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- Kevin Pearce
- The Bol Weavil and the Lightning Bug 2: On the Ground
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- Love In The Air
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We were wild. We had long hair we wore long skirts and embroidered waistcoats and carried big bags we’d made ourselves out of textiles we’d found, scrounged, bought in markets, re-jigged. It was the ‘Seventies and we were wild. I was working part-time in a crafts co-operative while engraving glass and doing the odd bit of writing and Joan was an art student. Though two years younger than I, she had already been married, had a son and broken up with her husband. One didn’t have a baby four months after getting married and then break up with one’s spouse within 3 years in Cork in the ‘Sixties. But then, Joan was American and Joan was Joan.
Life was very hard for a single parent in Cork in the ‘Seventies. Our friend Miriam and I used to take turns babysitting baby Shane when Joan worked as a life drawing model in the School of Art at night. Shane used to climb up into the hot press (airing cupboard) and hide when we tried to put him to bed. I remember her once cooing “Oh look at the birdie on your t-shirt” to which the four year old replied “That’s not a birdie…it’s a fucking duck.” She had free housing and free child care when she was at class, but that was it. Joan, strong, independent, resourceful and hardworking, couldn’t hack it. She left Cork and went back to her family in Florida.
She left me some of her pots; a large bowl, pale blue and sandy with 6 small bowls to match and a vase which had slumped in firing and was concave instead of convex, and a round domed piece from which the glaze had flaked at the top. The domed piece marks a path between the terrace and the lawn through a rose arch. The concave vase has been with me in every house in which I’ve ever lived. We call it my wabi-sabi, as in the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, celebrating cracks and crevices. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry – roughness or irregularity – simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
We met once since, when Joan came back to Cork for a visit….can’t remember when…possibly in the early ‘eighties. Last Autumn, she wrote a comment on this blog, saying hello and that she was now living in California. I wrote back, but when Joan didn’t reply, I thought she wasn’t really all that keen on getting back in touch.
In February, we were in California and I went to the San Jose Museum of Art. Their featured show was called “This Kind of Bird Flies Backward” paintings by Joan Brown. The gallery described it as “exploring the work of this beloved and pivotal Bay Area artist in the centre of the women’s movement and staking a claim for her place American art history.”
Joan Brown was born in 1938 and studied art in San Francisco, receiving national recognition for her work by the age of 22, when she was the youngest artist featured in “Young America 1960” at the Whitney in New York, was included in a travelling exhibition “Women in American Art” and in a ‘Look’ magazine feature along with well established practitioners such as Georgia O’Keefe. At the time, female artists and their work did not garner the same level of attention, respect or serious consideration as male artists; they tended to be treated as disciples, followers and even imitators of the styles and artistic movements of men.
Joan Brown started painting big with exuberant brush strokes and thick layers of paint (impressive stuff.) Her approach to sculpture – using nontraditional materials such as scraps of fur or fabric, cardboard and wood – was spontaneous and casual. Her style changed over the years; her paintings, always deeply introspective, became lighter, more defined. Her art and her life were inseparable and her art chronicled her life; the life of a successful artist in a time of seismic global change, a tremble terre celebrated with wild abandon in the culture, mores, social structure, politics, religions and life of the West Coast of the United States. In her examination and exploration of her life in order to paint it, she depicted the role and representation of women in society at the time. She was apolitical however, and did not align herself to any one group and as a result – though they preached that the “personal is political” -Joan Brown’s unique approach to everyday events and objects, to subjects of domesticity, gender, identity, aging, relationships and motherhood excluded her from her feminist sisters. Joan Brown married three times, and had one child, a son. In 1990, she died in a construction accident while installing an obelisk in Prodattur, India.
“This Kind of Bird Flies Backward” is taken from the title a book of poetry by Diane di Prima, who came to prominence as a Beat poet of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties and is currently Poet Laureate of San Francisco. As part of a literary movement dominated by men, di Prima also focused her writing, as Joan Brown did in her paintings, on subjects stereotypically associated with women. Brown said that she “got very pissed off” when people made gender-based distinctions….“it’s such bullshit.” “At a certain point, you couldn’t tell my paintings from any of the guys’ of my generation, except that in some cases mine might have been better.”
Something – no, not something – LOTS reminded me of my old friend Joan.
When the Museum closed, I took the Caltrain north to Los Altos. Away from the demands of home, one has time for research and back at my hotel on the Camino Real I began searching the internet for Our Joan. I found someone who looked like her, but this woman was an established member of the establishment, an upstanding member of the community. She had a proper job – had worked for the same company for 17 years – and yes, she had the right maiden name and was doing artistic stuff…..but it couldn’t be Our Joan….Our Joan would be wearing drippy dippy clothes and living in a yurt in a commune in a field with a dread-locked wuz -probably keeping him – by her efforts – in roll-ups and fuel for their van and they’d both be strung out on rock and roll.
First I found Shane. Shane, the four year old hiding in the airing cupboard is a Maverick Giant Wave surfer, dedicated to wholefoods and good living, husband, and father of two. Eventually, I found Joan, and sent her a message. Next morning she called and invited me for lunch at her home. When we drove down the street, Joan came running out the door and we met in the median and hugged. Then we talked for 4 hours. She showed me around her house and her studio, the work she had done in the garden, her gorgeous decorative finishes, photographs of her grandchildren (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1591454353538.89897.1451271877&type=1) We hopped in her low-slung sporty car and went for a Mexican lunch. She was different, but she was the same….and I think the feeling was mutual. Four decades had elapsed and sad as it is to have to admit it, we’d grown up. We’re still wild at heart, but it’s a kind of responsible, respectable, wild. Because we got on so well, we reckoned our husbands would also get on well together, so she asked us for supper that weekend.
Joan has been married three times (well, so have I, but two of these times to the same person) and this time, she’s found the love of her life. Jeff – uber trendy, uber sexy – works locally in the uber trendy, uber sexy electric car industry. Himself and Himself (a bit of alright) got on famously. They spoke the same language, even liked and disliked the same foods. Sitting around the circular table, eating good food, drinking good wine, talking of new ideas and concepts, laughing, telling stories of people who are gone, times past, future adventures, we were like old friends…….
(information on the artist Joan Brown from the San Jose Museum of Art catalogue)