Austen Brantley: Raw
“You’re poor, black, and you’re a woman; you’re nothing at all.” This is a line spoken by Mister (played by Danny Glover) to Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg) as she prepared to leave him in the acclaimed movie The Color Purple. Imagine having your identity assigned to you without your input, simply based on your gender and the color of your skin.
For renowned sculptor Austen Brantley, this has been his life’s journey, as expressed in his latest exhibit, “Behind the Mask,” and the creation of his sculpture “Boy Holds Flower.” With this work, Austen reveals the most intimate parts of himself.
Austen was born in Detroit, and in his early years, his family lived in southern Germany. At that time, he was just a boy, growing and developing, not seeing color amongst people or the children with whom he played.
His family returned to Michigan and settled in the Southfield/Berkley area. Austen returned to the US speaking German, not the norm for an African-American child. He was expected to be a stereotypical African-American male and was not supposed to be soft, gentle, passionate, and wanting to play with flowers. Yet this is who Austen is, and sculpting has given him an outlet to reveal the depth of the African-American experience, as well as empowered him to be unapologetically soft, gentle, and passionate.
This culture clash caused Austen to “see color” for the first time in his life and to realize what it meant to be Black. This awareness of your race and what it represents in America is a struggle for a lot of African Americans, especially males.
In the miniseries Roots, Kunta Kinte and other young men learn how to become traditional men in their tribe, and a male who cannot pass an endurance test is considered weak. If he is declared weak, he will be unable to marry or have children because he will produce nothing but other weak males, which would threaten the tribe. This is a scene from a movie, but for Austen, it rang true in his life and his need to fight against the norms to become his true self as an African-American male in America.
Oftentimes, Austen was the only Black person in his class at school. People treated him like he was dumb and poor based merely on his outer package of “Black male.” He was always feeling trapped along the way as he tried to figure out who he was.
At the age of 16, Austen went to his school counselor seeking a class that would help him maintain his 4.0-grade point average, and he was offered ceramics. For the first couple of weeks, Austen would wear latex gloves because he didn’t like the feel of the clay. Slowly the gloves came off and Austen’s teacher, Jeff Hartshom, became his supporter. Mr. Hartshom would praise and display his students’ work. Austen saw how this made his peers feel good about themselves, and he wanted to create that same feeling.
Austen says, “My work is my identity; ever since I started to sculpt, I was always trying to find my own voice, my own way of saying things.” He goes on to say that “contemplating who I am and searching for my identity [is a] way for me to think and build things.”
This inner fight and passion led Austen to become a breakout sculptor and artist at the age of 16, winning the Gold Key with his portfolio in National Scholastics competitions. This win and other accolades that followed set Austen on a path he didn’t foresee.
Austen was blessed with loving parents who always encouraged and supported him. His mother is one of his biggest supporters and an artist in her own right. Austen describes his fatherin the early days of his career as “the best craftsman and master at engineering.” His father would help him by driving him to shows in other states before Austen had a driver’s license. His father would make his pedestals and later taught Austen how to make them. As their relationship grew, father and son had some strained times and obstacles to overcome, but that didn’t take away from Austen revering his father as one of the biggest influences and inspirations in his life. He is very close with his father. His father would tell Austen his work is his superpower.
In an unpublished interview I had with Austen in 2015, I posed this question to him: “How does it feel to be possibly leading the charge in a field not explored by African Americans?” His answer: “I don’t see it as that. I see it as doing what I love. It’s not something I need to get rich off of. I just want to make something beautiful that stays around a long time.”
As his body of work continued to develop, Austen would say he was just trying to figure a way to talk to the Ancestors. Everything he has ever created was always related back to the faces of the Ancestors.
Another facet of Austen emerges as he describes the City of Detroit. He’s inspired by the rooftops and abandoned buildings, the cracks and the holes; to him, all of it is beautiful. From raw or rough edges, cracks and holes are representations of emerging beauty. He says, “All of this is beautiful to me. I can’t think of one bad thing about the city. It’s okay not to be perfect, it’s okay for things to be rough and raw. We’re not perfect people.”
For Austen, it’s okay to be edgy, to have sharp edges at times, to have no limits. This is also reflected in his work, especially in his “Behind the Mask” exhibit. Some of his pieces represent the struggles in his personal life, from the softness of “Boy Holds Flower” to the “relics of the mind” portion of the exhibit. In my 2015 interview with this shy, yet talented, young man, I posed another question to him: had he ever tried to do a sculpture of himself? He replied “no.” Now he has an entire series based upon pieces of who he is and is continuing to become.
When I met Austen back in 2015 at the Palmer Park Art Fair, he was this shy, reserved young man working part-time at K&G Men’s store and living at the gallery he created in Royal Oak. Whenever I went to a show, he was dressed in a suit. Now, this man--a father himself—has had his work seen in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Farmington Hills, the National Afro-American. Museum, and so many other places. He’s gone on to do sculptures of civil-rights activist Viola Liuzzo and Negro league baseball player Ernest Burke.
None of this would have happened if a little boy wanting to hold a flower hadn’t gone through the pain of trying to define his masculinity and identity as an African-American male if he hadn’t poured his raw hands into clay and listened to the whispers of the Ancestors telling him to create.