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Drawing outside the lines

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

When Jerry Brown received his first coloring book at 3 years old, he immediately drew outside the lines.

Today the Diné artist from Mariano Lake on the Navajo Nation releases the turmoil of a tough childhood, his traditional spirituality and his love of nature on paper and canvas.

“Glee,” 2018, acrylic, oil pastels, paper, found objects on canvas, including a leaf and a paintbrush, by Jerry Brown. (Courtesy of The Artist)

Brown – a 1995 graduate of the Institute of American Art – says he has been creating art for as long as he can remember. He has always viewed the world through the lens of abstraction.

From the third to eighth grades, Brown attended the Crownpoint Boarding School. Its emphasis on sports left him feeling like he didn’t belong.

“After the summer of ’87, I lost a lot of people,” he said. “I spiraled into depression, loss and grief.”

“Morning,” 2019, acrylic and handmade paper on canvas. (Courtesy of The Artist)

The losses included two grandparents and an uncle. Two of them were holy people or medicine men.

Alcoholism’s impact on his sheepherding family compounded his struggles. A counselor sent him to a foster family in West Jordan, Utah, when he was 14.

“It just made it worse,” he said. “I was an outcast. There were few brown people.

“Then I came back, and my Mom helped me with traditional ways,” he said.

“If I go through a struggle and I go to a medicine man and he tells me, ‘You need to do something for yourself,’ we keep it rolling and the paintings just flow out of me like a release. It releases the bad energy.”

“Exhale,” 2020, acrylic on canvas by Jerry Brown. (Courtesy of The Artist)

A chance encounter with a guitar-toting nun sent him to St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau. He discovered the music of Cat Stevens and Bob Marley; the teachers came from across the country.

A volunteer teacher and German artist named Clarence Tiese changed his life.

“He gave me lessons,” Brown said. “Then he saw my talent and pushed to drive me up to Santa Fe.”

Tiese helped him put together a portfolio.

“Joyful” by Jerry Brown, 2020. Baby rhino small animal portrait, acrylic on canvas board. (Courtesy of The Artist)

IAIA opened up a whole new world. The teachers told their students to leave their baggage at the door.

Brown grew politically aware, even joining protests at the obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza. The obelisk was dedicated in part to the “heroes” who died in battle with “savage Indians,” according to an inscription on the war monument erected more than 150 years ago.

“I felt the place was meant to be,” Brown said of IAIA. “It just felt right. I kept taking classes, doing independent studies.”

“They pushed and pushed and pushed me,” he said. “They shone a light in the darkness. It was awesome to me.”

He quickly decided to forget about the pressures of sales as he created. Today he dips his brush into every painting medium: acrylic, oil, gesso, oil pastels, watercolor.

Hummingbirds often flit across Brown’s landscapes of color and light. His abstracts move with energy and bold slashes of color.

Sometimes he heads to Africa: Rhinos, elephants and zebras canter across unidentifiable grounds.

“I enjoy doing Southwest animals,” he said with a laugh. Viewers used to “look at me in shock,” he said. “Now they laugh at me.”

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