“At some point I realized I had more control than I liked. So I did things like changing brushes, loosening up… I don’t want to have it too rigid because it doesn’t reflect my way of being.”
Emily Brown has a kind and private demeanor, with a thoughtfulness and insight that is reflected in her drawings and paintings. Her abstract landscapes, made up of various shades of gray ink wash, are captivating in their large scale and texture.
Brown began her career as a landscape artist, painting outside with a vibrant palate of colors. It was a relocation to a home with a studio that pushed out the boundaries of her aesthetic. Brown explains this shift away from traditional landscape, “I felt as if there were other kinds of feelings that I couldn’t really allude to in that kind of painting. And it felt limiting. But until I had a studio I just kept working outside. And then when I got a studio it was like, ‘OK! Now I can experiment with materials as well as scale.’ …It was growing into a new chapter in my life where I was able to just play with things.”
Brown sees her work as an expression of her experience of the world. Her art, “is a way of connecting with the world and with my psychological state…Which I think is true of most artists. It’s not about telling the truth about the actual world, because how can you do that? It is telling the truth about how you are experiencing it.”
As Brown continued to tell the truth about her life and her art, she embraced a posture of releasing of creative control. “At some point I realized I had more control than I liked. So I did things like changing brushes, loosening up… I don’t want to have it too rigid because it doesn’t reflect my way of being… I guess in a way I’m more comfortable [this way] because I can see visual order in a way of being that is not all tied up.”
Brown’s late style can be seen as a movement towards abstract expression. “It’s more about the presentation and the material… the scale of the marks on the papers. It is thinking abstractly about those things…. and that has kept me going. It is the pleasure of watching something evolve. And it always has surprises — especially with ink wash. You watch what you put down and then what it does and how it starts to turn out…then you go back into it. It is not ‘I make a decision and this is it’… I’m not the boss of it.”
Awareness of Change
When an artist is the midst of their career, it can be hard step back far enough to assess the changes in themselves and their work. But Brown shared an experience early in her career that profoundly shaped her understanding about her own growth as an artist.
She explains how she went back to finish a painting she had started about five years earlier. “I went back to the same place, same day of the year, same time of day… As I was trying to make the same kind of painting, I realized my eye had changed. The way I put the paint down had changed. I work on something with a certain sense filling me and that is what makes the painting whole. It is not so easy to recall that sense after a few years. It was like dancing with an old dance partner when I’d forgotten what it felt like to dance with him.”
Brown continues, “You are not aware of changes in yourself until some situation happens like that. I actually did finish the painting and it’s pretty decent. But this was revealing to me that my body and mind changes all the time and I’m just not conscious of it.”
Exploring New Meanings
While Brown may be more conscious of how her work is changing, she is intentional about creating space for innovation and discovery. One summer Brown decided to put aside her pencils and brushes in order to experiment with collage. “I decided to use materials that I already had and not draw or paint anything new…it was really fun. I couldn’t sleep at night, I was so excited by this new way of putting things together!”
For Brown’s creative process, this ability to see things in new and fresh ways is essential. She explains that her summer spent making collages was transformative. “I felt so opened up by that new association of things. Seeing something that I thought I understood and then putting it in a new environment changed it very much…because its meaning was in relationship to those things around it. So context is important. And that’s part of life — the context is central to what something means…discovering things that I knew existed but seeing them anew.”
Connecting with the World
As Brown reflects on about what she wants to do next, she sees new discoveries on the horizon. While her work is primarily enjoyed by private art collectors, she explains, “I would love to have a way of generating the kinds of feelings that I do through my work in a more public, more accessible way.”
She is also thinking of new ways to push out the boundaries of her painting style. “There is a lot that I haven’t explored with textures and I haven’t seen anyone else do it either…I think I have the skill, but I haven’t figured it out yet and what it might mean. It might turn out to be very disappointing, but I don’t expect it to be. In a way, I have been sticking to what I know long enough and it’s almost time to loosen up and go there.”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.