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Paper Wings through Open Doors

Laurene Krasny Brown has worn many hats and has discovered a great deal. That’s not to say the sprightly artist, who greets me all pigtails and smiles at the door to her charming West Village abode, has accumulated knowledge in a linear sort of way. Instead, Brown’s later-in-life venture into the world of fine art reflects a circuitous route back to the basic principles of shapes and colors.

Brown obtained her Master’s from Columbia University in child psychology and soon after landed her first professional gig as an educational toy consultant at FAO Schwarz. Brown continued along this path, later joining the federal preschool program Head Start before going on to work directly with children in what she’d come to discover were the brackish waters of brand market research.

"Game Track," Gouache on Cut Paper, 17.5" x 18.5" x 1", 2012.

“Game Track,” Gouache on Cut Paper, 17.5″ x 18.5″ x 1″, 2012.

Eventually Brown decided to focus her efforts on the actual interests of children rather than the interests of those attempting to market to them. On the advice of an old college professor, she enrolled in a newly created educational doctoral program at Harvard University focused on educational content in children’s television. Brown thought she’d finally found her direction and that she would soon be creating engaging children’s programming. Although her studies didn’t work out that way, they opened a door to Brown’s first artistic endeavor.

On their second date, as she and Marc, a children’s book illustrator, took a drive out of town to a flea market, Brown complained to Marc about children’s general lack of understanding of the television production process and the manipulation that goes along with it. Out of that conversation came an idea. Taking the form of a behind-the-scenes book, with Brown penning the words and Marc creating the vibrant illustrations, the world of a fake kid’s television program, “The Bionic Bunny Show,” was brought to life. The book would enjoy great success, later being produced and broadcast by Reading Rainbow. Apart from gaining a life partner through the process, Brown felt a greater sense of meaning through this work than she’d ever previously experienced.

For the next decade Brown wrote 14 more books alongside Marc. Based on the readership Brown had developed through her books, she received a “hard won” contract to write two more for her publisher. But she faced a dilemma. While on the one hand Brown had finally found a pursuit that prioritized the interests of children, she was once again feeling the familiar constraint of rules and politics. Brown was finally ready to break free.

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“Seed Sorter,” Gouache on Cut Paper, 12″ x 12″ x 1″, 2007.

“I think I was compelled to do it,” says Brown, seated beside Romeo the cat in a brightly lit studio on the top floor of her home. “When I made the decision to do this, and stop doing what I was doing, it came from my feelings, my spirit. It was very personal.” Brown’s editor took the news surprisingly well, encouraging Brown to pursue her passion and telling her “the door here will always be open.” A few days later, Brown received a small envelope from her editor in the post. Inside the piece of mail was a tiny key, a symbol that her editor would be true to her word.

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For Brown’s last book, “The Vegetable Show,” she not only wrote but also illustrated a litany of anthropomorphic vegetables characters from colored paper with the intention of promoting nutrition. In crafting her vaudeville-styled world out of paper, Brown also came upon her preferred medium. Doing a circuit of the studio closely pursued by Romeo, Brown reveals the fruits of her paper preoccupation. Much of these works—collaged, folded, and origami’d geometric patterns—emit, not unlike their creator, an air of friendliness. “I think all those little bits of the material world are inspirational,” says Brown, inspecting one of her pieces that incorporates brightly painted drain covers. “If I can present them in a way that makes people look closely, and then look at them again anew, I guess that really pleases me because it’s all those little things that are life.”

"Confection Plate,"  Gouache, Plastic, and Cut Paper,  9" x 9" x 2", 2013.

“Confection Plate,” Gouache, Plastic, and Cut Paper, 9″ x 9″ x 2″, 2013.

In another work, Confection Plate, made during a grant-awarded residency at the Apothiki Art Center in Greece, Brown has created a delectable looking platter. Confection Plate is a ticket to a tea party, encouraging those who view it to rid themselves of the preoccupations that often get mixed up with the perceived adult-like activity of considering a work of fine art. For Brown, it’s precisely this sense of whimsy she wants to inspire through her art.

“I don’t think adults think about play, they think that’s something kids do,” says Brown, quickly adding. “I don’t want to preach but I think when you say ‘why are you doing this, do you think it has a purpose?’ I’m saying, maybe because of my values, I do think it has a ‘wishfulness’ to touch people in a certain way.”

"Cage with Air Passages," Sanctuary of the Square, Gouache, Acrylic, Wire Mesh, Paper Board, and Threads,  8" x 7" x 7", 2015.

“Cage with Air Passages,” Sanctuary of the Square, Gouache, Acrylic, Wire Mesh, Paper Board, and Threads, 8″ x 7″ x 7″, 2015.

Last year Brown held a solo exhibit at the New York-based Morris-Warren Gallery (formerly Brian Morris Gallery), titled Sanctuary of the Square. Elaborating on this love of simple geometry, Brown explains that each shape, although very basic, contains limitless possibilities. Brown’s attempts to connect with people could also be seen as a way to encourage viewers to tap back into their younger, more inquisitive selves. It seems only appropriate then that in Brown’s many years spent trying to better understand children, she’d eventually come full circle, returning to these elementary principles.

"Assisted Migration"  (Installation Detail), Gouache on Cardboard, Thread, Graphite on Tracing Vellum, 6" x 5" x 1" (figure), 2015.

“Assisted Migration” (Installation Detail),
Gouache on Cardboard, Thread, Graphite on Tracing Vellum, 6″ x 5″ x 1″ (figure), 2015.

It’s Brown’s hope that she’ll be spending every moment of her remaining life, key in hand, unlocking new doors. Already she has grand plans that will merge her developing paper craft with more literal forms of storytelling. During a recent residency at the American Academy in Rome for instance, Brown created a diorama-like installation, called Assisted Migration, depicting winged people amidst Rome’s distinctive architecture. The piece, all crafted from paper, came as a response to the global immigration crisis. Through this work, Brown sought to communicate a more direct message of solidarity and hope, the winged figures representing figures finding refuge in this unaccommodating world. In other words—as Brown so deeply aims to achieve through her art—the piece acts as a way to encourage our collective imagination.

"See Through Building Model," Wire Mesh, Paper Pulp, Wax, and Thread, 5" x 3" x 3", 2013.

“See Through Building Model,” Wire Mesh, Paper Pulp, Wax, and Thread, 5″ x 3″ x 3″, 2013.

It would be severely shortsighted to accuse Brown of being untrained. Instead, Brown has spent a great deal of time invested in inquiry, through her research and her art. “I know how to experiment with something to really know the difference one change will make and I like thinking that way,” says Brown reflecting on the fruits of her creative impulse that surround her and Romeo, adding with a laugh, “When I go around, I don’t see work like this and I don’t know what to make of it. I say it’s either a very good sign, or a very bad sign.”

Regardless of its critical appraisal, in a world often fraught with cold indifference, the warmth of Brown’s paper creations is, unmistakably, a welcome sight.