Bren Sibilsky wonders what her neighbors thought during those seven quiet years she created a body of work: her own work, not commissioned or contracted, just hers.
Those seven years began quietly. She quit a successful commercial art business, hunkered down and read and read and read some more: Greek mythology, biblical stories, Native American legends, the origin of the Easter Bunny. She let images develop in her mind.
Then she rolled up her sleeves and took on epic artistic undertakings: a life-sized Aphrodite, leaning gracefully from the wave she was born of; a bearded Achilles gazing solemnly from a clock of leaves and pearls; and busts so detailed and lifelike you can’t help but lean in, study the individual muscles, veins, strands of hair, and wonder, how did she do that?
Her husband, Randy, was more than supportive. “It would be shame if someone as talented as her couldn’t create,” he said. “What a waste.” He also got to work transforming outbuildings on their property into a studio and then a gallery.
“Nobody really knew what I was doing,” said Bren. “I think the neighbors thought I was sitting on the couch eating bonbons all day while he went out to work.”
“She was not sitting on the couch,” said Randy, laughing. “I’d come home, and all of a sudden, Zeus would be done. And a few weeks, months later, there would be a different thing. Once she got a body of work and started to promote it, she started getting into shows; she started to win shows, and it snowballed from then on and it’s evolved into what it is today.”
Today it is Bren Sibilsky Sculpture, a gallery and studio on the couple’s property, a farm that once belonged to Randy’s grandfather on the peaceful outskirts of Algoma. The gallery is a welcoming haven, smelling of incense, that features Bren’s diverse collection of bronze, porcelain and clay sculptures. A drawing of her late father, Donny, nestling a rescued bird rests on an easel. A few of her paintings hang on the wall, and works by other artists, including Kimberly Lyon, Tom Seagard and Brigitte Kozma, round out the collection.
Bren’s artwork is on display from California to New York City, as well as throughout the county from Ephraim to Kewaunee. She has been a finalist for the International ARC Salon Competition five times and selected to judge the sculpture submissions of the 2017 and 2018 HerStory exhibit hosted by Manhattan Arts International.
A few works in progress wait to be completed on one side of the gallery space, including a clay horse bust so large that when Bren and Randy took it to a foundry near Chicago to be bronzed, the craftsman had to cast it in 13 pieces.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you work so big?’ And I say, ‘I still can,’” Bren said.
Working large, she said, still comes down to the basics. “It’s all about line and form and design,” she explained, adding that working in realism “takes a crazy sort of dedication because when you get a figure wrong, everybody knows it. If you go abstract, you get to play a little bit more.”
One tool she finds indispensable is the same tool used by the old masters — calipers. “You develop a good eye by using them and over time see proportions more easily, but it’s always good to recheck your work because your mind will fool you.”
She also uses a heap of references — pictures, diagrams and a life-size poster of the human muscular system, along with friends, Randy and gallery-goers. It’s a working studio, so don’t be surprised if Bren asks to measure the length of your arm or the circumference of your head.
Before creating massive sculptures, Bren’s first artistic instincts came to light when she held a pencil. “I was drawing everywhere I shouldn’t be. In school I’d get in trouble because I drew pictures on the sides of all my assignments,” she remembered. “My teachers recognized it right away, ‘There’s something creative about her.’”
When Bren was eight years old, she noticed ads for art schools, and was certain she’d go down that path. Her parents had to explain that that was not possible. But a young Bren was determined. She kept drawing, and after she graduated from Luxemburg High School, she went to work in a factory.
“I always think that was the best incentive not to drop out of college. It sank in my brain: I want this. No matter what, I’m gonna get all the way through, ’cause it was a struggle. I worked through school to help pay for it,” remembered Bren.
She left the factory to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, where she majored in illustration with a minor in design. It was a safer bet when it came to earning a living, but she took sculpture classes all the way though. “That credit wasn’t going toward anything — it was my passion. That’s what I really wanted to do,” said Bren. “Most artists my age have that same exact story: ‘Well, I wanted to do this, but my parents wanted me to do that.’”
She took classes with award-winning abstract sculptor and educator Hanna Jubran.
“I get a lot of flak for the type of art I do. It’s usually from abstract artists who have no idea whom I studied with,” Bren said, smiling. “He never did that to me. He knew from the get-go what I was. He was an excellent teacher. He took the time. He gave me a lot of freedom to express. He taught me also how to find the answer. He’d say, ‘If you don’t know how to do something, go to the library.’”
When Bren was asked to teach 10 years ago, she emulated Jubran’s teaching style. “If you have a great teacher, then you can become a great teacher,” she said.
Bren started teaching bronze casting with Mary and Ken Davidson, sculpting instructors based out of Mississippi who once taught at the Peninsula School of Art. Bren took their class years prior and befriended the couple, who helped Bren and Randy set up their own onsite foundry.
Randy began remodeling the barn on their property into the Algoma Atelier of Sculpture and Art, and now that travel has become more difficult for Ken and Mary, they join Bren’s workshops via Skype.
“Mary doesn’t miss a trick,” said Randy. “It’s like she’s here.”
“I’m still her understudy,” said Bren. “I gain something every time.”
Bren has also come into her own as an instructor. She focuses on the basics, offers a relaxed space and shares a contagious passion for art. “If you throw too much at a person right away, it’s gonna be tricky,” she explained. “If you keep a calm environment and just go step by step and through the process, they’ll put themselves in it. Everybody has their own story, and it comes through the clay.”
When it comes to her own work, she’s built off the legends and myths and stories that inspired her during those seven years of quiet, focused creativity.
“It’s almost like I create my own myth now,” Bren said. “It’s pretty much the story of life, and that’s what myths are — just basic stories of human existence with perceived gods and how we manage our life on this planet. I meet people and hear their stories, and I’ll go back to the studio and think about the conversation, and it grows out of the clay from there. I think most artists work like that,” she said with a smile, adding, “so always be aware of what you say to an artist.”
For more information about Bren Sibilsky Sculpture and the Algoma Atelier of Sculpture and Art at E5977 Fremont Road in Algoma, visit BrenSculpture.com.