The remembrances offered by Fred’s family, friends and colleagues (including Stanley Crouch, Lowery Stokes Sims,* Stephen Rosenberg, and Sherry Bronfman) made manifest a man who was deeply immersed in his heart, but not in a way that isolated him from others. Rather, his art expressed his full and passionate engagement with the people in his life and the movements and events of his time. His daughter Sebastienne shared a note she found in one of his sketchbooks, addressed to those he loved:
When you know I love you, my heart is full, and I love myself. Just to see a smile is enough to keep me afloat in the great sea of life, and I give it back as often as possible. You are my main source and reason to do great things, and to become as complete a human being as I am capable of being. Just remember that I love you.
The vitality of Fred’s life was celebrated in another way through the musical offerings of outstanding jazz musicians including Henry Threadgill and David Virelles, Oliver Lake, and Amina Claudine Myers. Jazz music and the artists who create it were a perennial subject in Fred’s art and an integral part of his life.
Trinity Church has made a video of the service available on its website for a limited time. I encourage you to set aside some time to watch this tribute to an outstanding artist and human being. Watch the video here.
— Terrence E. Dempsey, SJ, Director
* Lowery Stokes Sims was unable to attend the service. Her remembrance was read by Jean-Claude Samuel.
We at MOCRA were saddened to receive word that painter Frederick J. Brown passed away on May 5, 2012. The MOCRA staff extend our condolences to Fred’s wife Megan and his children Sebastienne and Bentley.
Born in 1945, Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In fact, the connection between music and painting was a constant in Brown’s life and art. He called music “the catalyst for much of what I do” and frequently worked on a portrait while listening to the subject’s music. In a 2005 interview (cited in this remembrance by Judd Tully), Brown spoke about the vibrant New York cultural scene in the 1970s:
. . . you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. . . . Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.
Its vitality energized one of Christianity’s most frequently depicted subjects, with the top frame barely able to contain the rising Christ figure who bears the physical signs of his crucifixion. And I couldn’t ignore the bewildered man at the bottom of the canvas who stared out at me trying to understand what he is witnessing. With his eye contact he drew me as a viewer into this powerful event.
Since I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation research at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on the topic of the renewed interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary American art, I knew that I had to meet this artist. Nearly a year passed before I was able to get together with Fred in his New York studio in SoHo. Surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion with recordings of the jazz music he so loved playing in the background at full volume, Fred was totally at home in this element. He was surrounded by his depictions of great jazz musicians and visual artists, a large painting of John Henry and a compelling portrait of Sitting Bull, a small but powerful painting of a young Maori warrior, images of the overlooked members of our society, and portrayals of Jesus, David and Goliath, and Moses. (Several of Fred’s paintings can be viewed on his website.) All of them harnessed the energy that he found in bringing together the visual and aural arts, as well as the sacred and profane. Perhaps I should retract the word “profane” because all of his subjects were sacred to him, and every painting revealed the respect that Brown had for his subjects.
Fred and his work became an important part of my dissertation, and in 1989 I also had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his works in the gallery areas of the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union. Upon completing my Ph.D. work in 1990, I began teaching art history at Saint Louis University. The opportunity arose to realize my desire to create the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art—what was to become MOCRA—and I knew that I wanted Fred to be a part of that museum. Owing to our lean budget, I had in mind simply borrowing works, but Fred offered to paint a multi-paneled work that would become a permanent part of MOCRA’s collection.