Studio Visit: Alexis Gregg and Tanner Coleman, Macon, Georgia

Just the Facts

Clay
brick clay made at Cherokee Brick Factory in Macon, Georgia, (similar to Lizella clay in color and content)

Primary forming method
carving/reduction

Primary firing temperature
cone 3–5

Favorite surface treatment
hammered texture and slip decoration

Favorite tools
small shovels, Dolan carving tools, and Mudtools ribs

Studio Playlist
Tanner can listen to music 24 hours a day. We both love podcasts and NPR. Podcasts have changed my life!

Wishlist
a backhoe/forklift, an automatic die extruder for brick shapes, and a free-rotating mounted arm for drilling holes in brick

Studio Flow

AnT Sculpture and Design is a collaborative team creating public art and architectural ceramics with brick and tile. We (Alexis Gregg and Tanner Coleman) started the company in 2012 after four years and nearly a dozen large-scale public art works proved viable as a professional working business. We continued to create our works in warehouse spaces and residency studios until, in 2014, Alexis was hired as an assistant professor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. With great delight we immediately connected with a local, family-owned (very rare these days) brick factory, Cherokee Brick and Tile Company. Cherokee graciously let us work in a small garage on their 2000-acre property where their clay is still mined after 125 years. Being surrounded by mitigated wetlands made from old mining pits where heron, ducks, wild boar, and a 16-foot alligator thrived made for very exciting studio walk breaks! After a year of working in the Macon jungle, we purchased our home in 2015 and moved into our current studio, which is in a detached 600-square-foot garage on our property. We love being able to walk 30 seconds to the studio.

Two to three times a year we order 2000–3000 custom, solid unfired bricks, amounting to 8–10 pallets (1.5 tons each) that the brick factory delivers to our studio on a flatbed trailer and unloads with a fork lift. Connected to our studio is a concrete pad with a roof we built on specifically for storing wet bricks. If covered very well and watered in hot weather, the bricks can stay workable for up to two years.

Our timeline for a project takes anywhere from 6 weeks to 2 years depending on its scale and complexity. We begin with research that develops into a drawing and/or models to reference throughout the wet building process. Chalk is used to create the footprint of the sculpture directly on the concrete floor. Wet bricks are cut and stacked from the floor up with specific structural brick bonds. The piece begins to resemble a giant Lego construction. Using carving tools, small shovels, and wires we reductively carve the sculptures and create as many as 6+ full wheelbarrow loads a day of clay shavings. The clay is stored outside to be returned to the factory for recycling.

Once the carving is finished, we smooth the sculpture and can incorporate stamped texture, slip painting, and even glaze on the brick. We then disassemble the sculpture layer by layer, labeling each brick with a letter, number, and directional arrow. This is recorded on a drawn paper map that we use during installation. During disassembly, our studio transforms into a small factory of labeling, mapping, moving, drilling holes in every brick, and stacking them on pallets for natural air-drying. A pallet jack moves stacks of drying bricks around and our studio garage doors open for more airflow. We air dry the bricks on stacked pallet shelves for at least two weeks before firing.

Loading dry, green brick for transportation to the factory requires careful stacking and shrink wrapping on pallets. The pallets are then winched up onto our 16-foot trailer and screwed down to secure them for the drive. Currently, all of our sculptures are fired at the brick factory in their over 300-foot-long tunnel kilns with a 72-hour firing process. The advantages are that it is cost effective, energy efficient, ensures our bricks are evenly fired alongside the factory product, and we can fire several sculptures (hundreds or even thousands of bricks) at once. The disadvantages are the logistics of transporting green brick to and from the factory and the 5–10% loss rate of their product, which is typical to brick factories. In the event of lost or damaged bricks (which has only happened twice in 10 years), our process gets exceptionally harder.

Our installations are complex construction projects that involve engineering drawings, landscape architecture, and collaboration with other construction professionals. Most of our sculptures are made with a team of people.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

Tanner and I developed much of our portfolio of public brickworks while jumping from residency to residency in different countries  and teaching at various institutions. We lived very simply. These residencies connected us to local factories and allowed us to take risks in developing large-scale, permanent works. We learned so much about who we are, tried different ways to implement our work, and experienced how diverse brick and tile factories can be in different countries. It took us a long time to figure out how to price what we do and how many hours actually go into our very labor-intensive process. Through these experiences, we have become specialists in a number of construction methods and Tanner is now a certified playground safety inspector.

I received my MFA in ceramics from California State Long Beach in 2010 and Tanner has a BFA in sculpture from The University of Georgia, where I did my undergraduate studies (and where we met). Our mutual interest in public art, the desire to build on a large scale, and the diversity of skills we have between us is how we found our way as an artist team.

Since teaching full time and running after a toddler has reduced my studio working time, we’ve had several studio assistants to help us with the growth of our work. We try hard to make sure that our needs as makers are being considered while assuring our costs of living are also met. Tanner easily spends 40+ hours a week in the studio when carving or even more when finished sculptures are being installed.

About 20% of our studio income is from private commissions and 80% from public art commissions. Not always knowing where our next commission will come from is a constant stress, but we continue to grow and have yet to need to seek out other sources of income, aside from teaching.

Marketing

The public art world is hyper competitive. To our advantage, there are few artists working the way we do, but that also makes our work very specific. Since settling in Macon, we’ve had overwhelming support from our community and have installed multiple artworks locally. We are on several states’ pre-qualified public art rosters. Our most recent project came from the Washington State roster. In 2015, we developed a line of carved brickwork for private homes and businesses such as fireplaces and architectural details, but for now, public art projects remain our focus. Online marketing tends to suffer on our list of priorities and is something we are working to improve. We post on Facebook and Instagram, but find it difficult to commit much time to social media amidst parenting and full-time work. Our projects get a decent amount of local news coverage, which is important for the validity of our work and adds to the strength of future proposals.

Mind

Tanner and I are both work hard/play hard people and we tend to do both in bulk. We live five minutes from the Ocmulgee River, where we love to paddleboard and canoe. Tanner is into more extreme sports, such as surfing and mountain biking, while I try my best to be a runner. We have a small camper that we love to use, and we love being social and participating in community events, especially those that are art (and beer) related.

The concepts of our public artwork revolve around the intention to create a cultural narrative specific to the site and community where the work exists. For this, we research the local culture and history and speak with community stakeholders about our ideas. Permanent public art is typically a rigorous process to assure the product is effective and significant, engaging with people who visit and use the space over a long period of time.

Most Important Lesson

After graduate school, we were basically vagabonds. For years, we were voracious in applying for opportunities—residencies, public art projects, and teaching jobs. We would easily apply for 50 opportunities a year. This resulted in many, many rejections and a few great opportunities. With each residency, we pushed ourselves to the max. We knew each opportunity was a chance to develop our portfolio to a new level, have a public artwork in another country or museum, and build a network of friends and artists to sustain us creatively for a lifetime. Every step was risky financially and physically, but to seriously compete in the public art world, we had to prove we could do it. Another huge part of the success of our work has been learning to identify when we need help, and figuring out how (and who) to ask. This help takes many forms: we’ve had generous donations from factories, reduced-cost or volunteer labor, or simply free beds to lay our heads on after long days of work. The worst that can happen is for someone to say no. We view the people and places that helped shape our work as a part of our life puzzle, and look forward to being the people who say yes to others on their journey.

Website: www.antsculpture.com

Instagram: @antsculpture

Facebook: AnT Sculpture

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