Roger Brown Study Collection: La Conchita, California
In the late 1980s, tiring of Chicago winters (and, we surmise, the social pressures of the art world), Brown searched for a place to build a winter studio in a warmer climate. He was drawn to southern California, in part because it was the last place that he and George traveled together before Veronda was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. He considered locations on the gulf coast of Florida and in New Mexico, eventually rejecting both places and focusing on southern California. When he discovered the property at 6754 Ojai in La Conchita—a single lot with a fence, grass, carport, and a 1955 Spartan trailer—he knew it had to be his next home. La Conchita, "little shell," is a modest beach village south of Santa Barbara. In addition to the lush local flora, dozens of exotic varieties of bananas were grown in La Conchita, despite the prevailing view that banana farming was not viable in California. Brown may have intuited that it was a good place for a garden.
The Spartan trailer parked at 6754 Ojai sparked Brown's interest in the property. The Spartan was designed in 1955 by the Getty Corporation, which manufactured Spartan Aircraft Trailers beginning in 1945 in a retrofitted aircraft factory in Tulsa, in a post-war effort to provide much needed inexpensive housing for returning veterans. Spartans were streamlined beauties and came in five sizes: Spartanette (the smallest), Manor, Manor Tandem, Mansion, and Royal Mansion. Brown purchased 6754 Ojai in 1988, and moved into his Spartan Royal Mansion (figs. 1, 2).
In a surprise departure from his previous work with plants and gardens, Brown first created an austere, Asian-style raked gravel garden (figs. 3, 4) with islands of rock and subtle greenery—an elegant and spartan setting for his elegant Spartan. He lined the east border with rose shrubs in a stone bed—beginning, we think, his fervent interest in rose cultivation that was fully explored in his New Buffalo garden, where he planted over 400 rose shrubs in many varieties in 1993 and 1994. His interest in roses was further expressed in his sequence of four Rosa paintings made in 1993 and 1994 (figs. 5–9).
As Brown's sketchbook musings convey, the Royal Mansion was perfect in many ways. He found a dwelling that reflected his visual vocabulary and design ethos essentially. He appointed the Spartan with furnishings (figs. 10–12) harmonious with the Spartan's streamlined design, including Russel Wright dinnerware. The Spartan became his muse and museum.
The "Temple of Painting"
His La Conchita home and garden were ideal in many ways, but lacked space for a studio. Brown rented studio space elsewhere for a time, but he eventually commissioned Postmodern architect Stanley Tigerman to design his La Conchita "Temple of Painting." He apparently traded his painting, Stanley Tigerman in his Domain (fig. 13) for the design of his La Conchita home. After ludicrous and protracted struggles with neighbors and the Ventura County Planning Commission, which he expressed in his painting Citizens Killing Themselves After Having to Deal With the Ventura County Planning Commission (fig. 14), the house, carport, and garage were completed in 1993 (fig. 15).
Handsome and broad-shouldered, part barn, part basilica with Romanesque clerestory, Brown's new home had walls of stucco painted a deep salmon-pink, inspired by the color of the La Purisima Mission in nearby Lompoc, CA. Brown planted a formal line of six full-size Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia Robusta) along the front, scaled perfectly to the proportions of the house. A row of skyrocket junipers lined the rear, and a plump agave anchored the front of the Spartan, which was tucked in the rear corner of the property after the house was constructed, despite seemingly insurmountable zoning conflicts. Brown prevailed and the Spartan remained there, becoming his muse and museum (figs. 16–20).
Brown adapted his discipline of looking, finding, and acquiring objects of interest, and he often struck out with his dear friend Linda Cathcart, to comb area thrift shops, yard sales, and swap meets. He regularly returned with a car full of treasures and he decked out his La Conchita "Temple of Painting" with all manners of things, especially vernacular ceramic objects. He created arrangements or settings of furniture and objects throughout the spacious home/studio. Several arrangements (inside and outside, in the carport) featured shelves or cabinets filled with ceramic objects of all sorts. The discipline of arranging ceramic objects on shelves was to become distilled in his series of 27 Virtual Still Life object paintings created in 1995 and 1996. (See the Virtual Still Life link in the Projects section of this website.) La Conchita was Brown's third intentionally-created home setting, combining architecture, collected objects, and a garden. His evolving architectural, collecting, and gardening life, invariably expressed in his work, flourished in the last chapter of his life, in La Conchita (figs. 21–50).
The La Conchita Garden
Moving to California from the Midwest, where gardening and attention to plants was intertwined in his creative life, Brown encountered a year-round growing season and an expanded palette, including desert plants. He adapted quickly to the regional, casual habit of allowing plants and planters and planted pots and plantings to accumulate and grow and flourish in impromptu arrangements. Brown's La Conchita garden evolved through a few distinct styles and stages of growth; working on and in it was closely linked to and reflected in his paintings from these years (figs. 51–69). Brown filled out the side and rear gardens with a combination of desert and deciduous plants and flowers, including white roses, calla lilies, varieties of agave, prickly pear, barrel cactus, columnar cactus, euphorbia, cholla, aloe, and other plants, arranged among rocks and plinths, planters, and garden sculpture. Brown's composition had a pleasing rhythm of ground-hugging and sky-reaching plants that quickly grew to surround and enclose the space in a kind of Arabesque, private garden. Reflecting the peacock motif in several mid-century decorative objects in his home, Brown added a cage with a cascading fountain for a pair of live peacocks, garden guardians and possibly the bane of his neighbors and his beloved bulldog Elvis. See Nick Lowe's blog on Roger Brown's Temple of Painting here.
Following his series of twenty-seven Virtual Still Life object paintings Brown created a series of five sublime paintings of bonsai in 1996 (figs. 70–74). Surely related to his cultivation of bonsai in his garden, these paintings reverse the scale of bonsai as miniature trees, positioning miniature humans against monumental bonsai. Brown imbued these works with the feeling of a departure into a different realm, a different dimension.
The second to last drawing in Brown's final sketchbook (fig. 75), which includes sketches from 1993 to 1997, presents a corner of a single-story clapboard house situated in a grassy landscape: home and garden. An arched trellis frames a figure standing on the far side of this garden gate, facing away, shadow falling forward. Brown knew he was leaving his garden shortly, and left us with this profound image, a frozen moment of leaving behind, and facing what lies in the distance.
The Spartan Trailer at Rest
Brown bequeathed the La Conchita property, the Spartan, and his art collection to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Lacking a vision or the means to secure and operate the property at 6754 Ojai, it was sold in 1998, with the proceeds supporting the RBSC and the New Buffalo collection. Prior to the sale, the home, collection, and garden were documented thoroughly. The collection was moved to Chicago where it is stored and periodically unpacked and explored. For more information on Brown's life and work in La Conchita, please see the link to Roger Brown: Calif. U.S.A. in the Project section of this website.
In a fortuitous collision of inspiration, the RBSC and Museum of Jurassic Technology staff envisioned the Spartan trailer at rest in the Museum's garden. The Spartan was moved south to Culver City, where it is lovingly cared for, and serves the mission of a museum of great renown. It is situated in the museum's courtyard (figs. 76, 77) adjacent to a Spartanette, a smaller version of Brown's Spartan Royal Mansion. Many creative people in Los Angeles use Spartan trailers as homes, studios, laboratories, and guest houses, so Roger's Royal Mansion feels quite at home there; it provides a serene dwelling for many scholars and creative people at the Museum. It also relates to the Museum's exhibit, A Garden of Eden on Wheels—dioramas exploring mobile home living in Southern California. We're eternally grateful to David Wilson and Museum friends for their inspired guardianship of the Spartan, and for preserving the memory of Roger Brown's artistic presence in California in the creative environment of an incomparable artists' museum.
SAIC faculty member Nicholas Lowe has been enormously committed and intensively involved in all aspects of Brown's life in La Conchita and SAIC's custodianship of its legacy. Nick serves as the La Conchita curator, and in 2012 he devoted his sabbatical to projects bringing Brown's life in Southern California back to life, through gardens, miniature models, and in other media. The RBSC gifted a number of ceramic objects to the Museum and Nick recreated part Brown's original garden, as a permanent garden situated alongside the Spartan. Click here to see Nick's project in detail.
Brown's dear friend Linda Cathcart (fig. 78) established Casa Dolores, Center for the Study of the Popular Arts of Mexico. Located in Santa Barbara, in the Pascual Botillier House (1843), Casa Dolores is devoted to the collection, preservation, study, and exhibition of an extensive variety of objects of the popular arts of Mexico. During his 2012 sabbatical, Nick Lowe worked with Linda and her staff, creating a garden in Brown's honor with ceramics from SAIC's La Conchita, collection (fig. 79, 80). We thank Casa Dolores friends for honoring Brown and keeping his legacy, and their friendship, alive in southern California.