Bronze on Broadway

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The sculptor Joy Brown’s colossal sculptures invite interaction


  • Joy Brown's "One Leaning on Another" outside Broadway's 72nd Street subway station. Photo: Elissa Sanci

  • Joy Brown's "Sitter with Head in Hands" on the Broadway Mall at 79th Street. Photo: Elissa Sanci

By now, you’ve probably seen them. Standing upwards of 11 feet in some locations and collectively weighing a few tons, the enormous bronze sculptures scattered along Broadway in the Upper West Side are hard to miss.

The sculptures comprise “Joy Brown on Broadway,” the Broadway Mall Association’s public art exhibition, which opened in mid-May and features a collection of bronze figures created by the Connecticut-based artist.

Brown’s nine bronze sculptures stand in eight locations between 72nd and 166th Streets. Each is different, with some featuring intertwined figures, such as “One Leaning on Another,” at the entrance to the 72nd Street subway, while others are of solitary figures, like “Sitter with Head in Hands,” on 79th Street. Although massive, their size isn’t intimidating; instead, the sculptures seem delicate and tranquil.

The nonprofit Mall Association has planned and maintained the malls that bisect Broadway between 70th and 168th Streets for more than 30 years. Along with tending and lighting the malls at night, the organization is also responsible for choosing the public art exhibitions that line Broadway. “Joy Brown” is its 10th public art exhibition.

Deborah Foord, the chairwoman of the association’s public art committee, said the panel has a preference for artists who live and work in New York, but that Brown’s sculpture stood out.

“We want it to be art of high quality,” Foord said of the committee’s overall criteria. “We know that certain materials are better than others in terms of the safety of the work and just the way they appeal and stand out on the malls. Joy Brown’s work is an excellent example of why bronze is such a good material. For one thing, it’s indestructible.”

That indestructibility has appealed to the public as well. On any given day, it’s not hard to find New Yorkers and tourists alike admiring and interacting with the massive sculptures. “There’s a serenity and kind of a welcoming nature to the work — every single one of those pieces has a little place where someone can nestle,” Foord said.

“The feedback has been absolutely terrific,” she added. There are upwards of 300 photos under the tag #joybrownonbroadway on Instagram of people enjoying the installations. One Instagram user, @nyc_mami_on_the_move_vids, posted a video of her son interacting with “One Holding Small One,” with the clip showing the young boy in the arms of the bronze sculpture on 96th Street, where he danced alongside the small bronze figure already nestled within the larger figure’s arms.

That ability to interact with her sculptures is among Brown’s own favorite virtues of her work. “I love that people can get on them, climb on them, sit on them and interact with them,” Brown said. “For me, these figures hold a big space of quiet, a stillness and warmth. They invite us to play and interact with them. They are kind of like how I would like to be — calm, open, aware.”

Brown, who grew up in Japan, studied pottery in her youth, learning to make bowls and cups as an apprentice to a traditional Japanese potter. It was only after she returned to the United States that she began to experiment with sculptures. She has worked with clay for nearly 40 years.

“In the beginning years, I would play around and these puppet heads would start to form and they turned into animals,” said Brown, who has lived and worked out of Kent, Connecticut, for 35 years. “It was kind of an organic evolution. Those forms started to turn into more human forms and then more of the form that you see out there on Broadway.”

The bronzes on Broadway are enormous, weighing from 700 to 2,500 pounds. The sculptures, though, all started as tiny maquettes — preliminary models that stand only 16 to 18 inches tall.

“I make that form here in my studio and fire it in my wood-firing tunnel kiln,” Brown said, describing the 30-foot kiln she uses to harden the clay and make it durable. “It takes about a week to fire and it has a beautiful effect on the clay that has actually influenced the bronze.”

After those pieces are finished, Brown ships them to China, where she works with a small company in Shanghai that brings her maquettes to life. Using the Chinese workshop’s resources, Brown builds a plaster form the same size and shape of the finished pieces on Broadway. Once the form is finished, which can take several weeks, it’s then cut to pieces.

“They cut the head off, they cut the arms off and all that is cast piece by piece,” she said. “Then it’s all welded back together again. Those seams are then blended to match the original texture, so it’s probably hard to tell, for most people, that it was taken apart like that.”

Brown oversees the specifics during the casting process; she blends the seams and carves the sculptures’ faces herself. “It’s a very critical part of the piece,” she said of the smiling faces of the figures. “To get the face right and to get the eyes in the exact right position — if it’s just right, it just pops alive.”

Getting the sculptures to New York was the next challenge. The Morrison Gallery, which represents Brown, proposed her sculptures to the BMA. Following her selection, plans were then made to transport the thousand-pound sculptures to Manhattan. To help fund the move, Brown and the Morrison Gallery raised money on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.

The sculptures made their way across the Pacific Ocean and through the Panama Canal in a 40-foot shipping container. Once in the city, they were installed in the middle of the night.

“It was stressful and exciting,” Brown said. “It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between stress and excitement; they kind of blend together.”

The Broadway installations stay anywhere from six to nine months. Foord explained that as the first six months come to a close, the BMA and the artist will decide together whether or not they want to extend the showing.

“I suspect that we will extend this exhibition,” Foord said. “The work will look wonderful in the snow.”

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