There are some unusual things in Jessica Brandl's studio at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena. There's half a garfish in what looks like resin nailed to the wall, and cups depicting skulls and old plastic cowboy and Indian figures sculpted in relief.
She's just begun moving in, and as a "reformed hoarder," there will be more things brought in and most likely purged later.
But the eye is drawn to one unusual object: a huge vase with fired clay rope hanging around it. This enormous piece recently placed first at the Zanesville Contemporary Ceramics Show. It forces the viewer to walk around and around to unravel a story that doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end.
This is Brandl's second stint at the Archie Bray Foundation. She was there in 2014 when she was the Windgate Scholar, just for a few months. This time she'll be living in Helena for the next two years, the longest she'll have spent in one place in five years.
Brandl was born in Texas and lived outside Austin until she was in middle school, when her parents decided to move back to the old stomping grounds of Cedar County, Nebraska.
"I went from stuff to no stuff," Brandl said. "One place was alive, the other was vacant."
The family farms that had sustained the big Catholic families that Brandl's parents came from had stopped being viable in the 1950s. The place was vast, but "one person can't make a living on 125 acres," Brandl said with a shrug.
Her family had lived in Cedar County since the late 1800s, and she said that even now if she meets someone from the area it's almost certain they'll be related in some way.
"There's continuity," Brandl said. And there was for a long while, as she started to become more and more enticed by art. Her family had moved again, out of Cedar County and south of the state's capital, Lincoln, to a small community. There she went to high school and to drawing classes at Concordia University, a Lutheran teaching school that was conservative to the point that when classes drew nude figures, the models were in bathing suits.
Brandl's teacher was high on her skills as an artist, to the point that he helped her fill out an application for the Kansas City Art Institute, a top-flight undergraduate school. She remembered visiting the school and her mom coming out of the financial talk and not saying anything, so she knew it was expensive and probably out of reach. But Brandl finished her portfolio for her application, sent it off and waited.
A family tragedy
"When I was a senior, both my folks were killed in a motorcycle accident," Brandl said. They were on the way to Louisiana on a motorcycle, and while their bodies were coming back to be buried, her acceptance letter to KCAI came too. Brandl went to Kansas City.
"Stuff is how you're successful," Brandl said of her parents' Midwestern worldview. The house was paid off on the farm, but there were 13 outbuildings that had to be tended to. "People would drive by and think weird hoarders live there," Brandl said, but her parents just had the space and time to have separate buildings for different hobbies. Their deaths left her with a whole lot of stuff. "That meant when I should have been most unencumbered, I was encumbered," Brandl said.
Her parents were working-class people, her father an HVAC technician and her mother a trucking company auditor. "School wasn't something they had thought about," Brandl said. "I went to school to be anonymous."
Because KCAI doesn't have a graduate program, all the focus from the professors is on the undergraduates, which means everything is intense. She buried herself in work, thinking about majoring in painting and drawing, but finding herself drawn to sculpture.
"I'm really fascinated by 3D objects," Brandl said. "I had to deal with, organize, get rid of stuff at home, and that all went into sculpture."
But she didn't like what she thought of as the "toughness, the Carhartts and rusty objects," that defined a lot of bigger sculpture work. "I liked plastic things, the relationship of reading objects," Brandl said, "objects, not big interrupting things. I was suspicious of that." Ceramics was where she could combine that interest in objects, things, with her artistic abilities.
"You get better in a hurry," Brandl said about KCAI. Seventy-five percent of the students don't graduate, so Brandl was under the gun while she was there, taking out student loans to pay for upkeep, taxes and insurance at her parents' home where her younger brother was living and still dealing with the fallout of their sudden passing.
"I took ideas and go into myself," Brandl said. "I was not willing to talk about home, but could do it through the resistance of material. It takes so long to get something that says or means something."
She was not sold on being an artist when she finished her degree in three years, but also couldn't go home where she would be "the weird person," doing things on her property where everyone would watch and tell their neighbors. Which meant grad school.
Never sitting still
Brandl completed a Master of Fine Art at Ohio State University, where she was so far ahead of other students in the ability to actually make objects from clay that she ended up teaching many of them how to complete "skill objects," like the small cups she started making for skill courses that blossomed into her understanding of connection.
Brandl got out of grad school with the 2008 economic crash still in the near past. She had been painting huge canvases, and had been selling some, but realized that no one would be buying anything that large any time soon.
To kill time and make a little money Brandl made cups, "souvenirs," that she would sell or give away. "You can reach out with an object," Brandl said. Sometimes, depending on where she was in the world, if someone asked her about a cup she had, one maybe with a death's head or an old model of a plastic cowboy or Indian in relief, she would just hand it to them and say "take it."
"It's the currency of gift and exchange," Brandl said, one intimately related to her Midwestern upbringing of repressed emotions that would find their way out through other items.
After grad school, she didn't sit still for long. Brandl has been a fellow at Harvard and worked at the Watershed Center in Maine where she churned out 500 ceramic plates in three months, all molded from wild clay. She returned to her interests in three-dimensional objects, at one point using her phone to take a 3D scan of an elephant's tail at Tufts University's museum. Brandl went to Italy and France and studied objects at Pompeii with archaeologists (getting on site with an old ID card at one point). Brandl taught in Canada and the United States. She sold her parents' home, bought another in Kansas City, sold that too and went fully nomadic since 2013. Her fellowships at the Archie Bray will be the longest period of time she's spent in one place since that decision.
"There's nothing new under the sun," Brandl paraphrases from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, but the first part of that verse goes, "the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done." In her current work, she reaches for the objects in her past and is making them collide in her hands.
Her mind is a Möbius strip, an infinite twisting loop that never quite goes over the same place twice, but will return to them again, and again, and again, but somehow manages to make something exciting and new when she begins to shape her art from new clay.