Stephen P. Brown was a realist painter whose art was filled with vivid light seemingly illuminated from within. His subjects were his family, friends and everyday surroundings, but one could argue his complex surface layers attracted equal fascination. Also highly regared as a teacher, his legacy is an inspiration to those lives he touched in his chosen home of New England.
Brown was born in Greely, Colorado, in 1950. His father was a baker, and his mother, a homemaker at the time, was also an amateur artist. Besides her influence, the light and grandeur of the western landscape were among his main impacts as a young painter. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Colorado State Univeristy in 1972, he attended the prestigious Skowhegan School of Paining in Maine that summer. There he met and studied with the figurative painter Alice Neel, who encouraged him to move to New York City.
With just a few dollars in his pocket, he moved in with a friend on the Bowery. In 1973 he convinced Neel she needed a studio assistant. For several years he helped her transfer wall drawings to canvases, model for paintings, and among other things, critique her work. (Upon her insistence, with just one veto between the two of them, she would tear a drawing in half.) Their relationship had a profound influence upon his portraits. Brown's paintings "confront one with an unswerving directness", as stated in the 1994 exhibition catalog of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he won the Academy Award in Art in New York City.
In 1975, he returned to Colorado for treatment of a reoccurrence of Hodgkin's disease he developed when he was fifteen. Because of this constant health threat, painting became a catharsis. His friends and family knew this vulnerability drove his artistic passion and engergy, and that he rarely stopped painting to relax.
With his cancer in remission again at the age of 26, he returned to New York City. Soon, he enrolled in graduate school at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. There he studied with world renowned artsists Philip Pearlstein, Lennart Anderson and Lois Dodd. It was here that he met and later married fellow student Gretchen Treitz. While in school, he had his first one man exhibit in 1978 in New York City at the Bowery Gallery in SoHo. Visitors to the opening were greeted by a frantic Brown on a ladder still painting his life size self-portraits, still lifes, and nudes. Even back then, he cropped his large canvases, only later realizing he needed the space around his subject, he would hand sew the piece back on. Also during this time, Brown was invloved with the Alliance of Figurative Artists in downtown, where artists met to discuss big ideas in reaction to abstraction and pop art. Besides Neel, Pearlstien and Dodd, friendships were born there with other realists such as Paul Geroges, Leland Bell, Gabriel Laderman, Rackstraw Downs and Paul Resika.
After marrying in 1982, Brown had a one man show uptown at the Alex Rosenberg Gallery. These large-scale paintings of self-portriats, friends, still-lifes and nudes were well received. After several shows at Rosenberg, he experienced the success and pressure of selling on 57th street. One day, in 1986, he impulsively carried five pastel cityscapes under his arm and walked boldly into Allan Stone Gallery. Just as spontaneous, Stone reacted favorably and accepted Brown into his stable of artists. Stone appreciated the intense surface process. Thus began a decade of a friendly relationship with one of the great art dealers of the late twentieth century. Brown not only exhibited in Stone's 86th St. gallery, but played tennis with him over the years as well. Several of Brown's paintings are in Stone's private collection. Also during this time, friendships were formed with artists, among others, such as Raphael Soyer, Altoon Sultan, Joe Groell, Allan D'Arcangelo, Bob Henry, Chris Semergieff, Mark Pehanic and Wayne Thiebuad. While visitng Soyer's studio in 1985, Brown painted a striking portrait of him as they discussed American realism. By teaching part-time at Parsons and Studio in a School, he was able to paint and exhibit regularly during this time.
Because their teaching schedule allowed, Brown and his wife left New York City every summer for landscape painting adventures out west. They meandered all over the Rocky Mountains in search of the perfect location to paint, and only after found, would they set up their tent. Painting landscapes side by side, they usually chose a national forest for privacy, as they felt their French easels and umbrellas attracted too many spectators. Ranchers, truck drivers and fishermen became their wandering friends. Inspired once again by the expanse and luminosity of the western vista, Brown was in his element. As in all their artistic work, Brown and his wife were each other's best critic; painting the strongest light early in the morning and late evening allowed for mid-day analysis of his oils, and her watercolors. Dealing with the elements proved difficult and sometimes comical on many occasions. Bird droppings on watercolor paper and dusty earth on oils required cropping and rinsing. Even so, these summer journeys were very productive and lucrative for both.
After fifteen years in the city, and well established in the art world, they decided it was time to seek other surroundings and job opportunities. They agreed whoever received the best teaching offer, they would relocate there. In 1987, Gretchen was offered a one year adjunct position teaching art at Pennsylvania State University. They were thrilled to experience a totally different environment. They rented a house on a dairy farm, totally encircled by Holsteins. It was this bucolic American heartland that was the inspiration for new subject matter for Brown. Cows, horses, silos, and rolling fields, all bursting with light and energy, became for him a reunion to his rural past. The fortitude of the dairy farmers matched his own moral fiber and many became his kindred friends, often referring to them (and his father), as "salt of the earth". Painting the farmlands of the central Pennsylvania mountains afforded him the opportunity to continue exploring his love for the dialogue between long, transparent shadows and color-filled light on forms. Brown's process of working over the surface, scraping and building his strokes, unintentionally became his subject; the compulsive, creative energy of his technique gave his paintings a magical feeling. His craving for artistitc sustenance was constant. He created a very large body of work, especially landscapes, during this significant period.
The following year, in 1988, Brown was offered a tenure track position at the Hartford Art School, a college within the University of Hartford. Here he found his calling as a teacher. His personable manner, and intellect, matched by his stong exhibition record, quickly attracted students from all over the United States. He was responsible for increasing the number of painting majors, improving his department, developing a Graduate Program, and expanding the Art School's reputation.
In 1989, his son Rushton was born, and brought a new level of intensity to his art. Because of this overflowing love, Brown embarked on two decades of painting portraits of his son. Family life also revolved around exhibits of both Stephen and Gretchen, their studio time, trips to New York and Boston, museums, galleries, and of course teaching by both parents. In 1990, Stephen was awarded the honor of a one person exhibition from winning the Connecticut Vision Exhibition at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. The show opended at the museum in the fall of 1991 and included "a series of cows-in-the meadow with genuine expressiveness, empathy, and a divine...humor" (from the catalog essay.) Along with other large scale paintings of animals, figures and still lifes, the exhibit was well received. Shortly afterwards, other museums and galleries in the New England region exhibited his work, including the New Britain Museum of American Art, Paesaggio Gallery, Hofstra Museum, New York Academy of Art, National Academy of Design, the Joseloff Gallery, Allan Stone Gallery, and many others around the country.
(Second half coming soon)