THE MORNING CALL: Bethlehem artist Michael Brolly's wood fantasies are functional, too (02/07/2017)
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Michael Brolly is a master woodcarver who creates stunning works for both eye and mind. His show at Penn State-Lehigh Valley is a wonderland of creativity that's fun, whimsical and often awe-inspiring.
"Michael Brolly: Redux," in the Ronald K. De Long Gallery, features creations ranging from a 6-foot ray fish made of gleaming wood, a large wooden bird-like creature that doubles as a jewelry box, a broken heart that can mend itself and delicate vessels of either wood or glass that seem like miniature tornadoes.
The 21 objects are not only witty and great eye candy, but many also are functional as containers, tables, desks or bureaus.
Possibly his most well-known work is a wooden whaling boat that plays music to communicate with whales. It is not in the show, but was at the opening reception Jan. 26.
Brolly, a Bethlehem resident, grew up in Philadelphia, the son of Irish immigrants who came to the United States from Northern Ireland. He earned a BFA from Kutztown University where he studied under master woodworker John Stolz and now is a teacher of wood arts at Bethlehem's Moravian Academy.
"I was really shy as a kid," Brolly says. "And when you're shy you spend a lot of time alone. Art has always offered me a very comforting and grounding place to dwell. When I was young, I would spend hours in the basement making things. I hand-carved things. I never used machines.
"Probably the most important thing that art has done for me is to help keep my feet planted firmly in a world of incredible and ever-expanding wonder."
While at Kutztown, Brolly was introduced to wood-turning machinery. "There was a lathe in the corner and for four years I was doing all this stuff," he says.
"The lathe is the only tool that can make itself," he says, adding that wood-turning is one of mankind's oldest crafts. Brolly can rattle off a litany of terms to describe the art of turning and carving wood on a lathe, like skew and gouge, scraping rough burr, but the point, he says, is that it allows precision. And precision is evident in all of his work.
"If you can pull the craftsmanship off, you can get to do just about anything," he says. "I didn't know then what I know now; that I can wrap my mind around some elemental concept and make it go from mind to paper to reality."
His work "Thinking of my Mother-In-Law Marianne and Those Magnificent Mahogany Breasts" from 1996 is a bird-like creation of mahogany, maple, walnut, ebony and cherry that incorporates brass and steel. It stands about 3 feet tall, an imposing creature that once one gets to know it, doesn't seem as imposing. It is also a clever jewelry box, with hidden compartments and hinged wings that double as hanging racks.
That kind of clever whimsy is seen throughout his work. "The Martian," for example, is a Martin D28 guitar with a green wood grain front. At first glance it looks like an acoustic guitar — and it is — but the sound holes are almond-shaped eyes and through them you can see a circuit board.
The board is the electronics for a built-in theremin, an electronic sound device that controls amplitude and frequency through movement. All six strings are antennas, and an antenna is incorporated into the body of the guitar. As the musician plays and moves about with the guitar, sounds are created.
"I'm no musician," Brolly says. But he does have an interest in sound, and this led to "Sephira," a whaling boat he created to communicate with whales.
"How Do We Say We Are Sorry: Singing to Whales" is a talk Brolly gave for the "TEDx LehighRiver" series in 2015. In it he told the heartfelt story of how "Sephira" came to be created.
Around 1995, Brolly moved his family to New Bedford, Mass., to pursue a master's degree at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. New Bedford (where "Moby Dick" begins) was once a rich whaling community and is home to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where Brolly discovered the world's largest model ship resides.
Brolly took his family to the museum, where he discovered it had recordings of whales talking to each other as well as a collection of old maps that featured mythological creatures. He found the museum enlightening and depressing, he says.
"The museum became like a Holocaust museum to me," Brolly says, tearing up at the idea of the massive extermination of whales. "How do we say we're sorry about all this? The slaughter was incredible."
Brolly surmised that the ropes hanging from the ships and blowing in the wind were calling the whales by sending vibrations through the water. Brolly began making large musical instruments — "gymnasium-size instruments." One of the first was a wire he strung from the basement to the fifth floor of the university art building. As one went up and down the steps, you could play it, he says. "It sounded like a heartbeat. It was amazing."
He contacted William Close, the inventor of the Earth Harp, and proposed a collaboration, a sound box made from a half-boat model Brolly created. The result was successful and when Brolly came to Bethlehem to teach at Moravian Academy, in 2013 he completed a full-size version in a St. Ayles skiff that is 22 feet long and 6 feet wide. "It kept my dream alive."
The boat is strung with brass piano wires that can be played with rosin-covered gloves to mimic the sounds of whales. In 2013 he took the boat to Scotland for an international St. Ayles skiff race just to play it in an area where whales come.
The point of "Sephira," says Brolly, is "talking to other intelligences so we can save ourselves." "Sephira" was played by students from Moravian Academ at the reception for "Redux."
Some of Brolly's most fascinating works are small, delicate pieces of wood rendered through a process of sandblasting. "Homage to My Mother" from 2015 is a three-dimensional corset, about 12 inches high, made of Douglas fir sitting on a bronze armature.
The ribbing is composed of delicate pieces of wood, incredibly thin and constructed with patience and skill. Brolly says he had to use a rubber mold to get to both sides by carefully sandblasting away first the light part of the wood, so that the dark part stays.
The same technique was used for three pieces that incorporate photographs. "Saigon," "Atom Bomb" and "Fleur" are three-dimensional works in which screens of sandblasted wood act as a viewing device in a shadow box, capturing or mimicking the photographs behind them.
In "Atom Bomb," for example, a photo of an atomic explosion seems etched as a mushroom cloud in wood on the front screen in incredibly detailed and precise strips of wood.
It's this kind of detailed process that elevates the works outside of the normal sculptural form.
"I like learning," he says. "I like pushing it."
In "Broken Heart" from 2008, Brolly makes it look simple. Two pieces of wood seem to be heart shaped but split — a broken heart. The magic happens when you turn them over. "If you turn it over, it heals itself," he says, turning the pieces over and joining them into a perfect heart shape. The piece was designed as a gift to the doctor who performed his open heart surgery in August.
"It is very good that making art has that comforting, grounding quality for me," he says. "I guess I could say that many would be shocked to find that I, my own self, was surprised when it finally dawned on me just how autobiographical my work can be."
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