Roger Brown: His Life and Art

Roger Brown was born on December 10, 1941, and raised in Hamilton and Opelika, Alabama. By nature he was creative and his parents 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 artistic education), and won first prize in a statewide poster competition in tenth grade. During childhood Brown grew especially close to his grandparents and his great-grandmother Mary Dizenia, known as “Mammy,” instilling an early interest in his family’s origins, which later flowered into extensive research into his family’s genealogy. He spent over 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 adolescent and teen years he 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.

After graduating from high school in 1960 Brown attended David Lipscomb College in Nashville, a school associated with the Church of Christ, where he briefly pursued an interest in becoming a minister.  In 1961 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 the School 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 1965-1970, 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.  With his MFA Brown also received Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship, which supported travels throughout Europe and Egypt. Travel throughout the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, Russia, and Africa figured prominently as a source for inspiration and found expression in many paintings. 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, and tribal art from many cultures, as well as to the legendary Maxwell Street market, 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 became known as Chicago Imagism.  Inspired by instructors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, works by Roger Brown and a number of fellow students 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.  In 1972 Brown was featured in the book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 by Franz Schultz.

Encouraged by Yoshida and Halsted, Brown and his colleagues began to look to the work of self-taught artists, visiting Joseph Yoakum, Aldo Piacenza, William Dawson, Lee Godie, 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, became an ongoing pursuit.



In 1971 art dealer Phyllis Kind 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.

Phyllis Kind and Roger Brown at an opening.
Phyllis Kind and Roger Brown at an opening.

In 1972 Brown met architect George Veronda (1940-1984) and the two formed a deep artistic and personal relationship. In 1974 Brown purchased an 1880s storefront building in Chicago; rehabbed by Brown and Veronda, 1926 North Halsted St. became his first home, studio, and collection environment.

George Veronda
George Veronda

Brown’s mediums eventually included sculpture of found, assembled, and painted objects, theatre 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.

Chicago Opera Theater production of Cosi fan Tutte, sets and costumes designed by Brown
Chicago Opera Theater production of Cosi fan Tutte, sets and costumes designed by Brown

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, and the “Disasters” series, paintings of exploding buildings (1972), followed by 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 of nature and culture, disasters of all types, current and political events, social, religious, and popular culture, sensational events and banal commonplaces, autobiographical, personal, and sexual issues, the art world in 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. There is also an online collection of all known, photographed works by Brown.

Beginning in 1990 Brown had opportunities to create murals for architectural settings. He was commissioned by Murphy/Jahn Architects and the Ahmanson Commercial Development Company (a subsidiary of Home Savings of America) to create murals for the entry and lobby of the building at 120 North LaSalle St., completed in 1991.

Brown was interested in Byzantine mosaics and worked with the firm Travisa Mutto, Crovatto Studios, in the town of Spilimbergo, near Venice, on the fabrication of the murals. Brown chose the archetypal theme of Icarus and Daedalus, focusing on the invention of architecture and the invention of flight, for the exterior mural. The interior mural depicts architecture and flight in the present time. The LaSalle Street corridor frames the Board of Trade building––with the John Storr Ceres statue atop––and two planes circling above.

His third (untitled) mosaic mural is a tribute to the African burial ground at the Foley Square Federal Building at 290 Broadway, New York City, dedicated in 1995. Brown wrote:

On this ancient cemetery site below the modern skyline of New York City a contemporary tapestry of human faces, each made thin and hollow by the ravages of AIDS, descends like some medieval nightmare into a mosaic of death heads in memory of those of all races who have  suffered and died too soon.

In September 1997 the mosaic mural “Hull House, Cook County, Howard Brown: A Tradition of Helping,” designed by Brown, was dedicated at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.

This mosaic represents some of the institutions that offer compassion and aid to the many ethnic, economic and minority groups in the city. Jane Adams started Hull House to aid the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century.  Cook County Hospital offers needed medical aid to the poor and outcast. Howard Brown offers health care and treatment to the gay and lesbian community, who historically found fear and shame in seeking medical help.  -Roger Brown 1997

In the 1990s Brown created painting sequences of ominous clouds and a sequence of paintings reflecting his passion for rose trees and shrubs. In 1995 and 1996 he created a major series of 27  Virtual Still Life 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.

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 that honors members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Roger Brown’s rich artistic career was at once intensely original, probing deeply into collective and personal realms. In addition to his consistent and enormously prolific life as an artist, Roger 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 lived with HIV/AIDS for about ten years. He moved from his home in La Conchita, CA to spend his last months with his parents and brother in Alabama. He died of complications of AIDS on November 22, 1997. He was survived by his parents, James and Mary Elizabeth Brown, his brother Greg Brown, and many relatives. His legacy through his many gifts to SAIC is boundless and ongoing.

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,  National Gallery of Art,  High Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Lisa Stone, curator, Roger Brown Study Collection