When he retired in 1976, Ben Bronson found a way to combine his talents in art and music for a new career. His distinctive sculptures have been displayed at galleries, and one bronze is on permanent display at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Bronson, 75, and his wife, Trudy, live in Studio City.
I grew up in Green Point, Lower East Side of New York City, a rather rough neighborhood. Every Jewish mother wanted to have her own Mischa Elman, one of the great violinists of the time, or a doctor. My mother chose a musician, so I started to play the violin. It kept me off the streets. There were a lot of gangs in Green Point. I played until I was 13 and was quite good.
At 9, I started to draw seriously. I saved up 75 cents and built myself a little oil painting set, but when I got back to the house, I discovered I didn’t have any canvas to paint on. So, like a brilliant kid, I went into the bedroom of our three-room apartment and cut a square piece out of a window shade. Then I rolled the shade back up. All hell broke loose because I wouldn’t say that I did it. I blamed the cat because I knew my father hated cats. He didn’t buy it.
I knew I was going to go into art or music. I loved music, and I met some wonderful people. We had a quartet, and we got a program on WOR in New York. We weren’t paid, but we had a lot of fun doing it. In high school, I got a scholarship with the New York Philharmonic, but I didn’t take it. We were in the midst of the Depression, and career musicians weren’t making money, so I decided I could make more money in commercial art.
But all of the things that I learned with the violin came in handy. On weekends, I would play at weddings or parties, and I’d make myself $10 or $15. I’d probably make more than my dad did working all week. He was a house painter and a tinsmith. So I was able to study art and still make money with the fiddle.
I lived about 30 years in Brooklyn and then decided to come out to California.
I retired as a commercial artist and graphic designer in 1976. I was 63 at the time. I quit for about a week or so and then went into a second career. And I’ve been at it now almost 13 years.
I had dabbled in sculpture, so I said to myself, “Let’s assume that you’re going to be a sculptor, what will you make? Every sculptor makes heads or torsos, what will you do?” I decided I’d try hands. To me, hands talk. They tell me a lot about the character of a person.
The first one was the hands of a conductor. The next piece I did was two hands holding a clarinet. So I’ve combined both my music and art together into one big ball of wax, which is a wonderful thing for me.
After the first three, I realized I can do hands. They’re not as difficult as I was led to believe. When I sold one, I decided that I had myself a business. Since then I’ve been sculpting and selling them. But you can’t make a living at it. If you’re retired and you sell something, then it’s OK.
From the bronze I decided I’d try some wood. Then I spent three weeks in Carrara, Italy, two years ago, working in marble. It was a most congenial and delightful experience, the best that I’ve ever had. I wish I had it when I was younger. Working in marble is very hard. Especially at 73.
I’ve been successful at each one of these. I’ve done steel, aluminum, bronze, wood, clay, alabaster. Each one of these is a challenge. And I love the challenge, and I love working on new things.
I’d say these are the best years of my life. It’s been a a most wonderful experience. I look forward to getting up in the morning, going out to work in my little studio that I built in the back yard. It’s 5 by 8 feet, but everything is at my fingertips.
I had a lifetime of bosses. When I worked for someone, I had one boss. But when I was working on my own, every account became a boss. They put on little pointed hats, and they said, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that.” When I retired, I was free. Since then, I have refused to take any commissions so that no one tells me what to do. I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s it.