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Eric Bransby is one of the last living links to the great age of American mural painting. He studied with one of this country's most famous muralists — Thomas Hart Benton — and went on to create his own murals in prominent buildings across the west. The artist is now 98 and still painting.
At his Colorado Springs studio, Bransby attacks 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. He says he draws between two and eight hours every day.
"Drawing has been a continuous thing for me, like exercises for a musician," he says. "It's refreshing. I draw better. I paint better."
Drawing the human figure has been one of the few constants in the artist's patchwork career. Bransby was born in 1916 in Auburn, NY. His father was a preacher who took the family to Pennsylvania and then Iowa. His parents didn't encourage his artistic pursuits.
It was during the Depression, and when he demanded that he get sent to art school, he remembers his parents said: "Well he'll do one year and he'll come back so discouraged that we'll make something else out of him."
"But that didn't happen," Bransby says. "I found heaven."
Bransby hitched a ride from Iowa to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute in 1938. At the time, Thomas Hart Benton was one of the most famous artists of the era — though Bransby had never heard of him. 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.
"With Benton, it was all business," he says. "You got in the studio and, by god, you worked like hell."
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, and after hours, he improvised a way to do his own work.
I'd go down and paint at night in the latrine because they'd leave the lights on down there. I was called the latrine painter.Artist Eric Bransby on how he continued creating art after he was drafted during World War II
"I'd go down and paint at night in the latrine because they'd leave the lights on down there," he says. "I was called the latrine painter."
After the war, abstract expressionism hit the art world. The human figure was displaced by drips, splashes and abstract forms.
"For that generation it was very difficult to make your way as a figurative painter," says Henry Adams, an art history professor at Case Western Reserve University. "A number of artists who had been very successful in the late years of the 1930s then suddenly found that the whole art world had changed."
Bransby and his family criss-crossed 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.
"One of the things that makes his work unique is he combines that Renaissance-based figurative tradition with what he learned from Josef Albers," explains Blake Milteer, museum director at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, home to many of Bransby's works. "He combines figures with a dramatic sense of abstraction and of architecture, placing these figures in a shifting kind of space.
Though Bransby managed to successfully combine the old with the new, his passion for the human form — and for murals — never left him. He says: "I thought about it quite a long time and I said 'Godammit, 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.'"
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.
"I mean, here he is. He's 98 and he's still doing it," Felix says. "That was a really good lesson: To never give up. Keep trying. Keep growing."
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.
"I try to make each mural a project that will somehow expand my abilities a little bit more," he says. "Everything has to be a new adventure."
He's hoping to finish his latest mural in time for his 100th birthday.