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Brandon Surtain trades pads for brushes as art major

2590 days ago
Robin Miller | The Advocate
Photo: Hilary Scheinuk | The Advocate

The studio classroom on campus is light-years away from the football practice field when Brandon Surtain picks up his paintbrush.

A stroke on the canvas here, another one there and he's no longer No. 27, a safety for the LSU Tigers, or even a student on campus. He's lost in the journey of his painting, guided by his paintbrush.

"I prefer life pictures," says the 21-year-old. "I like painting subjects that move me emotionally. I want to show humanity. I know if I connect to them, others will, too."

In the Foster Hall studio, impressionism and abstracts are the emphasis, and, on this day, cubism is the subject. Surtain paints alone in the studio after football practice. His assignment is to paint the still life assembled cubist style at the front of the studio.

It's not Surtain's favorite genre, but he knows he has to tackle different artistic styles in his pursuit of a bachelor's degree in art. But he doesn't aspire to be the next Leroy Neiman, either.

Surtain stands on Tiger Stadium's sideline, as did Neiman in so many of the world's stadiums and arenas, but the junior from Baton Rouge's sole mission is to stay vigilant and ready to play.

"Besides," Surtain says, "it just seems a little cliché for me to be a football player drawing football pictures."

That's not totally true. One of the pictures Surtain considers among his best is a football picture, but not of the fierce Tigers variety. It depicts a huddle of neighborhood kids in shorts, gangly legs and ragtag helmets, ready to play on a grassy lot.

He drew it with Prismacolor pencils, his preferred medium. It isn't so much a football scene but a mix of memories. His childhood was filled with drawing and football.

Now he's doing both at LSU.

His story begins in New Orleans, where he was born on Jan. 19, 1994. Hurricane Katrina relocated his family to Baton Rouge, where Surtain attended McKinley Middle Magnet School and graduated from McKinley High School, where he was a defensive standout for the Panthers. The LSU football program recruited him.

"I started out as a running back in high school, then switched to defensive back in my sophomore year," Surtain says. "I can't imagine playing running back now."

At 5-feet, 8-inches, the 181-pound safety may not stand as tall as some of his teammates, but he's had his share of playing time, and, despite his naturally reserved demeanor, is aggressive on defense.

But at the end of the day, he disappears into the images on his paper or canvas.

"I've been drawing as long as I can remember," Surtain says. "I started out drawing cartoons, and I was placed in talented art classes when I was in the fifth grade at A.D. Crossman Elementary in New Orleans."

Surtain continued taking art classes after moving to Baton Rouge, but chose petroleum engineering as his major when he enrolled at LSU. He wasn't happy, so he switched to psychology. Still, he was not satisfied.

"I didn't have any trouble with the work in petroleum engineering or psychology, but I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do," Surtain says. "So I talked to my mother."

Surtain's mother is a single mom, another prominent subject in his artwork. One of his favorite Prismacolor pieces depicts a single mother holding on to her two infants. Her expression, a blend of fear and determination, shows she will prevail.

Surtain admires his mother's strength and values her advice.

"She told me that I love art, and that I should major in what I love," Surtain says. "So I changed my major, and now I almost feel guilty because I'm in school doing the two things I love - playing football and studying art."

Surtain's decision made him the LSU football team's only art major. His teammates' reaction?

"They're OK with it," he says. "I've even done some designs for a couple of my teammates."

His "real life" art, as he calls his Prismacolor pieces, is the kind of art he plans to do when he becomes a working artist.

"I understand the value in learning other art genres because it helps me understand what I'm doing with my own art," he says. "My professors and instructors have me do different things to change the way I do things. One even had me paint with my left hand, and I understand that."

And though "real life" speaks to him, Surtain can't contain his artistic emotion even when working in other styles. Like now, while working on his cubist still life in the empty studio.

There's more to his painting than colors and lines. The colors expand outside their territory, like the LSU defense pushing past the line of scrimmage into an opponent's territory. He's not painting just what he sees; he's painting what he feels.

"When you see it, you get it," Surtain says. "That's the kind of art I want to do."

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