Columbus, Ohio USA
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Inside the life and outsider art of Smoky Brown
by Kaizaad Kotwal
Smoky Brown. © Photo/Jerry Bowling.
At 738 Bryden Road, in the ever-gentrifying district of Olde Towne East, sits Metropolitan Hall, a dilapidated structure that once housed wall-to-wall murals by folk artist Grandpa Smoky Brown. Those beautiful, vivid works painted directly onto the plaster were not salvageable as the building is currently being rehabbed for a luxury condo project. While art aficionados and local history may mourn that loss, their creator could not have cared less.
Such was the enigma of Brown, an artist who bothered little about the practices and egocentricity of the art establishment and its marketplace. His raison d’être for making art was how it brought people to him and how through his works he could tell stories close to his heart and about his life’s many joyful and tumultuous experiences.
Brown, who died in 2005, is part of a rich legacy of outsider, self-taught and folk artists that Columbus has bequeathed to the larger art world. Luminaries in this tradition include William Hawkins, Elijah Pierce, Aminah Robinson, Levent Isik and Rick Borg among others.
Multiple Histories: The Many Faces of Smoky Brown
In interviews and casual conversation, Brown often gave contradictory information about his childhood and family background. He gave both 1917 and 1919 as his birth year and Paducah, Kentucky, and Dayton, Ohio, as the place of his birth. He would interchangeably use Russell Brown and Russell Purce as his birth name.
The information on Brown’s birth certificate states that he was born Russell Brown to Russie Brooks in Dayton, Ohio, on November 28, 1919. Russell Purce was the name on his Social Security card.
Lesley Constable, who wrote her 1991 master’s thesis on Brown (titled Listening To Monsters: The Art And Culture Of Artist Smoky Brown), believes that some of this was his way of dealing with early years filled with “being given too many versions [of his birth and childhood] to assimilate,” especially since there was a huge controversy surrounding his paternity. It remains unclear to date whether he was or was not born out of wedlock. However, in his conversations with friends and Constable, he often used terms like “scandal” and “just like Peyton Place” to address some of the contentious and contradictory issues surrounding his early years.
There are no contradictions as to when he adopted his new moniker Smoky. According to Duff Lindsay, Columbus gallery owner and expert on folk, outsider, and self-taught artists, Brown told him that upon attaining sobriety in 1979, after years of devastation caused by drug and alcohol addiction, he was “reborn as the folk artist Smoky Brown.”
His seventh, and last wife LaVerne Brown, wrote about this mid-life reincarnation in the program for her husband’s memorial service (held on October 20, 2005, at The King Arts Complex): “Smoky says there are two of him . . . There is Russell Purce, the fine artist who painted what Smoky refers to as ‘pretty pictures.’ Russell Purce died in the ashes of a tragic life which culminated in alcohol dependency. Out of those ashes arose Smoky Brown, folk artist. All that was Russell Purce was lost to him and Smoky says it was a hard process to regain his knowledge of art.”
White Horned Ghost, by Smoky Brown.
Prior to that rebirth, Smoky held myriad jobs – ornamental plasterer, stone carver, muralist, sign painter, puppeteer and cartoonist. He retired in 1978 from his steady work of 28 years as a micro plater at General Motors Frigidaire Division.
Brown had moved to Columbus in 1976 to begin life as a full-time artist and community service volunteer. Most importantly, once in Columbus, he would wage his final battle in a life-long war with drug and alcohol dependency, eventually slaying those demons for good by the early 1980s.
He went through a lengthy rehab at Riverside Hospital and then moved to Metropolitan Hall, which in those days served as a halfway house for addicts. One of his ways of giving back to Metropolitan Hall was to paint the walls with his stunning murals.
Over the years Brown acquired a large, extended family – many children, several stepchildren, and before his death on October 14, 2005, he had even become a great-great grandfather.
He painted till the very end, his last work a portrait of his granddaughter Chauncey Pace playing basketball.
Like other things about Brown’s life, there are multiple tales about how he acquired the nickname Smoky. The most verifiable according to Constable is that famed cartoonist Al Capp – of Li’l Abner fame – gave him that name. Capp even introduced a character named Smo into his strip, a tiny cloud blown around by the wind, after he got to know Brown.
The Making of An Artist
Brown’s life story has one consistent thread running through it: from an early age, till the very end, he was immersed in art.
Brown’s mother worked as domestic help for several wealthy families. Directly and indirectly her profession and contacts helped expose the young Brown to the world of art.
At one point his mother worked as a live-in maid for Theodore Dye, billionaire of the Dayton Spice Mills Co., Coffee Importers and Roasters. Dye took a liking to the boy and paid for Brown to take classes at the Dayton Art Institute, a place Brown would return to many times to further his art expertise.
Another job his mother took with the wealthy Sam Hall of National Cash Register from Dayton exposed Brown to the world of East Coast art. When Hall’s family moved to Riverside, Connecticut, Brown spent summers with his mother. There, one of his mother’s friends, Professor Brewer, took Brown to Harlem every weekend and also to Greenwich Village, Coney Island, Great Neck and Flushing. Brewer in turn introduced Brown to E. Sims Campbell, a noted African-American artist and illustrator. These trips exposed him to not only iconic art of the Western world, but also to the burgeoning milieus of black art in New York City. From the latter he learned the valuable lesson that previously silenced voices could find freedom and expression through art.
Detail from one of Smoky's murals
painted at Metropolitan Hall on Bryden Road. © Photo/ Andy Hudson
After high school Brown pursued art at Wilberforce University in Xenia. He studied for three years, never completing his degree. Yet, many of the foundations of his later art were laid there.
During the Great Depression, Brown worked for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), all part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives set up to combat the massive unemployment and economic downslide of that tumultuous era. It sought to train people in the arts to help them get back to work. Much of what was created by artists in the WPA were public works like murals, outdoor sculptures and other art installations.
In “Listening to Smoky,” an article by Judith Fox for Columbus Art, Brown said, “During the depression I taught art classes in order to make money. Through my grandfather’s political influence, I was employed by the WPA. I learned so much by instructing my students to use their creative abilities and was able to explore my own artistic ideas. Many of the projects we created were used to make money for the hungry.”
It was from the WPA that Brown believed he had gained his life-long commitment to give back to the community. Brown did much in Columbus to train young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. He educated them about art and life through organizations like the Short Stop Teen Drop-in Center of Directions for Youth and Families, Central Community House, and the Africentric Personal Development Shop. He participated regularly in the Columbus Recreation and Parks Senior Art Center (1100 E. Broad St.) as well. “Young and old adored him,” explained Barbara Vogel, a local photographer and friend of Brown’s. “He was always smiling and very honest about himself. He helped people out a lot.”
Mural detail of a Chaplinesque figure
by Smoky Brown.
©Photo/ Andy Hudson.
Brown deliberately worked the graveyard shift during his many years at GM so that he would have more time during the day to make art and perform his community service.
For Brown, art and life were inseparable, indistinguishable – two faces of the same deity. As he once noted to Fox, “Art is a re-creation of something God has already created.”
Larger Than Life: The Man, The Myth, His Art
In their book American Folk Art – A Collector’s Guide, Chuck and Jan Rosenak write that Brown was “a black thespian, a showman; there is wit and satire in his work and he does not hesitate to comment on himself, his friends, and the political and social issues of the day. Brown’s art, like the man himself, is larger than life, humorous, idiosyncratic, and engaging.” Of all the hundreds of artists the Rosenaks cover in their book they write that “Brown is one of our favorite artists.”
While his art certainly garnered many, many fans during his lifetime, people also continue to seek out and collect his works today. All who got to know Brown agree that his personality was universally adored. Lindsay said Brown was “a sweet, sweet man, a wonderful storyteller.”
Constable, who spent considerable time with Brown, writes that his appeal to all was his garrulous and friendly demeanor. “Smoky is a master storyteller and can hold any audience – young or old from any socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background – rapt. It is my belief that Smoky is so well-known and well-loved in the central Ohio area due, in part, to his ability to spin a good and satisfying yarn.”
Brown was very open, post-sobriety, talking about the demons he had struggled with and managed to tame. He lost his left eye in a bar brawl but even that didn’t convince him to abandon the bottle. His long-time friend Kojo Kamau said that Brown “came to his senses when one day, obviously inebriated while painting a sign he fell off the ladder.”
Lindsay said that in his later years Brown was obsessed with what “drugs, gangs and alcohol were doing to the youth in his community since he saw it up close in his neighborhood.” Kamau sees Brown’s work as a warning that “if you get involved in this, the demons will get you too.”
LaVerne described her husband’s work as both cautionary and celebratory: “Having not had a drink since 1979, Smoky often gives a strong anti-dependency message in his art, but he also pours his heart into pictures that reflect the joy he sees in life too.”
Indeed, there is in his large body of work, unimaginable pain and indescribable euphoria.
Smoky at the Fair, Mixed Media Station Wagon. This wagon was Denny Griffith's, then Kojo Kamau's, and then Smoky's. Aminah Robinson is on the left - her picture. © Photo/Barb Vogel
The seeds of this story were planted last year when Tim Baker of Echoes Art & Antiques, 24 East Lincoln St. in the Short North, called to say that he and his partner Ken Naponiello had just acquired 20 works by Brown. What was to be a small story about these intriguing and exotic works turned into a larger exploration of the man behind them. It is impossible to speak about his art without understanding his life.
Brown only achieved regional fame and notoriety, while other Columbus luminaries – Pierce, Hawkins and Robinson – have all gone on to national and even international fame. Brown would not have been bothered by that marketplace interpretation of his art and legacy, but it is necessary to try to understand why Brown’s art – so skilled, so accomplished, and so powerful – never reached the heights it could have.
Lindsay, Kamau and Constable all emphasize that the machinations of the art marketplace did not seduce Brown to any level whatsoever. Brown told Constable that he had been asked to sign a contract with Rico Maresca, noted gallery owner in New York City. In 1982, William Hawkins had signed with Maresca, the same year Brown declined. Constable notes, “Many attribute this, not Hawkins’ and Smoky’s stylistic differences, with their differing levels of recognition and success.”
“Smoky did not listen to all those who talked about his art versus that of Hawkins. He was just not interested in the process of what it takes to sell the art – agents, galleries, schedules, deadlines. He was not interested in going mainstream,” Kamau said. “Brown just enjoyed what he was doing with his art and enjoyed selling them at low prices,” he added. Brown would often give away his works to friends and fans. Very often, the artist would give a writer who interviewed him or wrote about him a piece.
Vogel remembered how William Hawkins would take full advantage of friends and experts who wanted to give his art prominence on the world stage. She reiterates that Brown on the other hand could not have cared less about following suit. “It’s not about the talent, just happenstance.”
Photographer Jerry Bowling, who started a decades-long friendship with Brown in the early 1980s, came to learn very soon that Brown “didn’t sell himself to you. He was humble and didn’t brag about his art, his notoriety. He had no ego.” Bowling met Brown at an opening of the artist’s works at the Cultural Arts Center in 1982 and asked Brown if he could photograph him. “He was a bit surprised I asked him,” Bowling added, “but he just relented.”
Bowling got to know Brown very well over the years, especially since Bowling worked for F & W Properties, Inc., from whom Brown rented his apartment. Bowling, like many of Brown’s friends, hung out with the artist while he made art. The two would also go dumpster diving together, finding “untold treasures” on these missions. The found object became one of the hallmarks of Brown’s aesthetic.
Brown, more often than not, concocted painting surfaces, tools and mediums from what he could salvage from serendipitous finds. He is well known in art circles for turning the flotsam and jetsam of Columbus’ back alleys into the substance and story of his art. He turned necessity – not having enough resources to acquire expensive art supplies – into inventive experimentation.
Lindsay noted that starting in 1991 he would visit with Brown and watch him paint. “Once I saw him painting on cardboard and asked him why he was painting on cardboard. He simply replied ‘that’s all I’ve got’.” Lindsay added that “He just liked working with what was at hand. He liked the process of what he could find, then take it home, live with it and find itself into his art.”
Smoky in his studio. © Photo/ Kojo Kamau
Many of the works now on display at Echoes Art and Antiques exemplify Brown’s experimentations with found objects and collage. Lindsay noted that “collage is so hot in contemporary art today, and he was doing that stuff decades ago.”
Baker and Naponiello donated one of Brown’s vivid collages – Don’t Set The World on Fire – to Art for Life 2008, the Columbus AIDS Task Force’s biennial fundraiser. One of 33 works prestigiously chosen for the live auction, the collage on cardboard wrapped in sheer plastic fetched $1,200.
A few of the works at Echoes Art & Antiques exemplify another staple of Brown’s art – papier-mâché elements within larger works. These sculptural works often depict monsters, what Brown playfully referred to as “monisters.”
Brown acquired his papier-mâché skills during his time in the WPA. Andy Hudson, founder of Glass Access in Columbus and longtime friend of Brown, noted that “his most mysterious works were the papier mâché ones – half person, half monster. Some of them were downright shamanistic.” Referring to the spiritual and religious overtones in much of Brown’s work, Hudson said that art became a therapy while Brown was in recovery. “He worked with a psychiatrist who told him about art as medicine,” Hudson explained.
Brown himself spoke about this to Constable. “After I had my nervous breakdown, I got to the point that I couldn’t talk. During a conversation, my mind would go completely . . . The psychiatrist told me to get right back into making art, then I would stop thinking about my past.”
Constable notes, “Smoky calls the monsters he creates his clones and says they talk to him.” In Judith Fox’s Columbus Art piece, Brown states, “My monsters do all the drawing for me . . . My monsters talk to me . . . I talk back to them. There’s two people inside me. One the normal and then the monsters . . . I’ve got to keep them satisfied or they’ll come in my dreams and haunt me.”
What’s In A Label: An Artist By Any Other Name Would Still Be The Same
Fans and friends remain haunted by Smoky’s individualistic and idiosyncratic art.
Brown often referred to himself as an “urban street artist,” although he was comfortable with the label of folk artist. Kamau believes that Brown “didn’t really care about what labels people imposed on him and his art. He just wanted to make art.” Lindsay concurs that Brown “never gave a moment’s thought to how he was categorized, how he would live on.”
In the art world, the terms outsider, folk and self-taught artist are problematic – contradictory at best and contentious at worst. To better understand where Brown fits within these traditions, one must understand the history and many nuances of this fraught terminology. Like all labels in the art world, these too come with a lot of cultural, socio-political, economic, and other baggage.
Smoky with Tim Baker of Echoes Art & Antiques in the Short North. ©Photo courtesy Tim Baker
French artist Jean Dubuffet is credited with coining the term Art Brut (literally translated as raw or rough art) to refer to works by prisoners, the mentally ill and children. Eventually Art Brut was translated into outsider art by art critic Roger Cardinal – coined for English-speaking audiences, referring to works made by people living away from the established art world.
The American usage of the term enlarged to include any artists – not necessarily institutionalized ones – who were isolated in one way or another from the mainstream art markets. These individuals – isolated by poverty, race, and geography – who created out of some innate need or desire, were often discovered accidentally or after their deaths to be “artists.”
The European contention has been that the American usage of the term outsider art is too all-encompassing. Moreover, there has recently been a growing discomfort even in using the term outsider since it often implies something less than or inferior. Lindsay argues that the word itself is not necessarily pejorative, but rather the value judgments that people bring to it need scrutiny and debate. Lindsay, like others who are cautious about the term outsider, worry that since many artists in this category tend to be economically disadvantaged and racial minorities, there can be some inherent bigotry in creating this aesthetic ghettoization.
While Brown’s work fits the aesthetical paradigm of folk art, many misconstrue his art to be outsider. These assessments are erroneous because Brown, unlike true outsiders, was trained in art and had a lifelong exposure and passion for it.
Brown is very much like local art icon Aminah Robinson, a highly trained artist herself, who deliberately chooses to make art with a folk aesthetic. William Hawkins on the other hand was truly an outsider artist, completely self-taught and who, most of his life, lived isolated from that larger art marketplace. Ironically, it was the trained artist Brown who intentionally chose to isolate himself from the marketplace – a folk artist by trade, an outsider by choice.
Writer’s Note: Writing and researching this story made clear to me that it is necessary to document the work and life of artists like Brown who shun the spotlight. Many people came forth willingly to contribute to this article in order to help preserve Brown’s legacy. Others were reluctant to be put on record or simply did not respond. Brown is not only an important part of Columbus’ art history, but also its larger story.
For those interested in learning more about him, two recommended sources are available: Leslie Constable’s thesis at The Ohio State University library; and a video documentary titled Metro Murals by Andy Hudson and Barbara Vogel.
Brown is probably smiling from heaven, amused by those of us trying to secure him within the larger establishment and marketplace of the art world. But as his art and life’s story show, he is a figure too significant to ignore.
Smoky Brown’s artwork is on view and available for purchase at Echoes Art & Antiques, 24 East Lincoln Street in the Short North.
Call 614-291-9101 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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