After travelling the globe for his art, Craggier Browne finds everything he needs in his home state
Story by Katie McDowell
Photos by Emily Klein
Craigger Browne’s career has taken him around the globe.
During his 25-year career, he studied with master artists and craftsmen at the Lacoste School of the Arts in France and Nicoli Sculpture Studioes in Italy. He has created hundreds of marble sculptures, and his work can be viewed on five of the seven continents.
Everything he needs, however, can be found in his home state of Alabama, including world-class marble to rival the stone found in Italy. The irony is not lost on him.
“I went halfway around the world and now I’m as happy as I can be in terms of materials,” he said.
Browne grew up in the Birmingham area and graduated from Vestavia Hills High School. Although his studies would take him across the Atlantic Ocean, he initially stayed close to home, attending the University of Montevallo. He played baseball, studied graphic design and earned a BFA with a concentration in sculpture at UM in the early 1990s.
After graduating, considered attending graduate school in graphic design. Computers, however, had already changed the field, and he realized he did not have the experience needed. Instead, he attended the Lacoste School of the Arts in France, through a program with the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“That’s when I started carving stone,” he said.
His work with limestone earned him a Guggenheim scholarship to study in Italy. After a couple of years, he was ready for a new challenge. Peter Rockwell, Norman Rockwell’s son, directed him to Carrara, Italy, which is famous for its marble quarries.
He worked out of Nicoli Sculpture Studios, a prestigious and historic studio that was founded in 1863.
“You had master craftsmen in every aspect of the process in the studio in Italy,” he said.
Browne eventually made his way back to his home state, where he continued his work. He soon discovered that Sylacauga was home to world-class marble equal to what he worked with in Italy.
“They’re both the first in the world,” he said. “I tell people it’s like comparing a Lamborghini with a Ferrari.”
Sylacauga sits atop the “Murphy Marble Belt,” which is about 32.5 miles wide and 400 feet deep, according to the Sylacauga Marble Festival’s website. Originally, Alabama marble, as it is commonly known, was used for large-scale projects, including many famous buildings and sculptures in Washington, D.C., such as the Lincoln Memorial and much of the interior rooms of the United States Supreme Court building.
By the middle of the 20th century, the industry shifted in Sylacauga. Quarrying continued, but the marble was crushed to extract calcium deposits, which are used in agricultural, pharmaceutical and paint products, according to the Sylacauga Marble Festival’s website.
Serendipitously, marble companies began quarrying stone in Sylacauga for other uses again after Browne returned to the state. In 2011, Browne participated in the Sylacauga Marble Festival for the first time. The annual festival, which is held in early April, draws marble sculptors from across the country.
Browne focuses on large-scale commissions and is booked through 2017, although he still tries to squeeze in smaller works. His works can be seen at the Sylacauga Municipal Complex, the B.B. Comer Library in Sylacauga and St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Shelby County. He also created the lions guarding the entrance to the Predator Building at the Birmingham Zoo.
He is currently working on a sculpture of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan for Ivy Green, Keller’s birthplace. The piece was commissioned by the Alabama Lions Club and will be presented internationally through the club.
“It’s a great honor. She’s arguably the most famous Alabamian ever,” Browne said of the sculpture.
For commissioned pieces, Browne works with the business or individual on concepts, sketches and budgeting, but he maintains control of the design of the piece. His next stop is the quarry, where he picks the block of marble he wants for the piece.
“Marble is really like a semi-precious stone,” he said. “No two stones are exactly alike. Even if I duplicated sculptures, they would still be considered originals.”
After the marble is moved to his studio in Sylacauga, “the fun begins.” Browne begins roughing out the piece, using saws for large sculptures before moving to hammers and chisels.
Once the piece is complete, he polishes it by hand using wet and dry sandpaper, rather than using a machine, which would shave away the details.
“It takes longer, but the end result is worth it,” he said.
The work can be both physically and mentally draining.
“It’s a combination of construction work and brain surgery,” Browne said.
The precision required for marble sculptures can be daunting – one mistake and the piece is ruined.
The work is also time intensive. Browne said he does not have much time for other art, although he does teach a drawing class on Tuesday nights in Sylacauga. His smaller pieces are occasionally available at Littlehouse Galleries in Homewood, and he plans to make his work available at Blue Phrog Gallery in Montevallo in the future.
Browne would not trade the hectic schedule for anything except, perhaps, a chance to continue playing baseball. After 25 years, he is still surprised at how his life came together – and it all started as an 18-year-old student at the University of Montevallo.
I would not have been prepared to do the things I’ve done without the foundation I got there,” he said.
Follow Browne’s work on his Facebook page: Facebook.com/craigger.browne.