With a career spanning more than 30 years, Brett Waller, the Washington, D.C. native and current Jacksonville resident, has sculpted epic-sized sets for Hollywood blockbusters, crafted fantastic landscapes for theme parks around the world and-on his days off-raced elephants through Southeast Asia. In other words, he’s been around. Now he’s focused on his own artwork and teaching others how to find their muse.
“I had to learn to compartmentalize what was commercial art and what was my art,” Waller says, while showing me around his Northside Jacksonville studio. “There’s a big difference between selling corn flakes and worshipping at the shrine of the Three Graces. If you mix the two up, you’re gonna become a drug addict and jump off the roof of a parking garage. Believe me. I came close!”
Stretched out along the Ribault River-with an unspoiled panoramic view of its raw splendor-Waller’s midcentury modern complex is home to his latest project, the Interdisciplinary Arts & Music residency program (IAM). It’s also where he’s putting together a giant wireform sculpture of an AR-15, to be mounted guerilla-style in Jacksonville.
The deliberately untitled piece is clearly inspired by the recent Parkland massacre but, like the visual gestalt of the wireform, Waller wants us to connect the conceptual dots for ourselves.
“I’m not a writer,” he says. “I make stuff and I want the stuff I make to speak for itself.”
When pressed about the piece’s inevitable emotional charge, however, he relents. One suspects it’s because he doesn’t want his explanation to be misunderstood as preaching.
“These days, with social media,” he explains, “people get all outraged for 15 minutes and then forget about it. I’m not saying guns are good or bad. I’m just saying here’s a big fucking gun-remember?”
Waller hoped to use the same no-nonsense approach in the assembling of the piece. Once he chose the wireform medium (because “it looks cool, like a ghost or memory of a thing rather than the thing itself”), he announced a series of free workshops leading up to the build. They would be open to anyone interested.
Except the project never reached that point. While Waller’s AR-15 was still in concept, one of his earlier wireform sculptures Spirit of ’76 was vandalized repeatedly on the campus of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. The attacks led Waller to rethink what he was doing.
“Right now, people all over the country are destroying public art as a means of personal expression of their anger and frustration,” he says. “I don’t know what it all means, but I am not going to change my expression to win a popularity contest.”
The sculptor is, however, considering a change of venue.
“I think I need a location with some security,” Waller says. “I’m not sure Jacksonville is mature enough to handle the responsibility of stewardship of public artworks.”
“And,” he adds, “The AR-15 is a particularly combustible topic right now.”
Whatever the fate of his AR-15 piece, Waller plans to forge ahead with the IAM Residency. He was able to secure private funding for three years to invite guest artists to the area and share the experience, at no cost, with absolutely anybody who cared to show up. The idea came in part from Waller’s frustration with the current state of formal arts education.
“Academia is all about degrees and credentials these days,” he laments. “They don’t want teachers with any real world experience, but those are the people who can really help kids succeed.”
Waller invited the inaugural group of IAM artists in February. Virginia musicians Mark Campbell and Sean Franco joined Waller, also a musician, for two weeks of artistic creation and instruction, including a history lesson and performance of old-time banjo and violin music for 1,500 school kids.
It turns out Waller’s experience with and enthusiasm for the Appalachian fiddle has influenced his body of work, albeit in subtle ways.
“Everything influences everything,” Waller says. “There are no overt references to the fiddle in my artwork, but every discipline sharpens the tools in your toolbox, man.”
One of IAM’s scheduled guests is the recently retired visual artist Joe Wack (he shuld be here in the fall). Like Waller, Wack is an autodidact. He paid his dues playing banjo on the state fair circuit before serving as character designer for The Simpsons for nearly 25 years. Waller hopes to put on a Simpsons film festival with accompanying Q&A.