Excerpt from interview by David Pagel, June 2, 2010
David Pagel What brought you to Pomona?
Michael Brewster I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Ontario and they said, “Go over and look at those campuses.” I fell in love with a dormitory at Pomona called Clark Five. I thought, “Oh wow, I could come here and be monastic.” The rooms were like cells for monks, with fireplaces and balconies around courtyards.
DP At that time you were in high school in Brazil?
MB In São Paulo, at an imitation American high school, so that I’d be fully prepped for American college. My family had been in Brazil for fourteen years. My twenty-six-year-old, D-Day master sergeant, chemical engineer father went there on a three-year contract in 1950, which turned into thirty-five years. He was doing well, much better than an engineer could do in the States.
DP That’s where you began taking art classes?
MB I did theater work, actually, a lot of it. I was a bored sophomore when a drama teacher showed up at the school. He very quickly figured out that he could use me for a lot of stuff. So, my exchange with him was I would take a lot of theater classes if they could be taken on stage. I basically only sat in about two non-theater academic classes a semester. The rest of the time, I had all my classes and study halls on stage, and I built sets and aimed the lights. I thought I was going to be a set designer.
DP Who was the theater teacher?
MB His name was Jim Colby. There were many teachers in American foreign schools there, running from something in the States, we figured. Colby was running from some off-Broadway misadventure. He hadn’t quite made it in New York. But he was really a good teacher, very enthusiastic and something of a brat himself, so he attracted all the brats in the school. We put on fabulous productions, Androcles and the Lion, complete with running water in the fountain and a rotating set on wheels. It was quite a piece of engineering. We also put on a full-fledged production of Guys and Dolls, with giant, “practical” sets—meaning the actors moved over and through them.
DP And you were the set guy?
MB I was the tech director and the set guy. And it amuses me now, you know, because I do installations. It’s not so different, except that, boy, now my sets are minimal.
DP Were you planning to major in theater?
MB No. I was going to be an English major. That’s how you got into theater in a liberal arts college, as an English major. Drama. Art departments at liberal arts colleges didn’t think about set designing. You’d have to go to a dedicated art school, and few of them actually had theater majors. So I ended up going to Pomona because Stanford was too huge and scared the hell out of me. I had fifty people in my high school class. The thought of going to a place that had thousands of students was pretty hard, especially because I was scared of American culture.
DP When did you leave English for art?
MB I switched to the art department in the second semester of my freshman year. During the first semester, I built a couple of sets and I thought, you know, we’re all prima donnas here, and this prima donna’s going to take his ball and go play by himself. I could do that in the art department.
DP Building sets for college theater wasn’t as much fun as building them for high school productions?
MB Well, good ol’ teacher Colby, director Colby, he’d say, “What do you think we should do here, Mike?” There was great freedom, like we were artists together. In college, it was more about doing the director’s bidding: “Don’t get any ideas. Just do the work.” Your artistry is crushed.
DP Art majors had more freedom?
MB Not as much as I would have liked. Much of the program was regimented: go to class, do the assignment. I took Salvatore Grippi’s deadly painting classes, where you had to paint bottles. But I also studied with John Mason for a while. He controlled the sculpture yard. There were kilns, but you couldn’t make pots. You could make sculpture. John wasn’t about to have a pot shop there. He was uncanny. The most effective non-verbal teacher I’ve met in my life. One semester, he said all of three words to me: “Pretty bizarre, Mike.”
DP As a compliment?
MB No, not as a compliment. I insisted on doing these little figures, and he wanted me to blow past that antique notion of what sculpture was. I learned a lot that semester, but I don’t know how. Pomona College has the ability to teach you whether you want to learn or not.
DP Who else made an impact?
MB John was replaced by David Gray. He was a good Minimalist and an effective teacher. More verbal than John. When I came up against David, he said, “No, I won’t allow any of that work in my class. Period.” So then I had to do these things that were, you know, kind of constructivist plastic things. David had a good effect on me, breaking me out of the figurative work. Although I didn’t like it at the time. I fought him quite a bit. But then I was converted by the sculptures I started to build. And then Mowry Baden showed up and the dialogue went way up.