By Wesley Harris
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2017
“Art is not a subject to be studied in school, it is a way of life.” Arthur Brecken launched his high school classes every year with these words. He would go on to describe how to live a creative life, how to problem solve by thinking all around a subject, or by establishing a process, and the importance of having an inquiring mind.
In addition to instruction in design, watercolour, and still life drawing, the curriculum he developed also included architectural drafting and model making, soapstone sculpting, copper enamelling, and silver jewellery. If a student chose batik tie-dying or fashion design, Arthur added it to the mix. All materials were manipulated using hand tools, with improvised equipment if required, often in surprisingly simple and effective ways. Learning took place in planned and unplanned fashion. In place of a conventional kiln for enamelling, students used cooking plates where the heat was contained by upside-down tinfoil pie plates, and when one student forgot to check the heat and part of the tin plate melted into the glass, the effect was unintended, but Arthur, not displeased with the lesson, called it “research.” After service in the Canadian Army during the war, Arthur Brecken returned to Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. A 1940 graduate of the Applied Art program, he had studied drawing and design, interior design, pottery making, wood carving, leather tooling, and work in silver. There he used the studios to pursue his own craft practice. Years later, Brecken’s art reflected his childhood experience as the son of missionaries in western China. The Elephant chest and most of his Chinese-influenced art was on display in his home where, as one of his many private students, I repeatedly saw and was inspired by it, including the large mahogany chest that featured three-dimensional carved elephant heads which grasped the handles, and a pair of elephants in bas relief on the front panel. Other items included carved dragons, lotus blossoms, and objects of tooled leather, copper, and silver jewellery. A bloodstone ring made in 1946, a rare example signed and dated by him, was inspired by the reflecting pools on the university campus, the red flecks in the stone suggesting pennies in the water.
As his career progressed Brecken became known for his work in silver, all made using precise soldered construction. In the bloodstone ring the landscape and leaves around the stone were built up of approximately 1/4″ (1 mm) thick layers of sterling; spherical beads were created by melting small amounts of metal on charcoal, individually soldered in place; rope-like patterns around the stone and shank were twisted together from two wires, shaped to fit the design and also soldered in place. An inherent three dimensional integrity to this kind of constructed pattern, even if the twisted wires in the ring shank were to wear smooth, would still read clearly in cross-section. A cumulative building-up of pattern also generates a sense of substance, clearly evident in Arthur’s salt and pepper shakers. Multiple wire circles are pre-shaped and then soldered together one at a time. This process yields truly handmade construction and parallels the cumulative way in which Arthur taught his students.
Like so many artisans and artists who combine freelance careers and periods of formal institutional engagement, with times of personal and changing activity and circumstance, Arthur Brecken’s trajectory as artisan/artist and teacher was always a combination of these three elements. I came to know him when he arrived in 1969 to teach art at the Erin District High School in Ontario. He brought with him a quarter-century of experience gained in teaching and earning his living as a craftsman. After six years as an exceptional classroom instructor, educational officials discovered that Arthur did not have an Ontario teacher’s certificate and his dismissal followed that spring. In an ironic twist, the Village of Erin itself named him Citizen of the Year at the same time. I was one of the fortunate students he took under his wing. His house became “Kitchen College” for small groups of students as it had already been during his tenure in the classroom. Arthur Brecken’s method on technical matters was concise and clear but he also allowed students to learn by trial and error. He had an uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right moment. One day when I was about to acid etch a set of lapel pins he repeatedly stopped me. When I had floundered long enough, he said, “Learn to think all around a subject. Consider it from all angles, look at it this way and that. You haven’t coated the edges or the back of your pieces with wax resist. The acid will etch there too.” He continued, “Don’t worry, I did the same thing when I was a student, except my teacher let me go ahead and ruin the piece.” One day Arthur showed me an inkwell, which he had made in 1967 for the Guelph Creative Art Association annual exhibit (it won first prize). “It was not until it came back from the Guelph show that I noticed I had cut the circular opening off centre,” he said. Experience-based wisdom is what he taught. We would engage in long conversations about design and sources of inspiration, always accompanied by a sprinkle of humour and a cup of tea with Carnation milk. With his private students, Arthur was as much a facilitator and patron as he was a teacher. He never charged a fee and was exceedingly free with his time. When he travelled, and before I had my own studio, he gave me the key to his house so that I could continue my work. He routinely commissioned and/or purchased major works from his students, loaned the works back for competitions or exhibitions, and eventually returned them to their makers permanently.
Arthur never married; his students were his family. Even as his eyesight failed, he continued to teach and create. Arthur Brecken died in 2003 at the age of 87. His obituary aptly stated, “There was Art in his name and Art in his life.” For him it was in truth a way of life, which he generously passed on to me and countless others.
Wesley Harris has a degree in music from the University of Toronto and a Master of Fine Art in Metalsmithing from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Currently he is a self-employed metalsmith and jewellery artist. In 2015 he was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.