Sculptor: Brent Collins

Recently (December, 2021), I was going through a multitude of file folders throwing out what was no longer needed. In the course of doing this, I came across a folder containing clippings from the Kansas City Star that my mother had sent me over the years.

In that folder was an article from February 19, 1995 entitled, “Calculate the Beauty”. I did not recall ever having read it.

The article was about the remarkable artworks of sculptor, Brent Collins.

From the article:

“Have you heard of people who don’t know anything about music and go into a trance and create manuscripts that could have been written by Mozart?” asked California mathmatician Howard Levine. “In a sense, Brent Collins is doing the same thing with math. He has the ability to create visualizations of equations that leading-edge mathmaticians are thinking of.”

When I finished reading the article, I picked up the phone and attempted to reach Mr. Collins. I was very impressed with the sculptures pictured in the article and wanted to express my respect. But there was another reason for calling, as well.

The article indicated that Mr. Collins lived in Gower, MO. This intrigued me. My summers and weekends as a boy were spent on my grandparents farm just a few miles outside of Gower. Through the fifties and early sixties, Gower was a part of my life. And, as the years went by, since my aunts and uncle continued to live in or near Gower, it remained a part of my life. Thanksgiving and Christmas were often spent there.

Gower is a small, out of the way town, home to approximately fifteen hundred residents. What was this sculptor with a growing national reputation doing living there? On the other hand, why not?

I left a message on his phone but later thought that I had given little in the way of context for my call. Two days later I sent a letter introducing myself and explaining how I had come to know of him. I enclosed my book, Childhood and the Family Farm.

In a few days, I received an email thanking me for the book and extending an invitation for a “friendly email correspondence”. In extending the invitation, however, Mr. Collins thought I should be forewarned. “I view the world through the lens of science,” he wrote, “and have always been a man of the progressive democratic left extending to animal rights.”

Since that invitation, we have engaged in a frequent exchange of emails. For me, it has been a surprising and wonderful development. Mr. Collins is now 81. He continues to sculpt and is currently working on what he considers his most challenging piece, wondering if he has the stamina to complete it to his standard.

…the piece I’m currently working on in the studio is possibly as complex as any I’ve ever done, and in certain respects perhaps even more…apropo this my mind is in a state analogously approaching the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle…I just don’t know…is it a swan song of octogenarian delusion? that it could well meet the standard of my prime years…  Brent Collins 12/30/21


This exhibit consists of excerpts from emails sent directly to me or to others that Mr. Collins has been kind enough to share with me. It also consists of pictures of Mr. Collins’ wonderous sculptures. Brent Collins is a world-class sculptor, giving form to remarkably complex ideas, beautiful ideas. But he is also a poet. Look carefully at his creations. How could you make such artworks without being led to poetic, even cosmic considerations?

On his life as an artist:

…despite some late developments, my life as an artist has been pretty pinched economically…conforming rather nicely to  penniless stereotype…I worked for many years in class-based social isolation…nothing has come from privilege or social connections…the first from both sides of my family to get a university education by the skin of my teeth…a self-taught sculptor…but from a long ancestral line beginning in the distant mists of the paleolithic…splattering the outline of my hand on the surfaces available with ochre-laden spit… BC 1/7/22

On Gower’s history:

…several years back I unearthed the completely buried foundation stones of an even earlier building immediately west of my studio…these stones were very roughly quarried and possibly predated the Civil War…however, in addition to horseshoes and a segment of a heavy chain there were among the artifacts which came to light glass shards with finely engraved patterns suggesting that the building, if it was a home, belonged to a prosperous family…and in this area there were slaveholders…those stones are now cosmetically shoring up the concrete foundations of my studio… 

 …there’s a history of Gower at City Hall which might interest you…the town’s first doctor was a surgeon with the Confederate army…no telling where the bones of the limbs he amputated are…as I’m recalling the photo of him in the town history he was a rangy man with strong boned features more befitting a tough customer than of someone with deftly fine hands for surgical precision…

 …that, rather than a politics of dangerously aggressive populist delusions, there may be humility and reverence for life. – BC 1/1/22

On creativity:

…not much to report from here…the sculpture I’ve been working on for long has the feeling of a secret hidden away in my studio…a life sustaining one for me when its cogency quietly glows, lifting my spirits… when, that is, it exists as a boon my own hands have created from a familiar thread woven anew, new with small, subtle discovery, as life teaches and strange as it is to discover that you’ve brought something into the world without really knowing how you did it…how, that is, you produced an artifact with a degree of stature sufficiently known in the way you know what you know…

 …for this to be so you must sometimes plummet into states of doubt integral to growth though perfection eludes our human condition…and especially interesting is the fact that it has an evolved depth of emergent design features which cohere in a way I even yet do not fully comprehend… (From letter to UC Berkeley computer scientist, Carlo H. Sequin with whom Mr. Collins frequently collaborates.) – BC 1/5/22

On the cosmic flower sculptures:

…the works in this set all have floral geometries…and why not, in our imagination, view the universe itself, efflorescing from its singularity event fourteen billion light years ago to the state in which we presently see it, as a flower… and we living for a few moments in a small gravitationally compacted niche of its bosom as vanishingly small particles of pollen (from an email to individuals in Warsaw interested in putting on an exhibit of pictures of Mr. Collins’ work). – BC 1/11/22

On art’s capacity to heal:

 …art, as you know, can act as a catalyst within the biochemical brain…can be a psychic enzyme for a cathartic phase transition which heals old wounds, dissolving their trauma in the protean ambience of a new living moment… (note to Warsaw contact) BC 1/7/22

On the importance of doing something with one’s hands – the “to do” list:

…rather than the something present here in the molecular consciousness reflected in this text…and that being but one of the 9 billion or so individuated in the organisms of our species whose full story is yet to be told…   …right, when your head starts spinning it’s time to do something with your hands…like the chores I was charged by my wife to do as she was leaving to care-give her 86-year old mother this morning…before I procrastinate too long… BC 1/9/22

On God’s Breath and Minimal Surface Symmetries:

 …even through the non-theistically minded lens of science there’s room to see the seeded truth Hildegard Von Bingen saw when she spoke of being ”a feather in the breath of God…it’s just that as a matter of cosmic evolution God’s primordial breathing precedes, and no doubt endures beyond, the episodic emergence of sentient consciousness…

 …what may be noteworthy in my current studio work, possibly my last, is for a sculptor of my age to be grappling with so wildly strange and complex a holistic composition of locally minimal surface symmetries…or so I imagine and not as matter of denying the diminishments of age…or of being unwilling to entertain the possibility of some further fruition in their midst…if only I can finish it with my declining stamina… BC 12/30/21

On grief:

…the other that I have a son…whose personal tragedy and my grief is his personality disorder which has elements of narcissism and sociopathy…his mother, now deceased, suffered a psychotic break with reality during a manic phase of her bi-polar illness…the lithium which subsequently enabled her to live with functional stability damaged her kidneys…a younger sister was her kidney donor…

 …there’s no way to deny the role of genetic chance in many personal tragedies and in the many highly individual organic illnesses which have no name and in their uniqueness defy medical science…on the table by my mouse hand is a life cast of Abraham Lincoln’s face…genius is yet finite…would his melancholy have been less pronounced but for the Civil War…yes, I think …after the surrender of the Confederacy he had several luminous days…his wife never recovered…in kindness, Brent (1/15/22)

On our mission:

…our business is to make the phase we’re in on this planet less Hobbesian and more a dance of humane lyricism…  BC 1/9/22

On the needed strategy:

…empathetic concern within family circles conferred a reproductive advantage to the individuals in families whose members had it…an enlightened form of self-interest…to be extended by felt choice to all sentient creatures as humanitarians and animal lovers variously do…orienting our agency in the world towards being as humanely inclusive as possible, while emotions of petty egotism are dampened…

 …beyond immediate family the same emotional psychology of empathetic concern evolved within tribes for the same reasons…now our task is to engineer its emotional growth beyond tribal exclusivity towards the inclusion of all in our single global species, while dampening our tribal fear of others regionally differentiated by visible phenotype… Brent 1/31/22

And our prayer:

…may it not end in a tragic apocalypse of our own making. BC 1/9/22

Part II ———————-

“I think that what you are doing is Sisyphean in nature. Every sculpture is the writing of a book or the teaching of a course. I marvel at what you have done.” (D. Thomas to B. Collins – 1/14/22)

According to the Missouri Western State University, where Mr. Collins intends to donate his entire collection:

A number of Brent’s works represent mathematical equations. His work has been studied and discussed by mathematicians around the world. “My work communicates the beauty of mathematics in clarified visual form,” Collins says.

His sculptures have been collected by H&R Block, Warner Brothers, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and various corporations and private collectors throughout the country. Brent has lectured at Microsoft, MIT, and Stanford University. Two of Brent’s works were included in the 2009 Warner Brother’s movie, Watchmen. Look for them in the character Dr. Manhattan’s collection.

Music of the Spheres — outside north entrance to Remington Hall, MWSU

On visual mathematics:

these images are from a motif cycle that was the subject of an article by British science journalist and popularizer Ian Stewart in Scientific American, our premier science magazine…the works in the cycle have consistently negative curvature making them locally minimal surfaces which have the least possible area necessary to span their edges…in other words they are like soap films whose molecular contraction minimizes their area in relation to their wireframes, a natural aesthetic of economy…

 …as illustrations of area minimized surfaces in sculpture these works were also featured in a French mathematics/topology textbook which is in their national curriculum…

…as you know from my exhibition at the Fermi National Particle Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, scientists and mathematicians were the first to recognize my work as a significant aesthetic expression of visual mathematics… … while the rigorous coherency of my work is self-evident and appreciated by the general public, for scientists and mathematicians it has special resonance as a poetry of the mathematical sciences…with respect to this I am notably a non-mathematician working as a self-taught artist purely through visual intuition…

 …also worthy of note is the spontaneous enthusiasm with which school children respond to my work by virtue of their innate visual intelligence…an intelligence honed by evolution when our species was yet in the pre-literate hunter-gatherer tribal stage… (to Czeslaw organizer of Warsaw exhibit)

…by the way, I can send you a number of publications which have articles on my work…and in a separate email I will attach an image of the smaller version of Pax Mundi cast in bronze which is in Fermilab’s permanent collection… (to Czeslaw Plus, organizer of Warsaw exhibit)… Brent 1/18/22

Significant events in your development as a person or artist?

…no heavenly peak moments, no hellish moods of suffocating darkness…just a strange inert state of being stuck outside of evolution unless unwittingly a factor in some greater unnamable formula…then we might get somewhere, somehow, in some unknown way…hold tight, have faith that we’re not engulfed in a universe preying on any instance of itself which happens to have emerged into consciousness…

 …let’s put our cards on the table and rest content that the way it is, is the only way it can be, for the time being anyway…which is not to preclude a daily striving for ethical clarity in our thoughts and actions…a thread not to be lost as each successive generation comes to its own conclusions revisiting the normative crimes of the history they are heir to…Brent 1/23/22

Concerning the following sculptures:

…I tried to convey an aesthetic sensibility evocative of ballet…

…the ribbon sculptures approximating the zero mean curvature of a molecular film contracted in relation to its edge constraints…be well all, we only have the continuing conscious moments of the day…Brent. 1/23/22

On possibility and the value of honest work:

 …all to ”Cry, the Beloved Country”, Alan Paton, which is earth, an earth which might be more its own ”paradise”, the possibility of choice E. O. Wilson posits, that ”a different world is possible”, a community of longing the world over…

 … our one earth, it spins, it circumnavigates, anciently cratered, weaving through fields of asteroids, is it nearer to Wilson’s vision, or more the same, differing only in appearances, its immemorial progenitor, the natural world unchanged by ravages unsustainable, its grandeur the toll of sentience passing in end days of senescence…the seeing heart a station of mourning…for our one earth’s life borne of amoral dynamics

Pax Mundi (world peace) – H&R Block, Kansas City, MO

…yes, our brain tissue is ensconced in a cranium, the teapot encasing of our tempests…nonetheless aren’t our tempests in fullest maturation that of Victor Frankl’s ”search for and will to meaning”…and isn’t honest work a way conducive to a generous outlook, and with presence of mind also conducive to entering into the affirmative curiosity of children playing…Brent 1/17/22

Heliko – 15-foot sculpture installed on the front lawn of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, MO.


Brent Collins and I have yet to meet in person. Still, I consider him a friend. I am grateful beyond words that our paths have crossed. He has answered and remained true to a remarkable and seemingly timeless calling, “splattering the outline of his hand on the surfaces available with ochre-laden spit”.

La Trinidad Baha

How are we to contribute to our day and time? I know there are many answers to this question. But one of the things we can attempt to do is what Brent Collins has in fact done: create artworks that delight and inspire, artworks that provoke thought, that arrest us and cause us to reflect. This is work that adds in a meaningful way to the environment that is continually in the process of making us who we are. Perhaps tilting things by degree in a more humane direction.

In a note to the individuals organizing the exhibit of his work in Warsaw (Czeslaw Plus and Krzysztof Walczak), Mr. Collins writes: “by now you’ve surely realized that you’re dealing with a crazy extraterrestrial, or so many think who might otherwise try to pin me down to expected conventionality…granting me the poetic license I need to maintain a sane equilibrium…and to be along with every other living organism only another ”Feather in the breath of God” (Hildegard von Bingen)… Brent 1/21/22

The last word in this exhibit belongs to Mr. Collins, an “extraterrestrial” who, when all is said and done, is poet and philosopher as well as sculptor.

“…there is no world soul or essence beyond the laws or repeating patterns of the natural world and we know not why they exist or whether others can…in a real sense we’ve no choice but to ”let the mystery be” (Iris  Dement), intrusive though it can be…or rather leave it to the consciousness of mystics…science reveals its complexity, micro and macro, but can’t touch its impenetrable core…may all it hints lead us inspirationally to compassion…the absence of which a fearful quagmire…BC 1/30/22

Contact information for Mr. Collins: [email protected]


David Thomas, PhD