Interviewing artists is a wonderful exploration of the human condition, and in the case of artist Denise V. Brown this link deepens when exploring her exquisitely crafted artworks.
It is Brown’s studio I am looking for as I drive east out of town along the open road, and it’s while looking for a turn-off towards Brown’s village that I realise my satellite navigation has stopped working.
Suddenly I feel very lost, which is apt I realise, pulling over to scramble through seat pockets for the map book, because Denise Brown thinks a lot about lost souls in her work.
When I finally arrive at Brown’s home she meets me at the gate to unlatch it and guide me past free-ranging chickens and the boisterous family dog to her front door.
It is a sculptural installation for the Bunbury Biennale in June and is titled Legion of the Lost. The coincidence makes me smile, and I ask Brown to tell me more about the haunting faces of the multiple souls she has created.
“It was inspired by a series of radiotherapy masks I noticed on a visit to hospital,” she explains. “And it deals with the loss society suffers when individuals are restricted or isolated due to a medical condition.” This impactful mass presentation of similar forms is often used in her work so I ask Brown to share her thoughts on this approach.
“I often make multiples but make them by hand, so each one is unique.”
“I often make multiples but make them by hand, so each one is unique. I like the idea of a multiple where each one is a little bit different. Like the human race really – we are all multiples of one creature. Like the coding for life – same genes but different outcome.”
Scientific ideas clearly excite Brown, and she continues, “It’s just like binary, which is repeating the same digits over and over, but the possibilities are endless – just as they are in language.”
Brown explored language and the disconnection caused by communication difficulties in her solo exhibition Tilting at Windmills in 2012. She picked up the theme of disconnected souls again in her recent sculpture, Resurrection, for Stations of the Cross at Wesley.
I am interested in where she creates her sculptural work so we move out through the garden and menagerie to Brown’s expansive workshop studio and I ask her about her creative process.
“I have a routine I like to follow,” she says. “It starts with a cup of tea, and then I turn the music on and sink into the piece in front of me.” She works with her whole body and a lot by feel, she explains. “When I make sculpture the surfaces have to feel right.”
“He could turn a pile of rocks into a wall like magic.”
Brown’s innate abilities were absorbed from her father, she believes. “I watched him work. He could turn a pile of rocks into a wall like magic.”
She also has formal training in design. “I’ve been running a design company on the side for years – it has been ticking over with things like product design while I concentrate on my art practice.”
“When I get into design I get completely consumed by it, but it doesn’t feed me the way my art does. Design feeds my analytical mind but art does that and much more.”
Given that her work is so precisely and finely crafted, I ask Brown her views on where such well-made work fits into today’s throw-away society.
“That’s exactly what I’m exploring with my latest piece for Pod,” she says indicating an artwork in progress at one end of the workshop. It is a collection of wooden cubes in different shapes, colours and sizes from tiny to large.
“We’ve got so much choice today but everything seems the same – and in this piece you can have any colour you want as long as it’s a cube,” she says, adding that multiple pieces are designed to fit inside others and then into others and so on as happens in the consumerist model of efficiency and economics. [InCUBEation will be on show as part of Pod at the Moores Building from 2-17 May.]
“There’s an excitement about a box”
I am interested in Brown’s continuing work with this cube or box motif and ask her to tell me more about it.
“There’s an excitement about a box – you never know what’s inside,” she says recounting a memory of growing up in England where her father renovated very old houses.
“These houses had been changed often by different owners over the years and it was constantly an adventure as he discovered rooms inside rooms or grand fireplaces behind small ones – he kept opening up the boxes to find the original house.”
Brown’s memories play a pivotal role in her artwork. “Our history makes us who we are and even though memories are a link to our past they are very liquid in the way we interpret them.”
This is particularly the case with her drawings and oil paintings, she says as we discuss her recent series of drawings, The Space Between, for the Mid-West art prize. These drawings were like snapshots of who she felt her father was and they helped her deal with his loss.
“My drawings and oil paintings generally explore intimate themes like this,” she says. “My 3D works tend to be bigger picture and reflect social issues.”
There will be no shortage of subject matter because Brown comes from a large extended family and before I know it she is referencing them as multiples that interact differently depending on circumstance. “It was like its own synaptic network,” she says, her inner scientist coming to the fore again.
I am finding Brown’s own neural pathways fascinating as she weaves between stories so, in an attempt to pin her down, I bring up the subject of organisation to deal with her heavy workload.
“I organise every hour of the day three weeks in advance,” she says, “and I’m always checking my inner clock.”
At this she is reminded of how she has often imagined her mind to be a collection of boxes, each one containing a thought or a memory, although some of them are locked.