by Mandy Sirofchuck
There’s a brick structure at the intersection of Tremont and Highland Aves in Greensburg that was once Our Lady of Grace Church, built by Italian immigrants living in this hilltop neighborhood in the early 1900s. No longer a church, the exterior woodwork is painted in shades of purple, turqouise and pink. A face mockingly sticks out its tongue from one window, and a locomotive bursts from the other. On any given day, other sculptures may be perched atop poles outside where the congregation used to gather. You have now entered the world of artist Brian Allen McCall and his wife, Joanna.
Described as “colorful, comical and wildly eye-catching,” McCall’s sculptures are just one of the many evolutions in the career of this prolific artist who admits that art allows him to be opinionated. Not to mention humorous and somewhat cynical. Despite his success at earning a living in his chosen vocation, McCall believes failure is an integral part of being an artist and considers it an under-appreciated aspect of art.
“People who don’t like doing art probably just can’t deal with failure. I think an artist is dealing with failure every second he’s working,” he explains.
Perhaps not as financially successful as he might have been in the world of professional baseball, McCall’s creative career spanning 50 years includes illustration, etching, Heavy Metal comics, animation, claymation and sculpture. Stop by the Key Note Café in Jeannette, and you’ll encounter a McCall mural as you enter. Head east on Route 30 and the Greensburg Art Center beckons you with a McCall sculpture. King Street Blues restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria, VA is full of his work. DV8 Espresso Bar in Greensburg, Harrigan’s in Johnstown, and Tommy’s Bookshelf are just a few other public venues for McCall’s sculpture.
My first encounter was at New Dimensions Dentistry in Johnstown, a veritable gallery of McCall sculptures, from the “cartoon” style car in the reception area and a jungle scene of wild animals to the ballerina and baseball player that defy gravity over the dental chairs. It’s the kind of art – like a “still” from an animated movie – that elicits a smile and provokes the thought, “this artist knows how to have fun.”
A native of Long Beach, California, McCall played center field for the Chicago White Sox from 1960-64 – a bit of trivia that gets his foot in the door at events, he quips. His altruistic motive for enduring professional sports, which he hated, was that it paid the tuition at Julliard for his brother, who is now a composer. Worn out at age 24 from baseball, McCall tried envisioning himself in different roles.
“The only one that made sense to me was ‘artist’ because I could always draw, and it’s a profession I could see myself doing into my nineties,” he says. “It’s also a more physical activity compared to writing. It involves movement.” And movement is an underlying element in both his sculptures and illustrations. After graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he majored in illustration, McCall moved to Washington, DC to begin his new career.
“I did illustrations for The Washington Post, as well as courtroom drawings for local television, and then opened a studio in the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia,” says McCall. “The opportunity to sell to the public co-opted my illustration career, and I began making etchings and watercolors; and was quite happy with myself until printmaking became too tedious. I was falling asleep. I began seeing it as irrelevant to make prints when copy machines could do just as well. After a long relationship ended, I realized I was tired of the tourists and ready to leave, so I bicycled across the country to find myself again. Eventually, I ended up in Greensburg, PA.”
From illustration and etchings, McCall moved on to animation “because of the chaos I see as movement,” he explains. “I thought working with movement would be an exciting thing. But each drawing is precious,” he says, and the tedium of doing 500 drawings to get a few seconds of film was unsatisfying, so he moved on to clay and clay animation.
“Clay is really heavy, and filming it becomes a problem. You have to find ways to hold up the pieces and build structures so that your characters don’t melt under the lights or fall down as you’re filming.” That’s when he “discovered” polystyrene, from which his current sculptures evolved. He was getting commissions for sculpture in restaurants, and this new medium fit the bill for that decor. Polystyrene was available locally, was cheap, and could easily be carved with detail. It is basically the “armature” that is then covered with a papier mache, painted, and pieced together.
“Sculpture keeps me grounded,” says McCall. “It’s how I make a living. Most of my work is commissioned.” He approaches his sculptural subject matter as a “problem solver.”
“I try to find something in chaos. I love machinery, gears and wheels, pistons and chrome.” Thus, the proliferation of planes, trains and automobile sculptures which he likes to sculpt, but doesn’t like to draw. Sometimes his work is integrated into a building; sometimes it’s suspended from the ceiling. The lightweight materials he uses liberates sculpture from the typical “pedestal.”
What does he do when he’s not developing his “3-D illustrations?”
“Sketching. Drawing satisfies another part of me,” says McCall. “I especially love sketching musicians because of the movement and emotion of the music. If I’m drawing, I want to pull from something dark and deep. I’ll just start scribbling and tearing at the paper with the pencil, and it’s just totally arbitrary where I’m going with it. This is where the ‘failure’ aspect comes in. I’m drawing, then I’m getting rid of something, and I’m constantly failing until I start to see something I like emerge, something I can start to grow. That destructiveness is really very important.”
And very successful.
Main Exhibit Gallery (301 W Main Street in Ligonier, PA) will feature the the work of local sculptor and illustrator, Brian Allen McCall, May 16 through June 28, 2015. As part of the Ligonier Art Walk on May 16, McCall will be at the gallery demonstrating and discussing his work from 2-3 pm and 4-5 pm, with a reception for the artist to follow. This event is free and open to the public.