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Bringing art to activism

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Juneteenth weekend

Jerry Brown never colored inside the lines. When his grandmother gave him a coloring book at the age of three, she set him on a path that he says looks like his artwork today.

Brown has had a variegated 49 years since his birth in Crownpoint.

He spent third to eighth grade in a boarding school in Crownpoint, where sports, not art, was the subject of significance.

He skipped ninth grade and then spent five or six months as an exchange student with the LDS church in West Jordan, Utah.

After that he tried several public schools including Wingate and Thoreau High School, but nothing felt like a fit until he spotted Sister Michelle at what is now St. Bonaventure School.

She was wearing a habit and carrying a guitar when she literally crossed his path.

He talked with her and concluded that this was where he belonged. He attended tenth and eleventh grades at the school and stayed with the missionaries there until the end of twelfth grade.

While there he met a German artist, Clarence Giese, from Vermont. Giese did abstracts. Giese became a mentor to the young Navajo man.

He took Brown to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

“I liked how he approached stuff and how he looked at it,” Brown said. And [I liked] how he used mediums.”

Giese, whose work was influenced by rocks, bones, and nature forms, died in 2018. He produced oil on canvas and spent 21 years teaching in Vienna, Austria before moving to the U. S., studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and spending 18 years in New Mexico.

In describing Giese’s work and his landscapes, Brown characterized them as being primarily about the Holocaust.

Brown said the trip to IAIA with Giese led him to apply at the institute.  He began classes there in August 1991 and finished the two-year program, following it up with another two years.

“I decided to stick around and took two 2D and 4D classes,” he said. “I have two Associate of Fine Arts degrees.”

During that time Brown said he met a lot of Native and non-Native professors.

“I started to do a lot of mixed media. Did an independent,” he said.

On the topic of becoming a muralist, Brown said, “Never thought of that. Never thought I was going to be that.”

How did he become a muralist?

“I have no idea,” Brown said.

Brown said he bid to do a mural on the south side of McKinley Courthouse and the rotunda.

Ultimately he created a 20’x25’ mural, entitled Window on the outside wall there. It took him two years of preparation, much of that looking for an architect, and 14 days to install the work made of 13” porcelain tile and 6” (See bottom of page 19).

He created a Gallup Veterans Mural on Courthouse Square. (See top of page 19).

Brown says his connection with activism came as a result of living in Minnesota. His wife was a librarian at the Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes and he worked at the Target that was looted in the protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The two decided Minnesota no longer felt like home, so they moved back to the red rocks and sunsets of the Southwest.

He watched the protests after Floyd died. A few weeks into the protests, he got a call from a member of Black Lives Matter asking him to get involved as an artist.

Originally Brown thought he would perhaps do a single letter of the street design.

But he worked with city officials and the mayor and volunteers who chalked out the letters.

He placed a hummingbird in the middle.

The hummingbird has particular significance to Brown, who was visited in a dream by a South American giant hummingbird, which started him on a series of works. He considers the hummingbird good luck.

Brown is enthusiastic about the idea of doing more activist art.

“Yes,” he said with emphasis. “I like it. I love it … It’s almost amazing, Gallupians coming together in our town. It makes me feel good for other people to come out.

“I’m part of something that is moving forward towards healing and diversity and it just goes on. We’re doing it for the elders,” he added.

Jerry Brown’s work can be seen at: facebook.com/jerrybrownart/

Clarence Giese’s work can be seen at: clarencegiese.com

By Beth Blakeman
Associate Editor