The Recycled Art of Ritch Branstrom
By Kristi Kates
If you live in or visit Northern Michigan, chances are youve seen the work of Rapid River found object artist Ritch Branstrom. In addition to the traditional artist venues, such as galleries and festivals, Branstroms creations are also a big part of Emmet Countys Recycling Program.
Does Emmet the Recycling Robot ring a bell? Thats right - Branstrom is the talent behind the distinctive Ashcan Aliens - all named Emmet, although they each have a different appearance - that are poised next to five of the countys recycling centers. The sculptures draw attention to the informative recycling signs at the drop-off sites. But the Emmets are only the tip of the artwork where Branstroms work is concerned.
Born in Detroit to a mechanic father, Branstrom inherited several uncles who were home builders, and he grew up watching all of them getting things done, as he puts it.
When I was growing up, I just started taking things apart, he says, watches, radios, speedometers, anything I got my hands on. I put a toolbox on my tricycle, moved onto modifying bikes and building forts, and then as I got older, cutting up cars and trucks. I always had parts left over, and sometimes... they looked like things.
Branstrom attempted school, attending Michigan Tech for a while; but a .04 GPA made him wonder if he was cut out for the traditional education system. He soon found out it wasnt school itself, but choice of classes; he left Michigan Tech for NMU, and turned his GPA from a .04 to a 4.0 by taking every studio class he could, from jewelry and blacksmithing to illustration, woodworking and ceramics. Soon, his artistic sensibilities began to find their place.
Branstrom started out crafting earrings out of the unfortunate material of deer hooves. People thought they were coral, or shell, and they were intrigued - I mean, the earrings were beautiful - but after people discovered what they were made out of, they werent so thrilled, he laughs. It was a learning experience.
After a few additional experiments with crafting portable wooden chairs, Branstrom found himself gravitating towards found objects, much like the leftovers from the earlier deconstructions of his youth. But he still lacked a focus.
The major thing that really pushed me into the found object sculptures was that my father got brain cancer, and I was only one of the four sons that didnt have a job - thus I didnt have a life, he explains, so I spent a year helping out my mother everyday, and making sculpture out in the garage the rest of the time. Thats when it really started; that was some of my best work.
For the past 20 years, Branstrom has been collecting things: Anything that has potential, he says. He finds things alongside the road, on the beach, in the woods; people bring him random objects, and he himself collects car hoods, chrome bumpers, and old farm equipment. What other people might think of as trash, Branstrom - to use a cliched phrase - turns into treasure.
Someone of his most popular art objects are his quirky can fish, which are made from soup, pop, or beer cans, and are given personality through their bottlecap eyes and scavenged material fins.
I create a lot of different work, but the fish have proven to be the most popular, Branstrom says, they are a prime example of utilizing the landscape of upper Michigan as inspiration, and a source of raw material; fishing is a way of life for many, and castoff cans are an abundant natural resource in the U.P. Im just using whats readily available, and making what I see.
Branstroms vision extends well beyond the Emmets and the fish. The first large pieces he ever worked on were two worms - one 65 feet and one 20 feet - made out of mining equipment tires in Marquette. They were his first large-scale works, and still reside in the Picnic Rocks Park.
In addition to the worms, there are plenty of other art pieces; Branstroms constructed a giant canoe out of found metal objects - including a quartered-up auxillary fuel tank from a WWII bomber, license plates, leftover chunks of stamped ceiling, and metal shelving - assembling the canoe utilizing the techniques used in building a traditional birch bark canoe.
Hes created an entire heavy metal sax band (pun intended) of life-size metal characters.
And he just had a proposal accepted for a piece of public art that will be displayed in Escanaba - a larger-than-life iron buck deer, to coincide with the native language translation of Escanaba as land of the red buck.
As far as Branstroms connection with Emmet County, that project began to take shape over 10 years ago, when Branstrom was living for a time in Chicago.
I sold a metal flying bird of prey to a man who said it was a gift for his daughter who lived in Michigan, he explains, he said she was crazy about recycling and would really like it. A few years later I was exhibiting at Blissfest when I met the daughter, Elisa Seltzer; it turned out she worked for Emmet County as head of the waste management program, so she really WAS crazy about recycling.
The following year, Emmet County held a call for entries for recycling robots; Branstroms artistic proposal was accepted - all five Emmet robots, plus one tire man. The robots stand sentry at the recycling bins, and have proved to be both helpful in drawing attention to recycling, and a photo draw for tourists and residents alike.
The Emmet robots helped garner more attention for Branstroms work. In addition to his pieces being displayed at the Emmet County recycling centers, he also has pieces at the Hramiec Hoffman Gallery in Harbor Springs, and recently started showing at the Michigan Artists Gallery in Suttons Bay. Hes been a returning artist at Blissfest, and will also appear at the Wheatland Music Festival in September 2009.
Branstrom never seems to stop moving or creating his unique artwork, and always seems to be developing new and more challenging ideas for his own projects. He draws inspiration from all kinds of things - mythology, popular culture, poems, or simply because hell find something and it will remind him of something else. But perhaps his biggest project to date is his own homestead.
My homestead is an ongoing project which Ive been collecting material for and working on since 1994, he says. My home is embellished with material from nearly everyone and everything around me. I operate like the hermit crab, that sticks all kinds of debris together to create its domicile - adhoc architecture, for a specific use, purpose, or situation. Thats been a dream of mine since childhood - to create my own home. (Adhoc Workshop also being the name of Branstroms studio in downtown Rapid River.)
As far as a dream as of late, Ive been dreaming of having a studio set up where I could employ and provide things to do for friends who want to help and work. Ive been putting together a can fish factory - thanks to a poor economy, I have a number of friends who are unemployed and want to help out. So my major dream of being able to work with and help my friends, as well as being organized and increasing production, is becoming a reality. Thats what is really cool.
Whats also really cool is that, especially in this day and age of overconsumption and dwindling resources, Branstrom has honed his own way of crafting unusual and striking artwork that reuses, recycles, and repurposes things that would often otherwise go completely to waste. But he remains humble in his approach, and simply melds his artwork and his recycling into his everyday life, as more of us probably should.
Found art is becoming more prevalent, I guess, because recycling is becoming more mainstream, he says, so in some ways, found art is becoming the new hot thing. But for me, its what I do. I enjoy it. There is no separation between life and work; it is all one, he chuckles, I have a hard time going to the store for groceries, and not picking up some object along the way.
Find out more about Ritch Branstroms artwork online at www.adhocworkshop.com.