Figure 1. Roger Brown c. 1942 in soapbox derby made by his father Figure 2. Portraits of Brown’s parents, Elizabeth and James Figure 3. Roger’s great grandmother, Mammy Figure 4. Detail of a Roger Brown painting with the silhouettes of his parents; he included silhouettes of his parents in hundreds of paintings throughout his career Figure 5. Roger Brown, untitled watercolor, c. 1947 Figure 6. Watercolor by Roger Brown and his friend Bill Brown, for which they won first prize in a grocery store window Halloween contest in 1955 Figure 7. Roger Brown, Don’t Be Cruel, 1989, oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in. Brown painted this after he discovered that he was related to Elvis Presley through his mother’s family. Roger Brown, Kissin’ Cousins, 1990, oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches  Roger Brown's family tree is in Alabama, and Elvis Presley’s family trees is in Mississippi, and the families connect in Tennessee Roger Brown, Kissin’ Cousins with key to the portraits Figure 10. Roger Brown, February 1961 Figure 11. Roger Brown, False Image decal, 1969 Figure 12. Roger Brown, snapshot of a vendor at the Maxwell St. Market, Chicago, c: 1970 Figure 13. Roger Brown, Eleanor Dube, Phil Hanson, Christina Ramberg, False Image exhibition poster, 1968 Figure 14. Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt Dore of Auvergne Mtn Range near Clermont-Ferrand, France; OCT 5 – 1964, Roger Brown Study Collection Figure 15. 1971 Aldo Piacenza exhibition, curated by Roger Brown at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago. Figure 16. “The Red Party,” an outdoor exhibition organized by artist Lee Godie. Pictured are: top, left to right: Lee Godie, Ruth Horwich, George Veronda; bottom, Barbara Bowman, Russell Bowman. Photo: Roger Brown, c. 1970s Figure 17. William Dawson sculpture in the Roger Brown Study Collection Figure 18. Roger Brown roadside photo Figure 19. Roger Brown roadside photo Figure 20. Roger Brown photo, Herman Rusch, Prairie Moon Museum, Cochrane, WI. Figure 21. Roger Brown photo, S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, Lucas, KS Figure 22. Roger Brown photo, yard show, Golden NM Figure 23. Phyllis Kind and Roger Brown at an opening Figure 24. George Veronda Figure 26. Roger Brown stage set for the opera Cosi Fan Tutte Figure 27. Roger Brown, Gothic Stadium, 1970, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 61.5 in., Roger Brown Study Collection. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 28. Roger Brown, Hancock Building, 1974, oil on wood, 30 1/2 in. x 11 1/2 in. x 12 in., Roger Brown Study Collection. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 29. Roger Brown, Ablaze and Ajar, 1972, oil on canvas, 70 5/8 in. x 46 1/4 in., Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 30. Roger Brown, Buttermilk Sky, 1974, oil on canvas, 72 1/4 in. x 70 1/2 in., Private collection. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 31. Roger Brown, The Entry of Christ Into Chicago in 1976, 1976, oil on canvas, 72 in. x 120 in., Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 32. Roger Brown, Land of Lincoln (View from Halfway Up), 1978, oil on canvas, 71 1/2 in. x 84 in., Private collection. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 33. Roger Brown, Lake Effect, 1980, oil on canvas, 72 in. x 72 in., Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 34. Roger Brown, Arctic Moon, 1987, oil on canvas, wood, taxidermied wolf, 74 1/2 in. x 49 1/2 in. x 21 1/4 in.,  Collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 35. Roger Brown, Lost America, 1989, oil on canvas, 72 in. x 48 in., Collection of the Chicago History Museum. Photo: William H. Bengtson Figure 36. Roger Brown, Chicago Taking A Beating, 1989, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 72 in., Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago. Photo: William H. Bengtson
Figure 37. Roger Brown mural, Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus at 120 N. LaSalle St., Chicago Figure 38. Roger Brown mural, Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus at 120 N. LaSalle St., Chicago Figure 39. Roger Brown mural, Arts and Sciences of the Modern World: La Salle Corridor with Holding Pattern at 120 N. LaSalle St., Chicago Figure 40. Roger Brown, untitled mural at the Foley Square Federal Center, 290 Broadway, New York City Figure 41. Roger Brown, Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping, 10 ft. x 27 ft., Italian glass mosaic, at the Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL Figure 42. Roger Brown, Another Shitty Day in Paradise, 1993, oil on canvas, 72 in. x 48 in., Iris and B. Gerald Cantor for Visual Arts, Stanford University Figure 43. Roger Brown, Rosa Foetida Bicolor, 1993, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 72 in.,  SAIC Roger Brown Estate Figure 44. Roger Brown, Virtual Still Life #15 Waterfalls And Pitchers, 1995, oil on canvas, mixed media, 37 1/2 in. x 50 in. x 9 in.,  Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
Figure 45. Roger Brown, Bonsai #2 Climbing the Cascade (Kengai), 1997, oil on canvas, 72 in. x 48 in., SAIC Roger Brown Estate Figure 46. Roger Brown, Couple Progressing Towards Mount Rincon, 1997, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 72 in., SAIC Roger Brown Estate Figure 47. Roger Brown, Burned Hills, May – October 1997, 1997, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 72 in. SAIC Roger Brown Estate Figure 48. Induction award, Chicago’s GLBT Hall of Fame Figure 49. Roger Brown, Self Portrait, 1995, oil on canvas, 18 in. x 14 in., Collection of Larry and Evelyn Aronson, Glencoe, IL Figure 50. Roger Brown in his collection at 1926 N. Halsted St., now the Roger Brown Study Collection Figure 51. Roger Brown in his studio at 1926 N. Halsted St., now the Roger Brown Study Collection

Roger Brown (fig. 1) was born on December 10, 1941 and raised in Hamilton and Opelika, Alabama. He was creative by nature, and his parents (fig. 2) encouraged his artistic bent. Brown's interest in art emerged in grade school; he took private art lessons from second to ninth grade (from Miss Mason, who deserves much credit for Brown's early creative education) and won first prize in a statewide poster competition in 10th grade.

During his childhood, Brown grew especially close to his grandparents and his great-grandmother Mary Dizenia (fig. 3), known as "Mammy," which instilled an early interest in his family's origins that later flowered into extensive research into his family's genealogy. He spent more than two decades tracking his ancestors and relatives and chronicled his findings in writings and paintings. Brown developed a deep interest in the material culture of the South, especially for folk art and handmade, functional objects. In his adolescent and teen years, Brown was influenced by the aesthetic of the comics, theater architecture and interiors, and streamlined Art Deco and machine-age design. His religious upbringing in the independent, fundamentalist Church of Christ denomination was formative and lasting.

In later years, Brown became an astute and intuitive collector. Memories of his early experiences can be seen as his first, and perhaps most important collection. He retained them, distilled them into their essential aspects, and they became the visual and psychological engine for much of his work throughout his career (figs. 4–6).

After graduating from high school in 1960, Brown attended David Lipscomb College in Nashville, TN, a school associated with the Church of Christ, where he briefly pursued an interest in becoming a minister. In 1961 (fig. 10), he decided to attend art school, and in the fall of 1962 he moved to Chicago where he first took classes at the American Academy of Art before enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). His first experience at SAIC was brief, and in 1963 he returned to the American Academy of Art, where he completed a commercial design program in 1964. He then returned to SAIC as a full-time student from 1965–70, where he committed to a fine art focus that he pursued with great intensity and originality for the next three decades. In 1968, Brown received his Bachelor of Fine Art, and in 1970 he was awarded his Master of Fine Art, both from SAIC. While pursuing his MFA, Brown received the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship, which supported travels throughout Europe and Egypt. Travel throughout the United States and in Mexico, Europe, Russia, and Africa figured prominently as a source for inspiration and found expression in many paintings‌ (fig. 11).

Although Brown left the South for Chicago, he never severed his connection with the region. His life can be viewed in terms of successive regional experiences, strong senses of place that contributed to his evolving artistic identity and his work.

Chicago

At SAIC, Brown was introduced to a range of art historical periods and genres. He gravitated to Pre-Renaissance Italian art; surrealism; American artists Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, and Georgia O'Keefe; tribal art from many cultures; the legendary Maxwell Street market (fig. 12); antique and thrift stores; amusement parks; and other places of visual and cultural interest. During this time, Brown was engaged in the emergence of an energetic environment of art-making in Chicago, which later became known as Chicago Imagism. Inspired by instructors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, works by Roger Brown and a number of fellow students (fig. 13) were initially recognized and supported by curator Don Baum, who organized influential exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In 1972 Brown was featured in the book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 by Franz Schultz.

Encouraged by Yoshida and Halstead, Brown and his colleagues began to look to the work of self-taught artists, visiting Joseph Yoakum (fig. 14), Aldo Piacenza (fig. 15), William Dawson (fig. 17), Lee Godie (fig. 16), Henry Darger, and others, responding to their works with a spirit of visual and intellectual curiosity and genuine respect—ushering them inside the cultural arena, not to an outsider realm. Brown became an ardent champion for the validity of such works, as equal or superior to works from the mainstream. Exploring and documenting art environments by independently creative artists and the vernacular landscape (fig. 18–22) became an ongoing pursuit. 

In 1971, art dealer Phyllis Kind (fig. 23) first exhibited Brown's work, beginning her relationship as the exclusive representative and supporter of his work for his entire career. Life in Chicago marked Brown's official entry into the art world, a realm he flourished in and the subject of his continual, adamant critique. Collecting art and objects that functioned as source materials for his work coalesced into a practice and discipline that was shared by other artists, and reflected a collecting sensibility in Chicago. Identified with the Chicago imagist artists, Brown was particularly attuned to the zeitgeist, the fabric and textures and events of his time, which fed him a continuous stream of subjects and issues demanding expression.

In 1972, Brown met architect George Veronda (1940–84, fig. 24), and the two formed a strong artistic and personal relationship. In 1974, Brown purchased an 1880s storefront building in Chicago. Rehabbed by Brown and Veronda, 1926 North Halsted Street became his first home, studio, and collection environment.

Brown's media eventually included sculpture of found, assembled, and painted objects, theater and opera sets, and mosaic murals, in addition to painting and printmaking. In 1979, he designed sets for the Chicago Opera Theatre's production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte (fig. 26).

Brown developed a mature visual vocabulary in the late 1960s, engaging silhouetted figures, nocturnal cityscapes, and theatre facades and interiors. In the early 1970s, he received acclaim for paintings of stylized landscapes and cityscapes as stark backdrops for aspects of contemporary life, the disasters series—paintings of exploding buildings (1972), and a procession of iconic, flat-patterned landscapes. As his renown grew in the 1980s and '90s, Brown addressed a range of subjects and issues including architecture; natural and urban landscapes; the dichotomy between nature and culture; disasters of all types; current and political events; social, religious, and popular cultures; sensational events and banal commonplaces; autobiographical, personal, and sexual issues; the art world in its many guises; cosmology; mortality; history; mythology; and more. He used the weather as a grand, allegorical backdrop for the larger physical and metaphysical forces that dwarf the human endeavor (figs. 27–36). 

In 1991, his Italian glass mosaic murals, Arts and Sciences of the Ancient World: The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus (figs. 37–38) and Arts and Sciences of the Modern World: La Salle Corridor with Holding Pattern (fig. 39) were installed on the façade and in the lobby of the Ahmanson Commercial Development Company (a subsidiary of Home Savings of America, at 120 North LaSalle Street, Chicago. His third (untitled) mosaic mural (fig. 40) is a tribute to the African burial ground at the Foley Square Federal Building at 290 Broadway, New York City, dedicated in 1995. In September 1997 the mosaic mural Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping (fig. 41), designed by Brown, was dedicated at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.

In the 1990s, Brown created sequences of ominous clouds and a series of paintings reflecting his passion for rose trees and shrubs. In 1995 and '96, he made the Virtual Still Life series, 27 paintings with projecting shelves holding ceramic objects—meditations on the dialog between painting and object, and the nature of reality. His final sequence was a metaphorical exploration of bonsai, in which giant trees tower over miniature figures. Throughout his career Brown intended his works to have the clarity and accessibility of folk art while expressing the conceptual depth and complexity of 20th-century life. He presented temporal events with uncanny prescience, giving his work fresh relevance when viewed against the ongoing progression of current events (figs. 42–47).

In October, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations' Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues inducted Roger Brown (among other notable individuals and organizations) into the world's only known municipally sponsored hall of fame (fig. 48) that honors members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Roger Brown's rich artistic career was at once intensely original and personal. In addition to his consistent and enormously prolific life as an artist, Brown was deeply involved in the research of his family's genealogy, tracing his lineage prodigiously, and discovering relationships to Elvis Presley and Tallulah Bankhead within his family tree. Roger Brown (figs. 49–51) died on November 22, 1997 and was survived by his parents James and Mary Elizabeth Brown and his brother Greg Brown. His legacy through his many gifts to SAIC is boundless and ongoing.

—Lisa Stone, curator, Roger Brown Study Collection

 

Roger Brown Master Artworks Website: You may view all known/documented works by Roger Brown, from 1970 to 1997, here. (Images for work from 1966 thorugh 1969 will be available soon.) It works best to scroll down and select browse, then "narrow search by year."

Brown's exhibition history is extensive. He was represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago and New York, and his work was shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the country and abroad. Major retrospectives of his work were mounted at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 1980, and at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1987. His last solo exhibition of paintings was in 1997 at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago. He is represented in many major museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art; High Museum of Art; Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.