I know what the most shocking thing is. It has nothing to do with cults or sex scandals or being diagnosed with some disease. I know what the most shocking thing is. It’s that one minute someone is here with their wide smile and sense of humor, engaged in conversation, building a life, and then, as if by some magic trick for which we’re never told the secret, they are plucked out from this world. Vanished. Gone. The most shocking thing is that people you love might one day just exit without notice, and leave everyone behind, like orphans still standing on Earth.
Chris Bransome died suddenly of a heart attack on May 31. He was 54. He left behind a large community, far-reaching but close-knit, several of whom met him while he ran the Blue Elephant Art Center and Dragonfly Art Co-op in Frederick.
Tomy Wright, a Frederick singer-songwriter and friend of his, expressed it as a “communal sort of mourning,” one that rippled and reverberated throughout the whole arts community in Frederick.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” he describes three types of people who make up a small percentage of the population but are responsible for all of the change in the world. One such type is the Connector — the person who, out of his or her own curiosity and lust for life, is interested in all people — across cultural, economic and racial lines — and makes a point of learning about them and, in turn, connecting them to others.
Chris was a Connector. He brought people together. I don’t know that he had the intention to cultivate a community of artists on Fifth Street, but he did. It’s as if he collected interesting people.
I met him in 2007 and, full disclosure, we became dear friends in the years that followed — as in, I can count on my hand the number of people in this life who have really reached me, and he was one of them. I was the News-Post entertainment writer at the time and met him at the Blue Elephant for an interview, just as he was moving into his role as director there, which he held until 2011. In 2008, he and his longtime partner Deb Clark would start and run Dragonfly across the street, a storefront that showcased work by at least 50 local visual artists, as well as musicians and writers. And they would later run a CSA with weekly pickups on Fifth Street, between the shop and the gallery, because somehow they managed to farm in their spare time.
One look around on any given First Saturday during that period, and anyone would wonder: how do they do it? How do they do so much? Fifth Street would be filled with artists, poets, people shooting film, fire dancers, so much happening at once, and somehow this web of creatives was one that he wove.
How did Chris and Deb do it? It had something to do with Chris wanting to do as much as he possibly could. All the time. He made art, he made music, he made time for people. Looking back, it’s as if he said yes to everything. Like he just couldn’t help himself.
As an aside, he also pocket dialed me more than anyone I know. In fact, a mutual friend said he got pocket dialed by Chris just hours before he died. I always thought I might catch some intriguing conversation on the other end and get to eavesdrop, but instead it always sounded like he was walking somewhere or building something or moving stuff. Most likely, he was.
I saw him less in the past couple years, only because he and Deb moved from their apartment on Fifth Street to a house up in Braddock Heights, Dragonfly had closed, and the Elephant became the Griffin Art Center and under new ownership. I caught a CATF play with him (he wrote several reviews of the plays for 72 Hours), hung out with him at a farmers market where he set up shop, had him and Deb over for dinner (they ended up doing the cooking), went to their place for a bonfire at New Year’s, caught him at a friend’s art opening, did a restaurant review or two together.
The last time I saw him was a month or so before he died. I’d asked him if he had any scrap wood lying around that I could use to make a plant press (if anyone had it, it would be him). I didn’t care if it was two pieces of wood strapped together with a belt — I just needed something for a class I was taking. So I met him at his house one afternoon and he headed into the barn and I followed. He was running late because he’d just gone to Home Depot to get supplies — fresh-cut wood to size, bolts, washers. He got right to it (I was on my lunch break): put on some music, showed me how to use an electric sander, asked about my life. He put the finishing touches on this beautiful plant press about 45 minutes later: stamping in my initials (the fact that I have five L names always delighted him — he made me say them all out loud for people several times) and on the reverse side, his, CB, and the date, 1914. Apparently, I learned, he dates everything a hundred years earlier in the hopes of confusing or getting a chuckle out of someone in the future who might find pieces of his art.
One of the hardest things for me to grasp is how someone so animated, so alive, someone who breathed life into everything, into the whole downtown scene, someone who was always going, making, doing, could’ve suddenly stopped. He characterized himself as someone who worked behind the scenes, but whether he realized it or not, he became a tribal leader, as his friend Marianna Erickson put it, a mover and shaker in the arts scene, the center of something magical.
It’s difficult to put someone like Chris into words, because I’ve never met anyone like him and it’s unlikely that any of us ever will again.
He was an artist in the purest sense of the word. His life itself was a work of art, and he lived creatively until the day he died, never settling for something less but so passionately driven to live the life he wanted. He was a sculptor/multi-media artist, an actor, a dancer, a set designer and builder, a writer, a filmmaker, a musician, and a muse. And that’s just his involvement with the arts, a thread that ran through his whole life. He was a farmer, a carpenter, a father and grandfather. At one point, while still living in Montgomery County, where he grew up, he was actually a cab driver and a dispatcher. Simultaneously. And during that time, he had an antique business and would set up at flea markets, repairing and restoring furniture and vintage stuff that he hauled around in a van like a gypsy wagon.
“I swear to God, that man could bend time,” Deb said, and then on a more sobering note: “We did so much stuff in one day, that last day of his life.”
They had breakfast with his family, went to a flea market, stopped at a produce stand and talked to a farmer, visited with friends in New Market, took his granddaughter to her dance lesson, came back home and did yard work for hours. He died around 11, the tractor lights still on because they were working into the night, just as they had for years on Fifth Street.
“You know, it was a Chris Bransome day,” she said.
I’m not alone when I say I found community here largely due to Chris Bransome, that I know myself better because of him, that he was a refuge for me, an inspiration, at times my sanity, and always my friend. As Therese Keegan, who worked with him in her aerial dance troupe Updraft, put it so succinctly: “He was so quietly generous.”
Then she laughed, realizing she didn’t think she’d ever had an ordinary experience with him. Nothing about him was ordinary. “Even if you just had coffee with Chris,” she said. “Even just the conversations … they got really concentrated and, at the same time, hugely expansive.”
He really transformed — or evolved — people, places and things, because he saw potential in everything and he had faith. Things into art and people into better people and places into communities. A lot of people loved him because he loved a lot of people. He inspired people to be who they are and live creative lives. And only now do I begin to wonder how far-reaching his one life was, how many lives he impacted, even twice and three and four times removed from the ones he touched directly.
Originally published June 26, 2014, in The Frederick News-Post.