Metamorphosis: Amherst artist moved by setbacks to create insect-focused series, ‘creep’

Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Last June, when torrential rains poured down over Massachusetts, the weather did more than just flood roads and keep families away from the beach. The storms, which dropped more than twice the average precipitation for that month, also destroyed many of Amherst artist Dean Brown’s large-scale drawings, which he had been planning to show in Boston this month.

Finding his pieces ruined “was really devastating,” Brown said in a recent interview. “All of a sudden, I had nothing.” Each drawing had taken between 40 and 50 hours to complete.

Brown, a woodworker, drawer and sculptor had been living in the Amherst Motel for about nine months when his room flooded. He had left his drawings stacked against the wall, and the water damaged them so badly that he had to cancel his Boston show.

Amazingly, last June was not the first time Brown’s artwork has been destroyed by flooding. In February, his art dealer had left one of his portfolios at a frame shop in Boston. When Brown arrived to pick up his work, he found that it, too, had sustained water damage, and was also marred beyond repair.

On top of these professional crises, last September Brown was also dealing with the emotional fallout of separating from his wife and moving into the motel, away from his family.

“It was very difficult,” he said.

But out of his pain and loss, Brown has created something new: His latest series, titled “creep,” a collection of anatomical drawings, mostly of insects, made on the tops and sides of old wooden boxes, breadboards, end tables and other small pieces of furniture that he finds at flea markets and thrift stores.

After going through this period of psychological and emotional upheaval, Brown says, he latched onto the idea of metamorphosis.

“A lot of these insects that I’m drawing are in the nymph stage, so they’re not fully formed yet,” he said.

Something old

Brown says he also was inspired to begin “creep” in part by his appreciation of antiques.

“This project combined my love of flea markets and handcrafted items and things that just aren’t done the same way anymore,” he said. He says he enjoys finding “great treasures” that other people might not recognize as beautiful. “It’s also kind of nice to not have things on paper, and not worrying about if they would be damaged,” he joked.

The concept of “creep” came to Brown unexpectedly. He had decided to donate an old side table with peeling white paint he described as “shabby chic” to The Trading Post, an antiques store in South Amherst.

“I was about to put it in the car, and then I just said, ‘I think I want to draw on this.’ It was the first ‘creep’ piece I made.” He painstakingly drew a blown-up image of a midge, or small fly, on the top of the table.

Thus far Brown has created more than 45 images for the series. The black graphite and archival ink drawings are realistic and detailed, like figures one would find in a biology textbook. One piece, of which he’s particularly proud, he says, is an old toolbox he’s repurposed. On one side is a pupa, on the other, a caterpillar. On the lid of the box he’s drawn a fully formed monarch butterfly.

“That’s an overt statement about looking for transformation,” he said.

Brown says the response to his latest project has been positive: he’s discovered that people are fascinated by bugs and entomology.

“I actually think there is an appeal,” he said. “Anything that’s scientific and [about] natural history I think people are interested in.”

Motel art

Another unusual aspect of the series is the space in which it was produced: Brown still lives at the Amherst Motel, in a room which doubles as his studio.

“It’s been challenging,” he said of his living situation. “The living room and bedroom are just full now of boxes and furniture pieces, and pieces I’ve collected over the past three months that I haven’t gotten to work on yet.”

Brown draws at a table he’s constructed inside the room, but he paints and sands in the motel’s backyard.

The tight space has forced Brown to adjust his mind-set. At first, he moved into the motel with all his possessions, including his remaining artwork, but soon felt overwhelmed.

“I didn’t want them anymore. I wanted to liberate myself from all my belongings, and from my old art, and be forced to start fresh,” he said. “I just wanted to purge and let go.”

In that spirit, Brown is selling his pieces not just at galleries, but also out of the motel, and online on the handcraft site Etsy. To view “creep” visit etsy.com/shop/deanbrowncreep.

Like the pupas he’s been drawing for the past year, Brown says, he’s slowly advancing toward the other side of this difficult time in his life.

“As painful as this process has been — and it’s been painful — it’s put me in the position to recreate. To stay engaged and excited about something.”

The Clawfoot Tub at 534 Main St. in Amherst will exhibit selections from “creep” during the Amherst Art Walk, Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m.