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Serbian-Born Sculptor John David Brcin's Monumental Sculpture Sioux Warrior Realized for Joslyn Art Museum
John David Brcin’s Sioux Warrior in Joslyn Art Museum’s sculpture garden entry plaza. Concept courtesy HDR, Inc.

OMAHA, NE.- A statue of a Sioux warrior on a rearing horse, proposed and modeled by Serbian-born sculptor John David Brcin (1899–1983) in the late 1920s for the entrance to the Joslyn Memorial (now Joslyn Art Museum), will be the signature work of art in the entry plaza of the Museum’s new Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden, now under construction.

Omaha sculptor Matthew Placzek has been commissioned to realize Brcin’s work. Fifteen feet high, the 5,000-pound bronze sculpture, titled Sioux Warrior, will sit atop a six-foot base of concrete encased in Lake Superior Green granite to the east of the Joslyn building on axis with the Suzanne and Walter Scott Pavilion. The Art Deco-style horse and Indian rider will face north toward Joslyn’s parking garden. The sculpture is being cast and assembled at the Loveland Bronze Services foundry in Loveland, Colorado, for installation at Joslyn on Monday, October 20.

The idea to draw upon the original plans of Brcin (the artist chosen to carry out the sculptural program for the Joslyn Memorial building, which opened in 1931) for the new sculpture garden was the idea of Joslyn director J. Brooks Joyner. “Brcin’s striking reliefs on the exterior of the Museum are an extraordinary and inspirational contribution to American sculpture,” Joyner said. “He was commissioned to provide a uniform scheme for the building and that included two impressive equestrian monuments, a Pony Express rider and the Sioux warrior, to in his words, ‘strike with awe every entrant to the building.’ Now, in realizing one of these dramatic statues, an important aspect of Brcin’s plans for Joslyn will come to fruition. In its style, the piece will reflect the stunning Art Deco building. In its subject, it will celebrate Joslyn’s renowned collection of art of the American West. In its placement, it will highlight additional facets of Brcin’s incredible talent and draw visitors into the Museum. We are thrilled to have Matthew Placzek, one of our city’s finest sculptors, bringing this piece to life, from Brcin’s small plaster prototype to finished monumental bronze.”

Born in Gracac, Croatia, in 1899, John David Brcin was raised by his uncle, who was a farmer, carpenter, and stonemason. Carving in wood was one of the many accomplishments of his uncle, and it was with him that Brcin learned how to handle simple carving tools and create such items as spoons, forks, and crosses. At age 14 Brcin joined his brother in Gary, Indiana, to begin what he called his “Americanization.” In the fall of 1917, he enrolled in the sculpture class of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received a number of awards and honors that culminated in a fellowship to study in Europe. He spent 1921 in Serbia (by then part of Yugoslavia), Italy, and France, returning to further study and additional awards at the Institute in 1922 and 1923. By the time Brcin was awarded the Joslyn commission in 1929, the young sculptor had been featured in a number of group exhibitions and in 1928 was the subject of a one-artist show organized in Chicago. The exhibition subsequently traveled to the Brooks Memorial Gallery in Memphis, the Art Institute of Omaha, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Witte Museum in San Antonio. It is likely that Brcin’s traveling exhibition played a major part in his selection as sculptor for the Joslyn Memorial.

Although not yet 30, Brcin had already developed three distinct approaches to his medium: traditional portraiture, sleekly stylized statuary, and sharply cut bas-reliefs combining geometric and figurative elements. Taken as a whole, Brcin’s stylistic flexibility must have suggested to the Joslyn Memorial architects, father–son team John and Alan McDonald, that he was equipped to execute the sculptural components of Sarah Joslyn’s temple to the arts.

The Joslyn commission, which occupied two years of his life, turned out to be the high point of Brcin’s career. It established him as a notable representative of his era, and when the Memorial was completed, the critic of the Chicago Herald-Examiner declared: “Brcin’s carvings are a new thing; they are full of dynamic thrust, a smooth sharp-edged symmetry which admirably interprets the spirit of an age governed by machinery.”

In the following decades, although Brcin continued to receive public commissions, the rise of Abstract Expressionism consigned him to the margins of 20th-century art history. He died in Boulder, Colorado, in 1983.

As official sculptor for the Joslyn Memorial, Brcin was commissioned by the architects and Sarah Joslyn to complete work including eight exterior corner panels; six panel inserts for the six east entrance bronze doors; a memorial tablet to George Joslyn, Sarah’s husband, with suitable inscription; column and pilaster capitals for the east entrance; rosette designs for various entrances; and two equestrian statues. Brcin’s original theme, expressed to the media in Chicago, was “humanity’s debt to the arts” with this overall scheme augmented by work that would “pay tribute to the man in whose honor the building is erected” and highlight “scenes of western life that fire our imagination with romance and noble sentiment.” He planned, as part of this last assertion, the equestrian statues originally titled Pony Express and The Mounted Indian. The architects were less than enthusiastic about rearing horses greeting visitors to the building, however, and this part of the sculptural program was deleted from the final plan.

Seventy-eight years later in a studio warehouse in Omaha, sculptor Matthew Placzek has realized Brcin’s Sioux warrior. Using Brcin’s plaster prototype as a model, Placzek first created a preparatory sculpture in a dense, insulation-like foam. Through the “pointing up” process, which recreates a sculpture point by point, Brcin’s statue was transferred to a grid for exact replication.

Although Placzek has created bigger-than-life sculptures of the human form and a life-sized elk in bronze, this type of “scientific” approach to sculpting a human figure and an animal was new to the artist. “To realize another sculptor’s work is not something I’ve done before,” said Placzek. “There was no freedom to alter or artistically interpret Brcin’s work. I needed to copy it exactly. Still, it was a similar experience to what I do on a daily basis. Looking at a form and translating it into a sculpture. Only in this case, the original form belonged to an earlier sculptor.”

To create the enormous work, a job that took four months, Placzek followed the grid plan and began the larger shapes first, cutting out the body of the horse and rider and then covering the main mass of the work in sculpted and carved details into the piece. In lieu of scaffolding, Placzek worked with a wheeled ladder to move around the large form, allowing him easy and quick access to all areas of the piece. When sculpting was complete, the finished sculpture was dissected into about 10 pieces and sent to a Colorado mold maker with whom Placzek often collaborates on his pieces. Molds complete, the sculpture will take its final form at the foundry, where it is being cast in 100 or more individual bronze pieces that will be welded together over a stainless-steel infrastructure. “They say it’s similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle and then beating it with a hammer,” Placzek laughed.

Reflecting on the finished piece, Placzek highlighted Brcin’s stand-out Art Deco style: “His exaggeration of the muscular form of the horse and the rider is fascinating and similar to Rodin. That musculature, the unique wings under the horse’s hooves, and the stylized tail . . . all add to the drama of the piece.”

For the past 20 years Matthew Placzek's fascination with sculptural composition has grown and evolved into an art form that is uniquely his own. From his studio in Omaha, Placzek is comfortable sculpting in both wood and bronze medium. "I will be forever fascinated by the third dimension. Creating sculptural forms with excellent design, line, and tension intrigue me the most," he said.

Placzek was raised in Grand Island, Nebraska, where his exposure to nature, via hunting and camping trips with his older brothers and pilgrimages to see the annual Sand Hill cranes migration, helped inspire his affinity for birds. He began drawing and painting and by his teens turned to sculpting. His father, a cabinetmaker, offered advice, as did art instructors, but Placzek is mostly self-taught. He began exhibiting and selling his work while still in school. He studied art at Creighton University.

With attention to the finest detail, he breathes life into blocks of wood and clay, meticulously recreating the human form and works of nature (hand-carved tabletop bird and animal figures are his signature). In 2003, Matthew was commissioned to create Labor, the second largest labor monument in the country. The composition reaches 30 feet high and is a feature of the newly developed riverfront in Omaha. His more abstract Illumina is featured on the 10th Street side of Qwest Center Omaha. This light, breezy, colorful, playful representation of festivals, carnivals, and Mardi Gras features a troupe of bronze mimes, actors, and jugglers, complete with a 14-foot-high stilt walker. These figures join musicians in revelry around a great steel clock with its works exposed.

Placzek creates his works in Omaha, displays and sells them in galleries in Naples, Florida; Scottsdale, Arizona; Aspen, Colorado; multiple locations in Hawaii; and Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and Gifts in Omaha. Many of his works are included in corporate collections including Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., Omaha; Guinness Brewing, London; Takao Building Development, Tokyo; BMW, Germany; Level 3 Communications, Denver; and Dayton Hudson, Minneapolis. His works are in the private collections of Warren Buffett, Wayne Newton, and Suzanne and Walter Scott, among others.

Placzek was included in the Midlands Business Journal's 2004 “40 under 40” focus on local entrepreneurs. His works are shown at the U.S. Embassy in Prague and are included in the presidential collections of Austria, the Republic of China, and Ronald Reagan.

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