Though supposedly retired, Richard Brown runs an internet marketing business and serves as an agent, enthusiastically promoting the work of another artist.
Until recently that was more than Brown ever did for his own art, but things have changed. An exhibit of his drawings and paintings is on display at JCC MetroWest in West Orange through April 28. At 82, the Livingston resident is having his first solo show.
On the walls of the JCC’s Arts and Theater Lobby are the charming cartoon figures Brown painted decades ago when his kids were little, quirky pen-and-wash portraits, and colorful cityscapes sketched with markers during a holiday in Portugal in 2017.
“I never did anything with my pictures when I was younger because I thought I wasn’t good enough,” Brown admitted to NJJN during a visit in the Livingston condo he and his wife, Susan, moved into in November, after 40 years in West Orange. He is an easy-going, practical kind of guy, clearly not inclined to the agonizing self-examination typical of some artists. This is just how it was. But his dismissive attitude was shaken by an encounter last year with an expert at an Antiques Roadshow-style event in Hackettstown.
“I took out my phone and showed him some pictures, and he was very interested,” Brown said. Susan, sitting at his side, nodded, recalling the encounter. Because Brown is self-taught, the appraiser dubbed his work “outsider art” and told Brown to contact him.
Although there was no response when he did call, Brown was emboldened by the positive reaction to his artwork. He contacted a friend who put him in touch with Lisa Suss, visual arts manager at the JCC’s Gaelen Art Galleries, who looked at his work and promptly invited him to join the distinguished roster of artists who have exhibited at the venue.
Suss told NJJN that Brown’s work “has charm stemming from his straightforward take on his family, friends, and environment. His primitive paintings and drawings are the work of a man profoundly involved in interpreting his world. The work continues my goal of challenging JCC members to appreciate a wide variety of art.”
Like many other artists, Brown has not established a market value for his work before now and is facing dilemmas about pricing and whether to part with his pieces. He is simultaneously eager to share his creativity and worried about how it will be received. And his wife is girding herself to have the walls of their home stripped bare for a month. “I’m going to miss them,” she exclaimed.
Brown said he started making pictures as a little child, growing up in Norwalk. Conn. His parents, who had moved there from Brooklyn, paid no attention to their kid’s dabbling, though they didn’t discourage it either — except on one occasion. Aged about 11, he tried out a free-life drawing class in nearby Westport. To his astonishment, a nude woman was modelling for the students. He drew her and came home pleased with his work. His mother wasn’t as impressed. “She threw out my pictures,” he said with a rueful grin. “I wish I still had them.”
It didn’t occur to Brown at the time that being a commercial artist was a viable profession. “I looked into it but I saw that so few commercial artists made a good living,” he said. “There wasn’t a future in it, not the kind I wanted. So I forgot about that and went into business instead.” Starting in college, he sold cookware and later moved on to premium items, with a business he called Rich Promotions. “Life is a journey,” he said, briefly turning philosophical, “with a series of decisions that affect the direction you take.”
That doesn’t mean he stopped painting. Especially in the summer months when they stayed at their lakeside home in Andover, he continued to produce pictures. Though he has been doing less lately, the walls are covered with his work.
Pride of place goes to a moody picture in shades of gray based on a photograph depicting a slum neighborhood. “It won second place at a show organized by the Irvington Art Association in the spring of 1969,” he related with open pride. On the facing wall is another picture that was less warmly received — a big painting of his daughter as a bride, surrounded by the men in the wedding party. “She didn’t want it,” Brown said with a laugh.
“She says he made her look too big — and she’s a slender little thing,” her mother said. But both parents like it and there won’t be a price tag on it. He will be offering for sale giclee prints of other pictures he wants to keep.
The frames on their walls are as varied as the pictures — part of a collection Susan found as she became interested in antiques and drew her husband into that passion. He has painted or textured some of them, having fun exploring different ideas, just as he does with his images. For this artist, creativity truly is all about the pleasure.
If you go
What: “Richard Brown, Outsider Art”
When: Through April 28
Where: Arts/Theater Lobby, JCC MetroWest, West Orange
Contact: Lisa Suss, 973-530-3413 or firstname.lastname@example.org