poetics inquiry: Joan Brown

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know this place for the first time. Coming back to self.” — Joan Brown

I knew very little about Joan Brown when I started this poetics inquiry. What I knew was from my discovery of Brown’s Girl Sitting painting at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). Captivated by its depth, I stood there entranced by her deliciously thick paint strokes and steady, uncompromising gaze.

Girl Sitting was a painting that required my physical presence.

Joan Brown, Girl Sitting, 1962, oil on canvas, 60 x 47.75 inches

I’ve been curious about this person who painted Girl Sitting since I was transfixed eight years ago at OMCA. A few months ago, I learned Joan Brown has an archive at The University of California, Berkeley.

The Joan Brown Papers at The Bancroft Library is free and open to the public, with online registration. Based on my limited time, I chose to explore Series 6: Personal, 1959-1990. I wanted to read her personal papers because they were referred as “a look into her spiritual life.”

How did Brown write about her creative practices in that context? What feelings rose to her page? What private details could I integrate into my fascination for the way Girl Sitting demanded my fullest attention?

The archived materials were layered into manilla folders, which contained several 3-ring, 5 x 3 inch notebooks filled with handwritten analyses of her dreams, trips to India, and recorded patterns of answered prayers. There were also photographs of her guru Sathya Sai Baba; saved fortunes from fortune cookies; the story of Tahoma, a wolf cub; and occasional sketches of lions, mermaids, and a Quetacoatl.

No longer ephemera, Brown’s everyday objects are now weighted to be cultural artifacts.

This inquiry holds the same shape as my William Stafford and Audre Lorde poetics inquiries: open-ended, focused, and flexibly curious. Each of these inquiries has had its unique calling, an affect of attention, and builds on the learning that this work is a privilege intimately magnified through touch and sanctified observation.

There is a specific kind of quiet atmosphere found in archives. I’ve found it adds to the magnitude of witness. The Bancroft Library’s Heller Reading Room was no exception. These representational treasures of Joan Brown were well curated to show her devotion to Sai Baba. She believed his visions were working through her art.

Most of the material not contained in notebooks had pushpin holes in them. Dozens of papers were splattered with various hues of oranges, reds, yellows, and ocean blues, with an occasional glittery silver drip. The faint smell of floral incense wafted out of Box 7 as I read copies of Sai Baba’s “discourse” and testimonies from Baba’s infamous “interviews.” I felt a rising mutual angst and solidarity with Brown’s struggle to practice patience. As an identical twin, I related to her desperation for self-actualization — ironically through an other.

Three months before her untimely death, Brown wrote:

“This is what I want, to not be the pupil but the God. What a goal.”

source: Joan Brown Papers. BANC MSS 2000/82 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. (strikethrough in original text)

Joan Brown, Woman Wearing Mask, 1972, oil enamel on masonite, 90 1:8 x 48 inches, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © The Joan Brown Estate

To fill the negative space left in the wake of that curated experience, I visited Brown’s childhood home on Saturn Street in San Francisco. I felt compelled, an intimate and absolute pressure, to see the “scary” place in her reoccurring dreams. I needed a physical representation to ground this esoteric experience.

As I walked past the barred windows and became aware of the security cameras, I thought about how intuition’s urgent energy can drive the thrill of creative pursuit. Learning to take direction from such a faithful companion is an affect of devotion to one’s creative practice. It is a knowing that spiritual fidelity leads to creation.

“Energy plus matter is God.”

source: Sathya Sai Baba’s interview with Carol Goodpasture’s Group, Prasanthi Nilayam, 30 Jun 88, a.m. Joan Brown Papers. BANC MSS 2000/82 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

I left attuned as I chased the next vision.

37 Saturn Street, San Francisco, CA

As the divine would have it, the Oakland Public Library’s copy of The Art of Joan Brown by Karen Tsujimoto and Jacquelynn Baas arrived the day after visiting Saturn Street.

I wanted to better understand Brown’s technical and intentionally evolving artistic methods. By contextualizing Brown’s life within her beloved Bay Area and the figurative movement to which she belonged, Tsujimoto expanded the edges of what I had learned in my initial exploration.

According to Baas, Brown’s pattern was “a serial format that implied that no single work was definitive, but that each belonged to an unfolding process of inquiry and resolution.”

It was a knowing consecration. I instantly recognized that feeling of seeking evocation.

Joan Brown, Bather #5, 1982, enamel on canvas, dipcyth, 72 x 168 inches (source)

This poem found me after researching Joan Brown’s Papers and visiting Saturn Street:  a request to transmute

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