Branko Medenica

Sculpting a Long Career

by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel

For sculptor Branko Medenica, art was not his first career choice. “I have a degree in Business Administration from Birmingham–Southern.” he explains, as we sit in the studio where he worked for more than 20  years. “Then,” he continues, “I read a statistic somewhere that 70 percent of people worked in a job they didn’t like. I didn’t want that to be me,” he muses, “so I decided to pursue a career in art instead.”

Medenica enrolled in a Master of  Fine Arts degree from the University of Mississippi, where he focused on ceramics and sculpture. “I’ve always been a three-dimensional artist,” he remarks, “so my method of sketching is to work out the composition of a piece by building a maquette, or small scale model of how I envision a completed piece.”

After graduation, he worked on the Michigan Art Train, a seven–car train that brought museum–quality artworks to the nation. “Our tour included North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa,” he explains. “One of our goals was to create opportunities for artists from each region to exhibit their works in a gallery car that was part of the train, but when we could not work with local artists we presented our works instead.”

After seven months, Medenica found himself back in Birmingham, and at the unemployment office. When asked his profession he responded “sculptor” only to learn that the person behind the counter had never had a request for a sculptor in their entire career. Amazingly, only a  week later, he received a call from the unemployment office advising him of an opportunity in Lakeview. He accepted the position, and has been a full–time professional sculptor from that point forward.

“I got my first major commission in 1983,” Medenica recalls, “building a replica of Vulcan for Hitachi, Japan. I had very little training as a realist sculptor,” he laughs, “but over the course of completing the work I realized that I could work in this way, and that I enjoyed the process.” After completing the commission, he realized he could move comfortably between abstraction and realist sculpture. He relates a story that early in his career he would often take his maquettes on the plane when he travelled, hand–delivering them to the foundry. One day a stewardess said, “The captain would like to know what is in the box.” “It is a maquette,” he remarked. In shock she said, “It’s your cat?” and the whole plane turned to look at him. “No,” he said, “it is a maquette, a small scale model of an artwork!”

“I find now that I actually enjoy moving back and forth between abstract and realism,” he notes. “Recently, a lot of my work has been figurative,” he gestures, pointing to a bronze cast of a work waiting to be installed, and a clay model in process in another part of the studio. “I’ve just completed a commission to be installed in Monroeville,” Medenica smiles. “It is based on the three key characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, and it has been designed so that after it is installed outside the courthouse people will be able to be photographed with it.”

Medenica’s commitment to making works that resonate with diverse communities in Alabama is evident by some of his most famous works. “I think one of my most challenging commissions was Jesse Owens,” he pauses. “It was difficult at first to get permission to work with the Olympic Rings, and there were numerous discussions over the course of two years about what I could and could not do with them. After doing some research, I realized that I could use them as part of the composition, which I did. My perspective of Owens was that he was someone who was breaking down barriers at the same time as he was breaking records, and that it was important to celebrate and commemorate these achievements.” He continues, “I think between eight and ten thousand people came to the dedication. It was a very touching moment for me as an artist.”

Medenica acknowledges that his business background provides him with a set of criteria that govern his approach to his work. “I always meet my deadlines,” he says softly, “because people depend on the ability to plan dedications, commemorations or unveilings.” Apart from Jesse Owens, some of Medenica’s many figurative works include Coach Lewis Crews of Alabama A & M, Colonel Cullman, who stands outside the Cullman County Museum, and Centurion, a memorial to police officers killed in the line of duty in Birmingham.

He also continues to make large-scale abstract works, such as “Aspirations,” installed outside UAB’s Bartow Arena, and “Horse Power” a colorful abstracted horse located on the grounds of the Barber Motorsports Park.

Over the course of his career, Medenica has never had a solo museum or gallery exhibition. “Almost the entirety of my work is commissioned,” he muses, “so it goes from the studio to the site, sometimes with the foundry in between. What I do know,” he continues, “is that I have been very fortunate to have been able to do my work and provide myself with a living over all these years.” When asked what the biggest challenge he faces as a professional artist today is, he remarks without missing a beat: “The next one.”

2 Responses to “Branko Medenica”

  1. Gayle Myrick says:

    Branko Medenica, a high school classmate of mine, has always been talented and very accomplished. Above all, his integrity and good character has been a constant since his youth. There are just some people in your young life that make an impression on you because of their kindness and good will. His soft spoken tone exudes kindness to all he meets. It is an honor to have known this man, and to be able to enjoy the contributions he has made to our State.

  2. Donny Wilson says:

    Branko is one of many artist that I deal with all over the Southeast. Branko is one of the most successful of them. Beside being a great artist he has become a good friend. Last time I was with him was at the Jessie Owens Museum’s highway sign dedication and enjoyed looking at the very large sculpture of Jessie Owens he did 18 years ago. What an amazing sculptor.

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