“The Art of Making,” with Squire Broel

Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree from SPU in 1992, Squire Broel spent the next six years gaining insight and experience through travels around Southeast Asia and as the patineur for the Walla Walla Foundry. Near the end of 1997, Broel left the Walla Walla Foundry to open Broel Studio. Employing his education, knowledge of art history, and experience as a patineur, Broel is painting and sculpting to visually express everyday objects and experiences with thoughtful honesty and reflection. Broel’s current work continues in a variety of dimensions to explore the derivations of his abstract botanical paintings. Moving between works of large-scale and diminutive stature celebrates the inherent physicality of the creative process itself, and how changes in process build and affect meaning.

His work is in numerous private and public collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington) and the City of Walla Walla. Broel has participated in solo and group exhibitions throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia.

Amanda Stubbert: Well, if I can just get personal for a second, I had the privilege of coming out to the Walla Walla Movie Crush to celebrate a film that we just produced for SPU, and we got to meet up in person and I got to see your studio. I was unbelievably impressed with the sheer volume of your work. Most people you would look at different kinds of sculpture or different kinds of paintings, but let’s talk about just the vast difference in the work that you produce.

Squire Broel: Yeah, well, I mean, it was so great to have you up in the studio. Again, it’s one of those things where inviting people into this space, it’s a personal space, and it was really fun to be able to share that with you. And in thinking about the sort of the varied materials that I use, part of it came from just a real inherent interest in making things in general. I mean, oftentimes I’m reluctant to say, “I’m an artist.” People say, “What do you do?” And I’ll say, “Well, I make things.” And I really make things with whatever’s at hand.

Even though I have formal training as a painter and in sculpture, I don’t necessarily always use traditional materials. But if I do, I sort of mix and match them. So you’re right. I mean, there’s sculpture made out of wood. There’s sculpture elements made out of resin. Elements made out of blown glass and cast glass. There’s bronze sculpture and aluminum sculpture, oil paintings, watercolors. I mean, you name it. And part of it is I find that I’m just so interested and I don’t want to get bored by just working on one thing over and over again.

“Even though I have formal training as a painter and in sculpture, I don’t necessarily always use traditional materials. But if I do, I sort of mix and match them.”

Amanda: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your work in your studio. You walk in and instead of feeling one artist’s studio, it feels like its own gallery, its own museum, because you have so many different works. Do you find, is it a little bit of an ADD situation where you’re just always wanting to find new things? Let me just ask the hard question.

Squire: No. I mean, it’s actually really, I mean, that’s an interesting question. I find that oddly enough, I can be very focused when I’m working on something. But in the midst of doing it, something will trigger an idea where all of a sudden, I think, “Well, wouldn’t this be interesting if it was made out of this different material?” And I’m not really even sure where that thought comes from, but all of a sudden I will then start scrambling around to figure out if I can pull together some wood or plaster. And then I just want to see this form maybe in a different material, and then watch and see how sort of that communication takes place between the various materials, whether it be a painting and a sculpture, or a drawing in a piece of blown glass. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily ADD as much as it is just a ramped-up curiosity.

Amanda: OK, so that creative process, and I’ve seen how that develops in some of your work, in like a series of paintings where you start with one and then you get a new idea so you take that onto the second canvas and then put something different on canvas three, but they all sort of come from the same place. Where do you get those original ideas? Where do you have those sparks that start you on a whole new journey?

Squire: Well, I mean, they really come from everywhere, whether it’s something that I’m reading, whether it’s something I’ve seen. It could be a snippet of a conversation. It could be anything, from reading something about current-day politics. It could be reading about the history of the area where I’m living. And so I’ll just start to kind of pull together and coalesce those different ideas and really create either some sketches or even make some notes about what I want to see. Then, I’ll delve into it. And I have an idea of where something’s going, but in the midst of it, all of a sudden the process sort of takes over. And I don’t want to necessarily just fully dictate what that process is or what it has to be. I want to sort of work in concert with it.

Squire Broel in his studio

And so what happens is all of a sudden I may see something and think, “Wow, this is great just the way that it is right now. I mean, I don’t know that I necessarily want to move this piece further in that direction that I was originally intending to go.” And so what I’ll do is grab another canvas or grab another, maybe a section of wood, and start carving or painting or working on it and try to get it to that same place and then take it further to where I was going to go. So there will be all of these variations and iterations of work based on sort of what I’m seeing in the midst of the process. So it’s almost like hitting pause, starting over, and then just seeing where it can go from there. So in a way, you then have this whole diary that shows the sort of a broader extent of the process.

Amanda: Okay, I think I understand it from like an author’s perspective. I hear authors talk all the time about, I didn’t realize the story was going to go that way, or I thought this character was going to fall in love but he just wouldn’t fall in love. The work takes on a life of its own that you have to kind of follow. And so what I hear you saying is that happens to you as well. That your work just takes off in a direction you didn’t see it going.

Squire: And it’s funny because I think as a younger me, I would have said, “Oh no, I know the direction this is going to go.” And I think what I’ve realized is I have the ability to sort of create and render things, but in the middle of the process, I want to be open to that mystery of where is this going? Is there something that I’m unaware of? And all of a sudden something comes into greater clarity and I start to create this new awareness and I want to explore it.

Amanda: And I’m sure you’ve had moments where you have an idea of what something is or represents, and then someone else comes in and they love it, but they see something different. They think you were coming from a different lens maybe when you created it. They see something different in it. Does that inspire you more? Or do you want to say, “No, no, that’s not what I was doing.” How does that feel to an artist when someone comes in and they see something different in the work than you see?

Squire: That’s a great question, and it’s one of those things where I think there’s a variety of different ways that I can look at it. But I think my initial sort of gut feeling when someone comes in and responds to something, I’m just thrilled that they responded to it. And because so much of the act of doing this work is really a personal act in a way. It’s working out ideas and feelings and emotions that I’m working through and grappling with. And so oftentimes, it’s not surprising that people wouldn’t necessarily recognize the same sorts of things within that work that I was working through.

And so when someone comes to it and says, “Oh my gosh, here’s what I see or here’s how I feel,” I really want to listen to it. And then that just sort of adds to the broader, I guess, base or narrative of what that work could potentially be about. And through the work, right, most of it’s all abstract. And even though it references elements and forms or ideas that we all sort of bump up against regularly in our day-to-day lives, through the abstraction I like to think that there’s a generous space for people to read into the work what they want to, and to read into it. I guess that really also points to sort of the literary focus of our culture just in terms of wanting to always read something. Or we have a hard time just stopping and looking and feeling, I think, in general. And so when people do immediately say, “Oh, here’s what I see,” I mean, that’s interesting. And then I want to encourage people to say, “Well, here’s what I feel through this.” Does that make sense?

“Through the abstraction I like to think that there’s a generous space for people to read into the work what they want to.”

Amanda: Absolutely, it does. And that leads me to a conversation that we very much enjoyed having together. This idea that, especially in this moment in time when people are very sensitive to what’s going on around us, and I think there’s an entire spectrum of wanting to move history in the right direction, wanting to uncover things that have been hidden for too long, wanting to make change where change needs to be made. But the other end of that spectrum is not throwing out the baby with the bath water, not getting rid of a piece of art because of something possibly that that artist had done at one point in their life, or one thing that artist said. Do we throw out everything that was created based on that one event or that one thing they said, or that one opinion? It’s an ongoing conversation. It’s something that’s all over social media that most of us can’t get through a family dinner without talking about on some level. And I know you had a recent experience with a school group that came through your studio. Can we talk about that situation?

Squire: Again, it’s such an important topic and thankfully it’s being discussed now and being embraced now, and we’re really sort of wading through the mud in all of it and trying to reconcile and grapple. It is important. Really, the question I think you’re alluding to with my work was there are elements to it, or, and I think they are oftentimes post-rationalized in terms of how we see things or what we see.

And in this specific instance, the work was being viewed at an exhibition and it was in Washington, D.C., at the museum at American University. So rightly so, there was space for this to be viewed and there was space to have sort of critical conversation around it. And the students really wanted to know how I felt about this work in light of what they perceived could have been cultural appropriation. I was honestly really thankful that they, as a group, were really interested in having this conversation. I could see how, really sort of in a post-rationalized way looking at the work after it’s made and saying, “Oh, well, this looks like this” or “This feels like it’s part of this culture.” And the work they were speaking of was actually, again, very abstract, very sort of modernist, but also Gothic and there was primal qualities to them. And part of, I think, the aspect that tripped people up was some of the wording or terminology around it. Because I talked about these elements being totemic forms.

And so people said, “Are you basically appropriating from Native American culture, First Nations’ carvers?” I appreciated the question. How I met them with that was I said, in terms of being as sensitive around it as I could, I said, “I live in the Pacific Northwest. I live in a very rural area, right at the heart of the Confederated Tribes, and so undoubtedly, there’s going to be some sort of history or experience or things that I’ve seen throughout my life that are going to come to play in the work that I’m doing.” But the original source for this body of work all came from nature. It came from botanical forms, trees, sort of growth structures that you see in the abundant wheat fields that are all around Walla Walla. And it also came from Gothic windows, and so thinking about the idea of elevating our experiences or thoughts as we look and gaze through these windows. So there’s a form there that has that same reference.

There definitely could be references to native cultures, to First Nations’ carving cultures, and all of that. But the work itself, that’s not where it was. That’s not where it came from. I mean, I think we can all look at things and say, “Oh, well, this reminds me of this,” or “This looks like this.” And so I was very thankful that there was that conversation and that we were able to have that dialogue. I think they walked away understanding, “Oh, all right. I really see where you’re coming from on this.”

Amanda: But I think the key to that is the conversation.

Squire: I agree.

Amanda: The key is the dialogue. Because in our social media world, we see one thing and we hear it talked about in 32 characters, and we make a decision and we shut a door. I think we need to open a lot more doors. We need to have some real conversations. One of my favorite things about my time at SPU was sitting around at a particular professor’s house with some other students, and that old-school salon idea where we’re just discussing ideas. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong. We’re all just putting some truth on the table and saying, “Discuss,” and picking it apart. And there’s something so beautiful and, frankly, so very gospel to me, about unpacking everybody’s perspective to that story. And I think that’s what art should be about. I’m just so glad that you had that chance to have that experience, to have that conversation.

Squire: Well, and I think it’s also, it was incredible for me because it really, it caused me to really think about and to reflect upon what my work is about more than I already do. And think about the sensitivities around everything that’s taking place today and the conversations that we’re having, and trying to figure out how is this work relevant? How does it fit? How can it help move things forward? And part of that is by having those sorts of discussions that are sometimes difficult, but often generative. And I think one word in the midst of it that keeps popping up in my head is just this idea of grace. Having enough grace within that moment to allow people to have their opinion, and then to just sit with it, not even necessarily to respond to it. Like you were saying, it’s just sharing these ideas and really understanding where people are coming from. It’s important.

Amanda: Yeah, because we can live with different perspectives, right? I think we all understand you can walk around a building and you can look at it from different angles. Everyone can be telling the truth about what they see and they aren’t all seeing the same thing. So there’s no reason not to at least listen to what everyone else has to say within that perspective. Speaking of multiple perspectives, let’s talk about where you choose to live and work in Walla Walla. So, like I said, I was just recently there for the first time, completely fell in love. What a beautiful little community in an area surrounded by these golden wheat fields. Can you talk about why? I mean, you could be in New York, you could be in LA, you could be in downtown Seattle. Why did you choose Walla Walla?

Squire: Part of it is I came back to Walla Walla. So I grew up here and when I left at the time to go to university, I vowed, “There was nothing here for me. I didn’t want to come back to this place.” But there’s something about being away and then reflecting upon all of the qualities that this place really had to offer. And I figured when it was time for me to come back here, it gave me the opportunity to have really space and time to develop the work in the way that I wanted to. I knew that it would be a huge uphill climb in order to carve out a career because I’m in the middle of nowhere and I’m not in a creative sort of artistic hub. There are times that I feel like I’m just a lone voice out here.

But I think that feeds into really part of the reason why I’ve stayed. Because I want this work to feel different. I want it to feel like it’s part of a place, and it’s not really a visual voice that’s being seen or heard today. And so I just, I love it here. I love the seasons. I love the pace of life. The community is small, but strong and supportive. And so I just really can’t think of a better place to do the work that I want to do.

“I grew up here and when I left at the time to go to university, I vowed, ‘There was nothing here for me. I didn’t want to come back to this place.’ But there’s something about being away and then reflecting upon all of the qualities that this place really had to offer.”

Amanda: And I have to say from a tourist point of view, it’s so fun to see that that place where you came from so embrace the grown-up artist that you are today. I know you have sculptures in a park here and there, and then in some surrounding smaller towns like Waitsburg. What is it like for you to walk around the streets you grew up in and see your own work in the middle of a park?

Squire: It’s really kind of odd to think about these objects that really are made out of materials that are much more enduring than my own body. And to think that they’ll be here hopefully a lot longer than I will. I feel honored to be able to have this work here, right in the midst of the community, and people engage with it and walk by. I mean, not everybody loves it, of course. And that’s OK. But it’s part of the visual fabric of this community. And so in that regard, I do feel like it’s a real honor that the community has embraced the work and me in this way.

Amanda: Speaking of leaving things for the next generation, I know you have a fun story from your time at SPU of when a professor spoke into your life. For fans of the podcast that listen a lot, they’ve heard me tell numerous stories of how professors really kind of sat me down and knew me well enough to say, “I don’t know that that’s the best choice for you. You might want to rethink that.” Do you want to tell us your SPU story?

Squire: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because originally I wasn’t slated to go to SPU. I was going to go to Rhode Island School of Design or Pratt out in Brooklyn. SPU was on the list simply because I had visited, I really enjoyed it. But I kept thinking, “Oh, for an art school, I really want to go out to the East Coast.” And I had never been out to the East Coast. And so when I visited, I was sort of blown away because I had only lived in Walla Walla. I just recognized at that point in time that I wasn’t ready to make that move which, I look back now and I think, I can’t even believe I had the clarity to think that.

And so SPU, again, sort of just embraced me. They offered me a really wonderful opportunity to go there and to learn and to grow. I knew that I always wanted to be an artist. Even some of my professors at the time said, “You know, you can still go to Rhode Island School of Design. You can still go do that.” And I went, “Nah, I’m committed. I want to be here.” Midway through, though, I think there’s this sense when you’re in the midst of the wonderful culture that SPU creates, to think that, “Well, what I really want to do to reach people has to be direct ministry, right? It’s got to be this thing.” So, all of a sudden, I was like, “Well, I’m going to be a youth pastor.” And which sort of kind of came out of the blue. I don’t know. I was like, “That’s what I need to do in order to really make a difference in the world.”

“I knew that I always wanted to be an artist.”

And so this amazing, insightful, caring, loving professor said, “OK, well, yeah, if that’s what you want to do. Just imagine yourself never really pursuing your artwork. Imagine what it would be like to just not have the freedom to paint the way that you do or to tell the stories in the way that you do.” And it just struck me. I mean, literally it was like a two by four between the eyes. I sat there thinking, “I don’t want that. I want to be able to make this work.” It literally brought tears to my eyes as I started to think about what would a life look like without pursuing this, really this passion, and this what I feel like is a gift that I’ve been honing. It was, who knows, in a different school, a different environment, if anybody would have had that ability to sort of take the time to speak into my life in that way. And so I felt like it was very generous in helping me stay on the path that really, I feel like I just need to be on, and I’m still on it.

Amanda: A side note to that seems to connect with that story, we just recorded a podcast with Michelle Lang-Raymond. We talked about being an artist in those church spaces and having those church spaces not know what to do with us, not have a space for us. And then you start to think, “Well, then I can’t be all of who I am in this space.” I just feel like maybe that was a part of your story. It was definitely a part of mine, of sort of denying this artistic, creative part of yourself, because you didn’t see how that was supposed to work with God, with church, with ministry. I just hope that as we kind of maybe return to a Renaissance of arts in the church, that we make space for these young people growing up with this God-given talent that’s meant to be shown to the world.

Squire: Yeah, I totally agree. This idea of finding encouragement within that community, to pursue things that may seem unusual, that feel different, that aren’t necessarily following sort of the script. And it would be so wonderful if individuals within the church body pursuing their own growth and faith, would be able to flourish within the arts. That may sort of seem like right now they’re outside the bounds of what the expectations are. So, I think as we continue to grow and move forward and not only our own lives, but in the next generation, I think people continue to embrace sort of things that are new and different and hopefully uplifting and gracious in that way.

Amanda: I think that’s something that the church needs so desperately now more than ever. But it’s funny to remember that what is sort of classical and old-school today, that was new and rebellious at one point, right?

Squire: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Amanda: So we have to remember, it’s really just a matter of time for us to say, “Oh, yes, that is traditionally Christian.” Well, it wasn’t when it first came along, most of the time.

Squire: Right. And interestingly enough, right, I think not necessarily rebellious in a sense of being destructive but rebellious in a sense of anticipating or demanding growth. And really, to me, that’s a hopeful act which, again, I think art, in general, is a hopeful act. Just the idea that you’re going to make something, that you want to express something, there’s a reason that you want to do that and that means that there’s some sense of hope in the midst of it.

“I think art, in general, is a hopeful act. Just the idea that you’re going to make something, that you want to express something, there’s a reason that you want to do that and that means that there’s some sense of hope in the midst of it.”

Amanda: And to create something, we are automatically tapping into the Creator to be able to create. So what’s more worshipful than that, right?

Squire: Right.

Amanda: Speaking of creating new things, quite a segue there.

Squire: I love it.

Amanda: Let’s talk about your new project that you have that’s designed to connect patrons to the art itself in a whole new way.

Squire: Oh, yeah. So, in the middle of the pandemic … Well, I guess we’re kind of still in the middle of the pandemic. I don’t know. Time is weird right now.

Amanda: Can we … that’ll be the title of this episode. Time is weird.

Squire: Time is weird. It’s so weird. So I should say, a year ago, I started thinking about my creative process and how very few people actually get to engage in sort of the day-to-day understanding of what it is that I’m doing. We touched on it earlier. People don’t necessarily get a chance to sort of see inside the artist’s mind or understand a little bit about the process. And so I sort of put together this idea of pulling a group of individuals together. Some people who absolutely love art and are committed to collecting, other people who have really no idea or background about art, and try to bring everybody together as a collective, to have a conversation with me. Really kind of to walk with me through a creative process where I’m going to create a suite of works every year for the next three years. And everyone who participates will end up walking away with artwork. But more than that, they’re going to walk away with insights into how the pieces were made, why the pieces were made, what inspired them.

At the end of, really, each project, we’ll do a studio event where everyone gathers together in the studio, and they get to see the work that was created for the project and specifically for them. Then, we’ll do a little field trip out into the local landscape and the countryside, and to sort of see where the inspiration came from. So the idea is it’s really a well-rounded experiential opportunity for people to engage in the art-making process alongside an artist.

Amanda: I feel like we have this idea that buying artwork from an artist is something that only very wealthy people do or even have a right to do. But as you’re talking, the metaphor that comes to me, forgive me, is that I always think when I see people that eat at fast food and sort of that mid-level, Applebee’s, Denny’s, forgive me if you love those places, all the time and then say they can’t afford to go out to a really lovely meal that they’re going to remember for a very long time to come.

And I always think, how about stay home for a month and then spend the money you would’ve spent on all the other and do that thing that you will remember forever? The older I get, I feel the same way about things in my house and about things that I look at in beauty. Save up instead of spending money on 10 things at Ikea. Save that up and get that one thing that really speaks to you, that came from an artist who maybe you met or you’ve read about.

We’ve all been home for a while now and we know what it’s like to have things in our home that we care about and things that we don’t. So I’m just putting in a plug for you here that I just think more of us who don’t see ourselves as wealthy art patrons should think about ways that we can sort of make small changes to that be a part of our lives.

Squire: I really appreciate that. And it’s funny because part of doing this project was, it was inspired by trying to figure out a way that I can invite more people into the process, really, at sort of an affordable level. As I’ve broken it down, I’ve sort of figured out, well, it’s literally like a mid-tier Starbucks coffee per day for a year, and then you’d be able to have this experience and this piece. And then, it would be something that you’d be able to tell in an in-depth way, tell your friends about, share with your family.

“I’m honored by the people who have decided to help me in this endeavor and walk alongside me.”

It’s sort of this idea of being a steward and being really a supporter of the arts. Honestly, again, I go back to that I’m honored by the people who have decided to help me in this endeavor and walk alongside me. I think, hopefully, everybody gained something out of it. I know that I’m really gaining something because it’s enabling me to think deeply about the work that I want to create and really to think deeply about the relationships that I have with the people who were participating in this in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily if I was out trying to have to figure out how to sell stuff every month.

Amanda: And you have to know that on some level the people involved in the project are going to end up in some way affecting the art itself.

Squire: Absolutely. For sure. There’s no doubt about that. And that’s really an interesting and sort of scary endeavor because I’ve always had this process that’s incredibly personal and really it’s just me working on it. And so now, while others won’t physically be working on the work, we’re going to be in conversation. Just by having that sort of intimacy of relationship, it’ll affect the way that I think about things, which will reflect the work.

Amanda: Right. Well, I’m so excited, and I hope you’ll come back and show us some of the work that came out of that.

Squire: I’d love to.

Amanda: And talk to us about how that experience went for you and your patrons alike. And so maybe I know the answer based on this conversation, but I want to ask you the same question we end every episode with: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?

Squire: Well, I can go a lot of directions on that one. I think, though, if I could encourage everybody to just take a few moments to just slow down enough, to look, to just look at the world around you, whether to look at an individual, look at the trees, look at the sky. Because what that does is it sort of, again, reorients our ability to sort of rightly recognize where we fit in the midst of that community. Because we’re all a community and oftentimes we’re so self-focused. That if you can look outside yourself and see others, see other things, I think it does something really wonderful for our minds and for our heart, for our spirit.

Amanda: And I’m pretty sure that’ll preach, Squire. I think that’s something we all need to do on a regular basis. Thank you so much for joining us. I hope you really will come back and tell us how the process of art-making is going. As we leave, let me pray our prayer of blessing over you. May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you with all who hear your story. May he bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.

Squire: Thank you so very much. I was honored to be a part of this. Thanks for asking.

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