Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
Please give a short bio of the path you have taken to your current state in life through education, employment, residencies, and other artistic ventures.
I grew up just north of NYC, in Spring Valley, NY. I don’t remember much of my younger life and education but at some point in high school I found myself doing a lot of technical theater (stage management, stage craft and lighting) and art (painting and small sculptures). All the while I was also preparing to go into architecture, which meant I took classes in CAD, model building and drafting. However after taking one psychology class (which I’m pretty sure I failed) I chose to go to SUNY Geneseo in pursuit of a degree in psychology.
After a fateful conversation with my Educational Opportunity Program advisor, I ended up never signing up for a single psychology class. I quickly fell back into my high school interests and ended up working in the scene shop for the theater department.
During my first semester I also took a drawing class and sculpture class with a wood teacher, who openly disliked me during her classes. After unintentionally giving her an in-class nervous breakdown and not surprisingly doing poorly in both classes, a friend suggested I take a metal class with Patrice Case. I loved that class and Patrice. She never put limitations on my ideas – which seemed peculiar at the time – but now after having taught for several years I completely understand. If I wanted to make 100 spiculums and turn it into a necklace she said go ahead, get started, do it.
After a few years of taking metal classes though, I started to get bored. In all honesty I was a horrible art student. I spent most of my time in the theater. I was heavily involved with the scene shop and I really enjoyed lighting design and working with my technical theater professor. I preferred climbing ladders, running cable, focusing lights and managing people both on the stage and in the scene shop. At some point Patrice told me to stop taking metal classes because my focus was elsewhere and so I did.
After graduating Geneseo I moved to the Bay Area and decided I didn’t want to do theater anymore – I missed making art and I hated the politics of working in theater. Upon landing in the Bay Area at the height of the Dot Com boom I ended up working for a jeweler making her horrible jewelry and training her employees and interns. It was depressing, I never liked making jewelry and nothing is worse than making work that you think is uninteresting, unchallenging and aesthetically base. I quit after a few months and found a job as an applications engineer at a lighting manufacture. I designed facade, parking lot and parking garage lighting. For the first few months I learned about photometrics and the company’s products and found it to be very interesting but eventually as the months went by I dreaded going to work. After two years of working as an applications engineer I tried to imagine what would be a better fit for me and what I wanted out of life. That’s when I thought of going back to school so that I could teach. Having interactions or exchanges with students at a college level where I could help them achieve their goals sounded worthwhile and intellectually stimulating so I looked into grad schools. I found Myra Mimlitsch-Gray’s work online - it was amazing. I applied to a few schools but only got into two; New Paltz was one of them. When I went to the interview everything just clicked, Myra and I had an instant rapport. We spent an hour easily bantering about politics and world affairs. I knew immediately I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could.
Two years went by quickly and chaotically. Near the very end of my time at NP I had a significant mental leap. Before that leap, most of my time was spent treating my graduate experience as a consumer survey. I would try out different things to see how willing people would be to engage with my work but often people where not interested. Then finally I started to make work that I was interested in, which ended up being interesting to everyone (surprise, surprise).
After graduate school I was suppose to continue working with Myra (I was her occasional studio assistant, she probably hired me out of fear that I would starve to death more so then anything else) but then John Cogswell asked me if I was interested in working for Kurt Matzdorf. Kurt was already in his 80’s but he was still very interested in passing on information. We worked on several larger pieces for his synagogue and a few smaller pieces that he wanted to make before it was too late. During my time with Kurt he spent most of his time teaching me (slide presentations, lectures, correcting my poor tea brewing habits) and sharing things that he had learned throughout his long incredible life. The experience was absolutely invaluable. But then all of my experiences from NP were extremely invaluable – working for Myra and seeing her creative genius up close, working for John Cogswell (I was the graduate technician’s assistant). John was incredibly kind, intelligent and patient. And then my time working side by side with Kurt, discussing what it means to be a leader, talking about his own path in life from sculpture to metal and then to teaching. All three of these people were incredible role models.
My seven years of education however were costly and I needed to move on and start making real money. I applied for several teaching positions, tech jobs and assistant positions and was finally hired by the Fashion Institute of Technology as their full time technician for the Jewelry Design department. While I often associate my time at FIT with some of the worst experiences of my life, it has also allowed me much time to learn about tools that I never had the opportunity to take apart before and to work with several people who have helped me continue to learn and grow as a person and a metalsmith. After about a year of working at FIT I was handed the project of overseeing the redesign of our new studios in a new space. I worked with architects, engineers, industrial hygienists, project coordinators, and the VP of Academic Affairs. While the whole process of designing a new studio has its moments of utter disappointment, you do learn a lot about what you know and what others don’t and while the studios did not end up exactly as I had planned them (think too many chefs spoil the broth) I learned enough that on my second attempt at designing and then building a studio, I ended up with something that I think is really quite good – Brooklyn Metal Works.
How where you financially able to make things work during your journey to where you are now? (teaching, unrelated jobs, selling of your work, financial support from a partner or family, loans…. please be as general or specific as you are comfortable with)
I started working pretty young. When I was little my father would take me to work in the South Bronx where we did electrical work at several junk yards, auto glass repair shops and machine shops. Sometimes that meant sitting in the van so that people wouldn’t try to break into it other times it meant bending pipe, pulling wires and hooking up outlets. Starting my sophomore year in high school I worked 27 hours a weekend and sometimes more at a bar and grill to pay for AP credit classes and my car insurance. In undergrad I worked the maximum amount of hours in the scene shop starting my freshman year until my second to last semester of my super senior year (5 years in undergrad). If it hadn’t been for the NYS Educational Opportunity Program I would not have been able to attend college being that my parents didn’t have the money to pay for my college education. The EOP program waived the cost of school and provided me with loans and grants to pay for room and board. One benefit of going back to SUNY New Paltz was that because I had completed the EOP program at SUNY Geneseo, tuition would be waived at New Paltz. In graduate school I worked as the graduate technician assistant, which made it possible for me to buy materials, pay rent and eat.
Selling work has never paid the bills and teaching has only offered a little extra pocket money (even when I was doing it three days a week at three different places). For the most part I’ve paid the rent by utilizing my skills as a technician, and much of what I know as a technician I learned from my father when I helped him do electrical work or from my time spent working in the theater department as an undergraduate.
Please estimate the break down of the percentage of your time (in a week or month) spent in your studio, at related jobs, unrelated jobs, marketing, working with galleries, craft fairs, time with family and friends, or other relevant categories.
Mon-Fri I’m at The Fashion Institute of Technology from 8am-4pm. From 5-9pm Mon-Fri & 11am-9pm Sat & Sun I’m at Brooklyn Metal Works. Before Erin and I opened BKMW I also taught at a number of other places – The University of the Arts, The 92nd St. Y and even at FIT. If I’m lucky I spend maybe 16 hours working on my work in a month’s time. Otherwise I’m building, fixing, planning, plotting for classes, workshops, shows, partnerships, etc.
Looking back at the opportunities you have had which do you feel have directed or benefited your current path the most? Are there things you would have done differently, opportunities you would not have taken, bigger risks you would have made, etc?
I generally consider everything I’ve done in my life beneficial to where I am today. The time spent with my father and uncle doing electrical and air conditioning work and my time in the theater was invaluable to building BKMW. Having that diverse back ground and working with such a wide variety of materials and people has taught me a lot. Even my time spent working in a restaurant and bar has been helpful in understanding and dealing with people. My time spent in the restaurant businesses has also helped me understanding what I don’t want to be doing. Generally I consider my most valuable opportunity to have been my time spent at NP. Meeting, studying with and working for Myra was very important to how I understand my place as an artist and the work I make. Having had the opportunity to watch John Cogswell teach the undergrad classes at NP and work with him as his assistant are things that I also value dearly. Meeting Kurt Matzdorf, spending time with him, watching him work, learning about his life and hearing his world view was also precious. Generally it is the people I meet and the time I spend with them that I value the most.
Often I wish that money hasn’t been as big of an issue for me as it has been my whole life. I probably would have worked in silver more, worked larger, made more work and worked for less money at places that would have allowed me to focus more of my time on my own work. I would have loved to have done a few residencies and in general just not worried as much about paying off my bills.
Where do you hope your career will be in five years? (Especially in relationship to the breakdown of your time spent in the studio, at related jobs, unrelated jobs, teaching, with family. Are there galleries you hope to be in? Have a solo exhibition? Have studio employees, bookkeeper, etc?)
Our focus is to make BKMW an internationally renowned studio, school and gallery. If I can our gallery will bridge metal, art, design, time and distance. I want the classes we offer in the studio to help artists discover metal and also allow established artist expand their understanding of the medium and the field.
I would be very happy if I still have time to keep making a few pieces each year. I don’t want to be prolific, but I do have a lot of ideas that I would like to bring into this world.
Feel free to ask questions in the comment section. Also, be sure to view more of Brian's work on his website at http://brianweissman.com/ and for more information on Brooklyn Metal Works visit http://bkmetalworks.com/.