June 2007 Issue
Working in very different mediums, Brinsley and Lilian Tyrrell create works that reflect the world around them.
"I hope you aren't frightened of dogs," says Brinsley Tyrrell, as he eases open a flimsy screened door, releasing three ample German shepherds that resemble a pack of wolves.
The dogs bound out of the 19th-century farmhouse that's been home to artists Brinsley and Lilian Tyrrell for more than three decades. The couple, married 44 years, have won accolades such as the Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio for the extensive body of work they've produced while living on this rural tract of land in Portage County -- from Brinsley's sculpted forms that grace public schools, universities, cityparks and professional sports arenas, to Lilian's woven tapestries exhibited in museums across the country and Canada.
But no matter how far their acclaimed work travels, Brinsley, 66, and Lilian, 63, know that it's the rustic accents of this Freedom Township property -- the two red barns, the long-abandoned wooden outhouse -- and their three beloved dogs that will keep them there forever.
"Oh Monty, don't be a menace," says Brinsley, as one of his 100-pound canines tries to take up residence on a guest's lap inside the artist's studio, housed in one of the barns. Moments earlier, dogs Toby, Monty and Morgan had loped circles around their owner's feet on the short hike from the main house, Brinsley's shaggy white hair swaying like reeds in the early spring breeze. Inside the sun-drenched second-floor studio, vividly hued pastel drawings hang on the wall, as does a series of ink sketches for one of Brinsley's signature wrought-iron fence projects.
The artist's thick British accent while scolding his dog reflects his roots: Both Brinsley and Lilian were born in England. They met at the ages of 21 and 17, respectively, while attending a peaceful Ban the Bomb demonstration in London's Trafalgar Square. The pair's fierce political stance led to their arrest on more than one occasion. "Frankly, I didn't think we'd be allowed to enter the States because of that," says Brinsley, who moved to New York in 1967 to pursue art. A year later, the couple moved to Portage County so that he could accept what was initially a one-year appointment teaching sculpture at Kent State University (he is now a professor emeritus).
Though Brinsley knew from the age of 14 that he wanted to be a sculptor, Lilian, who trained to be a nurse, had no thought of becoming an artist. "She purchased a second-hand loom at a garage sale with the intention of weaving a few utilitarian rugs," Brinsley recounts. Today, the woman who instead produced dramatic tapestries that ultimately garnered six fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and two National Endowment for the Arts awards, is grappling with a blood disease that has left her too ill to weave.
But the largely self-taught artist has a body of work that endures. Brinsley remembers that his wife's subject matter abruptly shifted from landscapes after she watched a group of firemen burn down an abandoned building. The experience set in motion what was to become Lilian's most important work: A series she called the "Disaster Blankets," focusing on political greed and terrorism, completed in 2003. In "Abandoned Heroes," a monumental 8-by-10-foot tapestry created in 1993, she depicts a single dead soldier beneath a wide blue sky.
They are heart-wrenching subjects to be sure, but Brinsley notes the work was Lilian's way of dealing with the helplessness she felt while watching the evening news.
"Our disciplines are very different," says Brinsley, who describes himself as downright revolutionary, but elects to keep his art free of politics. "Orchard Fence," a perimeter enclosure at Orchard Elementary School in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood, is a lengthy expression of youthful exuberance: Hundreds of wrought-iron children run, jump and play along 560 feet of fencing. For the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the artist turned to forged-iron butterflies in flight to liven up the entrance gates of Hershey Children's Garden.
"Lilian's tapestry is very precise, mathematical and craft-oriented," her husband explains. "My work is more emotional, more intuitive."
For a time, the couple shared a studio, but Brinsley recalls the experience as being a complete disaster. "I am very messy and emotional when I work. Lilian is too clean, organized and disciplined when she weaves."
He is currently designing another of his fences for a middle school in Lakewood. But at times, Brinsley's heart seems elsewhere.
"What I'd really like to do is hibernate up here in the barn and work on this series of pastel drawings," he says.
But he doesn't complain. Without art, Brinsley and Lilian wouldn't have this barn, these dogs, this life. "We have been very lucky," he says, "to be able to do our art here for most of our entire lives."