Mixed media sculpture artist Gray Brogdon turned 80 and won’t be slowing down anytime soon
gRey Brogdon is a fascinating man. He lived a rich life full of adventure, love, war and art. He visited 30 countries, served 31 months in jungle fighting in Vietnam, taught at 3 universities, jumped from planes, visited every museum he could find, built 2 houses by hand and learned to master a myriad of tools and machines. . It suffices to say: “He has seen it all”, but through all that he has seen, he has never diverted his objective from the very thing he feels most obligated to do, namely to do. art.
Gray is a Thurston County mixed media sculptor who has decorated and beautified the Olympia waterfront at Percival Landing not once – but seven times, with his sculptures in steel, wood, industrial chain, abandoned auto parts , disused rooms of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and even century-old streetlights on 4th Avenue in Olympia.
He participated in a public art showcase, the Percival Plinth Project of the city of Olympia, which, since 2011, exalts sculptures of various mediums made by selected local artists. These unique and original works are placed atop plinths that line the Isthmus Park waterfront at the Budd Bay Cafe, and at the end of their 12-month display, are voted on by the community. The City then buys the community favorite and adds it to its permanent collection.
You’ve probably seen Grey’s work, “Along the Silk Road,” which was the Project’s very first installation. There were also the free-falling steel blocks of his “Jericho” and his pieces “For Which He Stands” and “Ascension of the Phoenix”, both of which feature the ancient lampposts and disused bridge parts. His personal favorite, “Sound from the Ends of Time” was made from 16 gauge flat steel and reused oxygen cylinders that he transformed to, literally, reverberate the sounds of our Universe.
In total, he has produced seven different pieces for the Project over the past decade, and his creative process is unique to each. Each piece of material is lovingly selected for its history, or salvaged from a forgotten heap, testifying that the material is worth more than being considered eternal waste.
His recovery days stretch back to his childhood when he wandered the side streets of Oklahoma dragging pieces of this and that home with him, first to his mother’s dismay, but later after she saw what he would create of it, much to his delight.
It was obvious that Gray was an artist born from an early age. At 12 he was taking private oil painting lessons with his art teacher and with his friend Danny he painted a 12 foot mural on his school wall: his very first public art exhibition. .
He received a BFA from Oklahoma State University in oil painting and sculpture, then pursued a highly successful 24-year career in the military and retired as a lieutenant colonel. . For the next 17 years he worked as a contractor, planning NATO exercises and wartime missions, and when placed at Tulane University as an ROTC instructor, he went on to obtained a master’s degree in anthropology as well as a military master’s degree in arts and sciences. “My knowledge of anthropology and art helped me become a better soldier,” he says. “I always tried to reverence what I was trying to do.”
He says he wasn’t always successful and it was a different world back then, but he always found a way to incorporate art throughout his time in the military for the purpose to train his soldiers in a different way.
He recounts a time when he and his soldiers were training at target in a paddy field. It was a relatively safe place with nothing and no one around, but that meant there weren’t any good targets to aim for. A soldier gestured towards a boundary line marker at the edge of the field, which did not look like much from a distance. But upon closer inspection, Gray realized that it was not just an indescribable mass, but a beautiful statue made with love with pieces of ancient pottery encrusted all over it. Gray did not allow his soldiers to shoot him, although it might have been tempting since he was technically “the enemy”, but Gray saw it for what it was: the art of shooting. somebody.
He explained that his survival and that of his men depended on his ability to read a topographic map and use a lens compass, skills he then translated by locating ancient Indigenous sites along the Mississippi River, in deepening the cultural and anthropological studies of this region.
Gray is of Chocktaw and Chickasaw descent. He says he’s inspired by Chief Shawnee, Tecumseh, whose 1813 prayer, “So Live Your Life” is a mantra he tried to live by. He shared a little with me, in a touching speech of his own, reciting:
“So live your life so that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Do not trouble anyone about their religion; respect others in their opinion and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day you cross the great divide. “
Gray has done a great job in fulfilling these life goals. He will be 80 in a few days and for now, he is largely retired.
“I’ve only had one job in my life,” he says. “Overloading is what suits me best. This is where he focuses, doesn’t waste time and creates some of his finest and best works. He has now restored 10 houses in our area and is taking orders in all mediums, although he is currently working on finishing his beautiful work of art, an Italian inspired house that may never be finished, for it is immediately clear to anyone who meets him that he will create, teach and inspire forever.
He has his own crucible furnace and forge, and at 80, he’s still turning solid metals into molten metals and pouring them from fiery hell into new shapes that he created from his mind. He says that at this point in his life he is using his art to make social statements about where he has been, what he has seen and how he hopes the world can be a kinder, gentler place. and just where to live.
“If I had to relive my life,” he said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.