In this edition of UnderCover, we chat with artist Shirley Brown about her portfolio and the cover image of Kristen Wittman's Death Becomes Us.
I cannot remember a time when I did not like to draw and paint. My parents used to give me paint-by-numbers for Christmas. I would then use the leftover paints to create my own paintings. I took grades 9 and 10 by correspondence as there was no high-school close by. I took art through correspondence. I went to teacher training in Brandon. After teaching for a few years, I got married and had children. My art took a second place in those years. One year for Christmas my husband gave me an oil paint set and it renewed all my desires and aches to be painting. I took some studies in Brandon with a professional artist and went to the Brandon Allied Arts Centre for classes. I hoped to find techniques which I thought would help me. The most significant happening in my artistic career was in 1986 when I was accepted into the MAWA (Manitoba Artists for Women’s Art) advisory program in Winnipeg. The program pairs a professional artist with an emerging artist. Diana Thorneycroft was my mentor. It, and she, were amazing. I thought I would learn more techniques. I learned that art is much more than that. It’s about painting what you love and what you feel. I learned about working on a body of work. This allowed me to explore my chosen imagery with paint, pencil, mixed media, etc. This story is too long to go into details so I will just highlight a few. During my year in MAWA I learned to think of myself as a professional artist. I was introduced to many artists and their interesting methods. They made art about what they wanted with no fear of what the “neighbours would say.” It was eye-opening and gave me freedom. Aganetha Dyck, a Winnipeg artist, advised me to take classes from George Glenn at Emma Lake Art Retreat near Prince Albert. He changed my artistic life. I knew I had a formula for my technique and I knew I had to break it. I told George that. He made it his business to see that I got away from the technique. He had me painting rapidly, no time for thinking about how to do it ... just get down what I wanted to get down on that canvas. It was a huge breakthrough for me. Meeting other artists there also gave me freedom and joy. I have had so many mentors and professional artist advising and teaching me over the years.
2. Can you tell us a bit about Nosepicker, the piece that graces the cover of Death Becomes Us, and how it came into being?
The piece “Nosepicker” came into being as part of a body of work about bird skeletons. In 1996, my mother sold the farmhouse where we were raised. My husband and I went up to help my cousins clean it out. They had just pulled the cookstove away from the wall and there they found a cache of bird skeletons. I assume they had been there for a decade or two. They had flown down the chimney and could not find their way out of the old cookstove and there they died. They were so beautiful. Most of their feathers and all the meat were gone, long since rotted or eaten by insects. They were in beautiful, perfectly articulated poignant shapes. The minute I saw them I knew I had found a treasure. I brought them home and soaked them in chlorine bleach and water. Their tendons all remained intact. I saw them as such beautiful, sad, but noble beings. They spoke to me about the nature of sudden life changes. Those creatures innocently flew down the chimney to their deaths. And that is how life can be sometimes ... changes in an instant. One minute it’s this way, the next minute it’s not. I began by drawing and painting the birds. I painted them many times as I needed to “know” their forms. I knew I needed to paint them quickly with the least number of strokes while capturing the essence of the bird.
Unexpected disaster seems to be very important in my work. However, it’s not really what I was thinking about when I did the paintings. I loved the shape of tornadoes. I love thinking about the power, which amazes me. I see pictures of the damage i.e., driving a piece of straw into a tree. What is that?! I believe I was a bit playful with the tornadoes. I enjoy black humour and I think it is evident in the tornado and drive-in paintings.
I did not find anything playful with the birds until much later when I began to see them as having a history and being part of a lost civilization.
I find I make paintings and work about what interests and fascinates me. Afterwards I look at the body of work and I wonder why I did it. I assume it’s something deep inside which I find difficult to describe. I know I see a recurring theme of power and of unexpected disaster in my work. An example of the unexpected disaster happened while I was working on the bird imagery. My sister’s son was killed in an accident. It was terrible. He had a wife and two wee girls. My sister’s life will never be the same again.
4. Elizabeth I also features strongly in your portfolio. What is it about this historical figure that inspires your art?
I love Elizabeth I. My mother used to read books about the Tudors. I loved the clothing and jewels they wore in the pictures. I love the facts of Elizabeth’s life. Her father, Henry VIII, had her mother beheaded because she couldn’t produce a son. He didn’t want a “weak” girl. But Elizabeth became, in my opinion, the greatest Tudor. She defeated the Spanish Armada. She gave her name to an era. She ruled wisely with the help of her loyal and wise advisors. When I came to paint her, I loved playing with her image, clothing, jewels. I became obsessed with Elizabeth I. I had new iridescent and interference paints. It was fun to experiment with these on the queen’s image. I wonder if my fascination with power helped lead me to the queen. I now feel like I was beginning to get a sense my own power as an individual.
5. Is there a certain time of day during which you work best?
I prefer to work in the afternoon. I’m not a morning person. When I was younger I would work in my studio til 2:00-3:00am.
6. What were some of the valuable lessons you learned in the early days of establishing yourself in the artistic world?
I was 43 when I was accepted into MAWA. It was there that I realized art was not about technique but about finding something within yourself. If I painted what I found fascinating and what I loved it would come from within, painting what I needed to, even if the “neighbours” didn’t understand it. This gave me a freedom. The knowledge that if I did what I wanted with my art the world wouldn’t end gave me joy, freedom, and permission. I loved playing with imagery, looking at it from all sides and all possibilities. Once Winnipeg artist, Diane Whitehouse, told me that “from play comes truth”. That was important for me to know.
7. How has the pandemic affected your art?
The pandemic has definitely affected my art. I found it difficult to concentrate on getting to my studio. In 2017 my husband became very ill. He had to move from the farm to long-term care. This meant I had to leave my beloved studio on the farm. We moved to Souris where I created a studio in the basement. Right now, the challenge is leaving that wonderful farm studio, balancing my husband’s health issues and my own.
I do have some ideas which I hope to pursue.
8. What are you currently working on?
This past year I built a “room.” This room is to be one of eight rooms in a film created by one of the eight artists. My room is dense with objects. I see it as full of fun and ironic juxtaposition. I enjoy dark humour and I believe this is evident in this room.
Shirley Brown uses paint and multi media to explore her interests in celebrity, power, and unexpected disaster. The black humour she enjoys often figures in her work. She is a founding member of the “Coterie of Malcontents”, a group working for the artist run concept and in support of contemporary art and artists in isolated rural Manitoba. Shirley lives in Souris, Manitoba and works from her farm studio near Deloraine. Find her online at https://shirleyabrown.weebly.com/