For Rochester Hills park ranger Alan Brown, crafting stone and metal into fine works of art is an escape from the daily grind.
"I'm not sure if I'm a park ranger who works as an artist, or an artist who works as a park ranger," Brown said, who has worked at Bloomer Park since 1980. "The ranger thing started as a summer job as soon as I got out of high school. I got hired full time while going to college. I majored in illustration, but when I got out I didn't want to make it my pay for my bills. It becomes a different beast when you make it your living."
Trading in his illustration pen for power tools, Brown took an interest in three-dimensional work in marble and bronze before graduating from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Today, Brown mines his own stone each summer at a quarry in Marble, Colorado, bringing back nearly a half-ton in his pickup truck each year.
"There are many other artists there," he said of the quarry. "It's more of a pilgrimage than a vacation. I've done it for the past 12 years, and go every July."
Using diamond-tipped bits and burs to shape the stone, Brown begins crafting the stone before he leaves the quarry.
"I start it there. You want to get as much weight off of it as you can," he said. "By the time I bring it back here, I'm using smaller grinders and Dremels with drill bits.
"It's dangerous. You bleed and get scraped, but that's part of what I like about the work," he said. "There's a physical demand to it. I'm usually tired, bruised and beat up afterward."
The finished works are neoclassic themes featuring stone elves, mermaids and other fantasy beings accented by bronze-crafted natural features. Brown's work has been featured at ArtPrize and has taken first place at the Michigan Fine Arts competition.
The life-size sculptures take up to a year to complete, and some projects spanning several more, with the artwork being done in the evenings after leaving the park. Still, he said the influence of his work as a park ranger bleeds into the natural elements of his art.
"Art is basically escapism. There are a lot of artists who focus on bringing attention to the horrors of our society and things that are going on, but to me, we still need pretty stuff to take you away from the bad things going on," Brown said. "Not that it's not important, but to go into the fantasy world and neoclassical sculpture and good feeling stuff, that's the direction I go with my work.
"I'm not trying to change the world here, but we do need stuff to make you smile."
By separating his artwork from his career, Brown said he's able to spend more time on the pieces, giving them the attention to detail he may not be able to do if he were under more pressure.
"The park ranger job gives me the freedom to do my artwork," he said. "I can take a year to work on a piece, and I don't have to get it done and get it out there. It allows me the freedom to spend time on pieces that I want to, and that to me is important at this point in my life."
Photo: Laurie Tennent