Artist Brian Reaume explores family roots, connection to the earth in 'Rural & Birch'

Andy Downing
A birch tree painted by Brian Reaume

Brian Reaume recently bought his first tractor, a 1976 International, which he described as having the appearance of “a brutalist sculpture.” Beyond assisting him in his current role as caretaker of the family farm, a capacity in which he’s served for more than three years following his father’s stroke and subsequent recovery, it has allowed Reaume the ability to tinker when something with it goes awry— a luxury he did not have with the larger, significantly more expensive pieces of farming equipment he’d piloted during previous harvests.

“It’s great because I feel like I’m investing in the farm and I’m investing in my future, and, if something breaks on the tractor, I’m not going to be afraid to get in there and dig around a little bit, because it’s my tractor,” said Reaume, who has long applied a similar roll-up-the-sleeves-and-dive-in ethos to his own artwork. “I’ve had these shows where I’m like, ‘I want this floating orb.’ … And I get this idea and Irefuse to not have that visual. So, yeah, I throw myself into it, and it’s trial and error and you make mistakes and everything in between, and I’ll get to that point where it works out. I like that challenge.”

Reaume, who currently lives and works on his parents' farm in Newport, Michigan, which rests in 1,000 acres between Detroit and Toledo in the shadows of a nuclear power plant, said a sense of family obligation led him to take up the career switch, understanding that the farm could have been lost without his help. So for the last three-plus years, Reaume has balanced his art-making with learning an entirely foreign field — an experience that has left him feeling lost and frustrated, at times, but also with a sense of accomplishment and connection to the land that have made him at least consider the notion that this might be a more permanent career change. 

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“I’ll be honest, I spend 90 percent of the time at an absolute [loss], only because I’m so used to being in an environment where even if I didn’t know what I was doing, I could figure it out based on my knowledge of materials, or the visual, or color or movement or whatever it was going to be. But as a farmer, I’m driving equipment down the field … and if something breaks, I’m not a mechanic, and I can’t say, ‘Oh, this red wire and this blue wire look cool together, so let’s put them together and see what it does.’ … I do the best I can, but it’s extremely high stress,” said Reaume. “Then there’s the flip side, where there’s a lot of beauty to farming. Harvest is my favorite time … and there are moments I’m out there, and there’s a harvest moon and it’s crisp out and you have these smells. So there’s a duality to it, for sure.”

Reaume’s developing connection to the land has gradually bled into his artwork, including a new collection that encompasses sculptures based on the vintage farmhouses dotting the area around Newport, as well as stately portraits of individual birches, which have long enthralled the artist, who described the trees as ghostly figures. “You’re driving in the woods, and your headlights are hitting these majestic beings, these vapors,” said Reaume, who traced the start of his art career to the years he spent living in Columbus beginning in 2000, making the artist’s new exhibit, “Rural & Birch," which opens at Secret Studio on Friday, Sept. 11, something of a homecoming.

Reaume initially conceived of the show in January and was slated to display at Secret Studio in March, plans that were put on hold after the coronavirus swept through and shuttered activities across the country. Left with extra time, Reaume started to reconsider the pieces as they developed, connecting the sculptures to the drawings of farmhouses he made as a child and envisioning the birches as familial units, with generations of trees taking on humanistic characteristics. “I wanted it to feel like you were walking down the hallway in an old farmhouse and you have family portraits hung on the walls, but they’re birch trees,” he said. 

“The shutdown made me focus so much on family, and bringing my roots … into the art,” continued Reaume, describing the discovery process as one reinvigorated by his initial return to the family farm. “I sold my house, quit my job and came back home when Dad had his stroke. I didn’t know if it was going to be permanent. … And I didn’t know I was going to take over the farm, but I did. And now I farm. … And if I continue doing this for however many years, then maybe I will end up continuing to do it for however many more years. But I’m still an artist, and if I had my way I’d be in the studio 16 hours a day, but that’s not an option right now.”

As a result, Reaume has come to more greatly appreciate his limited studio time, saying the hours spent in the retreat can still recharge him spiritually and artistically even in the time he’s not working. “I can go in there and just sleep for two hours and I’m still absorbing that energy,” he said. “I have to have those moments to myself. Then when I do come around to working on something, I find I’m relaxed. My movements are more fluid, my thoughts are clear and the objective is in sight.”

A farmhouse sculpture by Brian Reaume