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Art Professor Blends Modernist Inspiration with Historic and Cultural Techniques

Professor Brian Christensen’s expertise in ceramics, sculpture and 3D design has led him to ventures across the globe, including an excavation project in Egypt

Before he became a professional artist, professor Brian Christensen often worked with his dad and brother on projects. They would create jewelry, build canoes, and shape surfboards. These hands-on activities developed and facilitated Christensen’s love for making art objects.

“I started connecting with art as a child. It was always something that I was engaged in, something that I was rewarded for,” said Christensen. “It was a way of connecting with real materials and real space. Analyzing objects in real space is my way into art. “ When he started college, Christensen continued to explore his love for 3D art by working on ceramics and sculptures. After earning a BFA in ceramics from BYU and an MFA in ceramics from Washington University in St. Louis, Christensen returned to BYU in 1993 to teach courses in ceramics,sculpture and 3D design. He has been teaching at BYU ever since. Christensen considers his artistic approach to be influenced by a number of modernists, including artists from the late ‘50s and ‘60s. However, his artistic skills have also been influenced by historic traditions in ceramics.

Christensen’s blend of modern traditions with historic techniques has led him to artistic ventures across the world. In 2014, Christensen worked the BYU excavation project in Egypt at the Seila Pyramid alongside several other BYU professors — including geologists, osteologists and Egyptologists. This project was led by BYU religious professor Kerry Muhlestein.

“My role on the excavation project was as a craft consultant. I looked at how things in the pyramid were made, and compared their crafting style to my experience with crafts today,” said Professor Christensen. Combining his knowledge of other cultural traditions with his knowledge of ceramics, Christensen helped develop a theory of the holes often found in pots buried with mummies at the Egyptian excavation site. “Part of what I did was reproduce the pots that had holes in them and show what would happen to make a hole. I demonstrated that it takes a metal punch and a hammer and you have to turn the pot upside down,” said Christensen. “Our theory is that the hole punching was a very deliberate decommissioning of the pot. It’s like killing the pot to let the spirit out of it.” Christensen’s discoveries regarding the kill-holes on this site, as well as the combined efforts of the other professors from the excavation project, are compiled in the book Excavations at the Seila Pyramid and Fag el-Gamous Cemetery. Christensen’s own artwork reflects his knowledge of history and art. One of his pieces, “You Too,” quotes the last words of Julius Caesar, according to Shakespeare. These words are inscribed across the forehead of a miniature four-inch ceramic head, which was recently juried into a show into Small Wonders 2019 Maryland Federation of Art (MFA), Maryland. The juror for this show was Linda Crocker Simmons, the cursor for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

An additional prestigious juror of Christensen’s recent work is Ylinka Barotto, assistant curator at the Guggenheim Museum. Barotto juried a death head study of Christensen’s father “Retired Lab Man” into Open BWAC Gallery, Brooklyn, NY in 2019. While history impacts Christensen’s artistic influence, so do various cultures. Christensen’s large steel sculpture “Dozer” was included at the Abiquiu Inn Sculpture Walk & Garden Exhibition in Abiquiu, New Mexico in 2020.

“At this sculpture walk in Abiquiu, New Mexico, they jury a show at a hotel where they have invited people to show their work for a year. It’s near Georgia O'Keeffe’s cabin, and there is a Georgia O'Keeffe Museum on the site,” said Christensen. “These works that are associated with the Southwest usually are incorporated into the sculpture walk.” The jurors at this exhibition included Doug Coffin and Star York, both prestigious artists. Coffin’s work, as shown in the image behind Christensen’s “Dozer”, is similar to work Coffin has installed in the White House Sculpture Garden. Christensen has also had the opportunity to connect with artists in Australia and New Zealand. “During one of our study abroad trips, we had a story-telling session and met with artists in Sydney. Professor Joe Ostraff also got in touch with some artists at a Maori community center in New Plymouth on the west shore of the north island of New Zealand,” said Christensen. “Getting to know different people and cultures is great for student learning and growth.” Throughout Christensen’s creative career, he has found that working collaboratively provides new perspectives on accomplishing artistic goals. When the new BYU Department of Dance lobby was built earlier this year, Christensen created a steel rolled sculpture for it. “One of the things that really gave that sculpture meaning was working with the dance students that were helping me install it. I asked them if they had any words they would associate with the freedom of movement. A term they used was unbound. Being unbound is an unselfconscious freedom of movement.”

Freedom of movement across disciplines, time and fields of study characterizes Christensen’s artwork. To view this work, visit