In the bars of Lawrence and small-town Kansas, the washboard player went largely unnoticed.
Even within the last year, Jim Brothers stood up there on stage in his Civil War garb or his coyote hat, strumming away as his mates in the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band dove into another song, providing no real clues of his true identity as an artist whose work graced the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall.
Said Steve Mason, a longtime member of the band: “I don’t remember anybody recognizing him as a famous sculptor.”
The anonymity seemed perfectly fine with Brothers, who died Tuesday in his studio following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 72.
On Wednesday, friends fondly recalled the eccentric artist who, by all accounts, lived a full life on the edges of society. One by one, they rattled off increasingly outlandish tales, such as the time he was working as a police officer in his hometown of Eureka, Kan., when he was held hostage after his gun was taken from him. And the time he took a job as a plumber just so he could learn how to weld from people who knew what they were doing. And when he let a schizophrenic acquaintance move in with him because, well, why not?
He was a quick-witted holder of grudges, friends said, a free-spirited enigma. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War who shaped war memorial pieces, and whose curious ways left more than one woman bewildered along the way.
“One of the final straws that ended one of his marriages was when he bought a plane,” said John Hachmeister, a friend and fellow artist who teaches sculpting at the University of Kansas. “And about the third time he crashed it, she moved out.”
Brothers arrived in Lawrence in the 1960s, eventually enrolling at the University of Kansas before pursuing a career as a sculptor.
Those early years were tough. He subsisted largely, according to Mason, on his earnings from the string band, which during its heyday landed five or six gigs a month. Among the places he lived was a farmhouse with no running water. One of his earliest studios was, as one friend put it, an “ill-lit chicken shed.”
Said Mason: “He was generally poor as a church mouse.”
Things got better, though. Over time, commissions started coming in. He built a sizable studio in north Lawrence.
“He never changed, even after he started making some money,” said Johnny’s Tavern owner Rick Renfro, who regularly hosted the band.
With the help of Paul Dorrell, who owns Kansas City’s Leopold Gallery and served as a longtime agent, Brothers’ work began showing up in prominent locations. There was the Griffith Park monument in Los Angeles. And the Mark Twain monument in Hartford, Conn.
From there, his Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was placed at the U.S. Capitol rotunda and he contributed to the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Kansas City boasts multiple Brothers pieces: “Veterans” can be found at the VFW Memorial, and his bronze of golfer Tom Watson stands in front of Children’s Mercy Hospital.
In 2008, he completed perhaps his most notable project, contributing multiple pieces depicting soldiers on Omaha Beach to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.
In the private sector, smaller pieces eventually would be purchased by director Steven Spielberg and cartoonist Charles Schulz.
“Bottom line,” said Dorrell, “no artist from our area since Thomas Hart Benton has achieved so much.”
While Brothers’ work would become nationally known, it could be said that the sculptor was never fully embraced in his own town of Lawrence.
In a city that fancied itself a hub of abstract art, his war monuments and depictions of historical figures were viewed with a certain wariness. As a result, there was a hesitance by some in the local art community to display his work publicly.
“There’s this philosophy of cutting-edge art, and the idea that something memorializing something is not contemporary art,” Hachmeister said. “So if you have people that are very much steeped in the contemporary art movement, they’re not going to select that for public art.”
To this day, only one Brothers piece — the Lawrence Visitors Center’s “From the Ashes,” which serves as a symbol of the town’s rebirth following Quantrill’s Civil War raid — is publicly displayed in the town.
He is survived by his wife, Kathleen Correll.
Despite his declining health, he was creating right down to the end, Hachmeister said.