“What I’m doing 25 or 30 years later is an echo of what I did as a four year old…”
– Michael John Braaksma
Michael John Braaksma is a sculptor, puppeteer, and a scenic and costume designer for theatre. In a curatorial statement, Braaksma described his practice; “His multidisciplinary approach to art-making blends drawing, painting, sculpture, illustration, puppetry, mask-making, theatrical design and art direction together to create spectacular visual narratives. Folk tales, oral narratives, and mythologies linking inhabitants with their land and culture are of particular importance to Michael’s work.”
He recently wrapped his first short film based around his puppetry, and is beginning to work on a children’s book.
“I’m a visual story teller. That’s a description that fits the all encompassing approach to my work,” said Braaksma.
In his studio, there are characters hanging from the walls; some are fully formed, some are just heads or faces. Many actually are puppets, but others are stand-alone art objects, some sized to be affordable at art fairs and events like the Flea Off Market. Regardless of the artistic purpose of each character, they all seem ready to spring to life at any moment. “All my work has a strong sense of narrative,” said Braaksma. “They are all named, with rich back stories, and complex rationales as to why my little entities are here.”
The artist was born in Wisconsin, and comes to Louisville by way of Chicago, and time spent at Hope College in Michigan for a BA in scenic and costume design. In between Braaksma’s story takes a bit of a turn. “It’s essentially Mean Girls,” joked Braaksma, citing the popular film about a young American girl who grows up in Africa.
“When I was two, my parents decided they loved Jesus a lot, and became missionaries. They move the family to the Kenya-Somalia border, with no electricity or running water.” Braaksma lived in Kenya from age two to age nine and he says the time affected him greatly. “I’m doing some clay sculpture right now and it ties me back, there was a seasonal river where all the local children would sculpt animals, so what I’m doing 25 or 30 years later is an echo of what I did as a four year old kid in remote Africa.”
Braaksma believes in free sculpting each piece rather than casting his work. “I do everything free sculpting. Especially for the work I do, and the voice of the characters I’m drawing out, the idea of each form having its own shape and angle,” said Braaksma as he worked on a series of small unicorns he was preparing. “Even though the work I’m doing now is related, it’s unique in a way, and I think there is a movement to those precious things.”
Braaksma says “precious things,” and one can almost hear the capital letters; his ideas about precious things key into his belief that there is a reaction to large corporation and the “Big Box” lives of many Americans. They want smaller hand made items - Precious Things.
In addition to informing his practice of sculpture, Braaksma says his time in Kenya changed the way he imagined. “Being so young and having such totally different extreme experiences of reality, it sort of shapes the imagination and what you see as possible. Reality and your existence seems more fluid when you’re used to stretching your brain at an early age, being bilingual and all that.”
For his recently wrapped short film, Braaksma, worked with local filmmaker Tyler McDaniel. Braaksma says the film reflects his own inner life. “It’s funny, but there’s some cynicism, as makers, people interested in our own narratives and our own sense of value, do we lose the context of seeing our selves as directional, are we missing the boat on where we’re going? I feel that way.” He added, “Sometimes my world become small and isolated.”
Braaksma believes that strong images, such as the handmade creatures and characters of his work, are necessary to reach modern audiences. “Strong visuals are so critical for pounding through this facade, the sarcasm or cynicism, or dismissive nature of story telling that has erupted because of our over exposure to constant media.”
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Education: BA in Theatre, emphasis in costume & design, Hope College, MI
This Feature was written by Eli Keel.
Eli Keel is a Louisville based freelance journalist focused on arts and culture. Nationally he’s written Salon.com, The MarySue.com, Howlround.com, and Pointe Magazine out of New York. Locally he’s written for Louisville Public Radio’s news division, both the radio and the web (wfpl.com), Insiderlouisville.com, LEO Weekly and Leoweekly.com. He’s also contributed to Louisville Magazine, The Voice Tribune, Modern Louisville, Churchill Downs Magazine, arts-louisville.com, and thecoffeecompass.com. He also writes plays.
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