the art room through the wire-rimmed glasses he kept pushing up on his face.
From that first moment when I stood in an art gallery and examined the “Little Yellow Painting” I had a secret, hidden desire as I entered that university program. My personal hidden desire was to learn to make abstract art. I saw abstract paintings in several subsequent gallery visits and I was swept away by the magic and depth of the deeply textured surfaces. The artist’s hand was visible in each work. I perceived something so mysterious and spiritual in gestural abstraction and I began the pursuit of reading every book I could find on the artists who did this kind of painting. Their stories gave me an emotional response like nothing else. I bought several books on this way of working and did a lot of experiments on my own before I started classes. Soon, my desire to make abstract art came to the forefront of my mind, and I began changing. I did abstract art in my dreams at night; during the days I struggled to find the way to learn how to do it in the classroom.
This new world, exciting as well as frightening, forced a departure from my comfort zone, turned away my focus of previous ways of thinking and working. Prof. Brunken was the catalyst that pushed me over the edge into this new consciousness and understanding of the world. Art making at this time brought me to questions of how to work in conceptual ways. The obvious, discernible landscape of my own personal world was in flux. Our professor’s views on drawing; and even his views on time and place influenced me significantly.
For homework each day, he required us to do several pages of rapid, small drawings known as “gesture” drawings. Our sketchbooks filled up with pages of those little drawings – about 20 per page. As he reviewed our sketchbooks, he wrote a few messages next to gestures he particularly liked. He placed a tiny asterisk beside some of the best gestures to draw our attention to it.
Mornings in the classroom guided our understanding of the gestures of life. We made small gesture drawings as homework; in the classroom we scribbled out large gesture drawings on our sheets of drawing paper. We learned to look into the surface of a figure; quickly assess the gesture to see internal movements of everything. We encountered gestures at a distance; we recognized gestures in the trees; in flowers blowing in a field; a person walking far away down the busy street; the furniture in the art studio.
“Everything in our world holds a gesture. That unique gesture is the moving, living, life form of everything we are viewing. It is life, movement and stability,” he said.
Eventually, I became a professor of fine arts and humanities. Of course, my students learned all about gestures, too. A few years after I had completed my education and was working in a museum, I observed Prof. Brunken as he judged an art exhibition. He looked at a sculpture and said,
“This person needs to take some drawing classes. This sculpture has a lack of understanding of structure. It looks like the artist does not know how to draw.” Prof. Brunken looked at a stone sculpture and knew if the artist studied drawing and understood the gesture. In time I learned how to identify good drawing skills, too!
Since those distant summer days as a student, I continue to observe everything in life through the lens of gesture. In my travels over the years, I always carried a sketchbook. On the pages, I jotted down quick notes or longer reflections side-b-side with my sketches. I recorded the gestures of the world as I experienced it. Gestures mingle among my more detailed drawings, poems, short essays and historical notes.
The smallest things in our daily life begin to dance before our eyes when we look more closely at any movement. The spirit of the thing is right there. The embrace of the inner core of all of existence presents itself to us. A gesture sends a powerful signal that can be discovered through all our senses. While we engage in the various movements and acts of life, every moment of every day, we are typically unaware of the message that an onlooker is getting by watching us.
“Many of our actions are basically non-social, having to do with problems of personal body care, body comfort and body transportation; we clean and groom ourselves with a variety of scratchings, rubbings and wipings; we cough, yawn and stretch our limbs; we eat and drink; we prop ourselves up in restful postures, folding our arms and crossing our legs; we sit, stand, squat and recline, in a whole range of different positions; we crawl, walk and run in varying gaits and styles. But although we do these things for our own benefit, we are not always unaccompanied when we do them. Our companions learn a great deal about us from these ‘personal’ actions – not merely that we are scratching because we itch or that we are running because we are late, but also, from the way we do them, what kind of personalities we possess and what mood we are in at the time.” (From Manwatching by Desmond Morris.)
Learning to find and appreciate the sparkle of life can be difficult. We are so accustomed to taking a quick glance at everything and only seeing the surface of everything. Seeing requires more time. Seeing is a skill that has to be practiced and learned and it takes a lot of deliberate time to do it. Think of all the many images your eyes view every day as they rapidly flash before you. There are so many you cannot even see them because seeing comes slowly and it comes in layers. Seeing requires intention.
One day after Prof. Brunken had looked through my latest group of gestures in my sketchbook he turned to look at me and he said,
“Lynda, you need to look at this gesture drawing until you begin to realize it is beautiful. In fact, cut this one out of your sketchbook and put it in a frame. Put it in a place where you can see it. Look at it often. Keep looking at it until you understand that it is beautiful.”
The central theme of everything is the gesture at the core of it all. I think of “gesture” as the recognition of God when he leaned down over his new creations and breathed the breath of life, his own Spirit, into them. Some days, I focus on looking closer at the people I am in contact with and I whisper to myself, “Look for what is good in her. Keep your focus on the inner core, on her gesture. Look again. She is made in the image of God. Take a long, slow look and find her eternal gesture. See it.”
In memory of Professor Glen Brunken (1943-2013).
Glen taught at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania for 40 years (1969 – 2009 He was killed in a tragic accident, June 3, 2013, when he fell through a glass door at a local restaurant in Slippery Rock, PA.
You can find additional information on “Gesture” at:
Date of Writing: June 21, 2013.
AWARD: Honorable Mention in Memoir writing at the National Federation of the Blind Conference, July 2013.
Revised: June 2, 2016.
Scheduled for publication in the forthcoming book of creative non-fiction essays, Walking by Inner Vision: Stories of Light and Dreams” by Lynda McKinney Lambert.
Lynda McKinney Lambert. Copyright 2013, 2016. All rights reserved.
QUOTE: “Making art is like killing snakes, you have to get down to it” Glen Brunken
_____ About Lynda ______
Lynda’s 2 blogs:
“Walking by Inner Vision” Link: Walking by Inner Vision Blog
“SCANdalous – Recollections” Link: SCANdalous – Recollections Blog
Contact Lynda: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynda McKinney Lambert is the author of “Concerti: Psalms for the Pilgrimage” published by Kota Press. To order it, click here: Concerti: Psalms for the Pilgrimage
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Lynda authors two blogs on writing, the humanities, arts, and faith.
She is a freelance writer; her poetry and essays appear in numerous books and literary journals.
Lynda is a retired professor of fine arts and humanities and she exhibits her fiber arts in exhibitions worldwide.
Currently, Lynda is working on 3 books in development for publication in late 2016, early 2017.
Contact Lynda: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynda McKinney Lambert. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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