Homelessness reflected: Artist Jacob Brown's own experience focus of exhibit

Last modified: Friday, September 07, 2012

Oranges and yellows bursting from behind a tree are part of the movement of energy marking nature's awakening when winter turns to spring.

For Jacob Brown, an Amherst artist who was homeless off and on for nearly 30 years, the oil painting he named "Sunset" is perhaps his favorite work of art because it not only reflects the most important time of year for those who don't have roofs over their heads but also represents the end of the time he found himself homeless.

"It's the end of a harsh winter," Brown said. "This is a way of illustrating my second chance in coming back from being homeless."

An exhibit of 41 works by Brown is on display at the Amherst Community Connections office at the Amherst Carriage Shops on East Pleasant Street through September. Amherst Community Connections, a nonprofit agency run by former Select Board member Hwei-Ling Greeney, began two years ago to help people find jobs and homes. It has 50 to 60 participants who are either homeless or on the cusp of losing their housing.

Most of the works reflect Brown's experiences. "All of this deals with my being homeless and the emotional condition I was in at the time," he said in an interview at Community Connections last week.

He uses a range of media - watercolors, crayon, pencils, ballpoint pens and oil paint - on 8½-by-11 bond or copy paper for many of his pieces.

"Sunset Character," done in crayon, depicts a vulnerable-looking person exiting from the woods. Brown said there are ample oranges and reds to set a melancholy mood. "Will this be the beginning of the end of his homelessness or will this be his end?" he asked.

In the watercolor "Bars," which is intentionally lighter, the few brush strokes against the white paper are in a rainbow of colors. "This is a pleasant happy time, a joy of lightness moment," Brown said.

"Back to the World," done entirely in blue ballpoint, has a crucifix in the background and a hopeless-looking man in front, turning away from the road. "It's almost like immature pouting in the corner," Brown said.

Veering off the path

Brown, 63, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where both he and his brother picked up art at an early age from their father, who was an artist. In 1967, Brown earned a scholarship to attend a summer session at the Saxtons River Art Academy in Vermont. "It was a door-opening, horizon-expanding thing," he said.

That fall, he went on to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied for 18 months with instructors who had been to Europe. He learned about masters such as Leonardo da Vinci. In 1971, he was commissioned to create a mural in Roxbury, he said.

But he never finished his studies. Emotional problems triggered by a death in the family led to a personal unraveling marked by drug addiction, treatment programs, two failed marriages, the birth of a child and periods of homelessness on both coasts of the country, Brown said.

Even when he was homeless, he said, he used whatever materials were available to create art. He still chooses inexpensive tools, such as the back of a paper plate as a canvas.

Brown said that in 1996 he was able to scrape enough money together to get an apartment in Taunton, and he did a one-man show at the Taunton Public Library. Living on Social Security and disability income, he moved to Quincy and became a member of the Quincy Art Association in 2004.

But it wasn't until he came to Amherst in 2007 to be closer to his daughter that he found stability, Brown said. He rented an apartment at Village Park, and began to focus more intently on his art.

"The climax of all the homelessness I've been through is the joy of painting," Brown said. "It's kind of therapeutic. This is like bottled-up talent, an outburst of what was held inside me."

Painting, he said, has eased some of his emotional problems and helped him recover social skills he lost while homeless.

"The trauma of being homeless exacerbated my condition of emotional instability," Brown said.

As an example, he cites his inability to communicate with other men, always turning to women, instead. "I'm seeking healing toward relationships with my own gender," he said.

Proving a point

Brown's exhibit marks the first time Amherst Community Connections has been involved in the monthly ArtWalk.

Greeney met Brown when he was seeking help to resolve housing issues. He brought her his paintings, already framed and ready for mounting. She helped him come up with titles and descriptions for each piece.

If there's an overarching theme, Brown said, it's giving people a better understanding of what happens to the homeless.

"The message is how I treat people, how we treat people and how we all interact," he said.

Greeney said Brown was fortunate that even while homeless he had friends who helped him preserve much of his work, storing it in their homes. She said she hopes his show will demonstrate that homeless people have the same hopes, dreams, ambitions and talents as others. "What we are trying to say is people who are homeless also have accomplishments."

Harsh images

Because his homeless periods were often in cities like New York and Boston or in the wilderness among animals, Brown's pieces frequently depict pavement or nature.

"Cityscape" features a nearly deserted street with people seeming to keep their distance from a disheveled man. "The sidewalk is harsh and cold," Brown said.

A ballpoint-pen illustration titled "Let Us Make Man in Our Image After Our Likeness" shows a naked woman sitting near trash cans. His intention, Brown said, is to show the pain and suffering he has seen in homeless women's faces due to abuse and disrespect.

In "The Burning Tree," the bright-red colors streaming from a burning pine tree indicate the agitation and anger he felt after accusations of theft, which he believes were based in racism, could have led to his eviction from a home.

Brown said he would like to resume his art studies, though he is unsure how.

"Hopefully in the future I will go for the documents that give me credentials that will give me respect," Brown said.

He points to another oil painting, which he has called "Sail." It reflects where he is in his own life, he said - painting, living close to his daughter and granddaughter.

In the foreground is a red sailboat, the person on board navigating through the choppy water of the ocean. The background depicts the much calmer waters the sailor is heading toward.

"I want to add to the race, add to the species, and be a benefit for civilization," Brown said. "I really like the way my life is now."

Greeney said Brown will donate 20 percent of any proceeds to her organization, which will then pass the money on to Craig's Doors for its effort to expand Amherst's homeless shelter.

Viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, during the month of September.


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