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Bly and Rowan Pope

Drawn together: Minnesota’s Pope brothers and the art of being twins

Rowan and Bly Pope live in a duplex they own on the east side of St. Paul, near Maplewood. Not separately, in each apartment, but together in side-by-side bedrooms, which also serve as their art studios. Their food in the refrigerator is neatly divided: Rowan on one side, Bly on the other. Special foods are marked with their names, so there’s no confusion or regret. The other apartment is rented.

Rowan and Bly are brothers. In fact, they are more than brothers, they are fraternal twins. And they have lived together, much like this, for most of their nearly four decades. They own another duplex nearby, and they teach a couple of art classes each at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota. But for the most part—for much of every day, up to six days a week—they draw.

The Pope brothers are virtuosic photorealists. With just a few tools—a mechanical pencil, a Q-tip, and an eraser stick—they create exquisite, incredibly detailed drawings that most people would mistake for black-and-white photographs, until they were close enough to see the pencil marks, and even then they might wonder. Their work has been collected and commissioned, and now through October 29 it is on view at Mia, their most prominent exhibition yet, called “The MN Twins: Bly and Rowan Pope.”

Bly Pope’s drawing of Freya Manfred, the brothers’ mother.

The brothers grew up in Bloomington, the sons of Thomas Pope (the screenwriter of films like Bad Boys and F/X) and Freya Manfred (the poet and memoirist, best known for her reflection on growing up the daughter of novelist Frederick Manfred). Their grandfather was a larger-than-life iconoclast, 6-feet-9 and fiercely dedicated to his vision. He built a home into the rock at what is now Blue Mounds State Park, with a glass writing cupola at the top. It overlooked the prairie that inspired his best-selling Western novels, including Lord Grizzly, a 1954 thriller that was a finalist for the National Book Award and described the same bear attack featured in the recent Leonardo DiCaprio film The Revenant. The boys would see their grandfather writing, and see their parents writing in their offices at home, and learned that the creative life could be, well, a living.

“That lifestyle of strange devotion runs in the family,” says Rowan. “There was no shame or fear or confusion. To us it was normal.”

Indeed, their devotion is deep if not strange. Each major drawing can take thousands of hours, up to a year or more, to finish. But to say it is painstaking is to miss the point. “I think it comes even more out of love than patience,” says Bly. To spend three years on a small sliver of face or landscape is satisfying to him in the way that studying the same section of pond might be to a naturalist, to notice everything there is to notice.

“All these really overlook-able parts of life, the mundane details, have a lot of beauty to them if people paid attention,” Bly says.

Also, the solitude—interrupted by brotherly consultation and Star Trek running in the background—suits them. “It’s a very relaxing lifestyle,” Rowan says.

Bly and Rowan are both very tall and very polite, and, for artists who mostly work alone, very eager to talk. Though of course they’ve never really been alone.

They attended the Blake School, in Hopkins and Minneapolis, with separate classes and separate friends. And they went to separate colleges—at first. Bly went to Stanford, Rowan went to Wesleyan. But it wasn’t long before Rowan became depressed and lonely. He felt he was missing something. “I realized what I was missing was Bly,” he says. Bly, it turned out, was missing him too.

Rowan transferred to Stanford with an admissions essay about the big mistake he’d made—choosing a different college than his brother in a bid for independence—and how he’d like to rectify it. “For nearly 20 years, our relationship has been closer than most marriages, and we complement each other,” he wrote. “Such a relationship deserves further efforts at intimacy.” The admissions counselor, upon accepting Rowan’s transfer, told him his essay had moved him to tears.

As twins, Rowan says, “you have identities but it’s shaped by each other.” Turning to Bly, he says, “Sometimes I don’t even see myself as a brother but like another you.”

They both ended up studying studio art and psychology, and both started drawing with the grid method favored by photorealists, using a grid of small squares to replicate an image on a grid of larger squares. Then they both changed to the memory flip method, a kind of constant flipping back and forth from a photo to their drawing, holding the image in their memory if only for an instant.

And yet they do pursue different subjects. Bly specializes in real, if not traditional images. Rowan combines images in an imaginative and sometimes dark fiction, a process he often begins without knowing how it will end. Occasionally, it doesn’t. “The literal versus the symbolic,” Rowan says of their styles. “Bly likes to know how it’s going to end. I like change.”

Rowan Pope's drawing "Franz Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist.'"

Rowan Pope’s drawing “Franz Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist.'”

Both have what they call a masterpiece mindset. They’ll take however long they need to make the best possible picture. If they finish three, two, or just one work a year, that’s okay. And it shows: Bly’s arresting and incredibly detailed portrait of his grandmother, Maryanna, now featured in the brothers’ show at Mia, was a winner in a National Portrait Gallery competition in 2013.

Rachel McGarry, an associate curator of prints and drawings at Mia, arranged for the brothers’ exhibition at the museum after a collector turned her onto their work. She was amazed by their ethic, which made her think of old masters from the Renaissance and Baroque eras who began studying drawing at age 10 and drew every day for the rest of their lives. “It was pretty exciting to discover two young, relatively unknown artists working right here in Minnesota with such dedication to drawing and such tremendous skill,” McGarry says.

The brothers’ show at Mia is in a rotunda where school groups often gather, and McGarry says children seem to find the drawings as engaging as she does. “These kids simply cannot get enough of their work. Every one of these students has made a pencil drawing, so I think they can really appreciate the virtuosity of the works and how difficult it is to transform a blank piece of paper into a photorealistic work.”

The brothers have seen their mother spend five years writing a book of poems, and their perspective on how long any one piece of art should take to finish is very elastic, perhaps even irrelevant. “This isn’t about turning out work for a public, it’s work for myself to feel satisfied or proud,” says Rowan. “You learn something about yourself from every piece. That’s part of the point of art.”

“How many paintings did Vermeer finish?” Bly asks, referring to Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch artist who famously completed only 34 paintings. “But each one is a masterpiece.”

“Art is a luxury for most people in most cultures,” Bly continues. “We chose a very hard profession to make a living in. But we have food. We have shelter.” And always, they have each other.

Top photo: Bly (left) and Rowan Pope, aka the MN Twins.

>> Watch a video of Bly and Rowan Pope talking about their drawing process.