Conversation at Oak Springs Garden Foundation

J Clayton Bright at Oak Springs Garden
J Clayton Bright at Oak Springs Garden

Sometimes, Oak Spring’s past and present merge in surprising and wonderful ways. That was the case earlier this fall, when artist J. Clayton Bright – a Pennsylvania-based painter and sculptor who has created several works for OSGF founder Bunny Mellon over the years – returned to Oak Spring to take our short paper making workshop. 

Over the course of his decades-long career, Bright’s sculptures and paintings have been represented in several museum collections, and are also found in private collections around the world.  They are noted for capturing the essence of the subject, whether it be a slightly overfed pet beagle or a fascinated toddler holding her hand under a glittering stream of bronze water. 

The Oak Spring Garden Library houses two of Bright’s sculptures, which are among our library staff’s favorite pieces. He was kind enough to revisit them during his stay at the foundation, as well as chat with us about his art and his experience working with Mrs. Mellon. 

Bright first became acquainted with the OSGF founder decades earlier, when she called him “out of the blue” about commissioning a bronze fox and hound sculpture for the courtyard garden she designed at her alma mater, Foxcroft School. The garden was created in memory of her late friend and classmate, Kitty Wickes Poole. 

“She said, ‘I’d like a sitting fox and a sitting hound,’” recalled Bright, who had sold some bronzes to Paul Mellon previously. “I sort of thought about that, and I asked if I could change that a little bit to a fox jumping off the wall and a hound coming behind, following the fox, because in my work I try to avoid the cliche. I try to get the spirit, the personality of the subject, be it a person or an animal.” 

Mrs. Mellon was “really appreciative” of the resulting pieces. As she and Bright continued to talk, she learned that he kept beagles for hunting, a breed of which she was especially fond.

Hawthorne by J. Clayton Bright

“I had a beagle that wasn’t hunting for me, but it was a really nice personality, so I called her up and asked her if she’d like Hawthorne,” explained Bright. “She wasn’t too keen on the name Hawthorne, but I’m pleased to see she came around to the name!”  

Hawthorne (who was female) was one of the last dogs that Mrs. Mellon would own during her life, and is buried on the Oak Spring property. In the 1990s, Mrs. Mellon contacted Bright again to commission a small mantelpiece sculpture of her beagle. He spent ten days at Oak Spring to complete the work, where he was able to watch Hawthorne in her new home. 

 “Usually, it starts with a vision in my mind, and in doing the sculpture, I would do a clay model first,” said Bright, who always observes his subjects from life in order to get to know their personality, movement and mannerisms.

Creating a bronze sculpture – even one as small as Hawthorne’s statue – is a multiple-step process. After forming the clay model, Bright makes a rubber mold which is used to make a wax casting (which is “hollow inside, like a chocolate Easter bunny,”) and dips it in a vat of porcelain. One fired, the porcelain mold – one of the only materials that can withstand the high heat of molten bronze – is used to create the final product.

It is this “physical work” of sculpting that appealed to Bright, who first began creating bronzes in the 1970s. The animal lover’s first piece? A Jersey cow.

“I thought, ‘I’d never seen a cow sculpture, always a bull,’” he said. “I had a friend who was a sculptor, and I liked Eric’s work, but something told me that he wouldn’t create what I already had in my mind. So I went to Eric and asked him how to do a sculpture, and he gave me an afternoon’s lesson.”

That first bronze was one of many that depicted the animals and humans that Bright has known during his life. “Preacher” – a sparrow hawk sculpture originally purchased by Mrs. Mellon for the banister in the new wing of the Oak Spring Garden Library – is another such piece. The model was an injured bird given to Bright by a friend, which he rehabilitated.

“I was doing a sculpture of him, and a mouse ran across the floor. The bird was sitting on his perch, and just like that was off the perch and after the mouse,” he recalled. “The bird just missed the mouse, which hid into a little pile of junk. But not only did it give me the idea to add the mouse (to the sculpture), but it also said that the bird still had the ability to hunt for itself, so I could reintroduce it to the wild.”

preacher 1
Preacher by J. Clayton Bright

The purchase of the hawk sculpture, said Bright, was also an example of Mrs. Mellon’s flexibility when it came to her designs and vision. She had originally intended for it to sit on the bannister of the staircase in the new wing of the Oak Spring Garden Library, but after seeing the sculpture in person, agreed with Bright that it wouldn’t be in harmony with the upper floor’s formal environment.

“She could say, ‘this isn’t really going to fit,’” he said. Mrs. Mellon – while very involved in her designs – had also shown her “capacity to listen” to the artists she worked with during the Foxcroft garden project, he recalled.

“And to me, that’s flattering, because it means she considered this an individual piece and knew that wasn’t the place to put it,” said Bright. “So she could definitely change (her ideas), and she definitely had her own eye and her own vision of where she was going.”

Although he is a veteran artist and art teacher himself, Bright believes in continuing to learn new things – “you never known when something different will come in useful” – which is how he ended up back at Oak Spring so many years later to take our paper making course with instructor Alyssa Sacora. He is not the first person in his family to engage with our programs for artists:  his daughter, writer Phoebe McIlwain Bright,  was one of the six nature and environmental writers featured in our Her Words on the World digital series earlier this year. 

Bright hopes to use the paper he made for drawing, he said. During the course, he also enjoyed talking and exchanging ideas with Oak Spring’s current artists in residence, he said, including bookbinder Brien Biedler (and the feeling was mutual!)

Clayton chatting with Brien

Bright chats with artist in residence Brien Biedler outside the Oak Spring Garden Library.

“I’ve always loved books, and Brien, his bindings just make me melt,” continued Bright. “They are so wonderful, they’re not only tactile, but they’re visually very compelling.”

Bright “absolutely” believes Mrs. Mellon would be glad to see her foundation granting residencies and fellowships to emerging artists like Biedler today.

“Between her and Paul, I wouldn’t even be able to guess how many artists they’ve supported,” he said.

If you’d like to see Bright’s work in person and live in the mid-Atlantic area, his sculptures will be on display at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Harford County, Maryland in until the end of October. As for what the artist hopes people learn or take away from his work? “Nothing fancy,” he said.

“In all my pieces, there’s something that I’m trying to capture,” he said, turning over the sculpture of Hawthorne in his hands. “I think of myself as a visual communicator, an author would use words to create an atmosphere and lead you the reader to a certain place, and I want you to visually be able to do that – I just want you to look at it, and walk away refreshed.”

Cook’s View and The Scholar

J. Clayton Bright The Scholar and Cooks View
J. Clayton Bright The Scholar and Cooks View

Cook’s View and The Scholar: two works of art, different genres, which I completed this year, are on display at SomervilleManning’s temporary exhibit space at the Hardcastle Gallery: 5714 Kennett Pike in Centreville, DE, 19807.

Happy Mother’s Day

Maternity Ward
Maternity Ward

This image was a bit of a reach for my lens but I could not resist making the effort. The marsh adjacent to our pond is a preferred nesting spot every spring. Yesterday there were three guys just hanging out while their ladies were incubating the eggs. The scene reminded me of a maternity ward 50 years ago when husbands where not allowed to participate.

Red-winged Blackbirds a week later

Blackbird2 Bright

One week later I saw three Red-winged Blackbirds, but heard a total five staking claims to the same territory, where only two were competing before. This week their scarlet epaulets were on full display, whereas last week only the yellow chevrons were showing.

Announcing Spring

Spring singing

This image is from last Saturday when I was on the morning exercise with the beagles and house dogs. If you carefully follow the top of the near fence line, you will come to a Red Winged Blackbird sitting on a post. If the image has not been too compressed you should be able to enlarge it enough to make out the yellow chevron of its wing epaulet. With the coming of spring (and the breeding season) the males regain their epaulets, which are not in evidence while they are flocked together during the winter.

      There was also a male on the other side of the road, which I could not see, but each was claiming its territory with song. They are the first ones I have heard staking claims this year. Their optimism about spring was not dampened by the morning dusting of snow.


Winter tree Bright 3
Winter Tree Bright

Despite not having much color, this image catches the eye. It is a very good example of the adage: “Color gets the credit, but value does the work.”

The importance of value (light and dark) is something we tend to forget about, given the ubiquity of highly saturated color photographs.  Yet it is the foundation of a good image. We just tend not to recognize value’s importance. One of my favorite examples of value is Unkoku Tōgan’s (1547-1618) ink on paper, Descending Geese.  He depicted a flock of geese coming in for a landing next to their compatriots on a sand bar. Here, value first directs you to the subject, then softening, creates both place and depth.
Unkoku Togan 1
Unkoku Togan Descending Geese


Snowdrops in December

I took this photo on December 15 just outside my studio. Yes, a snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) blooming in mid-December. It is not unusual for this to happen on the south facing bank in January, but unprecedented in December. A January warm spell can both cause snowdrops to bloom and be warm enough to tempt me outside to paint them.

These snowdrops have me wondering – were they inspired to break dormancy by lengthening nights or did the November cold snap give them enough chill hours (hours of coldness) for them to believe spring was here when daytime temperatures rose into the 50’s and 60’s for a few days in December.        

I always marvel that when some snowdrops do jump the gun on the start of spring how they can survive the following snow and cold which makes very clear their optimism was misplaced.

Storm-Driven Oak Leaves

storm driven oak leaves

During my regular morning walk with the beagles, sometimes the rawest weather rewards me the most for being out. In this case rain squalls were sweeping across the valley below, pushed by a wind that was gusting to 30 mph. What looks likes birds fleeing before the wind were the last of the leaves being stripped from an oak tree. Oaks and beeches can hang on to their spent leaves until spring when the replacements push the old out of the way. Nonetheless, thiswind was stripping hilltop oak bare.

Like a flock of small birds, the leaves darted about the sky even as they move in a single general direction. Those that hit the ground flitting along, sometimes rising back into the sky. They brought to mind a belief from childhood – if you put salt on a bird’s tail, it would not be able to fly away and then you could catch it.

The groundling leaves reminded me of how birds used to stay just ahead of us kids when we tried the salt method. They always flitted along just out of reach, sometimes rising to land a little farther on. In this case, I was trying to catch some of the leaves so I could identify the type of oak trying so hard to retain its leaves. It was a probably a black oak (quarus velutina). But someone more of an expert than myself would need to sort out some of the oaks by their leaves alone, because the leaves from the wild seldom match the ones in leaf identification books.

All Herefords in a field look the same until you really get to know the herd.

Mutinus elegans

Mutinus elegans JCBright
Mutinus elegans JCBright

I have walked the same field almost daily for over thirty years and never noticed this fungus although I am sure it has always been there. Mutinus elegans did not recently hop off a shipping pallet from Asia – it was first recorded in Virginia in the 1600’s. I need to be more observant since its bold red, a strong contrast with the grass, makes it hard to miss.

Once tuned in I found several more. They first appear as slightly smaller than a golf ball bubble in tan. They hold hard at that point until the autumn rains and the temperature are to their liking.  Then stand back. These fungi grow to their full height (about 3 inches) in less than 2 days.  Within a few days they start to wither, fall over and totally disappear.

What looks like it might be a red leaf caught in the grass, is in fact a sweet sticky mass containing spores. Insects are attracted by the sweetness, at which point the spores tag along for rides to points unknown. 

Cyclamen in the Japanese Garden

cyclamen Japanese water garden Bright 1
Cyclamen in Japanese water garden – J. Clayton Bright

There is one section of our Japanese water garden that is barren and dry-looking throughout the summer. Then, in autumn, rains start and the first flowers of the hardy cyclamen (cyclamen hederifolium) appear, followed shortly by their leaves. They linger on for weeks giving the garden one last moment of glory.

Somebody occasionally snacks on a flower head. The browsers, I suspect, are mice, but they never seem to make a habit of it. Since each plant has enough flowers to be able to spare a few, there is no cause for concern. Besides the loss gives the cyclamen patch a feeling of naturalism, which is not altogether bad.  The cyclamens are at the garden’s edge where plants are not as controlled, so a little blending helps the transition.