Many people have retired by the time they reach 99 years of age, but not artist Eric Bransby, a student of Thomas Hart Benton who painted a colorful Sedalia history mural in the Municipal Building in 1977 — he has one last mural to complete and one more story to tell.
Bransby visited Sedalia and the Municipal Building on Monday to work on a documentary that will be distributed to PBS, through Colorado Public Television and Backdrop America Pictures, in the fall of 2016. The film will focus on Bransby’s work and also his life. It is being produced and directed by Jay Kriss, of Durango, Colorado.
In 1973, Bransby was selected by a committee of 11 local people to paint several murals around the City Council chamber doors of the relatively new Municipal Building. On Monday, three of those committee members honored Bransby by arriving to greet him at the Municipal Building. Doug Freed, international artist and former director of the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Myrna Ragar, artist and owner of Ragar Banners, and artist Barbara Cooney, founder of Cooney Endowment for the Arts, arrived to shake his hand and speak with him before film production began.
“We spent a lot of time researching a lot of different artists,” Freed said.
“We went up and talked to him at UMKC, and his style has always been a little bit like Thomas Hart Benton, which we liked the idea of too,” Ragar added.
“But it had kind of a contemporary twist to it, a contemporary edge to it,” Freed noted. “He had done murals all over, he was well-known as a mural painter.”
Cooney said the architect recommend they obtain artwork for the new Municipal Building.
“Then Mayor Jerry Jones commissioned this group to buy paintings,” she said. “We had $100 a month and we bought artwork all through the building.”
The mural she added was a ”very special commission.”
A Sedalia Democrat article dated May 23, 1977, written by then editor Doug Kneibert stated the mural, that is in three sections, cost $10,000 at the time.
Cooney added that it was paid for by the city.
Film Director Kriss, who met Bransby more than a year ago, said the film will be called “One Last Mural.”
“As a historical documentarian, I like to have real primary source material,” Kriss said. “Here I had this unbelievable primary source, and at the same time I actually grew up in Colorado Springs. So, some of his murals that are no longer existing, I knew about.”
Kriss said he’d always been a fan of Bransby’s work.
“It was a neat opportunity for me to talk to him,” he said. “After about a month of back and forth he said, ‘Jay I’d like for you to do my story.’ He always said he had one last mural in him, he just didn’t realize it was going to be about him.”
The documentary will air next year.
“It will air in the fall of next year and it will air on PBS,” Kriss added. “It is part of my series called ‘The Reel West.’ But, most likely this will end up with its own line. The ‘American Master’s Series’ is looking at it.”
Kriss said the Sedalia mural is “very unique” due to the metal and wood constructed around the paintings, giving it a three-dimensional look, a rare technique at the time they were created. The paintings not only reflect Bransby’s instruction by Benton, but they also have influences of European abstract artist Josef Albers.
“Albers kept him from being too busy,” Kriss said. “Benton had a tendency to put it all in there, and Albers was more minimalist, because Albers was a non-realism painter. But, then you see a lot of the architectural designs, the way that he has shapes in there to help tie your eye, helping it move throughout the mural. It’s a unique way to bring it together.”
Bransby flew from Colorado to Kansas City and then drove to Sedalia Monday with his caretaker, Cheryl Klick. He said it was great to be able to come back after so many years and see the mural.
“It works,” he said while sitting facing the paintings. “If a mural is poorly painted, everybody gets dissatisfied with it, and they usually get rid of it.”
He was pleased to see the mural was still there and that people were still enjoying its “story.”
“This was a good many years back for me,” he added. “I’ve got 35 of them that stretch from Champaign, Urbana, Chicago to Brigham Young in Utah, during a period when not too many murals were being painted.
“This interior was just a wonderful interior,” he noted. “It had a lot of challenges. We made an architectural model and I could get my eye in the position that the spectator would be, and it worked.”
The challenge for Bransby was the recess where the paintings were to be positioned; along two vertical panels on either side of the chamber doors and one above the doors.
“I did the abstract panels so that they would be seen by people coming up the hallway,” he said. “But, you couldn’t see the detail and then you get in the center and you see the history. I’d never before painted in a recess like this and that’s why they are on hinges. We had to adjust them slowly to the angle, so somebody could look at them and view the whole thing.
“I had a lot of fun,” Bransby added. “I didn’t often do, at that time, things on site … but I did them in Kansas City and we brought them down and adjusted them appropriately.”
He added that the “whole reason” for coming back to the area was because he had an exhibit opportunity in Kansas.
“I had planed for quite a while to go back and see the murals, the whole series,” he said. “I never had the opportunity.”
Bransby has an exhibit that will feature his work and his late wife Mary Ann’s work, slated to open Sunday at the Birger Sandsén Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas.
“That was an excuse for me to come back to the Kansas City area,” he added.
A surprise reception for Bransby was hosted at the Kansas City Art Institute on Thursday. His exhibit at the Sandsén Gallery will run through Jan. 24, 2016.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.