Meet Detroit’s Monument Man

Local sculptor Austen Brantley creates art that honors Black history for Detroit’s public parks — and beyond.
Austen Brantley’s monument for the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

Austen Brantley’s studio is just as understated as he is. Down a massive hallway and into the maze of the Russell Industrial Center, you’ll find the artist working alone with his music, refining the edges of a new sculpture, one of many works in progress.

It’s getting hard to keep track of just which project the self-taught Brantley is currently working on. As a figurative sculptor, Brantley creates expressive, detailed sculptures that draw on African and classical art, and he’s in high demand. Only 28 years old, Brantley shows his work around the world, and his pieces are in private collections, including that of Bedrock, which displays his “Mountain” in the lobby of the Book Tower. Last year, Brantley added a Kresge Artist Fellowship to his list of accolades — one of the highest honors an artist in Detroit can receive.

Brantley has already made his mark in Detroit’s public parks, honoring icons of the past. His first public project was installed in 2019, the statue of slain civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in a park named after her on Detroit’s west side.

One of his most recent commissions, a bronze bust of Elizabeth Hamer, freedom seeker and matriarch of the Hamer Finch Wilkins family, will be unveiled this year in a Royal Oak park named in honor of the prominent Black family. Hamer descendant LaKeesha Morrison applauds the selection.

“With the personal importance of supporting local Black artists, the decision to commission Austen Brantley for sculpting my family’s matriarch holds a special place in my heart,” Morrison says. “He not only possesses immense talent but also once had a studio in Royal Oak. His local ties and artistic talent made him an ideal choice for bringing our significant project to life.”

Brantley says the sculpture “is going to depict motherhood.” He researched the family at the Royal Oak Historical Society Museum and used artificial intelligence software to generate different angles of Elizabeth Hamer’s face: “Where there are not enough pictures, I have technology helping me.”

Pitcher Ernest Burke, unveiled at a park in Havre de Grace, Maryland, by Brantley in 2021. // Photograph courtesy of Austen Brantley

Not bad for a self-taught artist. After excelling in what he thought was a blow-off ceramics class at Berkley High School (where he has yet another sculpture), Brantley has found gallery owners willing to offer him space to create and plenty of others interested in commissioning his work.

“I never went to art school and kind of just taught myself everything. I always feel like there’s something to learn,” Brantley says, adding: “People don’t usually think we can make a living and thrive in a career like this until they see it.”

This year, metro Detroiters and the rest of the world will continue to “see it” as the scope and reach of Brantley’s art make the rounds. There’s a solo show at M Contemporary Art gallery in Ferndale this September. When we speak, he is finishing a monument for The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, his biggest piece yet, a 10-foot-tall Black power fist.

But Brantley calls Detroit home for a reason, and it’s here where his most impactful work (so far) has been installed — pieces that hark back to history and present it through his artful touch. In Rouge Park, his likeness of Alexander Jefferson, a Tuskegee airman from Detroit who died in 2022 at the age of 100, will stand proudly in Jefferson Plaza.

Brantley understands the “huge responsibility” he has as a Black artist expressing Black history in clay. Above all, he wants to highlight the nobility and beauty of his subjects and approach each sculpture as a personal statement about the Black experience.

“Every single piece has so much depth within it,” he says, adding that his creations have “become more monumental in my life. They do feel like pieces of me.”

This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.