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Guide to the Joan Brown Papers
BANC MSS 2000/82 c  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Note
  • Scope and Content Note

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: Joan Brown papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1959-2002, n.d.
    Collection Number: BANC MSS 2000/82 c
    Creator: Brown, Joan, 1938-
    Extent: Number of containers: 9 boxes, 1 carton, 14 oversize folders, and 1 oversize box (Linear feet: 8.2)
    Repository: The Bancroft Library
    Berkeley, California 94720-6000
    Physical Location: For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.
    Languages Represented: English

    Information for Researchers


    Collection is open for research, except for Box 5. Permission of Pictorial Curator required for use.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    Joan Brown papers. BANC MSS 2000/82 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

    Related Collections

    Conner, Bruce.
    Title: Bruce Conner correspondence concerning Jay DeFeo's "The Rose": ca. 1930-1996.
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS 98/32 c
    Conner, Bruce.
    Title: Bruce Conner papers, 1962-[ongoing].
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS 2000/50 c
    DeFeo, Jay, 1929-
    Title: Jay DeFeo papers, 1901-1997 (bulk 1970-1989).
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS 98/56 c

    Separated Material

    • Printed materials have been transferred to the book collection of The Bancroft Library.
    • Photographs have been transferred to Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library.
    • Videotapes/sound recordings have been transferred to the Microforms Collection of The Bancroft Library.
    • Objects have been transferred to Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library.

    Administrative Information

    Acquisition Information

    The Joan Brown Papers were given to The Bancroft Library by Noel Neri and Michael Hebel on March 16, 2000.

    Biographical Note

    Born in San Francisco in 1938 and living her entire life in the Bay Area, Joan Vivien (Beatty) Brown would, at the time of her death in 1990, come to epitomize the style and philosophy of the Bay Area figurative tradition. Though her exposure to art during her childhood was minimal, upon graduating from high school in 1955 Brown experienced an artistic awakening when she by chance stumbled upon an advertisement in a local San Francisco newspaper for classes at the California School of Fine Art (later renamed the San Francisco Art Institute). Longing to escape the confines of an unhappy and physically cramped home life, Brown submitted a small portfolio of pencil drawings of movie stars and was accepted for admission.
    Her studies at CSFA brought her in contact with the first generation of the Bay Area Figurative School, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveria and Manuel Neri. After a bumpy and discouraging first year, Brown was encouraged to stay on by her soon-to-be husband and fellow student, William H. Brown. During the summer session of 1956, Joan Brown took a class with Elmer Bischoff, who was to play a decisive and mentoring role in Brown's continuing commitment to artmaking. Bischoff would prove to be a lifelong friend and professional colleague (years later, Brown and Bischoff were fellow faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, Art Department).
    Brown began to exhibit her work in 1957 and soon immersed herself in the Beat scene in San Francisco. With her husband, she moved to the white-hot center of Beat activity at 2330 Filmore Street, in 1958, the same building where artists Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, and poet Michael McClure lived. By the following year, however, Brown had separated from her husband and had moved in with artist Manuel Neri.
    Brown's taste of artistic success came early, as by 1960, she had her first solo exhibition in New York at Staempfli Gallery, and was included in "Young America 1960 (Thirty Painters Under Thirty)" organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1962 Brown received the Merit Award for Outstanding Achievement in the field of Art from the publication, Mademoiselle. That same year she married Neri and gave birth to her only child, Noel Elmer Neri. With the pressures of success mounting, Brown withdrew from exhibiting in 1965 and began rethinking the direction of her art. Known for her oil on canvas figurative works utilizing bold color and generously thick impasto, Brown started anew with small, muted and thinly painted still lifes. She divorced Neri, the following year, after four years of marriage.
    Regaining her artistic footing and marrying again toward the end of 1968, this time to fellow artist, Gordon Cook, the newlyweds moved to a small town in the Sacramento delta, only to return to San Francisco in 1971. During this time Brown became interested in Chinese art and symbolism and the following year switched her medium from oil on canvas to household enamel paint. Often painting on a masonite base, the enamel paint produced very flat and bright areas of color giving the work a faux naive quality.
    From the early 1970's through the early 1980's, Brown also became an active swimmer, eventually training with Hall of Fame swimming coach Charlie Sava between 1972 and 1973. Her avid interest in swimming resulted in numerous paintings dealing with the sport and its effects on her emotionally and physically.
    In 1974, Brown had her first retrospective exhibition at the University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley and was appointed assistant professor of the Department of Art Practice at U.C. Berkeley the same year. Despite Brown's distrust of the art world and its concomitant commercialism, she continued to show extensively during the 1970's, being included in important exhibitions such as, "1977 Biennial Exhibition: Contemporary American Art" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the seminal show, "Bad Painting," at the New Museum, New York. Awards continued to mount as well, as Brown was recipient of an NEA Visual Arts Fellowship in 1976 and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1977. However, her marriage to Gordon Cook disintegrated in 1976. During the late 1970's Brown's often autobiographical paintings began to deal more directly with the themes of spirituality, mysticism and metaphysics. It was her trip to Egypt in 1977, the first of several excursions to sites of important archeological significance, that so decisively prepared the groundwork for her later work that dealt almost exclusively with spiritualism and symbolism filtered through her subjective experience.
    Brown remarried in 1980 to Michael Hebel, a police officer and attorney who shared her esoteric interests. For their honeymoon they traveled to India, and it was there that Brown had an encounter with the spiritual leader, Sathya Sai Baba. From this initial contact, Brown became a fervent devotee and was to make numerous return trips to India to visit Sai Baba's ashram near the southern city of Puttaparthi.
    By the mid 1980's, Brown became increasingly interested in public art as a response to her ever growing disdain for the commercial gallery system, which she viewed as too exclusive and insular. With a passionate idealism that art should and could reach common people, she was to complete many large scale projects for numerous government, corporate, retail and civic spaces both in the Bay Area and nationally. Often these public sculptures would take the form of large brightly colored ceramic-tiled obelisks (reaching, at times, in excess of forty feet). Brown's final work of public art, designed as a celebration of Sai Baba's sixty-fifth birthday, played a role in her death. She was in the process of installing an obelisk at Sai Baba's spiritual museum of the world then under construction near his ashram, when a portion of the building's turret gave way, instantly killing her and an assistant.
    Joan Brown's highly personal and deeply felt art not only reflected her unembarrassed forthrightness and sincerity, but was a source of inspiration for younger artists, many of whom came to U.C. Berkeley's Art Department to study with her. Brown demonstrated that her distinctive approach to making art, created from the fabric, thoughts, and experiences of her everyday life, did so without sacrificing a more universal appeal.

    Scope and Content Note

    The Joan Brown Papers, 1959-2002, n.d., consist of correspondence, announcements, catalogues, professional papers, notebooks, artwork, source material and personal papers that detail Brown's life as an artist, from her coming to prominence during San Francisco's Beat era of the 1950's, to her death in 1990. The bulk of the collection dates from the 1970's to 1990, but also includes Brown's early correspondence with her first art dealer, George Staempfli. These papers complement other collections of artist's papers held by The Bancroft Library, notably Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo.
    While the amount of professional correspondence is not very extensive, Brown assiduously collected copies of announcements to her exhibitions, and they give a clear and fascinating record of her professional life both personally and collectively with fellow artists. Also included is an array of papers regarding public art commissions she was to undertake in the 1980's that provide insight, often in detail, into the creation of public sculpture.
    There is a small clutch of drawings, most probably executed in the 1980's, that appear to be primarily studies and/or ideas for paintings that stress the spiritual. Also related to her artmaking is an almost exhaustive array of source material on a variety of subjects she used in creating her work. These materials include postcards, magazine clippings, brochures, and other ephemera.
    Brown's personal papers allow a look into her spiritual life. Notebooks from the 1980's show a preoccupation with her guru, Sathya Sai Baba, and his influence on her thinking. Also of note is a small collection of papers relating to her son, Noel Neri. Of special interest in these papers is Brown's illustrational annotations she made to Noel's "Baby's First Christmas" record book and his copy of "The Night Before Christmas." Both exhibit Brown's flair for the tender and whimsical.