Early one Sunday morning, years ago, when Freya Manfred and Tom Pope lived in Southern California, they awoke to a loud knock on their bedroom window: A neighbor had spotted their 2-year-old twins wandering down the street.
Tom caught up with his sons three blocks from home: Bly with a basket on his head, Rowan with the newspaper tucked under his arm, both wearing matching footed pajamas and carrying red plastic hammers.
They were “going to L.A.,” they said, where their screenwriter father often traveled for work.
Three decades later, after spending their formative years in Minnesota, the Pope twins grew up to become virtuosic artists who prefer to do their explorations on paper and canvas.
Since their first museum exhibition last year, “The Mn Twins: Bly and Rowan Pope,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, their excruciatingly detailed, photorealistic drawings have been attracting the attention of curators and collectors across the globe.
“To have a prominent dealer show your work alongside a Picasso is impressive,” said Rachel McGarry, the Mia curator who organized the brothers’ show. “They’re well poised to find recognition outside of Minnesota.” Watch a video courtesy of Mia below:
There’s a specific synergy created by siblings who arrive in the world together, a reciprocal force that spurs and supports. While each brother could have earned success on his individual merits, their relationship as twins has amplified their artistic gifts.
On a recent afternoon, sitting in the art-lined living room of their St. Paul duplex, Bly and Rowan explained how being part of a dynamic duo has helped them feel more comfortable stepping into the unknown, whether toddling off to the big city or choosing a career path not known for its financial security.
“If it were just Bly, or just me, we maybe wouldn’t have done it,” Rowan said, referring to the L.A. incident. “But we kind of inspire each other to go further than we would normally —”
“Just by ourselves,” Bly added, finishing the sentence. “It’s not a competition — I would say it’s more —”
“Inspirational,” Rowan interjected.
“Cooperation toward a specific goal,” Bly clarified.
“We motivate ourselves to be our best selves and our best artists,” Rowan concluded.
Out of a fable
The brothers are 38 years old, 6 feet 5, with dark wavy hair and hazel eyes. They might be described as having “ploughshare shoulders and thighs like hams,” as their mother, a noted poet, wrote in her 2015 memoir, “Raising Twins: A True Life Adventure” — an account that reads like a cross between leading a philosophy discussion and wrestling a couple of bear cubs.
As youngsters, the twins were exceptionally active, intensely determined and intellectually astute. Even so, their academic careers began less than auspiciously: They failed Breck’s preschool entrance test (they were tested together and distracted each other) and were expelled from Montessori school for swearing on the playground. (Their parents planned to pull them out anyway after learning the staff had washed out their sons’ mouths with soap.)
After landing at the Blake School, the brothers thrived academically, played multiple sports and delved into the arts.
At home, they unionized to increase their leverage, going so far as to create several “parent questionnaires” in response to their denied request for a Nintendo gaming system. “Were you ever kids? That is, do you care about kids’ feelings?” they wrote. “Prove that you know more than we do! Prove that what you think is best for us is right!” Their parents admired their sons’ chutzpah, but held firm.
When they became young adults, the brothers decided to follow their creative lineage and pursue careers as artists. In addition to their writer parents, their grandfather Frederick Manfred was the well-known author of “Lord Grizzly,” a 1954 biographical novel based on the true story of a frontier scout who, after being mauled nearly to death by a bear, supposedly crawled 200 miles to safety.
To get into his protagonist’s head, Manfred strapped a makeshift splint to his leg and slithered around his suburban backyard for days, subsisting on whatever he could find, including grub worms and ants.
The brothers approach their art with similar dedication and speak about their work with such fervor that they almost trip over their words. They gesture and inflect in a similar manner, which can make having a conversation with them feel like talking to two versions of the same person. (They’re fraternal twins, but look similar enough that when they were younger, before Rowan grew a beard and started wearing glasses, they were often mistaken for each other.) A Mia staffer who worked on their 2018 show described them as something out of a fable — a dyad of gentle, gifted giants, perhaps.
By contrast, the brothers’ home/studio (they share one unit of the duplex and rent out the other for income) is decidedly down-to-earth. It looks like any other bachelor pad, complete with a giant television and lack of cohesive decorating scheme, save for their original drawings and paintings, which are found in almost every room.
The brothers work in an artistic style most famously practiced by American artist Chuck Close: replicating photographs in such painstaking detail that the handmade image and the one captured by the camera are virtually indistinguishable when viewed from a distance. Bly’s painting of bright orange daylilies hanging over the couch, for example — accurately rendered down to the vein-lined petals and fuzzy pollen grains — could practically fool a bumblebee.
The Pope brothers typically draw or paint five or six days a week, for hours at a time. (When they were in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, they sometimes put in 10-hour days, but they now split their time with landlord duties as well as teaching at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the U.)
Often Rowan will sit on the couch to draw, propping a few pillows under his work, while Bly uses the easel in their basement studio.
Most photorealists, the Pope brothers included, work from photographs, using a grid system to break the work into smaller elements. The twins refined their process to make it more efficient by attaching a section of the photo directly to the artwork and flipping it back and forth, looking and drawing, dozens of times a minute.
The brothers seem to see details the way dogs hear frequencies that most humans can’t. They break a gray section of a photo into a subtle patchwork of lighter and darker gradients and flecks, a composite of shapes within shapes.
“You try to identify anything that stands out or is different — you notice change and then you make that change,” Rowan said, making the process sound much simpler than it is. Layer upon layer of graphite or paint creates the texture of a dried leaf or wrinkled cheek.
Although the twins use the same technique, the subjects and themes they pursue make their work feel very different.
Bly favors literal, single-source photorealism, creating portraits or nature scenes that, as he puts it, “celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.” One of his most striking works, an oversized drawing of his grandmother, does this exceptionally well. Exhibited as part of a competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and now owned by Mia, the portrait captures the defiant spirit of an 80-year life experience, from striated forehead to hair-stubbled chin.
“My portraits are not really flattering,” Bly admitted. “Sometimes my subjects don’t like how specific I get with pores and hair and details.”
But his mother, also a portrait subject, sees this realism as the strength of her sons’ work. “I’m glad they are interested in the mystery — and the miracle — of the way life really is,” she said.
Rowan calls his imaginative style “composite photorealism.” He makes collages of digitized photos using a computer and then replicates the images in pencil. (He uses a mix of historic photos and his own, with Bly modeling so frequently that he’s become something of a Where’s Waldo? in his brother’s work.) Rowan often represents the dark fiction of Franz Kafka or the experiences of genocide survivors to tell stories he hopes will impart truths about the human condition.
The brothers regularly spend hundreds of hours on each artwork — a few have taken close to 1,500. Occasionally they collaborate on drawings, passing an image back and forth, but usually it’s a solitary practice. (They’re more likely to partner on screenplays, one of which has recently gathered the interest of filmmakers.)
The two say they appreciate artmaking as a process of self-understanding, of diving into one’s own thoughts. And they believe that drawing faces in stark detail, sometimes amid scenes that frighten or depress, can reveal their subjects’ humanity — and, by extension, make the viewer more empathetic.
“Art isn’t meant just to be joyful and comfortable; it’s supposed to be provocative and provoke the viewer into seeing something a different way,” Bly said.
Although they do take commissions, the brothers are less concerned about their art’s commercial appeal than doing their very best work. “We’re very obsessive and perfectionistic and we like making masterpieces, not just pieces for sale,” Bly said.
Yet they acknowledge that selling work buys them time to make more of it. Since the Mia show, they’ve sold pieces to major gallerists and dealers in Belgium and London. And they’re creating works for a December show at Burnet Gallery in Wayzata.
Erwin Kelen, a longtime Walker Art Center board member and collector who specializes in drawings (he owns a couple of Rowan’s), was amazed when he first saw the brothers’ work.
“It just knocked me over — it was like I was hit in the chest. The stuff is so compelling,” he said. “They are both literally master draftsmen in the old tradition, incredibly meticulous and incredibly obsessive.”
The brothers’ art also made a strong first impression on McGarry, the Mia curator.
“I was blown away by not just their virtuosity as draftsmen but also the subjects they’re taking on,” she said.
U Prof. David Feinberg, who served as both brothers’ graduate adviser (as well as a frequent photo model for Rowan), said the brothers are not only talented artists, but beloved drawing instructors whose student evaluations rank among the highest in the art department.
“The students just love having them as teachers,” he said. “They love their personalities; they love all the information they get on how to draw; and they love talking with them.”
My brother, my critic
Part of the twins’ artistic success has been due to each brother’s capacity to hone his craft. Within relatively few years, they transitioned from skilled amateurs to demonstrating a truly rarefied ability.
For this, each can thank the other, who serves as a live-in coach, providing frequent and forthright critiques. The unwavering nature of their friendship allows the twins to be brutally honest with their criticism, offered with the other’s best interest in mind so it won’t jeopardize their affection for each other.
The significance of Bly and Rowan’s closeness (their mother described it as “astonishing, wondrous, legendary”) became clear after the two decided to attend colleges on opposite coasts in a bid for independence — a decision they quickly came to regret.
“For nearly 20 years, our relationship has been closer than most marriages,” Rowan wrote in a tear-jerking essay that helped secure a transfer to Stanford, where Bly was enrolled.
For the past several years, the twins have spent more time together than most spouses. In addition to sharing a workspace, they often eat breakfast together, work out together and watch “The Daily Show.” Rowan recently remarked to Bly, “Sometimes I don’t even see myself as a brother, but like another you.”
Yet despite their similarities, Bly and Rowan want others to see them as different people. Interestingly, the traits that most distinguish the two — Bly tends to be more introverted and practical, while Rowan is an extrovert who likes to let his imagination run wild — are reflected in Bly’s literalist approach to his art and Rowan’s more fantasy-based style. (The two do assert their own territory at home by scrawling B’s and R’s on their favorite foods, so Bly stays out of Rowan’s cereal stash and Rowan won’t bogart Bly’s poppy seed dressing.)
The brothers know their living arrangement won’t last forever. They’re both in serious relationships and planning to get their own places, hopefully in the same area.
Even if they’ll soon be physically apart, Bly plans to spend hundreds of hours with Rowan — or his likeness, anyway. He intends to make a 3-foot-tall portrait of his brother to accompany those he’s drawn of their parents.
It will be the first major artistic study that one twin has undertaken of the other, a fresh way of seeing his alternate self, and uncovering more about someone it hardly seems possible to know any better.