SCULPTOR OF HEROES, ARTIST OF HONOR
Veterans' sacrifices touch his heart, inspire his hands
Every day, in a cluttered private studio, Jim Brothers fashions a little bit more of the battle scene that eventually will grace the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
By KEVIN KITTREDGE
The Roanoke Timer
Kelly Hahn Johnson/The Roanoke Times
In his Kansas studio, Jim Brothers works on one of the figures from
"The Wall," his rendering of U.S. soldiers scaling the bluffs of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy. The figures are part of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
LAWRENCE, Kan. - The mailbox is mounted on an old motorcycle.
The maple tree is decorated with hanging musical instruments. Clarinets, saxophones, trumpets.
The bows of four half-buried canoes stick out of the lawn like surfacing whales.
Mix in the abstract sculptures and the general air of amiable neglect, and the truth is obvious.
An artist lives here.
And not just any artist. This is the home of Jim Brothers, D-Day sculptor. Every day, in a cluttered private studio near his house, Brothers fashions a little bit more of the elaborate battle scene that eventually will grace the $12 million National D-Day Memorial currently rising in Bedford.
"Across the Beach," in which one soldier drags along his wounded buddy, already is installed at the memorial site. Brothers' second work, "Death on the Shore," will be unveiled at 10 a.m. today. A third, "Through the Surf," is currently being cast in bronze.
Several others are still to come. Brothers may even do a statue of the late Charles Schulz, one of the memorial's first and biggest supporters, and some of the "Peanuts" characters, to go in the memorial's education center.
It is a high profile project, and it is not his first. Brothers has also crafted statues of Omar Bradley for the five-star general's hometown of Moberly, Mo.; and of Mark Twain for the Hartford, Conn., public library.
He has erected monumental sculptures in Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Los Angeles and Seville, Spain.
He is rapidly developing a reputation as one of the country's pre-eminent sculptors of public monuments.
His works are conservative, figural, traditional.
They are nothing like his yard, and still less like the man himself.
Brothers is 58. He has a ponytail and a ragged beard. On this day in early May he wears blue jeans and a work shirt with an emblem on the sleeve that says "Dodge City Fire Department."
His appearance is actually more conservative than it used to be. Back in the days when Brothers attended mountain-living historical re-enactments, friends say, he used to walk around all day in buckskins he made himself.
Fellow Kansas sculptor Matt Kirby, who is sculpting beach obstacles and field crosses for the D-Day onument, explains:
"He would hunt the bucks, skin them, eat them, and then tan the hide with the brains."
Byron Dickson, architect of the D-Day memorial, calls Brothers "a delightful, fine fellow ... An ideal sculptor for an architect to work with." He also calls him "a '60s- style hippie who never grew up."
Says Bob Slaughter, a D-Day veteran and chairman of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation:
"Jim's an artist. And artists are different."
Jim Brothers was born into a working class family in 1941 in Eureka, Kan. His father worked on a highway crew. "We grew up on the poor side of town," Brothers says.
Even as a kid, Brothers was drawn to art, though the public schools offered little in the way of formal art education. As a child, he drew Indians and cars, recalls his mother, Jean Brothers, 83.
Brothers remains close to his mother who also lives in Lawrence. On Friday nights, Brothers and his girlfriend, Kathy Correll, join her for pizza and dominoes. (Brothers' father is deceased.)
Asked when she knew her son had talent, Jean Brothers answers, "When he could hold a pencil."
Brothers earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Phillips University in Oklahoma, then worked on a master's degree in art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He never completed the master's, and to this day has nothing good to say about university art education. "They're not teaching the basics anymore," he says.
A traditionalist in art, his private life has been wildly unconventional. Brothers has been married four times and has been with Correll for several years now. He managed to avoid military service in Vietnam because he was the single parent of a son - but he concedes he was a terrible parent. He doesn't know where his son is now. "We're pretty estranged."
For most of his adulthood, Brothers has worked primarily to fund his art. At various times, he has been a teacher, cowboy, policeman, sewage plant worker, social worker and Volkswagen repairman. He would keep a job for a while, then quit to focus on art until his money ran out.
His mother helped him financially. "I was able to back him enough to give him a chance," she says. Still, "Every time he went back to work, I breathed a sigh of relief."
Once, in the '80s, Brothers made a sculpture out of junked Volkswagen hoods because he had no money for better material. The sculpture depicts an American Indian on horseback attempting to spear a charging buffalo, and is called "Plains Destiny." It is on sale now in a Lawrence art gallery for $250,000.
There is a lesson here about the artistic life.
"If nobody knows about you, no matter how good you are, you're not going to make a living," Brothers explains.
Brothers was still largely unknown nine years ago when he met Paul Dorrell. The meeting changed both their lives. Dorrell, an unpublished novelist and former museum assistant, was running a lawn care service in Lawrence at the time. He saw potential in Brothers and asked to represent him as an agent. Brothers agreed.
"I said, he couldn't be any worse than the last one," Brothers says.
It worked. As an agent, Dorrell was fearless. He did not believe in closed doors. He was not intimidated by titles. And he did not waste time on small commissions. He wanted home runs, not base hits.
In 1992, Dorrell landed a $110,000 contract from General Electric for a series of Brothers' bronzes called "Flight." In 1994, it was the statue of Mark Twain in Hartford, Conn. "That opened the door for Omar Bradley," Dorrell says.
The 10-foot Gen. Bradley statue led in turn to the D-Day project for half a million dollars.
Though the figures are impressive for a sculptor who once made art from junked car hoods, they should be put in perspective; out of the D-Day payment, Brothers must pay all the expenses for his work, as well as Dorrell's 20 percent agent's fee, off the top.
Some longtime friends and acquaintances find the idea of Brothers doing D-Day, well, mind-blowing.
"The irony is just incredible," says David Awbrey, a writer and journalist who has known Brothers for decades and wrote several pages about him in one of his books. "An old hippie, anti-establishment - he's not what you would call a well-turned-out guy."
Yet on another level, Awbrey says, it makes sense. "Jim has always honored the working man, the common man, the real working-class kind of guy. He's probably one of the greatest military sculptors this country has ever seen."
Brothers also is passionate about history, and war history in particular. Correll says he spends his spare time reading or watching documentaries. The interest is reflected in his war statues. Veterans like Slaughter say he is meticulous in getting all the historical details in his statues right.
Brothers, for his part, calls the D-Day soldiers "heroes," and World War II "The last war we had between good and evil."
He calls the chance to work on the D-Day memorial "A once-in-a-lifetime deal. How many people get to do a national monument?"
According to those working on the memorial, there have been no complaints from veterans about Brothers or his free-spirit looks. Veterans often drop by Brothers' studio outside Lawrence. When "Across the Beach" was shown in Lawrence before being shipped to Bedford, Awbrey says, some veterans who saw it for the first time cried.
Lee Scott, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, jumped at D-Day and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded three times and captured once. After the war he founded Carol Lee Products in St. Louis, (including the doughnut shop in Blacksburg, now privately owned ). He later moved to Kansas.
He calls Brothers "a heck of a guy. He does beautiful work. He embarrasses me sometimes. He says, 'I can never thank you enough for what you did.'"
Brothers' down-to-earth manner surely derails much criticism. He seems full of bonhomie and stories, loves a cold beer, is self-effacing and makes friends instantly.
"A lot of sculptors can be very arrogant," says Paul Dorrell. "Jim's not. He's so easy going."
Those close to him say he can be temperamental, self-absorbed and argumentative.
"He's human," says Correll. "Anybody who works with Jim or knows Jim has to appreciate that he's an artist first and foremost."
"He's sort of an irascible person from time to time," says fellow D-Day sculptor Matt Kirby. "It's because he cares deeply. He's really a very decent person, in a world where some people are not."
Brothers' D-Day sculptures are slated to be completed by June 6, 2001, the 57th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, when the memorial will be dedicated.
Brothers, however, has his doubts. "We will serve no sculpture before its time," he quips.
The piece Brothers is working on now is called "The Wall," and shows soldiers scaling the sheer bluffs of Pointe du Hoc, France, to take out enemy guns above.
"Champions who helped free a continent," Ronald Reagan called the soldiers of Pointe du Hoc in a 40th D-Day anniversary speech atop the cliffs. The larger-than-life figures fill Brothers' little studio.
Brothers jabs a kitchen knife into one soldier's clay side, hacks out a gob of clay, then flips the knife, point first, at a second figure. It bounces off.
"It's anything but close to being finished," Brothers laughs.
The studio is just a stone's throw from his house, but Brothers often sleeps there . He likes to work very late at night. "I work until I fall," he says.
Not much about his life makes sense to him, Brothers says. Sculpture does.
"This is the only thing in my life I've always come back to.
"Sculpture is my way to immortality," he says. "Some people do it with their kids. I do it with my work."
That could be. Public monuments tend to last for centuries.
Brothers' success has had its rewards in this life, too, he says.