Sculpture Studio Technician Mark Briscoe is Vassar art students’ go-to source for help with any number of things relating to the construction process in art, ranging from welding and mixing plaster to painting and building canvas stretchers. He also ensures that the Vassar Art Department is in accordance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) laws, and takes care of the dark room. “It’s really a multi-faceted job,” Briscoe explained.
A native Oklahoman, Briscoe majored in Art at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, mostly working with pottery. It was not until he began pursuing a Master’s in Fine Arts at The University of Texas at San Antonio that he began to shift his work from pottery to sculpture, incorporating a wider array of materials into his pieces, such as metal, and creating ceramic shapes rather than pottery.
As an artist, Briscoe is inspired by scientific ideas, such as electricity, movement of energy and magnetism, and many of his pieces are interactive.
For instance, with one of his pieces, the spectator turns a crank that sets a ceramic ball in motion, and then another, which conveys a wave of movement. In his drawings, Briscoe is mostly inspired by shapes, particularly the development of abstract forms.
Briscoe decided to take some time off from graduate school, and gained teaching experience through a teaching fellowship at a small college in Kansas, and later taught ceramics courses at a university in Oklahoma City. He came to Vassar in 2000, working part time with the Art department.
But after Vassar was fined by the EPA, and with the addition of photography courses and the student-run photography group, Phocus, Briscoe was hired full time. And according to many studio art students, he has proven to be an invaluable source of knowledge and mentorship.
“He simply knows everything. And he knows how everything is made,” wrote Vassar alumna Samantha Ives ’12 in an emailed statement. Ives worked with Briscoe on a sculpture project last year, in which she made several casts of baby bottles.
“The only way I had ever made casts before then was a super tedious process that was going to require using the kiln and days of waiting for each cast to dry,” she wrote. “When I talked to [Briscoe], he knew exactly what to do.”
For Briscoe, working with students is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of his job. “The students are great at Vassar,” he said. “It’s so rewarding when I’m helping a student with something, like teaching them how to weld, and all of a sudden I see a connection and I just know that the student has got it.”
Briscoe familiarizes students with new processes, and then lets them try them on their own. “Some students don’t like to have help, although if I’m walking by and I see something wrong I’ll let them know that they should do this or change this, while there are other students who are really into talking about various techniques,” he explained. “Getting a bunch of college students to do something can be like herding cats,” he said with a laugh. “I try not to push myself on anybody or be an authority figure, but sometimes that [is] the role I end up taking on.”
One student whom Briscoe has worked on several projects with is Maxine Puorro ‘13, the most recent being a large, 25 foot necklace sculpture made of large wooden blocks with a rope that runs through the whole piece. “An important aspect of its construction is that it is modular,” she explained in an emailed statement. “The pieces can fit together in a number of ways, and the rope allows the work to be installed in many different configurations depending on the space it is inhabiting.” The sculpture will be exhibited in the Senior Art Show in May.
Puorro insists that working with Briscoe has been extremely helpful. “Mark was a huge help to me, from the beginnings of drafting designs and construction methods for the project to transporting it to be installed. (I’m guessing that it weighs well over 200 pounds so I absolutely could not have moved it by myself),” she wrote.
“He is always perceptive as to when I settle for an idea or construction that I could develop further and encourages me to push harder. In addition to that he has a huge breadth of knowledge about materials and construction which he is happy (and very patient I should add) to share with me and other students,” she explained. “His guidance has really given me the freedom to explore materials of which I had no previous knowledge and to take on projects that I would have not thought possible before Mark introduced me to new skills and ways of thinking over the past two years.”
For those interested in seeing Briscoe’s own work, he will have a show in the Palmer Gallery next February that will feature his sculpture and drawing.