The Unexpected Gift: An Interview with Blanche Brown, Artist and Activist

By Patricia Obletz, Editor
Spring 2016

I became an artist on the heels of my stepfather’s unexpected death 13 years ago, Blanche Brown said when asked at what age she knew she was an artist.

Losing her stepfather in 2003 so unexpectedly shocked her, the pain of loss overwhelming. A noted visual and commercial artist, Robert Bonner had tried to interest Brown in drawing when she was growing up in Chicago. But the energy she needed to burn in those years found release in physical rather than artistic pursuits loosing her passionate exuberance into running free up and down the street.

In the aftermath of her stepfathers death, Brown picked up one of his drawings. Suddenly, she drew it. The quality of her drawing surprised her as well as her husband. It was like discovering an unexpected gift, she said. I couldnt get enough of it. I was so excited about it, like a little kid.

Brown reproduced four of his color pencil works in oil on canvas. She still has them. That was in 2003, she said, adding, I have tried a lot of things in my life, and some of them have been good and some of them have not been good. But art — I told my husband that I wouldnt be ‘transitioning to anything else. (Art) is it.’ In addition to making jewelry, she made candles and soap and more, until she fell in love with drawing, painting and collage.

Inconsolable grief woke up the artist in her, reconnecting her to her stepfather on the spiritual foundation laid by him when she was a child.

Clearing out his apartment in Chicago was painful. Her sister suggested that she take his art supplies She just kind of knew that I was going to want those, Brown said. She also found his calligraphy pens and inks, sculpture tools, pencil colors and other media. Brown said she hasn’t used them, but is glad to have them.

She learned art-making by doing, and by knowing people, who helped her become a professional fine artist especially artists Della Wells and Mutope Johnson. She learned how to mat and frame her work, how to hang it and how to exhibit it. I stumbled for a while, Brown said, until I got a little bit more confident with what I was doing, and then started applying to shows. While working with Mutope, she found her voice in art.

The Beauty of Making Art

Brown finds painting therapeutic, especially when she started honing in on a process that starts with a wash of India ink with acrylic paint. Shed create patterns and symbols and draw faceless children, which launched her children series.

It was eye-opening, she said, because, as she wrote in her artist statement, In a world where neglect, child abuse, and poor influences are so prevalent that they are almost expected, I am compelled to address these inequities.

Trayvon Martins cold-blooded murder in 2012 exposed to the world the wanton disregard for black lives held by so many white Americans, too many of them in positions of authority. Her children were around his age. She painted, she said. Those were the hardest paintings I ever did in my life — I identified so gut-wrenchingly strongly with mothers who lose their children to unconscionable violence. I knew that, in reality, the same thing could happen to my children, too. It’s unreal. So I find myself drawn to paint those (feelings) out, and do some plaster relief sculpture, paintings and also some printmaking (to help) me deal with the issues of youth.

It Didnt Just Start with Sandra Bland

Brown said that her series of children at play was a terrible irony given the constant threat and occurrence of violence that faces them daily, the loss of innocence at such a young age.

Her artwork now includes Say Her Name, given the growing number of African American women being killed by the police. It didn’t just start with Sandra Bland. I did some research and (found that) back in 1993 . . . black women (were) being killed by the police, it’s just crazy.

Painting is not enough to release her passionate anti-racist mission. She now also creates books and dolls. This serious and unfortunately deep subject manner (is) where I live and it’s a part of me . . . . I feel compelled to talk about it . . . even in my work at school. It’s my voice in my art.

But at the same time, it can get too dark and you’ve got to have relief somewhere, so that relief for me is in my dolls. They are quirky and weird, and I call them my Bada Bing Bada Booms (because) they’ve got these two knobs here (she points to her chest), and they’ve got two on the back, so it’s like ta-ta-ta-ta. She dresses them in leggings and some kind of wrap . . . and theyre about a foot tall.

People would laugh when theyd see them, and I say, yes laugh, because we need to laugh at ourselves, (which helps to) balance out the really deep pain . . . None of us has a good day every day. So they remind us of how we’re not perfect and that every day isn’t always going to be a rosy day, so we need to just be able to laugh at ourselves.

Recently, Brown added a boy doll with anatomically correct pieces that she covers with a leaf. She sells her boy and girl dolls as a pair for $65.

Browns Ebony Queens dolls, which glorify the beauty of women, stand on the floor and are about two feet tall. Made of pre-carved wood that she pieces together and shapes using fabric and found objects, which she then stuffs and then paints; she sews their wardrobes and dresses them. Brown happily said she was proud of her Ebony Queens. They are fantastic. The physicality of making her Queens is another balancing factor in her life.

Enlightenment Deepens

Making art is most definitely a spiritual practice for Brown, an extension of who she is, and always has been, which is why her lifelong love of helping people is opening a new pathway. (Because) I’ve seen myself being helped by art, I’m using that to give myself to others, too, by giving watercolor art lessons in a workshop for women at the Walnut Center. Brown emphasizes that therapy is inherent in artmaking

She paused, then said, I believe God is (helping) me become an art therapist. I’ve worked in the schools with kids, and taught in community settings as an artist in residence in several schools, and community centers. I love working with kids of all ages . . .

And making art is a spiritual release . . . . I believe God is working through my art through me. The gift of service is a spiritual gift as is making art.

Browns career is steered by word of mouth and her own drive, talent and wisdom. Her accomplishments working at Arts At Large and Artists Working in Education (AWE) lead her to new workshops and exhibitions. Shes had a studio at RedLine for few years. RedLine is an incubator for innovative thinking and ideas that challenge the status quo, she said, citing the grant they wrote for the Teen Contempo program a teen-based program, held on the first and second Thursdays of the month. Located on 4th and Vliet streets, RedLine is in the midst of Hillside; Teen Contempo program provides a safe place for kids to come, learn new art techniques, and do art. She works with the kids to create public art pieces that make a statement about overcoming oppression in the heart of a community.

Brown paused and then said shes been working with autistic children for the past 18 months because, since she is going into art therapy, she wanted experience working with mentally- and socially-challenged individuals. She took the ABA therapy training, which is very intensive. We’re on a team of four or five people who work 30 to 40 hours a week with one child . . . (I)t has been proven that the more intense the training is, the more chance there is for of social and behavioral improvement.

Brown explained that one has to get close to and play with the child. Getting into her inner child, shell roll around on the floor and just have fun with the children between lessons.

This self-described self-taught artist not only wants to offer workshops in artmaking, Brown wants to be a certified art therapist. She called Mount Mary College and learned that she needed a degree in art to apply to the art therapy program. Her bachelor degree in computer systems management, and her MBA were not enough for her to enter the program. Undeterred, she collected her transcripts from UW Madison, UW Milwaukee, and MSOE (Milwaukee School of Engineering) where she earned B.S. in Computer Management Systems.

Brown finished her BA in Fine Art in December 2015. Shes bypassing a Masters in Fine Art to become an art therapist as soon as possible, and looks forward to taking art and psychology classes at Mt. Mary, which accepts only 30 candidates a year. In her application statement, she stressed that she wanted to work with children and adults who experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as with the elderly. Based on her experience, older people often have a mental illness, which their families ignore. She said that the horror stories from the 1950s, when blacks were experimented on by doctors, has prompted a lot of African Americans to ignore symptoms of a mental illness out of fear of being ostracized, mistreated or institutionalized. In fact, Brown said, it’s happening with our young kids in school, who are given a special needs label that can follow them the rest of their life.

Brown told the story of a man who spoke at the Ex Fabula storytelling session dealing with racism, oppression and privilege. Although he was never tested, he was labeled LD (learning disability) in second grade. He said they would separate the kids and put them in rooms to do their homework; the LD kids (most if not all black) got snacks and watched TV. In sixth grade, he had a wonderful teacher who said there was nothing wrong with his learning ability. She spoke to the principal; the boy was tested and proved to have normal learning skills. That poor child had been deprived of normal schooling until sixth grade. He attributed this fact to systematic racism.

When asked how old she was when she first experienced racism, Brown said that shed been just a child and that racism was everywhere on the south side of Chicago. However, since the city has a predominantly black population, a lot of that racism is hidden. She said that, at least in the south, you know where you stand. It’s pretty blatant down there. But when it’s systematic and institutionalized, racism comes in the form of not being offered jobs, not being given opportunities, being falsely labeled with a learning disability. When people say we don’t have a race problem, (theyre acting like) ostriches, because we definitely have one.

You see how they treated President Obama. In my estimation, the Trayvon Martin and subsequent killings have been a direct attack against this American President because they hate him so much. They say, okay well we can’t find any dirt on him, we can’t do anything to him, we’ll kill those who are like him. And a lot of these black people that have been killed. I strongly believe this somebody might say, well that’s a conspiracy theory. No —because so many have been happening. And of course no one can deny how Congress has said NO to his programs and policies.

Brown uses her art to raise awareness and open hearts and minds to the reality of racism in American. Her final project for a sculpture class was a bas relief sculpture of Trayvon Martin in his hoodie. She placed Skittles on the floor. She also used a can of Arizona Tea, which was the other item Trayvon was holding the night he was killed. At the art exhibition, when young white students looked at her work, they said they didnt understand it. Brown was amazed by their ignorance, since the Trayvon Martin killing and so many other killings of unarmed black boys and men were in the news. She noted that, at another Ex Fabula event, a woman pointed out that the same sex marriage Supreme Court decision got 24/7 media coverage, but that when Dylann Roof killed nine black people in bible study class in a South Carolina, the media barely covered the massacre. So many white people think that racism doesn’t exist because it doesn’t affect them and it’s not in their world. She emphasized that crime in the inner city can be traced to the lack of opportunity, lack of credibility, lack of humanity . . . . (I)t’s just a vicious cycle, and anytime something horrible happens, apathy sets in.

In her March 2015 solo art show, Browns statement about her 96 by 48 painting,101 Faces of Apathy, addressed the fact that when so many horrible things happen, people get desensitized. She agreed that civil rights activism has increased on a large national scale in a lot of different areas, but that ignorance and bigotry continue. Her activist art also was exhibited in the Justified Art Show in Madison last year that focused on the ills in African American communities across the country, from joining gangs, willing to kill or be killed, to white cops killing black men and women, to unacceptable public schools, employment inequities and more.

Milwaukee is blessed to have Blanche Brown in our midst, to raise consciousness and help people help themselves by making art. This determined, dedicated and talented woman says that, despite obstacles still to come, she knows that she will continue to make art, that she well get her art therapy credentials, and continue to overcome the struggles still to come.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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