ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Eric Bransby is one of the last living links to the great age of American mural painting. He studied with one of the country's most famous muralists, Thomas Hart Benton, and went on to create his own murals in prominent buildings across the West. Bransby's now 98 years old and still painting. Colorado Public Radio's Chloe Veltman recently visited the artist at his Colorado Springs studio.
CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Eric Bransby is attacking a drawing with tight, sharp strokes, a pastel pencil grasped between gnarled fingers. His studio is unheated, but he doesn't seem to notice the cold. He's completely engrossed in the image taking shape on his easel. It's a study for a new mural that he hopes to install at nearby Colorado College.
ERIC BRANSBY: I'm going to add some lights, a little stronger lights, on the side of the face. I've got to redo that mouth.
VELTMAN: Bransby says he draws between two and eight hours every day.
BRANSBY: Drawing has been a continuous thing for me, like exercises for a musician. It's refreshing. I draw better. I paint better.
VELTMAN: Drawing the human figure has been one of the few constants in the artist's patchwork career. Bransby was born in 1916 in Auburn, New York. His father was a preacher who took the family to Pennsylvania then Iowa. His parents didn't encourage his artistic pursuits.
BRANSBY: And I demanded then finally that during the Depression that I got to get to art school. And they said well, he'll do one year and he'll come back so discouraged that we'll make something out of him. But that didn't happen. I found heaven.
VELTMAN: Bransby had never heard of Thomas Hart Benton when he hitched a ride from Iowa to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute in 1938, even though Benton was one of the most famous artists of the era. Under Benton, Bransby embarked upon a rigorous regimen of figure drawing and anatomy classes patterned after the European academies. Benton painted alongside his students and Bransby remembers him as a taskmaster.
BRANSBY: Benton was all business. You got in the studio, by God, and you worked like hell.
VELTMAN: Things looked promising for the young artist. Benton included two Bransby paintings in a high-profile show in New York in 1941. The following year, Bransby painted his first professional mural for what was then called the Work Projects Administration. Then he got drafted. By day, he painted military murals at Camp Leavenworth. Afterwards, he did his own work.
BRANSBY: I'd go down and paint at night in the latrine because they'd leave the lights on down there. So I was called the latrine painter.
VELTMAN: After the war, abstract expressionism hit the arts world. The human figure was displaced by drips, splashes and abstract forms.
Henry Adams is an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He's studied Bransby's work for 25 years.
HENRY ADAMS: For that generation, it was very difficult to make your way as a figurative painter, and a number of artists who had been very successful in the late years of the 1930s then suddenly after World War II found that the whole art world had changed.
VELTMAN: Bransby and his family crisscrossed the country looking for work and grants. In the late 1940s, he got a grant to study at Yale under the exacting European abstract artist Josef Albers. Bransby started to incorporate what he learned from his teacher into his figurative pieces, says Blake Milteer. He's the museum director at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which houses many of Bransby's works.
BLAKE MILTEER: One of the things that really makes his work unique is he combines that very much Renaissance-based figurative tradition with a dramatic sense of abstraction and of architecture, placing these figures in a shifting kind of space.
VELTMAN: Though Bransby managed to successfully combine the old with the new, his passion for the human form and for murals never left him.
BRANSBY: And I thought about quite a long time and I said, damn it, I'm going to draw the figure whether it's in favor or not. And if a wall comes along, I'm going to do it.
VELTMAN: In the 1980s and '90s, Bransby's profile as a muralist rose again. He received commissions in Illinois and Colorado. His stick-to-it-iveness impresses painter Sushe Felix, who has assisted Bransby on several mural projects.
SUSHE FELIX: Here he is - is it 98? And he's still doing it. Yeah, that was a really good lesson - to never give up, keep trying, keep growing.
VELTMAN: Bransby's age has slowed him down. He gets around with the help of a walker, and his hands shake when he paints. But he's always got his eye on the next project.
BRANSBY: I try to make each mural a project that will somehow expand my abilities a little bit more. Everything has to be a new adventure.
VELTMAN: He's hoping to finish his latest mural in time for his 100th birthday. For NPR News I'm Chloe Veltman.
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