ASPEN - Robert Brady had no desire to be in the Navy. But between getting drafted into the Vietnam-era Army and signing up for the Navy, Brady chose the latter and figured he'd make the most of his time there. When he was given a form that asked for his job preferences, he marked those that had to do with pipes, wood and metal.
"All the boxes I thought would help me as an artist," the 66-year-old Brady said. "Shipfitters (who work with a ship's steel parts) learn how to cut patterns. Metal shop, wood shop - I'd learn to make something."
Despite his preferences, Brady was made a radio man.
"They put the lower-educated kids into manual jobs," he said.
Stationed in a radio base on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, Brady loathed the work, the office and the atmosphere, and eventually he "quit" the Navy.
A lingering question: What did Brady stand to gain from training in massive metal parts, in a time when art is often associated with high concepts, the realm of ideas? But Brady comes out of a tradition of process-oriented art, where the work retains evidence of the hands that built it.
"Stuff doesn't come into existence without making the thing," Brady said. "All people who create - jewelers, furniture makers, potters - they love stuff the human hand made, the human touch.
"In Western tradition, you have two camps: You have art and craft. Unfortunately. In Asia, they don't distinguish between the two. There, a great scroll painter is seen as no different than a great potter. There's no word for 'craft' - it's all art."
Brady was speaking at the new Harvey/Meadows Gallery space, a place that also finds no divisions between art and craft. The gallery, newly relocated from Aspen Highlands Village to downtown Aspen, was founded seven years ago by Roaring Fork Valley artists Sam Harvey and Alleghany Meadows - both ceramists who had trained and worked at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. The new space, at 517 E. Hopkins, opens Thursday with a reception at 5 p.m., and at 6 p.m., Brady's gallery talk about his recent work, all wood sculptures.
As a high school senior in Reno, Nev., Brady was profoundly impressed with what his hands were capable of making. After dropping algebra, he picked up shop on the advice of those who said it would be a good goof-off class. On day one, Brady was given a bag of clay, a rolling pin and a corner, with instructions to make a slab-built pitcher.
"They didn't even tell me what that was," he recalled. "After the hour, I had completed this pitcher and was so mesmerized, so loved that I had completed this thing. Before I went to my next class, I had to protect it. I put it on a cabinet, put a plastic bag over it and ran back at the end of the day, lifted the plastic and said,
'I love you.' It was the most powerful thing I found in my life. This way of communicating something - I never had anything like that."
Even after forming a high school potters club, it was a "foreign idea" for Brady to attend art school. Yet he went to the California College of the Arts in Oakland and, after his military service, to grad school in the art department at the University of California, Davis. After starting out as a potter, he established himself as a prominent ceramic sculptor.
In the late '80s, roughly coinciding with an extensive survey exhibited in two California museums, Brady made a medicine chest for a loft he was renovating. Again, he was awakened.
"Just working that wood in a way that was beyond putting steps on the back porch gave me an experience something like that first ceramic piece," said Brady, who lives in Berkeley and has taught several times at Anderson Ranch. "The next day I went to a friend's house and told him I was done with clay. He didn't believe it. I don't know if I believed it. But I gave myself permission to go with it as far as I wanted - which I thought would be maybe six weeks, a little flirtation with another material."
Brady estimates that, in the 25 years since then, 80 percent of his work has been in wood. The current show, all in wood, is dominated by thin figures and delicate structures that defy the usual notion of wood as strong and sturdy. Brady says he tried, in his ceramist days, to make similar pieces.
"Very attenuated, tall and thin. But it didn't make sense," he said.
Trying to make sense of why the thin figure makes sense in wood, Brady tells of a photo of himself as a kid, in a bathing suit.
"So skinny, knobby knees. Almost like a skeleton," he said. "As a child I felt kind of separate from my family, operated slightly in my own realm."
He continued to tell of his early history, including two bouts with Reiters syndrome, a form of arthritis that, when he was 16, confined Brady to a hospital bed for six months. His legs atrophied.
"Once you see enough of a person's work, you see it becomes a self-portrait," Brady said. "And I have been fragile. I have been vulnerable."