This story originally appeared in the August 1990 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
Around midnight, the teeming streets of New York’s SoHo district, lined with art galleries, boutiques, bars, and restaurants, finally begin to quiet down—except for the streets near one particular block. For nearly 20 years, late-night passersby have been able to make out the faint but raucous sound of loudly played blues—Muddy Waters, Huddie Ledbetter, Howlin’ Wolf—pouring out into the urban night from the loft building that houses the studio and living quarters of painter Frederick Brown.
Inside, in the spacious studio Brown has carved out of a 19th-century industrial space, the scene looks like a layman’s fantasy of bohemian life: While the music blasts from a good-sized stereo, Brown paints one of the portraits of blues musicians that make up his latest completed series, taking an occasional time-out to joke with the friends who lounge about on his decidedly functional furniture—drinking, talking about art and music. As in most painters’ studios, finished canvases and works in progress litter every available surface, leaning against walls, stacked in racks, and piled on tables. Despite the casual setting, Brown works at a brisk pace, often on several paintings at once. Beyond the studio’s entrance hall, in a closed-off living quarters, Brown’s family—wife Megan Bowman and their daughter, Sebastienne—sleeps while the painting party goes on until the wee hours.
Ever since 1970, when he moved to New York, Brown has worked this way, staging late-night painting marathons like informal jam sessions. “After midnight, that’s when the creative spirits are loose,” explains the painter. The setup takes on special resonance, however, with the series of blues musicians’ portraits Brown has been turning out for the last two years. The quietly festive, extremely sociable atmosphere seems especially in tune with the mood of the blues. And Brown uses the music to invoke something of the spirit of his subjects: “I’m not painting from life—since most of them are dead, I’m working from photographs—and I need something to fill in the outline. I feel like I’m creating a painted body for the spirit to inhabit. I’m trying to get a feeling rather than just a likeness.”
Not that the artist needed much prodding to tackle bluesmen as his subject. A Chicago native, he grew up on the famous South Side, with the music and its creators as the local culture. “I thought the blues was what life was all about,” he explains. After earning a degree in art and psychology in Illinois, Brown moved to New York, where he met jazz musician Ornette Coleman. In a warm-up for his current work, Brown often painted in Coleman’s SoHo loft, an early hang-out for the area’s growing community of avant-garde musicians and artists, while Coleman’s band rehearsed. In New York, Brown also met his “artistic godfather,” Willem de Kooning, who encouraged him in his ’70s version of classical Abstract Expressionist style. Before long, Brown was showing up regularly at a blue-chip gallery (Marlborough) and had works included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House.
“I feel like I’m creating a painted body for the spirit to inhabit.”
Brown’s most recent artistic breakthrough, however, took place far from New York and closer to his spiritual home. On a trip two years ago to the Mississippi Delta with a friend to research a planned documentary on blues singers, the artist found himself steeped in the feeling of the blues culture. He met local characters like Wade Walton, the aged griot of Clarksdale, who regaled him with the stories and folklore that nourish the still-living blues. The adventure touched deep chords in Brown, who had spent little time in the South although part of his family had originally come from Georgia. “I felt like I’d gone home in some important way,” he says.
The resulting series of portraits in a vivid panorama of the Black artistic experience in America and of Brown’s reassessment of his place within it. Although American popular music is unimaginable without the influence of the blues, its creators still receive less than the credit due them. Does Brown feel the same way? “I was never trying to be just a ‘Black’ artist,” he says, “and I hardly feel ignored by the art world. There’s no question, though, that a log of Black artists, like these blues musicians, pay too many dues.”
Ever the optimist, Brown doesn’t miss a chance to turn even problematic experience into positive art. When visiting his daughter in a New York hospital before her departure for Arizona (where he has a house and studio), he was struck by the drabness of institutional decor. His response was a new series of clown paintings: “I just tried to think about what would make sick children laugh.”
Some of the works are to be blown up into murals and donated to hospitals to enliven the empty walls. Brown also plans a line of clown T-shirts and pillowcases, the proceeds of which would buy medicine for childrens’ hospitals. For Brown, such tie-ins are part of what fine art is about: “I want art to include life, the way I thought the blues defined everything.”