Inside Track: Brimmer moves at his own pace

ArtPrize’s ‘pat on the back’ in 2011 spurred artist to pursue his craft on a grander scale.
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Henry Brimmer is building a workshop on the shores of Lake Michigan where he will continue to explore various artistic mediums. Courtesy Henry Brimmer

On the shores of Lake Michigan, a retired Michigan State University professor is building himself an artistic playground.

To followers of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Henry Brimmer is not an unusual name. He is, however, an unusual man. At 77 years old, Brimmer is reinventing his own artistic vision as a member of the Free Range Makers Collective, branching out to learn new methods and indulging in materials he hasn’t worked with.

Brimmer has been featured in four ArtPrize competitions, making his eclectic work familiar to the local arts scene. His work brought the unreal and the absurd to downtown Grand Rapids, suspending a hanging man sculpture 180 feet above the intersection of Ionia Avenue NW and Monroe Center in 2012 for his installation “Gravity Means Little.” He regularly produced eye-catching works that brought surprise and, in turn, thoughtfulness to ArtPrize.

Now, however, Brimmer is turning his focus inward. In a plot perched above the shores of Lake Michigan in the West Olive area, Brimmer is building a cathedral.

Not in actuality, but the 3,000-square-foot workshop Brimmer is creating features the open spaces and vaulted ceilings one would expect from a classic worship space. Inside, Brimmer said he plans to teach himself new techniques and mediums to create with. Once finished building, he will use the space to play and grow as an artist without restriction.

Brimmer was born in 1945 to Jewish parents. He began his career with a degree in economics from University of California-Berkeley, graduating in 1978. He then studied in Switzerland and Germany before moving with his family to the United States.

“I originally came to the USA to study agriculture at UC-Davis,” Brimmer said. “I had this fantasy about a return back to the land. Very much influenced by reading Thoreau’s ‘Walden.’”

HENRY BRIMMER
Organization:
Free Range Makers Collective
Position: Artist/CEO
Age: 77
Birthplace: New Mexico
Residence: West Olive
Family: Wife, four children and two grandchildren
Biggest Career Break: “Maybe a real turning point was to be accepted by the GRAM for the ‘Touch Wood’ exhibit … This gave me permission to think, ‘Maybe I can do art. It’s OK to do art.’ I believe that I’ve always been an artist, somehow.”

When he realized the scientific aspects of agricultural learning didn’t fit his interests, Brimmer pursued a degree in art from Sonoma State College. After graduating, he went on to finish a degree in graphic design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He also received a master’s degree in publication design from the same university.

Before his retirement from MSU in 2018, Brimmer taught in the department of advertising and public relations for 13 years. A graphic designer by trade, Brimmer spent his working years visualizing and creating for others and teaching students to do the same.

Now, he is turning his focus from the visualizer to the maker. Brimmer said he is most intrigued by the physical making of a thing, learning the hands-on feel of different materials. He is currently exploring clay work and has acquired a kiln.

“I want to know what clay is about,” Brimmer said.

Currently stored in a car shelter, his clay pieces stand on makeshift shelving alongside the regular debris of construction, odds and ends of wood, metal and concrete, all saved for artistic use.

Most recently, Brimmer purchased a chainsaw and has been experimenting with working on wood. He said he admires the juxtaposition of the violent tool with the precision and singularity of clean incisions in the wood.

He is no stranger to wood as a medium, as his first installation at ArtPrize in 2011 comprised, among other wooden pieces, 17,000 small wooden houses. The art installation, titled “Touch Wood,” was displayed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, where visitors were able to interact with the piece by stacking and forming the miniature houses.

Although not his first artistic endeavor, when “Touch Wood” was received well by ArtPrize voters, Brimmer said it was the proverbial “pat on the back” that encouraged him to continue pursuing art on a grander scale. He went on to have three more installations at ArtPrize, with his 2014 piece, “There’s Something Happening Here,” finishing in the top five installations that year.

Wood, metal, resin and cement are just a few of the mediums Brimmer is eager to pursue in his new space. He also said he wants to learn to sew.

“I don’t want to become a master of any of those things,” Brimmer said in relation to his endeavors in new material. “I understand mastery.”

Instead of learning the perfection of craft through rote and pursuit of learning, he said he is just interested in “making things.”

To Brimmer, the process of learning art through standardized means can feel restrictive.

“I want to feel that I am free,” he said, describing conventional artistic methods of learning as counterintuitive to the type of creativity he hopes to cultivate for himself. For him, the mastery of art forms often can create a type of tunnel vision while he is looking to broaden his abilities and the scope of what he envisions and creates.

He describes his early years of learning as difficult and recalls often struggling as a child to focus on tasks and find interest in what was assigned to him in school. Now, at the age of 77, Brimmer wants to allow himself the freedom to learn and grow artistically in a way that works for him.

“I want to be able to jump from project to project,” he said.

The new space he is creating has a large, open-style workshop that will allow him the space to work on several pieces at once. Rather than pursuing one work at a time, Brimmer said he is looking forward to moving fluidly between mediums and methods as his creative process continues to evolve.

In addition to an open workshop with vaulted ceilings, Brimmer’s new space will feature a loft overlooking the workshop, a bathroom, small kitchen, storage space and a steam room because, as he said, “Why not!”

Despite steady work, the construction progress is slow. As he is serving as his own contractor, Brimmer has had to deal with constant supply chain issues due to nationwide COVID-19 complications, in addition to being his own architect and working hands-on in the building process.

However, the artist said he is allowing the construction to proceed at its own pace, letting his creative inclinations determine such elements as paint color, or whether to paint at all. Unsurprisingly, the project currently does not have a projected completion date.

While in the pursuit of a new artistic chapter, Brimmer said he is looking — as always — for things that are simply of interest to him.

“A lot of projects that I’m doing now are just debris from the construction,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun.”

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