When you walk into Bridgeforth Design Studio on Sixth Street in Bristol, Tenn., the first thing you'll notice is the super hero artwork. The first thing you'll feel is the passion that Brian and Marie Bridgeforth bring to their mission - and it is a mission. They are dedicated to sharing their art and making it accessible to everyone.
When they moved to Bristol, they opened up their studio to the public, so anyone who needed a design or had an idea could just walk in, sit down with them and discuss an idea without stress.
"We turn no one away," Marie says. "If you need a couple of sketches for a church, we'll do that. We've worked for architectural firms creating simulations of rooms, and we've designed marketing materials for large companies and fabrics. We're a one-stop shop for anything that anyone needs in the art world." They also do commissions. So if you want a drawing of Batman, they'll do it. They even did a coloring book featuring Catwoman.
They came to Bristol because of Marie's father. Marie was born in Tazewell, Virginia, and moved to Virginia Beach in 1985. She met Brian in 1990 and eight months later, they got married. "It was love at first sight," she says. Brian says, "She drew stuff, so that was easy."
"I always wanted to come back here and take care of my mom and dad, but unfortunately we could never find jobs around here, so we didn't get to come back until daddy got cancer," she says. "Then we left our jobs and everything and came home to help daddy pass. Mom still wants to live by herself, and I wanted to stay in the area, so I would be here for her."
They looked at places from Pigeon Forge to Tazewell to Abingdon. "We settled on Bristol because of the art community that was already established here," Marie says. "We were looking for a place where we could live in the back and have a studio in the front. We talked to Christina Blevins at Believe in Bristol and told her what we were looking for, and she told us that David Shumaker had just transformed the old Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion office into just what we're were looking for."
Brian says that they made the right choice. "Everyone has been so welcoming. When you quit your job and pack everything and move in literally two weeks, it can be scary, but it also can be a challenge. Fortunately we settled in the right place. I don't think this could have happened anywhere else. It was the right combination of people, and we're right next door to a comic book store."
Comics are their favorite, so they are thrilled with their neighbor., Robert Pilk. When you add David Vaught's magic store to the mix, you have what they call "The Bristol Triangle." "It's tons of crazy stuff," Brian says. "Fun and magic and comics. We have a blast, especially during free comic book day."
Their passion for sharing their art shows up at Comic Book Day and at RobCon where they take a large piece of canvas and draw a comic while people watch. "We get a chance to let kids see how it's done," Brian says. "They can ask any question they want." Last year, the drawing was of Superman coming to Bristol during Rhythm & Roots. "When Superman comes to Bristol, aliens and meteors break out. It's definitely not a vacation," Brian says.
"It's neat for them to actually see an artist," Marie says. "They're so amazed to see someone actually drawing. Usually at conventions, they see people sitting at a table and signing things. We always work in front of them. They'll come up with ideas about what could be getting ready to happen in the picture, and they'll tell you what's going on. To see their imaginations take off is just the greatest reward ever."
The Bridgeforths are true proponents of imagination and try to spark it wherever they go. They also believe firmly in teamwork between themselves and with other artists. Every project they've done, they worked on it together. "It's 50-50," Brian says. "There's a trust from years of working together. You start reading each other's mind on things. We sign our work just Bridgeforth; it has to come from both of us."
They also believe other artists should work together. "Just look at the number of artists it takes to make a movie," Brian says. "It takes an army, but when they work together, they come up with magnificent things. We want to help artists to have their own styles and to work with other creative people and respect them. It benefits everybody."
One of the artists the Bridgeforths are working with is writer Clint Black. They are creating concepts for his graphic novel, "A Western Tale." They are creating character sketches, what the landscape looks like and what style the artwork could be. "We love working with him, because he gets us excited," Brian says. "It's going to take quite a bit of work to do. But if you can take dragons and vampires and wizards and put them in the Wild West, we're into that." Black is starting a Kickstarter campaign soon to finance the project.
They say they've always been creative. Marie began to draw when she was a child. "There used to be a TV show called "Scoop and Snoop,' she says. "It was a western and daddy would sit down with me and teach me how to draw them. He wasn't particularly an artist; he was just trying to encourage me."
Brian used to draw weather maps – on the wall – and get in trouble with his mother. "After that, I was drawing a Superman, and I saw my mom smile and my grandmother smile," Brian says. "There was nothing else I felt I ever did that could bring that kind of look to their face. I guess they were amazed I sat down and did that for them. My mom worked really hard and sometimes worked two jobs just to keep our house going, so bringing a smile to her face was really my goal."
They're self-taught artists. Marie says they used to buy art books and spend all night examining the techniques used in the paintings and drawings. "We'd say, "he did this here, he used that brush stroke there and that color here.' We'd pull out all the design elements they used in those paintings."
They have artists who inspire them. Marie is inspired by Frank Frazetta, Bob Ross, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Brian by the Renaissance artists because "they did a little bit of everything. It was art, music, poetry and a variety of things. I think when you concentrate on one painter, you tend to narrow things down. Today, I'm inspired by everyone, because everyone brings something to the table. It could be a professional or a kid lying on the sidewalk with his tongue hanging out, drawing a robot. If you keep copying the past and recycling it, you're not branching out and grabbing something new."
Branching out and freeing your mind is what they focus on when teaching children. They teach at Bristol's Who Art You Camp and work with the YWCA Tech girls. They hope to find sponsors someday, so that they can buy supplies and give free art lessons to underprivileged children.
"We give design classes to try to free their mind," Marie says. "Every time we give a class, someone says "I can't draw.' So we try to tell them it doesn't matter what you draw, it matters how you're thinking and what ideas you have in your heart, because everybody is creative. We try to give them inspiration and open their eyes to the possibilities that are out there in the art field."
The Bridgeforths see endless possibilities in their future. Whether it's teaching, creating artwork for writers, creating their own artwork, designing concepts for video games or other projects, they are living their dream. "It doesn't stop until you fall off the planet," Brian says. "Artists don't retire. They just die. It's our life."
If you'd like to visit the Bridgeforths, their studio is on Sixth Street, Bristol, Tenn.
They'll be at RobCon, Aug. 2, and in the Youth Tent at the Virginia Highlands Festival, Abingdon, Virginia, Thursday, Aug. 7, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.