Jennifer Walleman | Staff Writer
Ninety-nine-year-old muralist Eric Bransby was mentored by some of the most influential muralists in the modern era, including Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson, Jean Charlot and Josef Albers. They each influenced his work greatly but so did a lesser-known person with no art background at all — a person who challenged Bransby to pay attention to detail and never get comfortable with his work. That person was Col. Frederick Barrows, editor of Army Review, now known as Military Review.
Bransby shared his experience working on murals with Barrows while stationed at Fort Leavenworth in the 1940s and his other influences throughout his 35-mural career during his visit to Fort Leavenworth Nov. 6 as part of a documentary on his life.
The documentary, set to air on American Public Television in fall 2016, is an episode of the PBS “Reel West” series and is directed by filmmaker Jay Kriss. Kriss flew Bransby to the Kansas City area where the artist had done a number of murals while living here and studying at the Kansas City Art Institute under Benton and teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He was reunited with many of his murals for the first time since painting them. In addition to interviews with Bransby, the film will also feature interviews with former colleagues and students and archival footage of Bransby painting murals with his mentors.
Bransby was finishing up his studies at the Kansas City Art Institute when he was drafted into the Army at Fort Leavenworth in 1942. At Fort Leavenworth, he considered himself a self-proclaimed sad sack because they didn’t know what to do with him.
“Where do you put an artist at that time?” Bransby asked.
Bransby went to the chaplain with the idea to create a mural for the reception center. The chaplain approved of the idea. During the day, Bransby slept in the chapel and at night he would paint in latrines, the only place that kept the lights on. After the mural was completed, the chaplain asked Bransby where he wanted to go and Bransby said the art department in the command school. He found work at the old Command and General Staff College Library in Wagner Hall.
“My first job was to clean up negatives from the battle of Gettysburg because they were using that as one of the modern campaigns and then I found the wall, and I just said we’ve got to add something to this wall, particularly with the history of this post,” Bransby recalled.
Bransby went to Barrows for project opportunities.
“He looked at me with a very questioning glance, and he said ‘Do me some drawings,’” Bransby said.
Barrows was a field artillery officer and wouldn’t accept distortions of any kind. One of the first examples of this Bransby discovered was when he drew a horse.
“I had never drawn a horse in my life,” Bransby said.
Barrows, having led a horse-drawn artillery, knew horses very well.
“I did these drawings and brought them to him and he looked at the drawings and looked at me and back at the drawings and back at me and said, ‘Good God, Bransby. How many bones do you think there are in a horse’s leg?’” Bransby said.
“He said, ‘You are going to go out to the stables and draw horses for the next month.’ I thought ‘wonderful.’ I went down and drew horses.”
Bransby worked out of an abandoned mess hall. Every month Barrows would come and critique Bransby’s work.
“Being with the artillery, he would say, ‘Well, how many feet is this man standing behind that?’ Bransby said. “I’d make an educated guess and he’d say, ‘You’re wrong.’”
Bransby spoke with Barrow’s aide. She told him it was the “Army way” to find fault every time.
“I said fine, so I created a boo boo for him to find,” Bransby said. “So he would come in, find the boo boo and miss everything else.”
Bransby completed three murals on the history of Fort Leavenworth. He used a medium called egg tempera. This method mixes colored pigments with egg as a binder. One hot Kansas day, he was painting out of uniform, with no shirt, shoes or tie and smelling of rotten eggs, when the first sergeant walked in accompanied by a general.
“He looked and looked and said two words: ‘My God,’” Bransby said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to get my orders right away.’”
After hearing the story, Barrows told Bransby to carry on, and he didn’t get reprimanded. Barrows fancied Bransby’s work so much that he joked with the commandant of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks about throwing Bransby into the prison just to keep him around to make murals. The feeling was mutual.
“I admired him greatly,” Bransby said. “He made me much more accurate.”
Kriss said Bransby’s time at Fort Leavenworth really affected what would be a very successful career.
The murals he painted were some of his earliest work. He had only painted one other mural before coming to Fort Leavenworth. When he returned to post Nov. 6, he visited the Frontier Army Museum where the three history-of-Fort Leavenworth murals now hang. It was the first time he had seen the murals since he left the Army in 1945.
He used a very dark pallet with the three paintings, unlike his later work.
“I felt very inhibited being in the Army,” Barrows said. “I became very conservative with these paintings.”
He described the murals as realistic.
“If I do a history painting, it has to be so that grandpa and grandson can look at it and understand what’s going on,” Bransby said.
Post served as the starting point for many pioneers; Bransby channeled this in his work.
“I’d walk around at night on post and see the old buildings and in my mind I could hear the wagons going West,” Bransby said.
After leaving the Army, Bransby left Kansas City with his artist wife Mary Ann Hemmie and infant Fredericka Bransby to their new home in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he studied, painted more murals and later worked for the Air Force Academy as an illustrator, designer and art director.
Bransby’s last mural was painted in 2012 for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
“When I first met him he felt he had one last mural in him,” Kriss said. “I don’t think he realized that mural was going to be of his life. I think in closing, for myself as a filmmaker, I have the greatest job in the world. I get to tell somebody else’s story and the impact that person brought to many. Sometimes we don’t understand that impact because murals and particularly public art is something that we just see every day and live with. We live with it. We don’t realize what it is because we don’t go to a museum and see it hanging there. The key is that what an appreciation we have when we just open our eyes and see what is around us.”
Murals are becoming popular again, but it’s more than just paint on a wall, Bransby said.
“It’s beginning to come back now in a big way,” Bransby said. “Nobody has been trained. People decided that they are going to paint on a big wall. It’s more than that. It’s something that looks as though the architect had planned it and that it functions, interacts with the architecture. That’s a great challenge for me, and I love that.”