By CB Wismar
One Holding Small One at 96th Street. Photo by Katharine Manning.
When you look into the faces of Joy Brown’s larger-than-life, thousand-pound-plus figures, they look back. The eyes are open and alert. The faces are not nervous or self-conscious. “There is no culture, no gender, no age,” says Brown. “They each have a life of their own.”
And now nine of them have settled, for a while, on Broadway in New York City, thanks to an invitation courtesy of the Broadway Mall Association and the New York City Parks. The Kent, Conn. artist’s engaging human figures, placed from 72nd Street to 168th Street, are irresistible to passersby who stop, climb, sit on, hug and sometimes simply gaze at these innocent visitors. “The rounded forms and earth tones of these big figures evoke a feeling of stillness and peace,” Brown says, “yet they bring out the child in us to play.”
Joy Brown’s own journey has crossed continents, bridged cultures, suffered the deep frustration of having to learn without direction, and culminated in an internationally celebrated career as a potter and a sculptor.
Born in the United States, she settled with her medical missionary parents in Japan, went to an international school, came back to graduate from Florida’s Eckerd College and returned to Japan to learn the ways and wiles of pottery.
It was during her first apprenticeship that Brown learned the almost Zen-like patience that comes from creating the same piece over and over again, only to destroy it and begin once more. Her second apprenticeship was more fulfilling, teaching her both the mysteries of clay and the finesse required to build a wood-fired kiln. Returning to the U.S. to pursue her chosen career as a potter, Brown created pieces that satisfied a growing audience while she, herself, continued to grow.
“What you make becomes more and more you,” Brown reflects as she looks at a gentle figure standing peacefully in the midst of her South Kent artist’s compound. “I moved to the figures in a kind of funny way. For five years, I had a studio in Webatuck Craft Village outside of Wingdale, New York. While I was working there, I started making clay and cloth puppets. The puppets morphed into small animal figures, then into my human figures.”
Confined in size by the dimensions of the Japanese-style anagama wood-firing tunnel kiln that she built herself, Brown dreamed of taking those figures and turning them into heroic-sized pieces that could find their place in sculpture gardens and public parks.
It was when William Morrison, owner of the eponymous gallery in Kent, invited Joy to exhibit her pieces that the connection was made for a larger showing.
“I had followed Joy’s work and was really taken by the peaceful presence of her figures,” recalls Billy Morrison. “I’ve had a wonderful relationship with the Broadway Mall Association and NYC Parks. ‘Joy Brown on Broadway’ took two years to come together, but it was a natural.”
Joy uses her clay figures as “maquettes” or models that are eventually scaled up in plaster, made into forms and created by pouring in molten bronze. “I was able to show my first bronzes in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo,” Brown says. “I had started working with a foundry in Thailand, but through connections made as far back as high school, I became involved with Peter Zau and The Purple Roof Gallery and Atelier in Shanghai. His support and assistance made the creation of the New York show figures possible.”
Recliners at 166th Street. Photo by Katharine Manning.
Joy’s involvement in the transformation of her clay pieces to the stunning, lovable bronzes in NYC is fully hands on. She builds the plaster figures in China with her assistant Tanya Kukucka, supervises the foundry work and the welding assembly of the bronze components, then, in a quiet moment, adds the distinctive features that make each piece so unique.
Brown is reverential when talking about the process. “I get to the warehouse early in the morning before the crew is there. They position the figure so I can step far back and get a sense of where the eyes and mouth should go. I use pieces of black paper and place them on the figure, step back, determine what needs to change, then repeat the steps until I know it’s right.”
In 1998, realizing both the universality of art and the great need for artistic communication across cultures, Brown started Still Mountain Center in Kent with fellow artist Denis Cooper. “I realized the Center could be a forum in which to communicate the values I had learned about clay, work, community and life. We demonstrate how art encourages the spirit of being human.”
And so, like emissaries with the gentle soul of Still Mountain, Joy Brown’s figures have come to New York, fully present as Joy is in her work and in her life.
The figures will be encamped on Broadway until November.