From The Heart
When Life Comes Full Circle / The Art Of James Andrew Brown
James Andrew Brown in his office
Life is wickedly funny, painfully serious, yet whimsical and if you’re blessed with longevity to see it come full circle, then it’s a miracle. The juxtaposition of hard and soft. Good and bad. Black and white, layered in a social commentary of wrong and right. Timely. This is what you will see when the show, From the Heart, featuring the work of artist, James Andrew Brown, opens at Detour Gallery on September 7, at 6 pm.
Art is Brown's salvation, and what he conveys in the work are the absurdities of race and American culture and its intersection with the human spectrum. The signature image of an animated Opie-look-alike farm boy, from the Andy Griffith Show, (92” h x 48” w) who remarks, “Mom don’t forget the collard greens,” is poignant.
News Flash: Whole Foods Market elevates the vitamin enriched vegetable and introduces it to the masses. Meanwhile, it’s been a staple, forever, in nearly every black household - it comes from the same family as cabbage, broccoli, kale and cauliflower – that’s consumed by all people. However, collard greens remained the outlier, until recently. That’s absurd.
Indeed, once you’ve seen Brown’s work, you’ll never forget it. That was my experience, when I first saw a mural-sized piece titled: Ice Cream Cone in 2009. What clearly stood out was the vanilla ice cream cone, symbolizing all that is good and sweet about life, while all hell was breaking loose around it. This theme runs through much of his work subtly shroud in spiritual motifs.
“It comes from my mind, my heart and hand,” said Brown. The show aptly titled, From the Heart, by Rune Egenes, who is the curator and manages Detour Gallery, said the title reverberated from the work itself, before he’d ever met or talked to Brown. The defining elements in his work are so compelling that whether it's an ice cream cone or a pig – the lowest common denominator of beast – comparable to the black man or his counterpart - the police and the clan. He makes you think about who you are and society in a way that sharpens your senses.
“I want to make people think about the world around them and to feel the psychological experience,” said Brown, 66, who then reminisces about being a five-year-old boy sitting at the table doing artwork, growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. He has spent the last 35 years teaching art at William Paterson University.
“I try to stay away from labels,” he said. “I teach my students to find themselves.”
Brown attended Calvin University, a private Christian liberal arts school located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I didn’t want to go outside to play football. I liked doing my artwork and listening to WBGO (Newark’s No. 1 jazz station 88.3),” he said.
Obedient to his calling, Brown never stopped working except sometimes only to exhaustion. However, that changed when the painful reality of being diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and then when it returned in 2012, turning his world upside down. Impaired by the physical and emotional toll it took on him, Brown and the work, which is also autobiographical, had nowhere else to go but to God, where hope lives.
"Alright God, I’m on my knees. Do you hear me now?" Asked Brown, who did not expect to live. His piece, Out For Walk, is a diminutive figure crawling. That figure is a representation of Brown, who at the time was suffering financially. Due to a number of factors, a storage space of his was seized, and the father of three children lost his “secret stash.” A body of work that the artist had tucked away with the hope that it would be his family’s saving grace, after he was gone.
Well it seems God had a bigger and better plan. When his show From the Heart opens, art lovers, collectors and art enthusiasts alike, will feast on Brown’s recovered secret stash that had gone missing for years. The miracle is that Brown is alive and Kenny Schwartz, proprietor of Detour Gallery, and avid art collector, discovered the works about five years ago.
"I was called by a picker,” said Schwartz, about a person who seeks out fine art and thought he would be interested in the work. “He sent me a picture of one and I knew I needed to quickly see all that he had. I told him I’m coming to see them now. I saw them and freaked out! I just had to have them.”
Schwartz, who’s been collecting art for 50 years, said, “I knew that these were some of the greatest collections of emotionally charged art I had ever seen. They didn’t disappoint. Detour Gallery has shown a couple previously, but I’ve never shown the group.”
Indeed, this treasure trove can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a literary reference, that brings what is fantastic into reality, with Brown capturing the magic on paper and through mixed media. He delivers a message that is racially charged, dark, yet beautiful, scary and where dreams really do come true.
“My shit is real,” was the artist’s very candid remark, before referencing the origin of the work. “It’s my work, my heart, blood, sweat and tears, but now it has opened another door.”
If you believe in divine providence life for Brown has clearly come full circle. “I thought I lost a very important part of myself,” he said.
This is a man who once lost his footing in the art scene. “What it (the show) really is,” while carefully pondering his thoughts, he notes, “I feel rejuvenated. I am excited,” with just a tinge of enthusiasm to assure himself that he is the artist he always knew he was.
By Gilda Rogers