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Brown, Donald 1963–

Donald Brown 1963

Artist

Recognized His Talent Early

Learned to Sell Himself

Created Narrative Sculpture

Selected major works

Sources

Donald Brown has emerged to become one of the premier sculptors of recent years, noted especially for his ability to capture the likenesses of real people in portrait busts. While successfully incorporating the European influences of his youth with an understanding of his African ancestry, Browns style enjoys an international reputation for excellence. On his resume Brown writes that his aspirations are to celebrate heroes and heroines of African descent, upholding their legacies for future generations to remember through the art of sculpture and creating an awareness and acknowledgment of our ongoing contributions to this planet.

Brown is most well known for his evocative sculpture, A Genius With Four Masters MA, which portrays Mahatma Gandhi, Marcus Garvey, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. The sculptors works include portrait busts of South African president Nelson Mandela, writer Maya Angelou, and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, and a series of figurines commissioned by the actor John Amos. Among the owners of his works are Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, General Colin Powell, John Amos, Wynton Marsalis, the parents of Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordans mother. Browns pieces also are in the Baltimore NAACP headquarters, the National Black Theatre Festival offices, and the National Black Arts Festival offices in Atlanta. His portrait busts start at $50,000, while his limited edition sculptures start at $5,000.

Recognized His Talent Early

Donald Brown was born September 21, 1963, in a town called Dudley in the West Midlands of England, close to Birmingham. He spent the first twenty-six years of his life in Wolverhampton, about six miles from Dudley. There were only two children in his family, him and an older brother. His father, Abram Brown, was a foundry worker who made enamel baths. His mother, Mildred Maud (Kelly) Brown, was an auxiliary nurse for the local hospital.

Brown went to a variety of schools, including one for asthmatics because he has asthma. When he was eleven, he discovered his talent for sculpting in a woodworking class. After the teacher told the class to take a piece of wood and do whatever they wanted to it, Brown got very excited. I snuck it in my pocket and took it home, he

At a Glance

Born Donald Brown, September 21, 1963, in Dudley, West Midlands, England; son of Abram Brown (a retired foundry worker) and Mildred Maud (Kelly) Brown (a retired auxiliary nurse); children: Michael James Brown. Education: Wolverhampton University, England, BA (honors), 1989.

Career: Foremost a sculptor. Comic actor with an independent duo, 1980-96; art teacher, 1990-96; photographic and runway model, Manchester Model Agency and Dreams Model Agency, 1991-96; sales manager, Northern Pressure Washers, 1991-92.

Awards: 7th Day Adventist Gospel Songwriter of the Year, 1991; BBC Gospel Awards original music/rap composition, 1993; numerous medals in track-and-field events.

Addresses: Residence 51 Dimmock Street, Parkfield, Wolverhampton WV46HF, England; Office The Moss Side and Hulme Business Federation, Unit 1-3, Greenheys Business Center, 10 Pencroft Way, Hulme, Manchester M156JJ, England.

recalled in a CBB interview. And I polished it and shaped it and it was round and smooth [and] began to shine. I was a bit nervous because I thought I was going to get in trouble for taking it home. But instead I got the attention that I never expected from the tutor who then brought in other tutors to see what Id done. [A]t that young age, getting approval from authority as well as my peer group was an indication that I was good at something.

Another discovery came at 13 when Brown accidentally split the head of a figure of a man he was carving. After initial disappointment, he saw the sculpture in a whole new way, as an abstract realistic piece, with all the veins and striations laid bare. He left it the way it was, using the accident as a means to further the significance of his work. That really put me on the map in terms of being recognized as a quality sculptor within the school, he said.

By the time Brown was 14 a portrait of himself cast in resin had appeared on national television as part of the Childrens Cadbury Arts exhibition and many proclaimed him to be a prodigy. He studied for his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Wolverhampton University and received the degree with honors when he was in his early twenties in 1989. From 1990 to 1996 he taught art at schools in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester, and Bristol.

In spite of his personal enthusiasm for his art, Brown did not initially receive support from his family. His mother became concerned about his choice of profession because it did not seem like an economically stable endeavor. According to Brown, his mother wanted him to go into the ministry and be a preacher or a teacher or a doctor. I actually went to the ministry college to check it out and spend a weekend, Brown reminisced to CBB. And I was shocked that there wasnt an art studio, and immediately I thought well this is not for me. I felt that I had an ability to create the kind of work that would in itself be [a] ministry to people in a different way. And now that Im meeting with success [my mother] accepts fully what Im doing.

Learned to Sell Himself

While still in school Brown created a bust of a man in clay in a shopping mall in Oldham as part of a residency, and learned to work and talk to passersby at the same time. After graduation he decided he did not want to be a struggling artist or one who was successful only after he died so he gave himself a crash course in business, first by working in the finance department of Wolverhampton University and then by working for several sales companies, selling everything from televisions to garage materials.

Browns ultimate aim was to learn how to promote himself and his work as a product, without having to go through an agent. In as much as other agents and galleries might be successful, he explained. Very often you have to comply with certain rules and regulations or a certain kind of style. And at the moment I want to make sure I maintain my freshness, my ability to create as and when I want to, without having certain restrictions.

Created Narrative Sculpture

Initially Brown only aimed to create a sculpture that looked like somebody, but now he tries to instill his work with meaning, symbolism, and depth as well. A case in point is his affecting personal bonded bronze sculpture A Genius With Four Masters MA. In it, Marcus Garvey and Mahatma Gandhi are depicted high in the background while in the foreground on either side Malcolm X and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pull apart prison bars so Nelson Mandela can climb out to freedom.

Its almost like trying to create sculpture which is like a narrative, like a story, whereby its educational and informative, Brown said. Theres a reason why Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are breaking these prison bars open, theres a reason why theres locks but no keys, because they themselves are the keys, theres a reason why all the five heads are linked in a certain way which is symbolic of the five Olympic circles, which is a sign of global unity. Brown also told The News and Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, These men were all masters in their own right. As Brown explains it, their names all have the letters MA, and a masters degree is considered a sign of excellence.

In the beginning Browns influence came from studying the sculptures of European masters like Michelangelo, Rodin, and Bernini. But after visiting America he became cognizant of his African history, something he had not been made aware of in Britain, and it made an impact on his work. However, he does not want to limit himself to one style or the other. I can create a European style, he commented to CBB. I can create an African American style. A lot of people say, Is your work European? Or is your work African American or Africanized? I would like to be able to produce commissions from any particular nationality.

Critics have praised Brown for the detail and likeness in his portrait busts. In addition, Critics are very quick to say that Im the artist of the moment or an artist [whos] going to explode or an artist [who] is arts best kept secret, he said. They admire the fact that an artist can work in public and switch at regularity from sculpting to talking. The exposure has resulted in an increasing demand for more of his original works.

Currently, the artist is working on an action-packed sculpture with a deep rooted message for a lot of African Americans about the Middle Passage, the journey taken by the slave ships from Africa across the Atlantic to America and England. Im focusing on the atrocities that occurred during that passage, being cramped in small spaces, many sick and dying flung overboard, literally millions, he said. [Im] creating a piece which brings attention to that time lest we forget. The sculpture is scheduled to be cast from clay into bonded bronze. Brown also is starting a new work that is the female equivalent to A Genius With Four Masters. It will be celebrating female heroines [who] contributed immensely to our history.

In addition to sculpting, Brown has managed to excel in track-and-field as a hurdler and long-jumper, and he also has another career as a gospel songwriter. Exhibiting boundless talent, he also works as an actor, model, and stand-up comedian.

Selected major works

A selection of figurines, commissioned by actor John Amos, 1998.

Portrait bust of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, commissioned by John Amos, 1998.

A Genius With Four Masters MA, 1997.

Portrait bust of author and performing artist Maya Angelou, commissioned by the Atlanta National Black Arts Festival, 1996.

The official celebrity figurine for the 1996 National Black Arts Festival.

Portrait bust of Larry Leon Hamlin, the founder and artistic director of The National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina, commissioned by John Amos, 1995.

A miniature face of British comedian Rowan Atkinson, known as Mr. Bean, commissioned by Barrow Models, 1991.

Sources

Periodicals

Essence, May 1988, p. 78.

Manchester Evening News (U.K.), May 10, 1994, pp. 26-27; May 25, 1996, p. 47; January 30, 1998, p. 29.

Monthly Magazine (U.K.), November 1995, pp. 28, 30.

National Black Theatre Festival program (NC), August 4-9, 1997, p. 14.

National Voice, (NC) April 1998, pp. 9, 15.

News & Observer (NC), August 8, 1997.

Winston-Salem Chronicle, August 1997, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 16.

Other

Interview with Donald Brown and assistance from Perri Gaffney at Donald Brown Enterprises, NYC.

Alison Carb Sussman

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