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An anomaly in progress: Metal artist E.C. Brown

May 30, 2013

E.C. Brown at his booth during the annual Arts and Crafts Festival at Spokane Community College: Colville Center earlier this month. Photo by Crispin Stichart.

Ephraim Brown, 35, is a conceptual, metal and assemblage artist from the Pacific Northwest. He utilizes mostly recycled materials, found objects and scrap metal for his creations, thus giving a "trash into treasure", or "beauty found within the garbage" quality to his work. The tools he uses range from a dollar-store paint brush to an oxyacetylene torch.
These projects are currently being promoted under the umbrella name of E.C. Brown Anomalies. He is also a musician and producer, as well as a self-proclaimed expert on Occultism, Religious Symbolism, do-it-yourself brain programming, and consciousness exploration. Much of his work has underlying philosophical, metaphysical and psychological themes: loneliness, alienation, and the more psychotic elements of the human condition, along with hope in the face of adversity. He currently lives and works in a log cabin in the woods near the Okanogan National Forest outside of Tonasket.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a metal and assemblage artist currently based out of Aeneas Valley outside of Tonasket near the Okanogan National Forest. I utilize mostly recycled materials, scrap metal and things found in junk piles and scrap yards. I am currently producing and promoting my work under the umbrella name of E.C. Brown Anomalies. My father and I live in a log cabin in the woods in what I call Third-World-America, which I label as such because of an overall lack of infrastructure in our area. We live off of very primitive and sometimes dangerous roads, some of which we have to maintain ourselves. We cut our own firewood for the winter and since we don't have a well on our property, we have to haul our water from the national forest. Despite the hardships that come from living this way, we get to experience a lot of freedom. In some ways, personal freedom and artistic freedom go hand in hand and I try to make my work embody that idea as much as possible.

Apart from creating things, what do you do?

Aside from E.C. Brown Anomalies, I am also the Artistic Coordinator of the Okanogan Family Faire (formerly known as the Tonasket Barter Faire) that I'm trying to promote as an artistic and cultural event. I'm attempting to create a space at this faire for artisans and craftsmen to display their work and also offer demonstrations which faire-goers will be able to participate in. I also occasionally do large-scale permanent installations. As an artist, I try to be involved with the community as much as possible and contribute what I can to various community projects. I also play guitar and sing in a very loud, somewhat disturbing and intense Gothic Noise-Rock band called Velour Lawn Darts. We don't play very often, but we're looking to try and form a small cult following (snickering). I also write, edit and produce a left-leaning rural mini-zine called the Reprobate Tribute. And of course, I also work one day a week at our local general store in Aeneas Valley. As you can see, I have a lot going on and sometimes it can be stressful, but I really do enjoy my life and pride myself on being able to do a lot with very few resources.

Where does your inspiration come from?

In order to explain inspiration, it is best for me to begin with the presupposition that as an artist, I have no limitations or preconceived ideas about what should or should not inspire me. When an idea comes to me, or I get a brief taste or an inkling when I look at a piece of rusty crap metal and a light comes on; I just go with it. Even if it comes from a dark place, I try not to let it stop me. I see inspiration in all manner of things and people along with photographs, science-fiction films and books on mythology. Sometimes just random ideas that pop into my head can sometimes act as a spark for inspiration. However, inspiration can be a tricky thing because if you ignore it or don't use it when it comes, it will become atrophied (like an unused muscle), but even worse than that is trying to force it or make it submit to your will. That can be equally foolish.

A bit of blacksmithing on the side

Who has been most influential in your craft?

I've had a lot of pretty profound influences by many great artists and craftsman, some of them even more unknown and obscure than myself. The assemblage artist Michael DeMeng, whose work I discovered in 2010, very quickly became and influence on me. For many years, I've been influenced by Dada and Surrealist artists from the early part of the century, mostly because of their ideologies and philosophy regarding art and aesthetics.
The works of Kurt Schwitters, a German collage and assemblage artist, has been a driving force in some ways, mainly because of the very brilliant and intense textures of his work. For me, texture is a very important element of what catches my eye. My love of Kandinsky is an example of this. It would also be impossible to mention influences without acknowledging Salvadore Dali. He is and will probably always be one of my favorites. Metal artists and even wrought iron workers such as Edgar Brandt have also given me a great deal of inspiration. A lot can be said as well for traditional English wrought iron work, even though I lack the skill to do such intricate and detailed work. Wrought iron art has really made a profound impact on me and a lot of it shows up in my work.
Outside of art, what you might call the “look” of my work is also heavily influenced by film. The aesthetics of “Steam Punk” films such as City of Lost Children have been a big influence. There have also been a lot of science-fiction films ranging from Star Wars and Alien to Blade Runner and The Matrix that have made use of some extraordinary imagery that I have drawn from in a lot of my work. There is also the look and feel of post-apocalyptic imagery in movies like the Mad Max films that I like to make use of.
As horrible as the movie was, Waterworld contained some pretty brilliant and poignant post-apocalyptic imagery. As I make art from whatever I can find, to see on film a post-apocalyptic world in which recycled or up-cycled materials are made use of is encouraging, both aesthetically and from a material standpoint. There is also a bit of Tim Burton in what I do as well. He makes use of some wild imagery as well.
From a technical standpoint, I am blessed to live and work in an area that has a lot of brilliant metal artists, metalworkers and machinists. When I wanted to get into welding and needed a bit of advice about how to move forward, I was amazed at how many metalworkers and machinists were willing to take the time to throw me a few bones and point me in the right direction. You would be amazed at how much you can glean from automotive machinists and guys who make their living doing repairs on farm equipment. There are, however, some brilliant metal artists in the area where I live such as Quill Hyde, a mechanical engineer who has extensive background in theater productions and works out of Tonasket. He has been an influence as far as showing me what is possible with a bit of creativity and ingenuity. There is also a very brilliant knife maker by the name of Salem Straub who markets himself under the name of Promethean Knives who has provided a great deal of inspiration and guidance as far as blacksmithing and metalworking goes. In order to do some of the work that I do, a bit of blacksmithing is required here and there, but it is skill that has to be cultivated through practice and discipline.
Salem is not only a brilliant metalworker and blacksmith as far as technical skill, he also has a great deal of brilliance and ingenuity in his work; all of which he is willing to share. There's the added bonus in that he is very humble, glad to share what he knows and there are no stupid questions with him. I'm finding more and more through some of these people that the most brilliant artists are those who approach their work without ego or an elitist attitude. It really is something to aspire to. Even if they probably don't have time for a novice who asks silly questions, they are still able to take a few minutes here and there allow people to learn from them. To me, that is worth more than just about anything.

‘The great thing about the dark side is
that there's always free parking. ‘

When did you know you were an artist/maker?

I guess I've always been an artist in various forms ever since I can remember. My sister tells me that I might sometimes be found lying on the floor in the middle of the night drawing pictures of castles and things. I made a point of pursuing music for a large part of my life.
But I've always been a visual artist in one form or another. Even though it was a culmination of many years worth of influences and traveling the artistic path, the work I'm doing now with E.C. Brown Anomalies has come about relatively recently.
In 2010 I was working on an album (my third) when I really got into Steam Punk art and what could be called “Totalitarian” imagery. I also wanted to do some metal art installations around our property. I started by doing solar lamps and small metal art installations after I got my first welder in 2011. I quickly started doing more installations here and there. Then I got into assemblage art and very quickly a whole new world opened up. Piles of scrap metal and junk that I saw lying around starting to take on new life and I gradually reinvented myself. It didn't take long to start getting peoples' attention and before
I knew it--what can only be described as a snowball effect started happening. More and more people became interested in what I was doing, I started getting more and more requests from people interested in putting my work on display and things simply took off. In some ways, all of it has been enormous challenge, but I cannot stress how rewarding it has been, especially considering how much support I've had from the community. It would not have been possible without them and I try to never shy away from acknowledging that fact.
For me, one of the greatest steps forward in my artistic growth and development was discovering a community. For a long time, I functioned under the misguided assumption that as far as art is concerned, it was me against the world. I believed that though well intended, the people within my community weren't really capable of accepting or truly supporting my work, let alone understanding it.
I'm blessed to discover that I was wrong and that people are a lot more acute and understanding than I ever gave them credit for. That realization helped me to reach out to my community more and become much more involved, despite my limitations. And now I see myself as being part of a community for better or worse and I receive a great deal of inspiration from that.

How would you describe your creative process?

Strange, inspiring and sometimes frightening. Sometimes it begins with simply looking at a piece of scrap metal and having a vision in my head of something that it might be made into. Other times, I'll have a strange vision appear in my head and I'll start sketching or formulating it into something more tangible and then start piecing it together. Other times, it will be more like a theme or an idea that I want to convey that gradually morphs into a piece.
Other times I'll take a photo of something and think of what type of frame I might make to accommodate it. There are also times when I simply pick up miscellaneous pieces of scrap metal from the floor of my shop and start welding them together and seeing what they turn into. Even what might begin as horrible mistakes might eventually be used in something later on. There are times when I wake up after having dreams of both beautiful and horrible things and I'm compelled to go down into my shop and start piecing something together, even if it's three-o' clock in the morning. I try to let the idea go where it's going to go and give it life without trying to force it. However the ideas for a piece come about, I try to nurse them along and then once they start becoming more real and more manifest, I simply get into a flow and put everything I have into them and let them take on a life of their own. You can't force a plant to grow and in many ways, my ideas start as little tiny seedlings that must be nurtured with care.
As they evolve, I can put bit more earnestness and determination into them. Sure, sometimes they fight me, but in the end everything usually works out. The final stage is when the work goes from my workshop where all the welding and metal working equipment is kept to the kitchen table where the paints, the epoxies and the glue-gun take over. This is where things become a little more laid back, but in some ways a bit more interesting. The colors and textures come to life and a greater sense of calm takes over from the chaos, earnestness and noise that happen in the workshop. When I emerge from the shop, I'm usually wearing tattered and filthy cloths and my face and hands are covered with soot and grinding dust. Being able to clean myself up, put on my PJ's, turn on some Nick Cave, pour myself a glass of wine and sit at the table with my paints and do the finishing work is not only very psychologically soothing, but it in terms of the creative process, it represents the smooth sailing that comes after the storm.
At that point, I'm winding down. I'm done with the hard and brutal part, but I'm still happily working. This is the part of the creative process that is easier to tell people about and let people in on. Whereas the goings-on in my shop are the part of the creative process that I prefer not to expose people to. But that is the nature of the beast. I am the first to admit that there are some very ugly and disconcerting elements of my creative process that no sane human being should ever subjected to. In the name of my art, I'm willing to go places that most people really shouldn't go if they want to maintain a normal, healthy state of consciousness; I'm talking about some of the darker and more extreme recesses of the human mind. But as I spent enough time staring into the abyss, it has become less frightening and intimidating to me. The great thing about the dark side is that there's always free parking.

Studio is “potential death trap”

If you could peek inside the studio of any artist, designer or craftsman (dead or alive), who would it be?

A hard question to answer, considering the fact that I'm slightly embarrassed by the disheveled state of my own studio. I guess I've never really harbored such a desire because I feel that an artist's studio only represents a small part of the actual creative process. Plus, there's the fact that even though I might be a great admirer of someone's work and curious about his or her creative process, if my own process is any indication of how an artist works, I might not necessarily want to be subjected to theirs. But at this point, if I could just have a peek inside their studio, it would be Kurt Schwitters, Michael DeMeng and Kris Kuksi are at the top of my list. Then again, it would be hard to go into such a studio and just “peek.” That is why in some ways I've already had the ultimate experience in terms of entering the workplace of a brilliant artist or craftsmen in that Quill Hyde and Salem Straub have already allowed me to do so. Not only does Salem, for example, allow me in, but he also lets me touch things, mess with things and give me a tour of his latest projects. I can't really imagine taking a tour of someone's studio without being allowed to touch anything. And I really don't know that I'd allow someone in my workspace without a willingness to let them do the same.
For some people, the studio is itself the catalyst for things to happen. I don't look at that way, mainly because I'm never fully and completely relaxed in my workshop. Aside from the fact that it's too small, it's also a potential death trap with a lot of potentially dangerous and explosive tools and materials cramped into a rather small space. As a result, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my workspace and I think there are probably a great many artists who have similar feelings. But I can also see how the studio can sometimes be a sanctuary as well.

Do you think artists are born or made?

That depends on the artist, but I think both things occur. Some people are simply naturally talented, while others require years of hard work and discipline in order to get to a cohesive place artistically. What I can say that it is better for an artist, no matter how talented, to assume that hard work, determination and discipline are preferable to simply relying on raw talent. Raw talent can only get you so far. The most talented artists in the world can only get so far if they don't cultivate relationships, network with others and show that they able to do what he says he will do. Artists are a tricky bunch and there is usually a lot of ego at work, but whether “born” or “made” in my mind really doesn't matter, as long as ego is kept in check.

Natural, authentic and sustainable progress

How do you get out of your creative ruts?

One of the best ways is to acknowledge the rut and then allow myself to be in it. I accept the fact that I cannot be creative and inspired all the time and accepting that fact has cleared up a lot of angst, negativity and confusion from my creative head-space. In many instances,
I see an artistic rut simply a mental cleansing that occurs naturally and is not necessarily something to be feared or lamented. Just as the body needs rest after a long period of physical hardship, so too does the mind need rest after a long periods of creative output. In this manner, I also cope with depression. The depression itself isn't the hard part; it's the helplessness, the lack of motivation and negative feelings that come with being depressed that make it hard. But once I realize that I'm in that state and simply allow myself to be there and tell myself that it's ok to feel this way, it generally doesn't take long for things to turn around. A creative rut can also be managed by simply focusing one's attention on something else, something enjoyable like playing my guitar, reading, or a multitude of other things. This is one of the other reasons why it is good to have a couple of smaller side projects with no due dates on the back burner somewhere.
All in all though, the absolute worst thing I could ever do to get out of a creative rut would be to try and force it. To do so would be sheer folly and the results would be not only disconcerting, but also unsatisfactory as well. I've had a few instances in which I tried to force something along, to make myself be creative when I wasn't in a creative headspace; I have never been satisfied with the work that resulted from it. So now, I don't even bother. I just switch to something else and give that part of my brain a rest. Copious amounts of alcohol can sometimes help.

Where would you like to be in ten years?

After two years, E.C. Brown Anomalies is beginning to get to the point where it can support itself. I think this is pretty amazing achievement considering the fact that a great many artists work for many years and never get to the point where the work pays for itself. I would like to think that in ten years, my work will allow me to eek out a modest living and allow me to support myself with it, but at the same time, I want to be able to maintain creative control and work in away that doesn't drain me.
I would also like my art to get to a point where I can do a bit of traveling and continue to introduce new audiences to it. It's going to be a challenge and I have a long way to go, but I'm optimistic. It's hard to say what the future will bring and sometimes, what we want might not necessarily be what we need. From that context, it makes no sense to try and plot or plan every aspect of my career. In all honesty, the unexpected elements of life are what make it interesting. Sure, it would be nice to think of my work being displayed in galleries throughout the world (New York and London especially), but at this point, I'm still a regional phenomenon. A lot of people think I'm crazy, unmotivated or un-ambitious to not want to go further faster, but I look at my growth and success as an artist as something that has to be natural, authentic and sustainable.
To view the world as “there for the taking,” in my mind represents an unsustainable path for growth and achievement. Yoda chewed out Luke Skywalker for paying too much attention to the future and the horizon instead of focusing on where he was and what he was doing. This is a mistake I try to avoid making.
*See more of Brown's work on his website at http://ecbrown.zymichost.com.

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