David Middlebrook, ’66, has created many monumental works in his more than 40 years as a professional artist, but the past months have turned out to be “monumental” for him in other ways as well.
A sculptor who resides in Los Gatos, Calif., Middlebrook’s professional work was affirmed when he was selected to participate in the Personal Structures, Time, Space & Existence group exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, June 1-November 24 . The Biennale is considered one of the world’s most prestigious exhibitions for contemporary art. While in Europe for exhibitions of his work in Venice, Paris and Bordeaux, Middlebrook received a call informing him that San Jose State University’s Department of Art and Art History has selected him and his best students to be featured in an exhibition to celebrate the department’s 100th anniversary during the 2013-14 academic year.
The East Jackson High School graduate thrived as an artist at Albion College under faculty members Richard Leach and Connie Fowler.
Middlebrook is also known, however, as a NCAA small college champion and two-time Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion in the high jump. His local family and friends will help him reminisce about his accomplishments in the field events and on the basketball court in October when he gains induction into the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“So many wonderful things have happened this year,” Middlebrook said. “I never thought that I wouldn’t do great things. I felt if I worked hard and loved what I did it never occurred to me that there was room for failure. I worked my tail off. The same discipline and work from athletics translates to art.
“The most surprising event from this year is my selection to the Athletic Hall of Fame,” he added. “It was unexpected after 40 years, and it has brought back so many fond memories. It made me remember what an important period of time it was.”
While his biography reveals a career marked by spectacular success, Middlebrook revealed tales of support from administrators and coaches Cedric Dempsey, Dean Dooley and Elkin Isaac to succeed in his academic and athletic pursuits and the inspiration he received from Leach to help him flourish artistically. He also credits his parents for never missing home athletic events.
“My dad insisted we had to work if we wanted things – so I worked and played sports,” Middlebrook said. “My mom was an antique dealer and her love, guidance and encouragement was central to my art expression.
“One of my problems when I came to Albion is I didn’t know how to study,” Middlebrook added. “The first semester knocked me for a loop. They took me aside, and I made the Dean’s List after the second semester. I can’t say how grateful I am to Albion. It literally gave me a ticket to ride, and it taught me how to think.
“The competitive edge developed through sports brings out the best a person can be,” Middlebrook added. “It hones the desire to be the best because failure is easy to measure in sports, but it is not easy to measure in art. I would go to the library and look up biographies of artists who were considered to be the best and set that as my goal.”
Middlebrook, who started his artistic career in ceramics, went on to earn his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1970. He burst into the art world and quickly became an inspiring pioneer in a ceramic art movement that was gaining momentum in the late 1970s. He accepted a teaching position at San Jose State in 1974, and has maintained a studio in Los Gatos ever since.
His artistic path changed when he was commissioned to make a larger version of a ceramic piece to be placed outdoors, making the use of ceramics impossible. Since then, Middlebrook has established himself as a specialist in large-scale site-specific pieces ranging from 50 pounds to 50 tons and spanning materials from steel to stone to resin to wood to an experimental fiberglass-based medium. He has completed approximately 50 public and private works of this nature, many of which were nationally-awarded competition commissions.
“The word ‘artist’, is this case, is not like a Sunday painter,” Middlebrook said, reflecting on his Albion experience. “My work is a cross between poetry and construction. The injuries I’ve developed from lifting and pounding marble are proof this is as tough as farming.”
Middlebrook maintains one of the purposes of art is to provide a cultural explanation to the reality of our time. To that end, he makes a political critique while examining current economic and environmental issues.
The respect Middlebrook has received from former students and investors has been overwhelming, noting he raised $30,000 in sponsorship for the Biennale.
“It’s rare to be forced to go backward and recheck the past,” Middlebrook said. “It felt so good because it is those people I had contact with on the way up that helped me get to the next rung on the ladder.”
At the 2013 Hall of Fame ceremony, Middlebrook will be joined by football stars Jeff Brooks, ’94, and Jason Carriveau, ’99, two-sport standout James DeBardelaben, ’93, baseball legends Brent Keller, ’93, and Brian Myers, ’97, women’s soccer pioneers Liz Hermiller, ’02, and Stacey Supanich, ’03, honorable mention All-America swimmer Ed Weber, ’95, the 2000-2002 women’s soccer teams, and the 1964-1965 men’s track & field teams.