The Art of Sharon Bond Brown

You can always spot a Sharon Brown painting. The works are populated by people you recognize…almost.

The human presence is a constant in Brown's work. Often beginning with old snapshots, casual candid photos of family, friends and strangers, Brown captures moments in time. Vintage clothing, yesteryear's hairstyles, the corner of a nearly familiar building, elements we all vaguely recognize from our own ancestral pasts: Like “stills” from a movie we haven't seen yet, Brown's paintings allow the viewer to imagine a scenario that places the scene, the players and the viewer.

Serendipity first entered the picture—literally—via old family photo albums inherited through a second cousin. “Those picture became the grist of a lot of my early painting,” she says. Brown is fascinated with “what home photographers catch,” images that are often casual, “non-reverential,” people captured mid-sentence instead of elegantly posed. More photos have come to Brown through gifts, antique sales, even “dumpster diving” friends; when traveling, she snaps shots of her own. Sometimes the photographic images are adopted in their entirety, but more often Brown edits them, completely controlling her painted compositions by adding and eliminating elements. The results are situations, faces and places in which we all find some resonance.

Beginning with either colored gesso or acrylic under-painting, the finished images that we see are worked in oil over these preparatory surfaces, which often glow through from beneath the glazed-on oil. These layers of textural color are a fitting parallel for the layers of potential interpretation open to the viewer.

Born in Cleveland in 1946, as a child Brown spent hours poring over her favorite book, Famous Paintings for Young People (edited by family friend Roberta Yerkes) and took classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Further art training came during high school and at Lawrence University (1964-66) before taking a degree in sociology from Case Western Reserve University (1968). Eventually, after years of working in human services, feeling “exhausted and frustrated” with that field, Brown left to make major changes. She spent two years as a professional gardener and the “color and shape and beauty” she found there gradually brought her back, at age forty, to her “first love, painting.”

Asked about artistic influences, Brown cites Milton Avery (“he influenced my thinking about shape, composition and color”) and Mary Cassatt for her commitment to the intimate family scenario. Other loves find their ways into the paintings as well. Using a palette that frequently runs to rich red-browns, lush marine blues and deep forest greens, Sharon Brown's paintings echo the colors found in oriental carpets. These and other handmade wonders—South African weavings, old American quilts, sari fabric draped across a window—fill Brown's home.

This preference for the hand-made, the fiber arts, seems a fitting counterpoint to Brown's own chosen subject matter: the private human experience. Her images suggest far different—and more interesting—stories than the well-composed personae found in formal portraiture. Brown is endlessly intrigued by this more private view of the human experience, an experience of mystery and recognition we share through her work.

Renna Shesso, Denver Art critic