Fragments of the Past
photography by Steve Bracci
Most of the year they’re invisible. But in the winter, after storms have stripped away the leaves and the birds have fled for better weather, you see them.
Nests. Little circles of mud and twigs and grass woven by singing architects into amazingly tough structures for raising their families. It takes a season of bad weather before we notice them.
It wasn’t until his nest was emptied by a failed marriage and the departure of his three kids that sculptor Brian Rust really started caring about nests. “The notion of this fragile, beautiful structure (nothing but an arrangement of sticks) somehow seemed to make sense,” he explains. “It was not just my own case but also within my family. Both my older brothers...have college-age kids right now away at school so all three of us are dealing with different relations to family and our roles as dads. The nest as a metaphor also ties into the larger social fabric, of us all collectively making and remaking our lives and homes and family.”
So for the past three years Rust, 50, has focused his creative energy on this most basic form of natural architecture. When he’s not teaching at Augusta State University, you’ll find him in his studio drawing, painting or constructing nests in an ongoing meditation on the form and on the lifetime of experiences that led him to it.
“The nest has many levels to it for me. It is part my love of natural forms and the natural world, part a nod to my Northwest past (Rust grew up in Washington State), part my love of functional things and architectural ruins.” If you look up into the night sky and point a telescope, there’s the nest shape again, swirling in the nebulae. “I’m working toward making the nest turn and expand. It becomes a world, a universe, a cosmos. A beautiful, fragile, fleeting image.”
Birds weave nests out of odds and ends fallen to the ground. Taking his cue from them, Rust makes his nests of discarded pieces of the past, things that once had a purpose but are just junk now. The constructed nest he calls “Ramshackle,” six feet in diameter, is made of broken chairs. “Truth be told, the idea of making nests out of broken-up pieces of old furniture has a very personal domestic sense about it.” When he creates images of nests on paper, he recycles his discarded drawings, cutting them into strips and weaving them into nest-shaped collages. The nest has comic potential too. Rust is collecting as many bodice-ripping, manly-chested covers from paperback romance novels as he can find; he’ll use them to fashion what he plans to call “Love Nest.”
But even before he started exploring nests, Rust’s art focused on the natural world and drew together fragments from the past. Washington State’s coastal Indian tribes have a rich tradition of magnificent totem poles. Rust found these structures powerful and beautiful and began to experiment with his own modern-day versions. He builds his totems, which range in size from four feet to about eight feet tall, out of recycled materials—carved elements, chopped-up pieces of old sculptures, found objects, materials with different colors, textures and sizes. He drills a hole through them and stacks them up on threaded rods, combining and recombining them until he finds arrangements he likes. Rust has created about 20 of these totems (and companion drawings). They have such evocative names as “Rolling Balance,” “Ascending Journey,” “Persistent Memory,” “Terra Mudra.”
“I’m interested in the tension between balance and imbalance. I stack them up in a way that looks like they could almost topple over.” But they don’t, of course, though always seeming on the verge, the elements perched together in a kind of ongoing miracle of stillness and poise.
Rust’s favorite form of art, though, can’t be brought into a gallery (except as a photograph). It is environmental art: sculptural and architectural pieces made out of natural materials and created for a specific site outdoors. Over time, these pieces erode in the weather, wear away as people touch them and eventually return to the elements from which they were shaped. This is art designed to be temporary, bound up in the cycle of birth and death like everything else in nature. The works range from an earthen bridge and stairways he was commissioned to build in the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson to a 20-foot fern leaf fashioned of logs on a hillside behind a private home. He has made gateways of twisted mountain laurel branches on paths in the woods in North Carolina, outdoor sitting areas on several college campuses, a fanciful rough oaken structure in Knoxville containing a pressed earthen stairway leading to nowhere but your desire to climb it. He has made such site-specific art in seven states.
Creating such works requires studying a site, its shape, its natural elements, its feel or spirit, then making something that almost feels like it has been there forever. “I like making things people will hang out in, or pause and study because they seem mysterious, ruin-like.”
For most artists, time is the great test. Can you create something that will last, that will give you a shot at immortality? That’s the opposite of what Rust is after with these environmental works. “These are not to be forever. They will rot and go back to nature in maybe 10 years. They allow me to explore impermanence, to make something that fragility is part of. It’s an Eastern idea—that permanence is a fiction. You have to enjoy the moment because it’s moving on.” He enjoys visiting these works years later to observe how the elements reclaim them.
Rust often uses rammed earth and stabilized clay in his large outdoor structures. He and his helpers make those materials themselves. It’s backbreaking work requiring lots of brute force and muscle power you don’t normally associate with art. You can watch the process of building the earthen bridge at Clemson on YouTube at “Nature Based Art: Earthen Bridge by Brian Rust.” You might already have seen one of his outdoor works near Augusta: “Stone Leaf” marks the entrance to the Bartram Trail off Columbia Road.
Rust teaches art at ASU. He spends most of his time there at the back of the campus in the converted brick warehouse, built for the old Arsenal during World War II, that serves as the sculpture lab. He walks from table to table where his students sit sanding or gouging or carving the pieces they are working on. On the day I visited, he had started teaching at 9 a.m. with a presentation by his ex-student (now colleague) Raoul Pacheco on art as social practice, the artist as healer. After two hours of slides and discussion exploring the porous border between art and social action, I left for a couple of hours, then returned in the afternoon to ask a few more questions. Rust was leaning over a table covered with plaster dust where students were carving hunks of plaster for an assignment. He explained the steps he takes the students through as they learn to carve first on fire brick, then plaster, then wood. I was so hungry I could hardly listen.
“Brian,” I said, “I’m starved. I’ve got to get some lunch.”
“Lunch?” he laughed. “That’s the trouble with days like this. One class ends, another begins and I never think of lunch. Then I look up six hours later and wonder where the time went.”
Rust grew up in the high desert savannah country of eastern Washington. His father worked at the Hanford nuclear site. His mother and grandmother were both artists and encouraged him. In fifth grade he drew his own hand drawing. “Wow,” he thought. “I can do this.” His high school had an excellent ceramics program and he loved mixing the clay and glazes, throwing things on the wheel. But he realized he didn’t want to be a production potter, making the same cups, dishes, planters over and over.
He attended the local junior college. There an art teacher introduced him to a sculptor who lived in the beautiful San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound. Rust left eastern Washington for the first time and spent summers working in Philip McCracken’s studio learning what it meant to be a professional artist. Now out of school, he returned home for one year to work in a meat-packing plant. That experience convinced him to go back to school, “not work in a place 50 hours a week that stunk so bad.”
He enrolled in the University of Washington in Seattle. There he learned about environmental art, working with a landscape as one would with clay, but on a vaster scale. He loved the process of reacting to the environment, fitting into an already-existing pattern, sculpting works the public would interact with. After earning his undergraduate degree in sculpture he continued his exploration of environmental and public art at Berkeley, working with clay and recycled materials. He received his MFA there in 1989.
By then he was married. His wife worked as an accountant while he made art, worked at frame shops part time, and looked for teaching jobs. Wayne State University in Detroit offered him a one-term replacement job in the winter of 1991. While there he learned about a possible one-year job at a little college in Augusta, Ga. He came to Augusta in 1991 and he’s been here ever since.
“Coming from the Northwest, I found Augusta a very new, very different environment—the humidity, the red soil, the tropical vegetation, the heat. I never got used to heat and humidity, but it was also like coming home. Augusta is a midsize town like my own, I could drive anywhere in 10 minutes, I could ride my bike around, experience a slower pace of life—it all made sense to me. I loved Augusta College and the scale of it, the sense of community with colleagues. It was all new and exciting. I like the diversity of classes I have to teach—humanities, studio, all levels of sculpture, drawing, senior exhibition. They’re ways to break the routine, to challenge myself, to keep me reading and thinking, and all this feeds into art making.”
One of the things Rust always loved about working with clay is what he calls the “dialogue with the materials” and the sense of being in control of some of the process (the shaping of the pot) and out of control of others (how the glaze will look after the pot is fired). Of course, that’s a metaphor for life too. Here in this place of red clay, Rust has grown into his environment, set up his totem and woven his nest in the dialogue between the new work he envisions and the broken old pieces from which he will fashion it.
Editor’s Note: To see more of Brian Rust’s artwork go to naturebasedart.org or brianrust.weebly.com/index.html