The average person spends over two hours browsing through Anthropologie. I think that has less to do with the actual merchandise [not to take away from how utterly incredible it is], but more to do with the intricate merchandising. The store display alone draws you in and keeps you there…for a very long time! The atmosphere is ever changing, but always feels as though you are in your eclectic Grandmother’s closet and a fabulous untapped flea market, all at the same time. Enter Brian Neal Sensabaugh.
Whether creating the next jaw dropping display for Anthropologie or working on his upcoming personal art show, Brian Neal’s creative juices are incessantly in overdrive. He has been asked on more than one occasion to prototype upcoming displays for the retail giant, and his life is currently being chronicled for a documentary. This man exudes talent.
Brian Neal is a great presence to the art scene, a soulful creator and my dear friend. I am tickled pink to share this profile with you.
What do you like most about your job as a Display Coordinator for Anthropologie?
I most enjoy and receive personal satisfaction with the reality that I am actually using my art degree. It is art that drives me and getting paid for being able to create things is a blessing. I also like that what I do often inspires others. This is rewarding.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me depends on the time of the year. Anthropologie constantly changes its vignettes to coincide with the current season and windows change every six weeks. There is ALWAYS something that is being built, installed or prepped. I begin each day with a walk through the store to check existing displays for any maintenance or repairs. Our customers tend to be very touchy feely!
What has been your favorite in-store installation so far? Is there anything you’ve been itching to create for Anthropologie?
My favorite installation thus far has to be the windows for Holiday 2005. I was selected to participate in the prototyping for that holiday season and traveled to the Los Angeles store at Farmer’s Market to execute the direction that would be sent to all stores. The windows were inspired by the artist Andy Goldsworthy. A large nest that resembled a tornado was constructed of birch, camphor and honeysuckle vines. It encompassed the entire window and the tail of the nest projected into the interior of the store. Swallowed by the movement of the branches, mannequins, furniture and chandeliers were suspended in this natural phenomenon. It was enormous and completely awe-inspiring to witness.
The one thing I would love to create is a major installation that would incorporate my love of old doll parts. I know this is creepy but it would be a true marriage of my personal and professional work.
Have any of the themes been really challenging for you to execute?
The thing that I remember as being most challenging was the summer windows that we did for the “White Hot” concept. The windows consisted of plastic water bottles that had the labels removed and hung by wire en masse. There were hundreds of bottles that surrounded the mannequins. The idea was that the reference to water would quench the heat of the summer. I loved the installation but the challenging aspect was that the customers did not understand the concept at all. The abstract nature of the windows seemed to be difficult to grasp for the average consumer.
What’s your favorite source for inspiration?
My favorite source of inspiration for both my personal and professional work are objects themselves. I am completely drawn to old, used, vintage and recycled things. I can look at a single object and it can lead to the idea behind an entire concept. I think there is energy associated with things that are old and have a history. That history is a story that wants to continue and this is where I become the storyteller.
We know Anthropologie is best known for it’s over the top displays and nostalgic references. I’ve read in several interviews that Glen Senk uses resources that most companies dole out for marketing to creating an atmosphere for their customers. Meaning he would rather employ artists than advertise. Being such a creative person, how does it make you feel working for a company with this radical retail mindset? Do you see your displays playing an active role in the shopping experience? [I certainly do!]
I am extremely grateful to work for a company that believes in the value of an artist and his work. I do not know of any other companies that supply a studio and raw materials for an artist to create work. Everything I make is handcrafted and nothing is ever prefabricated. The display of original art in the store adds great value to the shopping experience. Many customers first come in to see the display and then end up purchasing something. Display is a key part of the customer experience at Anthropologie.
Tell us about the inspiration behind this year’s holiday display?
This year’s holiday concept is called “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”. I was asked to prototype this season’s display at the home office in Philadelphia. The idea is to feature the coldness of winter as an exterior element and the warm and cozy side of holiday as an interior element, fire versus ice. The nostalgia of this year’s holiday is refreshing and inspiring.
When did you first realize that you were an artist? I know you also create art outside of Anthropologie and have had several very successful shows. Could you tell us more about your personal 3-D art assemblages?
I have always been drawn to art and the creation of things. The first time I realized I was an artist was after my mother made a studio visit my freshman year in college. It was then that she acknowledged that making art was clearly what I was meant to do. Having her support and approval set me on my path.
This is my artist statement about my personal work: Objects speak to me. They hint at their own destiny and of the interaction they want to have with other things. That is the basis of my work as an artist. I call this process Ouija Art. In creating my assemblages and installations, I reinvent or revitalize things that would normally be discarded or overlooked – and in the process become a giver of new life. Objects tell me exactly what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. I am merely a vessel to transpose their thoughts to reality. I am a Ouijist. Found objects play a very important role in my work. Things cross my path for a reason. I am fortunate to be able to listen and bring these objects together in a harmonious balance that is agreed upon between the objects themselves and me, the artist. The result is an evolution of new beginnings.
I found great inspiration in your DEAR Camp installation. What has been your favorite show thus far?
My favorite show and most rewarding has been DEAR Camp. This is an installation that addresses themes of who I am and where I come from. Through a reconstruct and alteration of the actual deer camp owned by my brother and father, I examine the dichotomy of my upbringing in rural Arkansas versus my life as a working artist and gay man in Houston, Texas. By doing so, I combine into one space two polar opposites: my familial self and my private self, and come to terms with my roots.
What are you currently working on for future projects?
My current focus is on the documentary that is being made about my life. It is based around my show DEAR Camp, my past in Arkansas versus my life today, and how it all relates to my art. It has been a very emotional journey but it is something that I want to share with others.
Dear Camp – First Look
What artists have influenced you, and how?
I have an appreciation for all artists because to expose one’s personal insight and to express it is not an easy thing. At the same time, I have only met one other artist that experiences the same dialogue and relationship with objects that I do. Her name is Joyce Harlow and she is amazing woman and artist that I greatly admire.
What other interests do you have?
My other interests include the constant search for objects or junk as some might call it. I love flea markets and of course the ever inviting dumpster.
How have you handled the business side of being an artist?
The business side of being an artist is a huge challenge. I find it very difficult to put a price on my creations because they are so personal. After having many shows, it has become easier to detach myself. I am fortunate enough to have people in my life that are more business driven than myself. They are always ready to give advice when needed.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I see myself as a successful, well-known artist.
Do you just begin creating and let the piece take form or do have a more methodical approach to the artistic process?
When starting a new piece of work, I often start with a single object that I am attracted to. It then tells me what to do next.
What is the one thing in life you can’t live without?
I could never live a fulfilling life without the possibility to create.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
People would be most surprised to know that I also have a degree in mortuary science and am a licensed mortician (non-practicing).
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment has been my success with DEAR Camp and the journey that continues with its story.
Favorite places in Houston to shop, eat, etc…?
One of my favorite places in Houston is The Guild Shop, a consignment shop with many treasures.
Favorite aspect of Houston?
My favorite aspect of Houston is the opportunities that are available for emerging artists. The community here is very supportive of new talent and I am fortunate to be a part of it.