The painter, who recently moved from Philadelphia to the Hudson River Valley, continues to find sustenance in the landscape.
For much of her art-making life, Emily Brown has drawn on the Maine landscape for inspiration. Waldo County and the rugged terrain along the St. George’s River have been a major source for her work. She loves the farms and towns in the area and the “visible signs of creativity and humor of folks striving for order and even grace in hardscrabble conditions.”
Painting plein air, Brown has been happy to articulate the nature of the place “with no apparent will.” Early on she frequently painted from hilltops, enamored of long views. A view of Perry Pond in Appleton painted in 1979 encompasses low-rolling countryside beneath a wide blue sky. By contrast, Jet Trails, also from 1979, provides an up-hill view of fields and contrails.
Over the years Brown has experimented with new ways of presenting the Maine landscape, including the presentation of multiple perspectives in a single painting. Five Views from Four Seals, 1994, was painted from the deck of a cove-side camp owned by the late Marion “Kippy” Stroud on Indian Point in Bar Harbor. Invited to stay there for a week, Brown painted views at different times of day, providing a kind of multi-part panorama. (A group of Brown’s early works from Stroud’s collection now belongs to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.)
In retrospect, these landscapes of Maine offered Brown a kind of escape “from the trials of living in society” and, more specifically, from “the rough, poor city neighborhood” she and her husband called home in Philadelphia.
Over time, Brown moved away from images of specific motifs toward more universal and intimate subjects, including gardens, the compost, grasses and forest floors. Her Compost with Coffee Filters, 2004, offers an earthy arrangement of orts: vegetables, grapefruit and lemon peels, celery, and the like. The brushwork is brusque and beautiful.
In the early aughts, Brown began using Sumi ink wash on large sheets of paper, rendering natural subjects such as the surface of water and thick woods. She embraced the challenges of the technique—“mixing ink and water is less controllable than oil paint and exciting through its surprises”—and has found that the wash marks and the textures they form “connect with the natural world.”
Emily Brown: The Evolving Landscape at the James A. Michener Museum in 2005 offered a mini-retrospective of a 30-year span of her work. The following year she was awarded a purchase prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The large ink-on-paper triptych, Elegy, 2004, was given to the Princeton University Art Museum.
Elegy and the more recent Wet Snow, 2018, exemplify the ink wash work. In each piece, Brown renders the lovely confusion of a forest, the tangled layers, the expressive branches bending and twisting, the slim irregular trunks breaking up the white space. You can see the forest for the trees and vice versa.
Wet Snow was featured in Curator’s Choice: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Acquired 1986–2018 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, mounted on the occasion of the retirement of Inness Shoemaker, long-time head of the PMA’s Prints and Drawings Department. The exhibition featured some of Shoemaker’s favorite pieces acquired by the museum during her tenure. Wet Snow was purchased in her honor and placed at the entry to the show. Brown was thrilled.
In two exhibitions in 2011, Four in Maine at the Farnsworth Art Museum and Emily Brown: Drawings and Recollections at Waterfall Arts, the artist unveiled a remarkable series of assemblages. Brown selected a “motley pile” of incomplete paintings, prints and drawings—remnants of her “evolving intentions and practices”—plus assorted odds and ends from her South Montville home, including wallpaper, sewing notions, postcards, and vintage photos, and arranged them into resonant compositions.
Brown used intuitive testing and thought in creating these assemblages. “No preconceived image or emotional content was in mind” as she set out with scissors and paste to cut and arrange the materials into poetic configurations.
While some pieces came together quickly, most developed incrementally. As Brown relates, “A few got me up from sleep so as to write down a future move or sort through the pile of old papers, and one took me to the studio for 3:30 a.m. changes in the still of the summer night.” While she can’t claim to be a “passive agent” in their creation, Brown does feel that the elements assert a kind of will “to find their way home, to a natural niche where they can live.”
In 2017, Brown was awarded two artist residencies. The first took place in early January in the large glass studio at the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville, New Jersey. Never having worked in glass before, she studied this new medium from a small sequestered studio in the humming complex located an hour from her home.
Brown’s “first focus” was “the effects of brushes and paint thicknesses, keeping the glass clear of oil from fingers, and mixing colors.” She had to figure out the effects of firing on colors and how to paint in the round. Glass, she found, forces decisions regarding opacity, translucency and transparency. Brown has since begun working on mylar with similar options.
One of the glass pieces, The Pickaxe, was based on some of the Edward Muybridge sequential photographs of the human body in motion; Brown took advantage of the way a circle leads easily to repeat patterns. She recalls that The Pickaxe was created “right after the ‘highly attended’ inauguration of Mr. Trump, and I was newly re-sensitized to the inequities of American society.” A Muybridge sequence “of a (white) man with a pickaxe led me to alluding to the life of the laborer. And Trump’s rank expressions, of the powerful controlling those with less, led me to this. Nesting them allowed the cycle to be more oppressive.” Some of her glass works were included in Wheaton’s biennial show in May 2017.
Brown’s second residency that year took place in the town of Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland, run by the Ballinglen Foundation. Mayo is a relatively poor non-industrialized area in the northwest corner of the country, deep in peat sod and rock, where little can grow. Much of the land is barren, with cattle and sheep grazing on marsh grass. “Everywhere are rugged cliffs, long sandy or stony beaches, wind-twisted forests, ancient stone ruins and huge bogs,” Brown recalls.
During the five-week residency, she explored the countryside, the painting and drawing she did limited by the daily fact of unpredictable high winds and rain. She worked outdoors in small stints, making rapid pencil and oil sketches and taking cellphone photographs which were later used as references while painting in the studio or the couple’s cottage.
For economy of packing, Brown had brought paper, frosted mylar, pencils and oil paints. She likes mylar because it takes oil paint well and dries surprisingly quickly. She painted on both sides in some pieces, “a fresh way to intensify some tones or saturations,” and left some areas blank.
Brown found the place visually and spiritually fertile. The physical intensity of the experience comes through in much of the work she produced, including Peat Bog, a lively rendering of the grassy wetland turf.
Emily Brown, nee Scott, grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the third of four daughters of a family doctor-turned-psychiatrist and his wife. Brown’s family was deeply involved in the world of mental health. Her great-aunt Helena Trafford Devereux founded the Devereux Foundation in 1912 to serve people with special needs.
While her older sisters followed the family calling as therapists, Brown took to art. She attended Middlebury College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, before receiving a BFA in painting in 1966 from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts. There she met Will Brown, a photographer, in 1965; their daughter was born ten years later.
Over the years, Brown has taught pre-school and middle-school art, and college-level drawing and painting in Philadelphia. She also worked in a Friends school theater department. She assisted her husband in his photography work and in the salvaging and reconstruction of six abandoned houses (three in Maine, three in Philadelphia). She had no studio until 1995.
Brown first came to Maine as a staff kid at Devereux Pines Camp, then located on Great Embden Lake in North Anson. Inland Maine—“the open, variable, scrubby, smooth, rocky, cold, hot, barren, fertile places, with hills, valleys, plains, lakes, streams and dusty roads visible from hilltops”—attracted her as a young girl. The landscapes offered a “ready and good subject” as she began to draw on her own.
In 1966, Neil Welliver and Rudy Burckhardt, both professors at the University of Pennsylvania, invited the Browns to visit their homes in Maine, in Lincolnville and Searsmont, respectively. In 1972, the couple purchased an 1845 house in nearby South Montville. They have spent nearly every summer there since. Their connection to the artistic community in this part of Maine was highlighted in Slab City Rendezvous at the Farnsworth Art Museum last year.
The couple moved to the Hudson River Valley in 2018 to be near their daughter’s family; they had lived in downtown Philadelphia for 55 years, “a lifetime of work and friendships,” Brown says. They had converted a large old stable building into their home and studios and filled it up “with all those things people like to hang onto.”
Looking to downsize, they decided to pull up stakes. “This could be an adventure, an opportunity to shed things and patterns that we didn’t need and keep what had meaning and make a fresh start,” Brown recalls. “We took the leap.”
Since 2019 they have been settling in a midcentury house on a steep wooded hillside facing the Hudson River, a beautiful spot. Last summer they upgraded the upper story of their “funky metal barn,” and Brown now has a splendid studio: “split heating, three work bays, nice light, and views of the stream and hillside below the house.” She appreciates the separation from their living space, “a useful change from what I’ve had before,” and there are storage areas slightly removed from the working spaces.
Outside, Brown has been transforming a huge bramble patch into a meadow, planting shrubs and wildflowers to attract pollinators. “In this fascinating landscape I anticipate working directly from nature during good weather,” she reports. COVID-19 has slowed down progress on finding a niche in the community, she says, “but that will come.”
Brown’s “longstanding interest in metaphor and microcosm” continues in her work. “I’ll be working a good deal from situations found on the ground. Noting leaves and groundcovers in various states of growth and decomposition, along with compost piles, I may continue with this theme a while, using several media. Texture and tone tell so much.” There are large collages begun long ago that she expects to work on next winter.
Art in a Time of Pandemic and Quarantine
Anxiety is high. The COVID-19 virus in the first months shocked and seemed to unite the world in ways. Everyone watched and learned, and seemed to work to prevent, help, teach (some more intelligently than others).
Those who could shelter in place found a quieter, slower way of being together, which may be a welcome new aspect of our culture in the future. So much is being shared online during this period—dance, music, film, visual arts, writing, speaking—and the importance of the arts in connecting people with each other and themselves is evident. It’s vital to continue. New kinds of work will come from the pandemic.
It’s clear that class differences make some people far more vulnerable than others, and for many fear and pain and grief is everyday. Racial injustice continues; recent violence in our country by police against blacks has sparked new outrage and riots. Everywhere people are daunted by fears regarding health, economic well-being, work, and social patterns, and the environmental crisis, and these will surely be expressed in the arts.
I keep searching for a solution. I guess I have a utopian take. This moment could be a turning point in many patterns, as certain old jobs could be replaced with new ones spawned by more progressive thinking. The interdependence of all peoples is clearer than ever. With astute and inspiring leadership—think The New Deal, with clear protection for the environment—we could find ways to join together to provide better education, environmental policies, public health and more. A lot of work to do.
My artwork arises often from an impulse to celebrate beauty – an admittedly subjective, fluid term. I like to give form to hope and peace and love.
Emily Brown, May 2020
[Brown will be a featured in Rising Tides: Contemporary Art and the Ecology of Water, curated by Laura Igoe, at the James A. Michener Art Museum. The group show was meant to open April 2, 2020, but has been postponed, with new date not set yet (see https://www.gridphilly.com/magazine pp. 28-30). She will be showing online this summer at the Star Gallery in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Avery Galleries in Bryn Mawr, PA, invited her to have a solo show—the first featuring a living artist—in the winter of 2021, but the pandemic forced them to close their doors in March. They are contemplating mounting an on-line exhibition of her work beginning in mid-July 2020, for six weeks. You can see more of Brown’s work at www.emilybrown.net.]
[This article expands on a profile written for Edgar Allen Beem’s Maine Art New, a book project cancelled in 2018 by the University of Maine Press.]
Carl Little’s most recent book is Mary Alice Treworgy: A Maine Painter (Marshall Wilkes). He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island.
Image at top: Emily Brown, Waldo, Sumi ink, graphite, digital print, postcard on papers, 26.5 x 32.5 in., 2010.