Last week I carved time out of my work week to meet my sister and go see the Joan Brown exhibit at the SFMoma. It’s will be showing through March 12th so there’s still time to catch it if you haven’t. Changing up my routine for any artistic inspiration is always a good thing, and I want to do more of it. It has been a while since I made time for anything like this, and I’m so glad I did.
My sister, Sarah, is a Dermatologist with a keen sense of style and an artistic eye that hides behind that white coat she wears all day! After just a few moments in the exhibit galleries, I think we both felt the same way. Joan Brown reminded us of our grandmother, Gertrude Bleiberg, in some ways. Our grandmother got her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 70’s a bit after Joan, and similarly used bold colors and brushstrokes in her paintings. Also, like Joan, she very much brought her family into her work. The first few rooms of Joan’s exhibit were filled with portraits of her son and important objects in her life, very anecdotal. I could feel the meaning behind Joan’s paintings. My grandmother constantly incorporated the important people in her life into her paintings. I think both of them even began their careers by attending a random community art class!
What I loved most about Joan’s work was the manner in which she relayed her emotion and feelings in her work, particularly in the Alcatraz swim series. I loved the Alcatraz series. I loved that she stood up for women, to get them into the Alcatraz swim club, once dominated by men. I love that she boldly swam in the SF Bay almost daily. I love that she was honest in her painting, and expressed her trauma pictorially. My favorite, pictured above, was titled After the Alcatraz Swim #1 1975, oil on canvas. In the painting, Brown appears calm and reflective, leaning against the hearth. In the painting hanging above her, she expresses her internal emotional state which is one of panic and complete trauma. Apparently she almost didn’t make it on that swim due to the huge swells. So scary, as described by SF Moma below:
“This work and two subsequent paintings were a means of coming to terms with a particularly traumatic swim, or, as Brown put it, attempting “to get this damn thing out of my system.” During the all-women’s swim from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in which she participated in 1975, a freighter unexpectedly passed by, causing dramatic eddies and thirteen-foot waves. Brown lost her bearings, becoming hypothermic, and was one of several swimmers who had to be pulled from the water. Here the confident figure standing beside a roaring fire strikingly contrasts with the struggling swimmer depicted in the painting above the mantelpiece”
I found myself giggling because it was a bit cartoonish and funny to me that the the painting appears so mellow from a distance, yet up close one sees and feels the hysteria and drowning scene in the backdrop. It’s so expressive and perfectly captured.
I came away learning more about an inspiring and strong woman, and enjoyed a delightful lunch with my sister. I myself, will never be swimming in the SF Bay! Hats off to Joan Brown!