GRAVE UNDERTAKINGS: An Interview with Brandon Troelstrup

Montserrat alumnus Brandon Troelstrup (‘16) goes to work each day and thinks of nothing but gravestones. As well he should—that is his job, after all.  Specifically, Brandon is a draftsman for O’Rourke Brothers Memorials in Salem, where he spends his time drawing and designing the layout of the headstones to be eventually—literally—set in stone.

“There used to have to be massive teams that would make these drawings. Then that became one person when the computer got involved. The programs have existed since the 80s; they predate Photoshop.”

Brandon first came to O’Rourke through a CraigsList ad looking for a part-time employee. Now he’s been working there full-time for three years. The job has proven to be a novel and engaging context in which he can use his Montserrat-honed skills as an innovative, multi-disciplinary artist.

 The memorial industry is an ancient trade still adapting to a digitized present; it straddles a gap between physical and digital artistry. This is materially true in that Brandon’s designs must then be translated onto the granite itself. It also means that to provide the best work possible, Brandon needs to bridge that same gap, moving between physical and digital media.

“I used to only work digitally, but I found out that I do like to draw and scan and draw and scan. Using the old software, it’s easier to draw a really smooth line drawing by hand. It’s kind of hard to imagine curves as you’re drawing them [with vectors and vertices].”

It seems a very different kind of work compared to what one imagines emerging from the visual arts. But as with most jobs in the arts, it requires administrative and interpersonal skills as much as it does on obvious raw artistic ability. Brandon, like any other artist, still needs to organize and structure his workload. And like any other artist, he still needs to communicate with clients to ensure that their vision, his art, and the capabilities of the medium are all in-sync. It is in the material and emotional context that Brandon’s work deviates the most from that of his peers in other fields. But much of the best art serves to help one channel, process, and understand their emotions. Brandon’s work is no different, it simply revolves around one particularly heavy emotion.

Working at O’Rourke, the results of Brandon’s hard work are literally carved into stone; as still and stable as anything could be. It is perhaps a surprise then that he spent much of his senior year at Montserrat working on animation and game design projects—his senior Capstone was with the Animation + Interactive Media department.

“In my final year I did a lot of book work, a lot of illustration, I did a lot of design, really. Design was just the key component of everything.”

Brandon graduated with a concentration in Interdisciplinary Arts, focused specifically on board game design. That final project, which originally grew from a class taught by Professor Blyth Hazen, turned into a board game called Iron Knots.

Brandon has stayed engaged with Montserrat’s animation department since graduation. He’s been very involved in the annual Game Jam, where teams and individuals from the community spend a weekend designing games from scratch, all focused on a single theme. Often participants make video games, but Brandon’s projects are usually board or card games. That is, when he’s not helping to organize the event itself.

Brandon also spent several years working as the “house game master” for The Castle, a board game cafe in Beverly, where he would run and construct narratives for groups who came to the café to play Tabletop Roleplaying Games (or TTRPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a hobby—or in Brandon’s case, a job—that requires a significant amount of organizational and improvisational skill, demanding both interpersonal flexibility and strong storytelling chops. 

This only scratches the surface of what Brandon has been working on. There’s not only his full time job at O’Rourke, or his Game Jam participation, or his freelance work designing materials for independent tabletop game developers. He’s also making music, and learning Japanese in order to add a third fluency to his repertoire of languages.

Brandon has his own page on itch.io, a website for independent game developers to host, sell and distribute their work. His bio describes him as a “fantasy-horror-acid-doom-brootal-death-art-punk TTRPG creator.” It’s an attempt to capture both the breadth and the specificity of his creative interests; to describe a tone equal parts grim, fantastical, and DIY. The sheer number of adjectives couldn’t be more appropriate for someone spread across so many subjects and juggling so many projects.

Brandon remembers how one particular Montserrat professor put it: 

“My creative writing professor, Erin Dione [Chair of the Liberal Arts Division] called it ‘wrangling the octopus.’ You have to grab all these tentacles, put it in a suitcase and snap the lid shut. Because, well, you get a lot of different ideas. Nowadays as an artist there is so much out there to do. It’s kind of overwhelming. ‘What kind of content do you want to make? Do you want to paint? Do you want to make music? Do you want to do a hybrid?’ You have the world at your fingertips and there are communities for practically everything online. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting. I’ve always been an experimenter.”

If you want to follow more of Brandon Troelstup’s artistic experimentation, you can follow him on social media at scry_skill both on Instagram and Twitter. Below, enjoy a gallery of some of his recent personal work.