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Brandon Secrest: From Navy SEAL to Student Sculptor

When veterans return home the transition to civilian life can be a challenge.  For one local veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his transition was made easier through art

Brandon Secrest is a 36-year-old sophomore at the Cleveland Institute of Art who joined the institute after more than a decade in the U.S. Navy, much of it as a Navy SEAL.

But before he joined the Navy, he had thoughts of becoming an artist.

"Whenever I found an opportunity to make something I did.  If there was a project for school I didn't just do a paper, I made something for it," he said.

Brandon Secrest

Back when he was in high school Secrest was disappointed in the school dance decorations. So he made up a job for himself allowing him to explore his creativity.

"I said I was going to be the dance decoration committee, so I was always making buildings, palm trees, Eiffel Towers, random stuff like that.  It was something I made for myself to do," he said.

After graduating high school in California, Secrest told his parents either he wanted to go to art school or join the military.  His parents encouraged him to enroll in the Naval Academy, which he did in the summer of 2001.  Little did he know he'd spend his entire military career at war.

"The reason why I went in the Navy was to become a Navy SEAL, and the reason why I wanted to be a Navy SEAL was to lead men in combat, period.  That's what I wrote in my letter to the Naval Academy in my application," he said.

During his days in the military, Secrest served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.  His creative passions had to wait.

"It was definitely something that was put on the back burner, but it was never absent from my mind.  I kept sketchbooks as much as I could.  I didn't even know what you were supposed to do with a damn sketchbook when I was in the military," he said.

After 15 years in the Navy, he decided it was time to move on.  He followed his girlfriend to Northeast Ohio and enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

"Transitioning to a civilian environment is definitely a very weird experience.  So when I stepped out of the military into this environment, out of special operations and specifically the SEAL community, there was definitely an adjustment period," he said.

While transitioning to civilian life has taken some time, becoming an artist has not.

"This is pretty much like a hose that had been running for 15-16 years and your car tire had been sitting on it.  So as soon as I started the car again and drove away I just like... total explosion.  So I hit the ground running as hard as I could when I got here," he said.

Transfinite, Transfixed  Brandon Secrest piece which earned the Cleveland Institute of Art's Board Grand Purchase Prize.

The board of directors will purchase the artwork for $1,500 so that it may become part of CIA’s Teaching Collection.

The discipline and organizational skills Secrest acquired in the military have served him well at CIA.

"It was a war-time environment so there was no time to mess around.  My time was not my own, it was the military's.  So now that I'm here and I get to experience complete freedom, it can be sometimes frustrating to see people not appreciate that I guess.  But that's just part of being young," he said.

His latest project involves deconstructing a collection of red, hard-plastic tool boxes into small bits with a band saw that eventually will be shaped into a sculpture.

"Man it's just like every time I make something it's like a total catharsis for me.  I'm not going to sit here and psychoanalyse myself, but the point at which I came here was the point at which I started to release the pressure of all these years of not being able to do what I needed to do has been just enormously cathartic," he said.

He's grateful too.

"I'm very lucky to be where I'm at, and I feel like I'm fitting in here as best as I could hope at an arts school having come from where I came from (laughs)," he said.

Secrest was surprised to learn his entry for the annual student exhibition - Transfinite, Transfixed -won a top prize. It will be purchased by the institute's board for $1,500 and become part of the permanent teaching collection at CIA.

For now, he's happy making the best use of his time by making art.

ObjectileBrandon Secrest

Listen to Brandon Secrest describe piece above: Objectile  


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