Brian Jennings: Composer, Thinker, Sculptor

Brian Jennings in his thinking place.
Brian Jennings in his thinking place.

Brian Jennings is a sculptor and composer who has lived and worked in Stratford his entire life. Born in 1937, he started playing piano in the late 1940s and has several of his compositions listed in the Library of Congress, including “Refrains of Childhood Not Forgotten.” He has recorded two CDs, “Reverie” and “Reflections.”

In the last decade, he has taken up sculpture after taking classes at the Creative Arts Workshop. He works primarily in marble, in the neoclassical style. He’s lived at his home on Academy Hill since 1971.

CAGCT: Why did you choose to sculpt images of your family?

BJ: I don’t know. I suppose I know them better than anyone else. And I love little children. My mother didn’t like this image of herself. It made her look older than she was. It wasn’t very complimentary. It was really more a commentary on aging. She does have more wrinkles here than she deserves.

"Mother" by Brian Jennings

CAGCT: What did you do before you took up art full-time?

BJ: I worked for Oronoque Orchards for 21 years. I made the pie dough, which they shipped all around the country. They wanted me to be a manager, you know, to do things like figure out how much shortening to order and such, but I said no. I was too creative for that. It was hard work too.

CAGCT: What are you working on right now?

BJ: I’ve got my typing that is keeping me busy. I’ve been writing like a fiend. I write in dialogues – you know, Platonic dialogues? It’s on any subject I happen to think of – death, God, time – but all in dialogues. I’ve got hundreds of pages of it.


CAGCT: Your family is all musical. Your father, George Lawyer Jennings, played the cello for the New Haven Symphony, and your grandmother, Katherine Jennings, played the trombone and the piano. Your sons record and teach music at the Acoustic Refuge in Easton. Now you’ve been working on writing and sculpting these past few years. Do you feel these creative outlets are all linked for you?

BJ: I don’t know if they are linked. They are all parts of my nature, I suppose.

CAGCT: You lost your wife, Barbara Jennings, a painter, several years back. You still have many of her paintings. Do want to keep her works, or share them, perhaps sell them?

BJ: I did give away some of them. I didn’t like to surrender any of them, even the ones on the walls. Here you can see these still have price tags on them.

CAGCT: You’ve got quite an extensive set of gym equipment in your basement. What is the story?

Brian Jennings BJ: When I was five years old, I had a ruptured appendix. I almost died. I can still see an image of myself taken away in the front yard on a stretcher. It’s always stuck with me. I think ever since then, since my recovery, I got interested in keeping fit.

I’m a great believer in inversion. I read somewhere once that the creatures that live the longest lives are the ones that have their heads lower than their bodies. So on any given day you might come by and I’ll be hanging around upside down.

Picasso said: ‘Youth has no age.’ And I believe that. Whoever said it was a good for you to age is wrong. I see these guys who retire and they sit around and get a big stomach. The older you are the more interests you need.

I did it naturally. The day is not long enough for everything I want to do. So many people are bored. I am never bored.

Brian Jennings’ phone number is probably listed in the White Pages. Or you may be lucky to meet him in person at a Guild meeting. He is not online (except here).  

Featured Artist Mark Hannon – Illustrator

Mark Hannon Illustrator
Mark Hannon

Mark Hannon is a Stratford-based graphic designer and illustrator and currently the president of the Coastal Arts Guild of CT.

Mark has worked on national accounts for medium to large ad agencies. He is able to offer big agency expertise to smaller clients who operate on smaller budgets.

Mark is married to Anne Mulligan, the Guild’s executive vice president. They have 3 cats.

SAG: Mark, you are a designer for commercial brands and products and websites. So you have to be creative, but also stay true to concepts that are not your own. How does that work for you?

MH: Graphic design is a mix of right- and left-brain skills. You have to create artwork which has visual appeal but also solves a problem for a client. Problem solving requires using analytical skills simultaneously while thinking creatively. Clients value designers who can successfully apply both skills. In addition I have worked for and alongside many marketing professionals. These people helped teach me how to create a visual message that persuades or sells.

But to answer your question more directly, my background is in sales promotion where the focus is getting the consumer’s attention and not being subtle about it. I enjoy creating these types of designs, whether it’s designing point-of-sale displays or packaging which demands to be noticed on the shelf.

SAG: You’ve worked on products for huge names we’re all familiar with, like Bigelow Tea, Elizabeth Arden, and Subway. These aren’t “similar” brands. What is it about a designer’s style that draws a client to them, do you think?

MH: What gives clients a comfort level with a designer is familiarity with the client’s business. Whether it’s food & beverage, beauty or healthcare, if a client sees examples of brochures, ads or online marketing from their industry in the designer’s portfolio, they will be more willing to assign their design projects to that individual. Every type of business is unique in how they reach their audience or customers. Showing that I understand their visual marketing needs helps close the deal.

Original art by Mark HannonIt also helps if the client unsuccessfully tried to create their own marketing materials by assigning the work to the secretary’s kid. My work will always outshine the secretary’s kid.

SAG: You design for print media, yet also for websites and other digital media. Do you have a preference?

MH: My experience and comfort-level is in print media but I like to push myself out of my comfort zone. Digital media requires a level of technical skill on top of the creative. I have gotten a lot of satisfaction from developing more left-brain skills as part of my design tool set.

SAG: If you get a chance, do you create art for its own sake? For fun or to sell?

I enjoy creating fine art once I am doing it. But getting myself motivated to start a new piece is my biggest hurdle. But I am hoping to have a new piece ready for Art In The Studio.

You can talk to Mark Hannon about his art and design work at our next meeting, or have a look at his portfolio online.

Featured Artist: Sculptor Dave McNeil

sculptor Dave McNeilStratford metal sculptor Dave McNeil studied at the The Sculpture Barn under the guidance of master sculptor David Boyajian.

In 2010, he began showing his work in various galleries and exhibitions in New York and Connecticut. His materials of choice are stainless steel, recycled steel, and stone.

He started out studying painting and illustration at Paier College of Art and received a BA from Southern Connecticut State University in 1989, working his way through various media, including acrylics, oils and pencil. His primary focus was portraiture. He worked for 10 years as police sketch artist.

In addition to commission metal art, he also works in law enforcement.

CAGCT: Dave, you lead a kind of ‘Batman’ life: police officer by day, sculptor by night. How do the two sides of Dave coexist?

DMc: The two sides never seem to meet. Opportunities to blend the two are very rare. The only time I was able to combine the two world was when I worked as a sketch artist. Artistically, I was doing portrait work at the time so I could combine the two.

Working as a sketch artist taught me how to draw the human face accurately. That was in the mid 90’s and the last time I was able to combine my artistic world with my day job. With sculpture there are no opportunities to combine the two, which is fine with me. I prefer my artistic side and my work side to be divorced from each other. I don’t have a problem separating the two. The subject of art never seems to come up when I am working in law enforcement.

CAGCT: Your work is often LARGE pieces of heavy metal. Why not work with something more portable, like, say, feathers?

DMc: I work with metal and stone because I like the permanence of it. The idea that something will be around long after I am. Who knows where one of my sculptures will end up 100 years from now? It could end up in the scrap yard or it could take its place in a park or a garden. Somebody may wonder who created it and look up my name. They might find only this article but I hope there is more to come.

I took up sculpture a little late in life, about six years ago, and I am still learning.

CAGCT: Your ‘business’ is custom metal art, created on commission. What do you work on, for fun, between commissions?

DMc: Between commissions I like to challenge myself by attempting a complicated form and duplicate it.

An example of this would be the fish sculpture I did. I never made a fish before so I wanted to see if I could make it look like it was swimming.

I tried to capture the fluid motion of the fish as it turned in the water. That expanded to the idea of a school of fish swimming together and how the form of the school swimming would look suspended in the air instead of water. I really learn a lot by challenging myself this way. I learn the possibilities hidden in the metal.

CAGCT: What part of the metal art sculpting process do you find most tedious, and the most fun?

DMc: The most tedious part is cleaning up after myself. I make a bit of a mess during the creative process. It doesn’t matter if I am painting or sculpting. Making a mess is also the fun part. I like the whole creative process. Coming up with the initial idea and then having that idea grow into something greater never gets old.

CAGCT: What do your neighbors think of your work?

DMc: My neighbors don’t see much of my work because I work out of my brother’s barn. It is made of cement block so I can’t burn it down when the sparks fly. I did some work in my driveway when I started. It was noisy and I found that with enough heat an asphalt driveway will catch on fire.

Featured Artist Melissa Benson

Melissa Benson Nightmare Artist Magic the Gathering

Melissa Benson – Illustrator and Fine Artist 

Melissa A. Benson, owner of Ranting Centaur Studios, is best know for her highly distinguishable fantasy-based work for private collectors and collectible card game publishers. She uses a colorful, realistic style for both fantasy and decorative work.She has been creating quality artwork for over 20 years.

She works mostly in a mixed media of watercolor dyes, and color pencils. Black and white work is high contrast multi-weight graphite pencil and large pieces are done in oils. Her work has made her a celebrity in RPG, gaming and fantasy circles.

CAGCT: You are well-known for your work as a fantasy illustrator. Are you famous?
MB: Big fish in a small pond. Go into a comic book shop and everyone will know my name. Walk into Barnes and Noble… probably not.
CAGCT: Your Zazzle and Fine Art America shops are huge, with absolutely stunning work. How does the quantity and variety of products in your shop help you sustain yourself as an artist?
MB: The more products you have available, the wider the net you cast. The income is regular, and constantly growing. 
Trident Fighter by Melissa Benson Coastal Arts Guild of CT
CAGCT:  I know you do commissions, such as character portraits for role playing gamers. Is fantasy illustration the core of your personal work?
MB: I would have to say yes. It is what I gravitate toward. I enjoy drawing organic forms. Mechanical forms don’t come as naturally to me. I want to do some steam-punk pictures, which will be a challenge since that genre is a blend of both. I’ll include my artist statement at the end of the email.
CAGCT: What process do you use to create your fantasy characters? Do you work from a brief or description?
MB: I work best from a description, be it an excerpt from a book or a legend. Then I augment it with my own various accouterments.
CAGCT:  What is your favorite part of the artistic process? And what frustrates you most about the life of an artist?
MB: My favorite part is sketching. Making something that doesn’t exist into something that people can believe exists when they see it. 
The most frustrating thing is when people who think they are artists sell work when in fact they are merely luft mongers. They convince people that if you don’t like their art, you are not culturally elevated enough, are old fashioned, or that you can’t empathize with a tortured soul. Bull shit.
I seek to create a world of beauty & mystery using organic forms and mythic imagery, often with Celtic compositional elements. I present these images using vivid color and dynamic designs through the use of dyes, and colored pencils, graphite or oil paint.
I also explore a range of possibilities through my choice of subject matter. I do not create mundane imagery and defend it as social commentary. I believe that designing with attention to values, contrast, ratio, and proportion are essential to creating a painting that transports the viewer into an alternate reality.
I draw inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts & Crafts Movement, and Wiccan Pagan traditions.

Melissa Benson’s work is highly sought after for commission. You can totally get lost on her webpage, or follow her on Facebook and @NightmareArtist on Twitter.