Every Thursday for the past thirteen years, Susan Brown has awakened to a 5 a.m. alarm. She scrambles out of bed, eats breakfast and dresses. Packing two bags with blank pieces of cardboard she has collected, together with her recently finished paintings, she makes her way on bicycle or foot to the Long Island Railroad for the trip into New York City. Upon arrival at Penn Station, Brown walks the eighteen blocks to Pure Vision Arts, an art studio for adults with developmental disabilities. Her pilgrimage takes up to three hours each way and yet she has a perfect attendance record, making the trip rain or shine, blizzard or hurricane.
Brown refers to herself as “Hurricane Susie,” and also has been known to describe herself as a Superman of art. While painting, she can often be heard repeating to herself, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to paint tall buildings in a single bound.” Brown’s work is executed with a fluid, bold, and painterly strokes; her paintings and drawings convey effortlessness and confidence. A prolific artist, she paints with the same familiarity with which she might brush her teeth or wash her face, always working to the rhythms of her favorite music: Motown, jazz and classic rock and roll.
Brown has an impressive exhibition history. Her work has been shown in Pure Vision Arts’ exhibitions at the Cooper Union Great Hall Gallery, Marlborough Gallery, Ricco Maresca Gallery, the Museum of American Folk Art and The New York Transit Museum, as well as at many other New York venues. Her work has been shown in numerous juried shows including the United Nations and twelve times at the Annual Outsider Art Fair in New York City. Internationally, her work has been celebrated as far away as The Netherlands and France. Her work has also been written about in various publications such as Envision Folk Art Magazine and Out of Art and was recently featured in Debra Hosseini’s The Art of Autism; Shifting Perceptions. Her work was also included on a CBS Sunday Morning show segment on outsider art. Brown’s work is held in many corporate and private collections.
Brown was born in 1957, and was different from the start. While she did not begin speaking conventional English until the age of nine, she instead created her own complex and original habits of language use. Objects that she disliked were “hot,” and a tuft of hair was a “thaft.” When she disapproved of people’s attitude, she called them a “commute.” In time her family learned to interpret her language.
Brown was diagnosed with autism at the age of four and a year later began making art. Her first subjects were colorful spirals that she referred to as “cynicals.” When she turned seven, she progressed to drawing the human form. On pieces of 1.5” x 1.5” paper, she amassed hundreds of drawings of female figures, which she glued onto the shingles of her childhood home at night after her family went to bed, creating her first self-curated exhibition.
Once Brown started making art, she couldn’t stop, producing thousands of works. She built out her own studio in the family attic and stocked it with art supplies and her beloved record player. As an adult, Brown worked at an Estee Lauder packaging plant where she routinely collected pieces of discarded cardboard on which she could paint. After returning home from work, she would head up to her studio, turn on her music and get to work. Today, cardboard remains one of her favorite surfaces for painting. Now an adult, Brown still spends every evening at home in the attic listening to music and painting for hours on end.
As previously alluded to, Brown’s artwork hasn’t just been confined to her space in the attic, and has in fact drawn attention from a number of writers and art enthusiasts. In The Art of Susan Brown, Esther Cohen wrote, “To know Susan Brown is to experience her pictures. They are, in so many different ways, a portrait of her life: a life as complicated, contradictory, mysterious, and magical as the life an artist lives.” Influenced by her impressions of growing up on Long Island’s South Shore, her paintings and drawings can be seen as snapshots of her memories. Common subjects that appear in her work are cars, bees’ nests, New York City taxi cabs, milkshakes, and boats, all derived from her childhood.
In 2002, Brown was one of the first artists to join the Pure Vision Arts studio. Around the same time, she began drawing and painting gridded compositions of her mother on pieces of 8.5” x 11” paper, sections of reused cardboard or store-bought canvases. Brown begins every piece by drawing a cross hatched grid with a ballpoint pen. She then fills in each box with an outline of her mother, usually from the chest up, sometimes in frontal view, and at other times in profile. She collects all the paints she needs and unscrews the caps, using them as palette boards. Quickly dipping her brush in and out of the different caps, Brown fills in the figures, creating her own bold and unique colors. When dried, her last step is to outline the composition with a black permanent marker. Months after completion of a painting, Brown has been known to notice a missed line at an exhibition and make the adjustment on the displayed artwork.
In her signature Her Mother paintings, the subject appears multiple times in each composition, sometimes talking on the phone or eating, creating a grid pattern. Sometimes Brown’s mother is depicted holding one of her small children, rummaging through her purse or smoking a cigarette. While the faces have little detail, the clothing is crucial in the composition and the patterns on the garments are painted with precision. Each painting invokes a specific outfit that Brown’s mother has worn.
Brown channels many of the classic symptoms of autism: repetition, obsessive fixations, an exceptional and photographic memory, interest in specialized information and attention to detail, into her unique art. Impressively, Brown can recite the exact date her mother wore each dress or blouse depicted, down to the very day of the week. The most iconic outfit to appear in her paintings is the red polka dot blouse and skirt that her mother wore for the first time on Brown’s graduation day on Sunday, June 24th, 1979 and, next, at an important meeting when Brown was 48. A recurring two piece dress with a leaf pattern was worn on Saturday, June 21, 2003 to “Julien’s second birthday” and then “to a visit with Aunt Duffy.” The green skirt with white squiggles was debuted on a trip out west to Brown’s grandparents’ house. Each pattern is bold and colorful, lending a patchwork quality to her work.
Brown will be 59 this year. She can often be heard chatting about important milestones in her life: when her father passed away, when she stopped driving, and when she graduated high school. When asked why she chooses to repetitively draw her mother, however, the artist is rendered speechless. Is she conveying a nostalgia for days long gone? Does the image of her mother also symbolize her childhood home, her beloved four siblings or her late father? Perhaps she uses specific garments to represent important moments in her life: a graduation, a funeral, a birthday. From the sheer quantity of portraits, we may assume Brown is trying to communicate something of meaning to and about her mother. Just like the code words she once used as a young child, these images may spell out a kind of love letter to her mother. We, the viewers, are left to interpret this for ourselves.