“After I sold that first sculpture of a cow, I said I’d give myself three to five years to see if I could make a living at it.”
That was almost 50 years ago, and right now J. Clayton Bright is in his spacious studio, sitting on a low stool that’s just the right height for milking his real-life model. “Fortunately, I’ve never had to have a job since,” he says.
If you interview enough artists, especially older male painters and sculptors, you’ll hear variations of Bright’s story—how there was a push-comes-to-shove personal reckoning in the struggling artist’s life when he vows to get a straight job to support the wife and kids if he doesn’t make it as an artist. What makes Bright’s story different is the life he’d already led by the time a real-life cow sauntered into his life in his early 30s. Sculpting that cow was the first serious piece of art he’d ever attempted. Before he had his epiphany in the pasture, he’d done just about everything but think about being an artist. Importantly, Bright wasn’t yet married with children at the time, so there was only a self-imposed pressure to sell more bronze cows.
Not surprisingly, this tale of the cow is one Bright has told more than a few times in his career, a story as polished as the patina on one of his bronzes. Now is a good time for Bright as we chat bathed in north light in his studio along rural Route 82 between Unionville and the “Blow Horn” stop sign. At 76, he looks amazingly trim and fit in his tan chinos, blue work shirt and lace-up sneakers. Bleached with age, his hair is combed straight back.
After a slow start in getting there, most of the adult life of J. Clayton Bright (the J. stands for “John”) has been lived as a successful sculptor and painter, one who’s well-recognized regionally and somewhat nationally. “I was never any good at school,” the Philadelphia native recalls sheepishly. “It took me eight or so summers and 12 winters to graduate.”
The third of 10 children, Bright decided against college. In 1964, he joined the Army and trained as a paratrooper. “I figured it was easier to jump than to walk,” Bright quips.
A year later, the United States sent the first troops into Vietnam, and Bright found himself part of a six-man reconnaissance team. “You do everything you can not to engage with anyone,” he says.
Bright wasn’t wounded in action, though he did catch malaria. “The experience was good for me,” he says. “As the third child, I’d never had to break ground. [After Vietnam,] I ended up with a strong sense of responsibility. It changed my perspective on life, and I became less concerned about career prospects.”
After getting a commercial pilot’s license, he headed back to the Far East. “I wanted to become a bush pilot,” he says. “Trouble was, so did a lot of other young men.”
Most of the flying gigs went to local Australians, so Bright worked as a heavy equipment operator cleaning buildings. He spent some time in New Zealand, bought a motorcycle and toured eastern Australia. It was time to go home, but Bright took his time doing so. “I flew to Singapore and hitchhiked my way to London,” he says, a journey that took four months.
“There were currents of people doing the same, flowing both ways.”
Back home, Bright landed a job at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange—“even though I’d never gone to college,” he chuckles.
A few years later, he had his epiphany. As Bright tells it, seeing the Jersey cow in the field suddenly flipped a switch inside him that made him want to interpret what he’d seen. “I was friends with Eric Parks, [sculptor] Charles Parks’ son, but I knew that if he sculpted the cow it wouldn’t get what I had in my mind,” he says. “So I had him to teach me how to do it, and I worked on it for about a year. When I finished and it was cast in 1976, he explained to me that I didn’t make just one cow but several [copies].”
The next 10 years were eventful ones for the young artist. He began taking nighttime painting lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also began working for Mrs. Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, the legendary lady master of the hounds. In time, he bought her estate. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bright exercised horses. “For half a season, I got to hunt the hounds when the regular huntsman was injured,” he says.
It was also during this period that he met his future wife, Maria Starr Cummin.
Ten years younger and a former classmate of Bright’s sisters, she needed an escort to a charity event, and Bright obliged. They were married in the summer of 1984. Starr Cummin Bright received her veterinary degree for the University of Pennsylvania and became a horse doctor.
“Sculpture is the real thing—you can see it in the round. On the other hand, painting is more an expression of the spirit.”
The couple had three children before disaster struck. While his wife was in church one day in the summer of 1991, a deranged man shot her. “The bullet hit her spine,” Bright says.
Although she wasn’t paralyzed, it ended her career at a vet. “She was no longer quick enough to work around horses,” he says.
She continued to suffer severe pain from the injuries. Today, she’s an active advocate for gun control. Bright’s three children are now grown and into their careers. The oldest daughter is a writer in Montana, and the second is an doctor who did her residency in the Bronx during the COVID pandemic. The youngest, a son, is a management consultant in the medical industry.
As for Bright, he continues to challenge himself as an artist. He’s also a painter, but he’s given more time to the three-dimensional side of his work to prepare for a one-man show at Somerville Manning Gallery and the outfitting of the sculpture garden. Like most creative people, he has a philosophy to his art. “Sculpture is the real thing—you can see it in the round,” he says, pointing to a nearby fox, an animal he frequently recreates. “On the other hand, painting is more an expression of the spirit. It comes from here,” he says, pointing the fingers of each hand to the sides of his head. “There’s more freedom in painting than in sculpting.”
Paintings, of course, are not three-dimensional, and Bright does his nature and landscape paintings en plein air, taking his canvases and brushes with him out into the field. He disdains reliance on photos as direct sources, although he might use one “as an aid to memory.”
He points to a work in progress on an easel—a crow on a fence post with meadows in the background. “I’m getting away from opaque painting and getting into a more translucent feeling,” he says.
Bright continues to challenge himself. He’s also a painter, but he’s given more time to the three-dimensional side of his work. “There’s more freedom in painting than in sculpting,” he says.
It’s a short walk from the unmarked studio past an old farmhouse to a compound that’s been made into a gorgeous home with flowing water and a small pond. Two dogs and a self-assured black cat await his arrival.
The Bright home connects the remnants of an old stone schoolhouse and a barn. It features floor-to-ceiling glass looking out across a small creek and open fields in the distance. “I had to tell our architect, Richard Buchanan, that I really meant it when I said I wanted all glass,” Bright laughs. “He was thinking more Pennsylvania farmhouse.”
The interview over, Bright excuses himself to go back to his studio. There, a patient crow is awaiting Bright and the completion of his closeup.