Grey Brogdon is a fascinating man. He’s lived a rich and full life steeped in adventure, love, war and art. He’s visited 30 countries, served 31 months in jungle combat in Vietnam, taught at 3 Universities, jumped out of airplanes, visited every museum he could find, built 2 houses by hand and has taught himself to be proficient on a myriad of tools and machinery. Suffice to say, “He’s seen it all,” but through all that he has seen, he’s never trained his lens away from the very thing that he feels most compelled to do, and that is make art.
Grey is a Thurston County mixed media sculpture artist who has adorned and beautified Olympia’s waterfront at Percival Landing not once – but seven times, with his sculptures made of steel, wood, industrial chain, discarded auto parts, decommissioned pieces of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and even 100-year-old lampposts from Olympia’s own 4th Avenue.
He’s participated in a public art showcase, City of Olympia’s Percival Plinth Project, that since 2011 has exalted sculptures of various mediums made by select local artists. These unique, original works are placed atop plinths that line the waterfront from Isthmus Park to Budd Bay Cafe, and at the end of their 12-month showcase, are voted upon by the community. The City then purchases the community favorite and adds it to its permanent collection.
You’ve probably seen Grey’s work, “Along the Silk Road,” which was the Project’s very first installation. There were also the tumbling steel blocks of his “Jericho,” and his pieces, “For Which It Stands” and “Ascension of the Phoenix,” which both feature the antique lampposts and decommissioned bridge parts. His personal favorite, “Sound from the Ends of Time” was made from 16-gauge flat steel and repurposed oxygen cylinders which he transformed to, literally, reverberate the sounds of our Universe.
In total, he’s made seven different pieces for the Project over the past decade, and his creation process is unique for each one. Each piece of material is lovingly selected for its story, or salvaged from a forgotten heap in testament that the material is worth more than just being deemed eternal rubbish.
His salvaging days go way back to his childhood when he would wander the side streets of Oklahoma dragging home bits of this and that, at first to his mother’s chagrin, but later after she saw what he would create from them, to her delight.
It was obvious that Grey was a born artist from a very young age. By 12, he was taking private oil painting lessons from his junior high art teacher, and together with his friend Danny, painted a 12-foot mural on his school’s wall: his very first display of public art.
He earned a BFA from Oklahoma State University in oil painting and sculpture, and then went on to a very successful 24-year-career in the Army and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. For the next 17 years he worked as a contractor, planning for NATO exercises and wartime missions, and when he was placed at Tulane University as an ROTC instructor, he then achieved a Masters in Anthropology as well as a Military Masters in Arts and Sciences. “My knowledge of anthropology and art helped me to be a better soldier,” he says. “I always tried to bring reverence to what I was trying to do.”
He says he wasn’t always successful, and that it was a different world back then, yet he always found a way to incorporate art throughout his time in the military in an effort to train his soldiers in a different way.
He shares about a time when he and his soldiers were doing target practice in a rice paddy. It was a relatively safe place, nothing and no one around, but that meant no good targets to aim for. A soldier gestured at a boundary line marker at the edge of the field, which didn’t look like much from a distance. But upon closer inspection, Grey realized that it wasn’t just a nondescript mass, but a beautiful, lovingly made statue with pieces of ancient pottery encrusted throughout. Grey didn’t allow his soldiers to shoot at it, even though it might have been tempting since it technically belonged to “the enemy,” but Grey saw it for what it was: someone’s art.
He explained that he and his men’s survival depended upon his ability to read a topographical map and use a lensatic compass, skills that he later translated into locating ancient Indigenous sites along the Mississippi River, furthering cultural and anthropological studies of that area.
Grey is of Chocktaw and Chickasaw heritage. He says he’s inspired by Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh, whose 1813 oration, “So Live Your Life” is a mantra he’s tried to live by. He shared a bit of it with me, in a moving oration of his own, reciting:
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.”
Grey has done an excellent job fulfilling these life goals. He turns 80-years-old in a few days and for now, is mostly retired.
“I’ve never had only one job ever in my whole life,” he says. “Overload is best for me.” That’s where he finds his focus, wastes no time, and creates some of his most beautiful and best works. He’s now restored 10 houses around our region, and takes commissions in all mediums, although he’s presently working on finishing his beautiful work of art, an Italian-inspired home that may actually never be finished, because it’s immediately clear to anyone who meets him that he will forever create, teach and inspire.
He has his own crucible furnace and forge, and at 80 is still transforming solid metals to molten, and pouring them from the fiery inferno into new forms that he’s created from his mind. He says at this point in his life, he’s using his art to make some social statements about where he’s been, what he’s seen, and how he hopes the world can be a more kind, gentle, and just place to live.
“If I were to live my life over again,” he says, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”