Back on the Track: Lee Anne Patterson ’85

Back on the Track: Lee Anne Patterson ’85

You’ve never been to a race, have you?”

It’s a question posed with humor by Lee Anne Patterson ’85, but she’s quick to forgive. Despite a career in professional racing spanning three decades, encompassing almost every position at a whole range of levels, there was a time when she was the new girl—or, on many occasions, the only girl—at the racetrack.

But after rising through racing’s ranks to run her own racing team, Patterson is helping to take a crew of Auburn student engineers to the promised land—Indianapolis Motor Speedway—to compete in the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

It’s a fast industry, and though it’s a labor of love, it takes time bringing everyone up to speed.

“We have very, very, very hard deadlines,” said Patterson from her home in Auburn. “You can’t show up on Sunday at four o’clock and say ‘I’m ready to race’—the green flag drops at noon. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get back from the last race until midnight. Your stuff has to be ready and on that truck.”

Lee Anne Patterson '85 @ IMS Speedway
Lee Anne Patterson ’85

Patterson got involved with motorsports the old fashioned way—through rock n’ roll radio. As the “Continuity chick” for Atlanta’s 96 Rock, she wrote commercials and did voiceover work—a side job she still does—but found her real calling in promotions and sponsorship.

“I fell in love with promotions, because promotions is the art of making somebody’s day. You give them tickets, they win money, you can pull people together to build a Vietnam veteran memorial for Georgia, which we did at 96 Rock, so you can do really great things with it.”

Wanting to work as a Promotions Director, she got her chance at the Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in California. “It could have been pet poodle farming and I would have gone, because it was California,” she said. “My very first job was to introduce NASCAR’s Winston Cup to the San Francisco Bay area, and I had never seen a race.”

She had help from Bob Weeks, an associate of NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France Sr., who geared her up to give her first pit tours. What she lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm, while her “exotic” southern accent thrilled out-of-town guests. Patterson had a gift for making friends, too—on her media day, she ran into someone who looked lost.

“I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He goes, ‘I’m Michael Waltrip…I’m a driver.’ I had no clue.  Then when I’m giving the tour, guess who comes out of the hauler? I go, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is driver Michael Waltrip!’ He looks at me like ‘you’re so full of it,’ but he comes over and gives me this big bear hug, and instant credibility.”

Pit Tour with driver Eliseo Salazar, 1999
Pit Tour with driver Eliseo Salazar, 1999

Patterson spent two years at Sears Point, promoting 48 events a year that included not only NASCAR events but other motorsports competitions, giving her a world-class education on racing events and promotions. She was then asked by Carroll Shelby, godfather of the Cobra and Ford Mustang, to be his series director for the Dodge Shelby Pro Series for a season.

Along the way, Patterson got married and went to Indianapolis to build a race team. Her then-husband was in charge of the vehicle’s performance and the crew, while she took over as team manager and handled everything else. For the next 20 years, she guided their team through a variety of open-wheel competitions—INDYCAR, Indy Lights, endurance races, Formula Atlantics and more.

“We built race programs sometimes running under our own name, and other times taking on the persona of others, like driver Sam Schmidt. After he was injured and became a quadriplegic, we helped him launch Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which is now the Arrow McLaren SP team and Conquer Paralysis today. After twenty years of team management, I started just managing the drivers, and some of those drivers are still on the circuit today. It’s been a great ride.”

Patterson’s rise in the sport coincided with a pivotal era in racing, where increased visibility contributed to a surge in popularity and a literal wealth of opportunities—if you knew where to look.

While many in the industry viewed the word ‘sponsorship’ as stickers on cars, Patterson understood its potential in crafting a narrative as much as a good photo op. Thinking holistically, she drew a through-line from a product on a shelf to factory workers, investors, fans, drivers, pit crews and, eventually, the winner’s circle. She went into sponsor meetings asking what their goals were, and explained how her team could deliver the all-important return on investment.

A race car is the ultimate promotion vehicle, she says. It’s not just a sticker on a car, it’s about how much press you get, how many distributors increase their sales, or making employees feel better about their company.

Patterson’s loved sponsorship strategy so much, she would toss ideas to others. Once, she talked a sponsor for Hemelgarn racing, Tae Bo out of abandoning the team by suggesting they activate the program, host a demonstration at stores and have their driver, Buddy Lazier make an appearance for the fans.

“You could hear the lightbulb go off in his head. They had never done anything to leverage the decal on the car. Two weeks later, they announced they had moved from associate position to the title sponsor for two years.”

Over the years, she’s used race cars to promote Boston Scientific’s life-saving spinal cord stimulator, which relieved phantom-limb pain and helped amputees get off painkillers. She took a “lipstick camera” being promoted by Sony and used it to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of Filipino-American driver Michele Bumgarner. It later was edited into a “sizzle reel” that aired in every theater in the Philippines.

But her favorite day of racing—ever—was one in which she didn’t win a thing.

Patterson (center) with the Sam Schmidt team in Las Vegas, 2001
Patterson (center) with the Sam Schmidt team in Las Vegas, 2001

It was the Pikes Peak race in Colorado Springs, 1999. Patterson organized an adoption party for ‘special needs’ kids—those who were older and, thus, less likely to be matched with forever parents.

“Most adoption parties are usually clowns and face painting and balloons, and a 2-year-old looks fantastic. An 11-year-old sits on the side and says ‘this sucks,’ because he knows he can’t compete with a two year old and a clown, right?”

Working with The Adoption Exchange in Colorado Springs, the team threw a party just for the 9-16 age group on the fabled mountain racetrack. Twelve drivers showed up to hand out autographs and hugs. Sponsors contributed a whole hospitality suite of swag. Once they got to the track, the kids “came alive.”

“Our first priority was to treat them like kings and queens for a day,” recalls Patterson. “The second was that we had a system where no child had a ‘sale tag’ for a name badge. Only those hoping to adopt knew the system to see who was available and who wasn’t. They usually make one match a year in that category; at the end of the day, we made eight.”


In the racing world, most people work for a team, for the sanctioning body or for the track—very few experience “the trifecta,” as Patterson has. All three groups must work in concert for the sport to happen, each with their own unique challenges.

Lee Anne Patterson 85
Patterson at her first Indy 500, 1996

“Out of all the jobs I’ve done, owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete,” said Patterson. “Everybody that’s on the team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”

Never a big team with ample resources like Andretti or Penske, Patterson’s responsibilities included everything from FIA paperwork to managing sponsorships, designing the team’s uniforms, handling their paychecks and booking travel, in addition to directing all public relations and good-cause marketing events.

“I took care of pretty much everything except performance of the car—from the media center, to the hospitality suite to the pit box where I monitored raced control. I also dealt with paying for all the parts. I once spent $85 on a single bolt. I assumed it had to be a fantastic bolt, so I went out to the shop just to see it. It was a hand-fabricated, custom-built bolt.”

The Andretti Autosport team had a more cars and a full-time staff of six handling the same responsibilities as her, but looking back, being so involved was part of the fun. Whether it was figuring out if the “talent” (the driver) was gifted or just a cruise and collect or taking care of corporate sponsors, she never shied from doing what needed to be done.

That ran counter to the norms of the time, where women weren’t allowed inside the pits or the garage, let alone managing their own team. Once, during a stop in Las Vegas, Patterson and the crew were sitting in a diner when the waitress, eyeing their uniforms, asked who they were.  They first teased that they were a bowling team. After a laugh, she turned to Patterson.

“She looks at me and goes, ‘Oh, you must be the secretary,’ and the guys busted out laughing.  Our tire man John said, ‘ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”

Some scoffed at a woman leading a race team, but for others, she was an inspiration. She still recalls the grandmother who sought her out after enjoying garage tour at the Phoenix race to tell her how proud she was of Patterson, to see a woman give a tour and be in that position.  For many years there women weren’t allowed in the garages; she never had the opportunity to even peek inside.

“She had tears in her eyes.”

But Patterson is quick to give credit where it’s due. The women pioneers of racing before her, like Janet Guthrie, Anita Millican, Vicki O’Connor, Alexa Leras and more are the shoulders she stands on. Now, thirty years later, the Auburn Indy Lights race team has a higher percentage of women on its roster than anyone else in the competition.


For Patterson, the return to competition, especially at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), ‘the World Capital of Racing,’ is like coming home. “I can’t believe I moved to Auburn and Auburn is running a race at Indy.  You can’t make this up.” No one on the team has ever raced, much less at the Speedway. Having Patterson’s knowledge and resources will be a help to the team as they venture into the unknown.

The Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge is a competition where teams race a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval at top speed nearing 200mph for 20 laps—well short of 500 miles, but a daunting stretch for current autonomous technology.

“Autonomous technology is stuck at 35 miles an hour, and it can’t take a left in front of oncoming traffic,” Patterson said. “This is going to push the boundaries.  It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”

The first competition rounds included white papers, passenger vehicle performance and race simulations against other teams, with the focus on software—each Indy Lights car is built to spec and specially equipped with the latest vehicle sensors, computer vision cameras and radar.

The Auburn Autonomous Tiger Racing team, after three rounds of competition, is in the Top 3. Because of visa restrictions on international teams, Auburn was asked to handle the initial testing for all the teams during the first on-track run in early June.

The second official test is scheduled at the Speedway late August—early September, and final qualification runs will be hosted October 19–22 with the official race on October 23, 2021 at the IMS track.

Auburn may even get some unexpected assistance from new head Football Coach Bryan Harsin, an avid racer who personally has his own Alcohol Funny Car competition license.

Lee Anne Patterson '85 @ IMS 2021
Patterson at the IMS track for the Indy Autonomous Challenge, 2021

On the dragstrip, he has reached speeds in excess of 220mph. Harsin’s racing knowledge will benefit the team, Patterson said.

This challenge will be great to showcase the talents of the students as they seek careers, for establishing Auburn University as a leader in autonomous technology, and even for the autonomous driving industry.

“Anytime you get to race a car at Indy it’s special–with or without a driver,” said Patterson. “It’s a thrill for me to introduce my Auburn family to a sport that has been so good to me. Zoom, Zoom…and War Eagle!”

Anne Clay ’71

Anne Clay ’71

My husband and I live in Cedartown, Ga. Our children live in the northwest Georgia area, as well as our grandchildren. I continue to teach adults who are preparing for the GED High School Equivalency tests. It’s amazing how many ways a Home Economics degree is a solid base for other careers.

I worked in-field for 7 years after graduation. I was trained to work with adults, and I continue to work with adults but focusing on different content. When at Auburn, the School of Home Economics, under the leadership of Dean Compton, began talking about a change to Human Sciences… it finally happened! I was blessed with the best—especially Dr. Mary Ann Potter and Dean Norma Compton.

Hooking a New Angle: Jackie Fry ’12

Hooking a New Angle: Jackie Fry ’12

Traveling the seas, hooking exotic fish off of distant shores—it’s a lifestyle most would be envious of. But working where others vacation is harder than it looks. As the Digital Marketing Specialist for Seakeeper, a company that produces a gyroscopic stabilizer that eliminates up to 95% of boat roll on rough water, Jackie Fry ’12 does more than take great photos and catch fish. She’s connecting industry insiders with ordinary anglers, crafting an image as much as cultivating a brand while leveraging modern technology and data to cast an ever-broadening net.

Auburn Magazine caught up with Fry in time for summer to talk about work, Auburn and life on the water. These are excerpts from that conversation.

AM: A lot of your career has focused on or is related to water and the ocean. Were you drawn to that kind of lifestyle, or did it happen coincidentally?

JF: Growing up, I spent my summers and any free weekends going to the Alabama River, where we would spend the days tubing, bass fishing or just playing in the river or woods. Like most from South Alabama, I also spent a lot of time visiting the beaches along the Emerald Coast from Gulf Shores to Destin. I even lived in Destin for a summer in college. As much as I’d like to say all that time spent on the water or outside drew me to a career in the marine and outdoor space, I’d have to honestly say that it happened coincidentally.

I graduated college in a recession and after a few unsuccessful attempts, I took the first real job opportunity I could. It did not take long to realize how much I missed home and being outdoors. Thankfully, my job provided a tie to those things. As time passed, I couldn’t imagine working in a different industry.

For several years you previously worked for Bonnier Corporation, which publishes a lot of water-related magazines. What did that experience teach you?

I originally began working with every single magazine and event team within the organization, which in 2014 was around fifty brands based in multiple states and three different time zones. Those brands also included magazines focused on photography, motorcycles, food, hunting, flying, working mothers, scuba diving and more. I learned quickly that every brand is different, and so is each person within those teams.

Knowing your audience and how to speak to them in their language is key. Everyone has their different style of work and when it comes down to it, it’s working to find how you can you be the best coworker to accomplish a mutual goal. A rising tide lifts all boats, right?

Do you have any favorite memories from your time with Bonnier?

After being with the company for four years, I’d yet to travel for my job and my first trip was to Irvine, Calif. to meet with our Motorcycle Group in person. The highlight of that trip was riding to lunch on the back of a bike going 100+ mph in the middle of breathtaking canyons.

In 2017, I visited New York City for the first time in my life after being selected for FOLIO Magazine’s 30 Under 30 honoree list. I remember calling my dad looking at the Statue of Liberty from the Battery. It was a place I’d dreamed of visiting for so long, and getting to go on my own merit was special and rewarding.

Later in my time with Bonnier, I’d [become] more integrated with the editorial teams, versus being on a centralized team in a more advisory role, which gave me the chance to travel internationally on editorial planning trips. My first editorial trip was with the Marlin team to Tropic Star Lodge. It’s 150 miles southeast of Panama City, Panama, in the remote Darien jungle. It’s a word-class fishery that offers a variety of species.

While there, I caught my first Pacific sailfish as well as the unique roosterfish on the same day in especially rough weather. On the same trip, I spent two and a half hours fighting a 154 lb. yellowfin tuna. It was, and still is, my largest catch to-date. With a mix of adrenaline and exhaustion, I cried happy tears with my two coworkers who are expert anglers after they’d coached me through the long fight, and we finally got it aboard. It’s a tradition to push someone in the water when they’ve caught their first billfish. At Tropic Star, they make you walk the plank instead, and I did so proudly.

’d been mesmerized by fly fishing for years but had managed to not pick up a fly rod until I was invited on the 2019 Salt Water Sportsman edit retreat at Stella Maris Resort on Long Island in the Out Islands of the Bahamas.

I did everything I could to prepare before the trip. I took lessons from a guide, read tons of how-to articles and watched more videos than I can count. Hunting bonefish can best be described as humbling. Those fish aren’t called “the flats phantom” for no reason. I ended the first day without a single fish. To say I was hard on myself would be an understatement. After many failed attempts and some not-so-gentle direction from our guide, on day two I finally caught my first bonefish. Later in the day, I caught two more back-to-back wading in the flats. I was on the boat that day with editor-in-chief Glenn Law, who’d caught his first bonefish on the fly at the same resort thirty years before. The reward of having it all come together in such a beautiful place with great company was a memory I’ll never forget.

What projects at Bonnier are you the most proud of? What was the most challenging?

In my first couple of years with Bonnier, we migrated more than sixty websites from different CMS platforms on different versions to a single, in-house platform we called Sandcastle.

In this process, I learned a ton about the unsexy side of social, like having your metadata set up properly so when content is shared to social, the correct information populates.

One program I was able to bring to fruition was Marlin Magazine’s version of March Madness, known as “Marlin Madness.” Instead of basketball teams, each bracket consists of fishing tournament winners from the past year in four divisions: the East Coast, West Coast, Florida and International division. It had existed in a previous form a few years before I managed it, but needed serious improvement. With sixty-eight teams being voted on during a rotating time frame of six weeks, there are a lot of moving parts. We were able to garner a title sponsor both years, which was a big win. I was able to not just improve the overall user experience, but also drive long term revenue for the brand with the leads generated.

How did Auburn help you get to where you are now? Do you have any favorite memories from your time on the Plains?

I grew up not far from Auburn in a small town called Monroeville, Ala. I’d spent summers at basketball camps at Auburn and visited many times with friends who had siblings enrolled there before graduating high school.

y Aunt Kay and Uncle Frank, both Auburn alumni, brought me to my first Auburn football games growing up. By the time I got to school there, campus was fairly familiar to me and not as daunting as it probably could have been. I was one of 36 in my graduating class and never sat in classes with 100+ people before. Attending Auburn expanded my horizons. Had I not attended Auburn, I’m not sure my move to the greater Orlando area shortly after college would have stuck.

Being a Panhellenic Pi Chi Recruitment counselor my junior and senior years is one of my favorite memories. It is not a lot of people’s versions of fun to spend a week in the August sun with thousands of incoming freshman girls. The group of other Pi Chis both of my years were such fun, smart and unique women that they easily put that experience near the top of my list.

One of my professors and internship director at Auburn, Ric Smith, would invite a few students to his home for dinner each semester. One dinner I remember well wound down with him and a couple of my classmates playing guitar. They ended the night singing Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” That song always reminds me of that night now.

Sentimentally, at the top of the list of my favorite memories on the Plains was meeting my husband there. While not very romantic, we met at Skybar a couple of weeks after the 2010 National Championship. We had our first date at Hamilton’s and now have two German Shorthaired Pointers with Auburn names.

You recently joined Seakeeper as the Digital Marketing Specialist. Is it different marketing a specific product versus a sort of lifestyle-type brand?

Absolutely. The publishing industry is in a tough spot and has been for a while. The freedom to fail did not exist in the way that it does at Seakeeper, simply due to revenue and staffing constraints. In that environment, you definitely learn work ethic. I’d been given advice that I might find working for a customer-facing product company boring, but Seakeeper isn’t your average product. It carries that “wow” factor and has disrupted an industry. Owners who have a Seakeeper would argue it’s a lifestyle. They’re able to enjoy more time on the water because of it. They’re proud to tell people who boat with them about the product.

Due to COVID and limited travel, I have yet to see our manufacturing facility in Mohnton, Penn. Because the tolerances are so tight, the flywheel and each half of the sphere that will enclose it are made specifically for one another and can’t be swapped out. Like fingerprints, no two Seakeepers are exactly alike. Seeing them come together in real life will be really cool.

What are your thoughts on the current state of digital marketing and social media? Any tips for more effective communication?

It’s taken a few years, but the importance of shifting focus from quantity to quality has finally come. Spraying people with tons of emails or scheduling five to ten posts a day is a thing of the past. What’s the good in that if none are quality? There is so much noise on the internet now that it’s important to have the right message in front of the right people.

The smartest way to do that is showing them more customized content online, sending them “drip” or automated email campaigns, or targeting them with a paid social campaign based on their own previous actions. It’s also more important than ever to not ignore the basics. Voice search is only continuing to rise. Websites and emails should be able to be read easily on mobile devices. How can people get in contact with you? These are all simple things but do get overlooked still.

What’s the hardest part of working in a water-related field? Your favorite?

Like in many industries, there are not a lot of women. That can mean proving yourself as knowledgeable—over and over and over. That being said, the women I have had the pleasure to work with in this industry are among the smartest, hardest working and driven individuals I know, regardless of gender. Making a connection with one of those dynamic and driven women at Bonnier is what parlayed my taking a position with Seakeeper years later. I’m proud to now say that five out of seven of my immediate team members are women.

Hands down, my favorite part of the marine industry is being able to connect with people. Everyone has a fishing story to tell (whether it’s 100% true or not). Good ones can be about catching a species that has evaded you for years, or about days where the bite was bad but good times were had. Being on the water is good for the soul, and getting to share that with others is something special.

Champagne Shooter: Bradley Hall ’05

Champagne Shooter: Bradley Hall ’05

It’s an issue that has plagued parties since the time of Dom Perignon: how to make champagne last.

When champions are crowned, wedding knots tied and successes toasted, it’s with champagne. But once the cork pops, it’s only a matter of time before the bubbly goes flat.

It was a problem that part-time inventor Stason Strong sought to fix. With some ordinary tools he made a pistol-shaped device that used the bottle’s carbonation to shoot champagne like a water gun.

After some tweaks from friends at SpaceX, a 3D-printed model accompanied him for years when out on the town, wowing crowds before disappearing again

Finally, his friend Bradley Hall ’05 had had enough.

“For about two years, I just watched people’s reactions every time we’re out—finally, one day, I was like, ‘Look man, I just finished up my MBA, we could I can make this happen, trust me.’ He tried to do a little venture with some friends and it just kind of petered out. He was like, ‘if you think you can do it, let’s go.’”

Bradley Hall '05
Bradley Hall ’05 

A former vice president of sales and operations for BioScrip Inc., Hall had over 15 years of experience working in the pharmaceutical supply-chain sector, but walked away in September 2017 to take a chance on the secret champagne gun.

It took 14 months to mass-produce the “Bubbly Blaster,” then another year to build the brand before launching in January 2019. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, this was a whole new experience for Hall.

“Operations is kind of my forte, but I’ve never been in that world of creating customers—that was a bit of a learning curve. Our product’s manufactured outside of Hong Kong, so there’s a little bit of difficulty [between] time-zone differences and communication barriers. It’s a very hard product to scale up, with a very unique design.”

The Bubbly Blaster built enough of a cult following to earn the attention of the NBC show “Shark Tank.” In January 2020, Hall and Strong were invited on the show to pitch their business to potential investors.

A longtime fan of “Shark Tank,” Hall was well aware what a bad presentation on the national show could do to their product. Still, the opportunity was too good to pass up. In the end, they wound up with a joint investment deal between Mark Cuban and guest “Shark” Alex Rodriguez.

“You prep as far as your pitch and whatnot, but your first time walking out, that’s it. It’s a one-and-done, so it’s very nerve racking. It just it happens so quickly, but once they started actually [demonstrating], the product it was a very fun atmosphere. They loved it.” Audiences loved it too. At the time of the episode’s airing, Bubbly Blaster was only appearing in a few Facebook ads and briefly through a flash sale on internet retailer Touch of Modern. Growth came organically through a combination of word-of-mouth and eye-grabbing social media posts, but after “Shark Tank,” they reached a bigger audience than ever before.


As the product found its way to more users, their social media posts became Bubbly Blaster’s best way to advertise. It also helped Hall and Strong reimagine their product, like a bartender using it to refill a drink from across the room.

“Every day we get tens or hundreds of videos from all across the world,” said Hall. “Instantly it’s a conversation starter, so whether you’re doing the same old barbecue or same old bachelor party, as soon as you shoot it one time, it’s instant content. What excites us is every time we see somebody using one, they’re all smiles.” Hall began his career as a pharmacist for independent Florala Pharmacy before moving to a Birmingham company that specialize in IVs and home infusions. It was a field he had little experience in, but through a combination of quality mentorships and hard work he moved through the ranks.

Bubbly Blaster Close-up
The Bubbly Blaster turns any champagne bottle into a water gun

As a regional general manager, he kept clinics and pharmacies from New Orleans to California stocked and supplied with whatever they needed. For seven years, he was on a different plane every week overseeing hundreds of employees and supervisors.

“That’s where my operational-background kind of thinking comes from. I would go around to sites that are underperforming and look at efficiency. My job was to take all these branches that were in the red, whether it be from a clinical sales or operation standpoint, and get them back on the track to the black.”

That focus on operational efficiency, combined with the MBA he earned from Texas A&M University, has helped Hall tailor the Bubbly Blaster business model to a lean, integrated system he can manage from anywhere in the world

Not having a traditional brick-and-mortar office has freed up Bubbly Blaster’s resources, too, allowing them to invest in advertising and development, rather than furniture and rent, Hall said. It also helps that your business partner is your friend.

“If you’re going to business with somebody, make sure you vet [them] out. There needs to be a high level of trust, because your team or your partner is going to make a break for you.”

As they move into 2021, Hall and Strong are working on several new projects to be developed, tested and released under their umbrella company. One product still in proof-of-concept is a mattress designed specifically for side-sleepers, while another seeks to offer a revolutionary take on the cannabis industry.  

“We have no limits,” said Hall. “We just look for the opportunity where it makes sense.”

Inner Visions: Brandon Dean ’08

Inner Visions: Brandon Dean ’08

Auburn Magazine: There are a lot of elements to your work—classical art, U.S. history, sexuality, pop culture and more. What moves you to artistic inspiration?

Brandon Dean: I find that I am inspired visually by the world around me all the time, but only occasionally does the feeling compel me to make work. Likewise, I can have a number of concepts or social observations simmering in my thoughts, but only sometimes will I make work or write about it. What typically happens is that a visual will embed itself in my mind (typically coming from some mundane place) and it will stay there until the right concept comes along to make it worthy of existing beyond just a thought. I spend a pretty long time—in some cases months or years—contemplating a visual idea before it ever gets presented in anything remotely tangible.

Brandon Dean ’08

A lot of your work features or is inspired by the human body. What about anatomy or the use of real people helps you creatively?

Using real people allows me to talk about social or personal issues without having to specifically spell things out. We all develop the ability to read into a person’s physical presentation and make a pretty detailed and wide-ranging network of assumptions. Making figurative work allows me to use those assumptions as raw material within the work. The body is a very efficient conveyor of meaning, especially when you are wanting to work with fairly complicated ideas.

 The greatest challenge with models is time! Their time, my time, our time together. Usually, the challenge is there isn’t enough time. It presents a bunch of limitations that I have learned to work with over the years. For example, I generally work from images of live models and not specifically “from life” as one would in a figure drawing class. Work from me can potentially exist in any number of forms, so I conduct photoshoots and then use that content as a resource for whatever I determine later.

A huge opportunity with models is the unexpected happy accidents. I often have a particular image in my head, but a model will always interpret that information differently. You end up discovering new and often stronger visuals by having these ideas filtered through someone else’s body and lived experiences.

“Prism,” 2019, Oil on Canvas

Your paintings are stunningly realistic in their anatomy, but often contain dream-like elements—what internal vision (if any) are you trying to bring to life?

I’ve been obsessed with the magic of realism since I started painting and have always wanted to further improve the ability to simulate reality. The dream-like qualities started to creep into the work early on and had a great deal to do with the process of painting itself.

You learn a lot of things about vision, the limitations of human sight and the way we perceive reality in the process of attempting realism. So, from early on I was interested as much in the parts of paintings that can’t be discerned clearly as much as the fully rendered areas of a work.

 How did Auburn help you achieve the kind of art you wanted to make?  I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist before coming to Auburn. I knew that I wanted to be in a creative field, and I left high school thinking that I would either be a graphic or industrial designer. Soon after starting in the Industrial Design Program at Auburn, I realized I liked the creative component but not any of the other parts. After a few days in the program, I transferred to the Art Department, and over a couple of semesters I found painting the most rewarding format.

I found that the Auburn arts faculty really matched whatever intent one had for their education. I was enthusiastic about certain things, and as a result, so were they. I got a lot of one-on-one advice on all fronts and it definitely helped me make more of my time there.

How did your MFA at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art help you develop as an artist?

Tyler exposed me to such a big pool of other artists to gain inspiration from. From your fellow classmates who come from very different backgrounds, to the visiting artists and lecturers. I was the only realist out of my entire graduate program, so it really helped me develop a better understanding of the “why” in my work. It was also great just getting so many perspectives on the work you make and deciding for yourself which is worth acting on.

 What are the differences studying art in the South versus the North? Changes in inspiration?

When I was an art student in the South, the way I experienced the art world was through books and magazines. Artforum, for example, was this thick tome of a magazine and all the ads would be for shows happening “now,” but nowhere near where I lived.

I think being farther away from major art centers made me work harder hold myself to a high standard, as the way I was seeing the work from elsewhere in the world was through pristine print reproductions.

“Stolen,” Oil on Canvas

It definitely made for some funny and reassuring realizations once you traveled and saw some of these famous works in person. I remember being so shocked that Picasso paintings often have sloppy paint-splattered edges. Frank Stella paintings are not as crisp and geometrically perfect as they seemed in books. It turned out I was pushing myself to a standard that didn’t quite exist, but it ultimately made me a better artist.

In the North, your proximity to famous works and huge museums is much closer. Studying in Philadelphia meant seeing major works and contemporary shows in New York and DC was just a day trip away. Artforum went from being a reference book for shows I’d never see, to being a guide to use when planning your day in Chelsea. Though the overall pace of living and making work in the Philly was a bit maddening. So, I suppose the biggest difference is that it was easier to see work in the Northeast, but it was easier to focus and make work in the south.

Detail, “Southern Exposure” series

What was your reasoning for publishing your “Southern Exposure” series as Zines?

Accessibility very quickly becomes a concern when making artwork. It can be a challenge getting your work in front of people, and gallery setting can put limits on who feels they are allowed to enjoy the work. Zines allow me to create a personal experience with the viewer that can be enjoyed at their own pace. Zines are much easier to own, and I get to provide a viewer a guided experience anytime they pick one up.

 The biggest challenges are mostly logistical: I shoot the content, design the zines, and once they are printed, I would travel to art book and zine fairs around the country to sell them. It can be exhausting, especially when doing it on your own. However, I like having so much control over the presentation and content. Also, getting to travel with them means I have had actual conversations with 80 percent of the people who own one of my zines. It is a level of access and community that is hard to replicate in another format.

 Southern Exposure was an opportunity to center work around my thoughts on issues, without making it all about me! Because they are zines, the stakes are lower, and you are only ever communicating with one person holding the work at a time. They was no grand strategy, and the issue format allowed me to just work on what’s next.  My goal was to use the flag to promote ideas the founders of the Confederacy would have never agreed with—promoting black and brown bodies, queer bodies, and a dismantling of aging notions of masculinity.

 Pt. 4, “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” features a quote from Barnett Newman, a major figure in abstract expressionism, and references one of his most famous works. What about Newman—and that particular piece—spoke to you? 

I was first drawn to the sheer scale of many of his paintings. “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” is over 17 feet wide, and the recommended viewing distance is so close that the painting takes up your full field of view. You are forced to confront this huge field of color in a really primal sensory experience. After a couple of minutes, the stripes of white start to hover and vibrate on the surface

As a realist painter, I’ve been heavily influenced by Caravaggio and other Baroque era painters. In terms of contemporary work, I’m drawn to the work of Richard Philips, Will Cotton, Wangetchi Mutu, Kris Knight, and too many other artists to name. I also love minimalist work, so Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, James Turrell Dan Flavin, and others pretty heavily influence how I think about much of the work I create.

What do you like to do when you’re not creating or seeking inspiration?

I like gardening. I’ve had an herb and vegetable container garden wherever I lived for nearly a decade now, and I like the way it makes me appreciate things I generally find unappealing about the outdoors, like the heat and bugs. Knowing the heat of summer makes my rosemary plants happy sort of helps me appreciate it.

What did you do during the COVID-19 Pandemic? Did it alter anything about your creative process? As for creating work, the pandemic posed huge challenges. All artbook fairs suddenly had to transition to virtual or were cancelled altogether, so that changed how I got printed work out into the world. I also couldn’t work with models without significant changes to the process due to social distancing concerns. I had work in a gallery show this past fall that opened and closed without me—or hardly anyone else—getting to see it in person.

I relocated to Cleveland, Ohio literally a week before the wave of national lockdowns last March, and luckily, it’s a pretty large space that includes my studio. It’s been a pretty strange experience living someplace fairly unfamiliar and not really having much of an ability to explore it. It suddenly meant I had a huge amount of indoor time to work with, so I ended up hopping from interest to interest. I got back into sewing so that I could make masks that would fit my beard! That became a fun pastime and I ended up making dozens of masks that I would send back to my family in Montgomery. From there, I moved to baking, then gardening—basically hitting all the common things people tried while stuck at home. My plants have never been happier! Overall, it’s reminded me to just follow wherever the creative impulse goes, and be OK with that, meaning things slow down a bit on the creation of artwork.

What advice do you have anyone who wants to become a professional artist themselves?

First, give yourself permission to do or make the things you want. It is very easy to be hard on yourself, feeling that your ideas aren’t good enough or that you aren’t skilled enough. A good remedy to this unnecessary pressure is to look at art out in the world, and you will see that there is ample room for all kinds of work. Going to a gallery or museum definitely helps me not to take so seriously the choices I’m making in my own work.

Secondly, getting work out in public is very important. A website, social media, even local shows at coffee shops and hair salons when you are starting out. At least in my experience, opportunities almost entirely came from other opportunities. Lastly, don’t obsess over concepts like “career advancement.” It’s better to have a few long-term goals, a few short-term goals, and to keep making or doing what you enjoy. After a while, you will look back at the list and realized you accomplished far more than you thought.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]