left of the stairs, the painting studio — where Brown worked on his best-
known images inspired by Civil War themes and other historic material
such as the Gettysburg Address, JFK’s assassination and footage from the
silent film Battleship Potemkin — was an 18-foot-high gabled loft space
with translucent skylights, large clerestory windows on the north side for
even light, and a windowless west wall against which he liked to lean large
canvases. A tall, narrow window cut into a corner of the east wall allowed
the artist to slip finished works out onto delivery trucks headed to galleries.
Now that Brown has a separate studio at another location in Berkeley
where he paints every day, a section of the home studio has been absorbed
into the living space. The rest remains as it was, serving as an office and a
gallery for large paintings he has saved for himself.
“For many years this home studio sat empty and I used it only as a
drawing space,” the prolific artist recalls. With the original dividing wall
between it and the living area gone, Brown considered adding a new
partition to separate the cavernous gallery from the enlarged living room
— mainly to keep heat contained — but decided instead on an alternative:
a hinged wall that could be moved at will.
“I did not want a fixed wall there because I had become fond of the open
space. As it happened, I had just been to Morocco, where large gates have
smaller arched doors within them for one person to pass through, and I
copied that,” Brown says. “I can close off the studio room when I want,
and when I need to go in there, I just use the small door.”
The wall/gate has an ingenious hinge crafted by steel smith Larry Brown
with an angled fin and a roller on the underside to help support its weight.
While the cozy living space holds an ever-changing collage — of books, a
collection of baseball mitts, old and new artworks by Brown as well as from
friends and students, objects he’s collected from local galleries, and furniture
he has either built or gathered, including a table and chairs he used as a
child in his parents’ home — the bright studio/gallery is still sparse.
“I did like having my studio in the house,” he muses. “It was nice when
I stopped working each day that I could return to it immediately the next
morning to review my work. That’s why I may paint here again.”
For the moment, it has a large Persian rug and a long dining table,
which Brown originally built for rolling out canvases, that now doubles as
a desk. On the walls at each end of the table are large canvas self-portraits
from the late ’90s when he lived briefly in New York. “One is conventional
and figurative, and the other is more playful and cartoonish,” he says.
Nonetheless, the broad-brush painterly style links the pieces to works by
Bay Area Figurative movement artists David Park, Elmer Bischoff and
Richard Diebenkorn, all artists who influenced Brown.
“I was always a figurative painter,” Brown says. “It started with my
Midwestern roots in Ohio. In Chicago, Illinois, where I went to university,
there is a long tradition of figurative painting. People are drawn to figures
because they are accessible and recognizable.”
At art school in Davis, Brown had painters Wayne Thiebaud and Roy
De Forest and sculptors Robert Arneson and Manuel Neri as mentors.
“Artist Jim Melchert was my colleague at Berkeley, where I taught until
1994,” he adds.
“There was a moment when those great artists converged,” Brown says.
“And, I just happened to be in this area.” n