When grief struck, Blanche Brown drew.
It was not a lifelong interest but the only response to the sudden death of her beloved artist stepfather that felt right. While it served as an outlet for her grief, it also helped Brown find her voice and inspired a professional art career focused on giving voice to others.
Today, the Milwaukee artist does that through multi-media art that addresses social injustice and the effect it has on youth. In honor of Black History Month, the Racial Justice Task Force has sponsored an exhibit of Brown’s powerful, thought-provoking artwork at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ephraim.
Through painting, sculpture, collage, fiber, mixed media and printmaking, Brown hopes to provide viewers a means of understanding the issues minorities face today.
“Racism isn’t a new thing, as we all know, but particularly my art speaks to social justice and injustice and some of the things in my work include Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, which are ongoing movements that help to foster a better understanding of what African Americans and other minorities go through in terms of racial inequity, disparity and oppression,” Brown explained. “Some people, unfortunately, don’t believe we have a serious problem but it is a serious problem. We know that because of the amount of rash killings that have happened with the police the last several years involving black men and women and youth. Our problem isn’t going away so Black History Month, in my involvement with my art, shows the need to continue to educate others about and to help to foster the need for solidarity and support for getting away from the oppression that African Americans and other minorities are facing in this country that still exists today in 2017.”
But Brown points out that her work is not just “doom and gloom.” She has been inspired to help build community using artwork through her mentoring work with the Milwaukee nonprofit, RedLine Milwaukee, which seeks to encourage individual practice of contemporary art and to stimulate creative potential of local communities through residency, education, outreach and exhibition programs.
As a professional artist, she has also worked with various art organizations to fill the gap left by underfunded or nonexistent art programs in schools. This work introduced her to a host of new issues children face today, and inspired her to use the therapeutic properties of art to help underprivileged students process the events happening in their neighborhoods.
“Through this process of me healing through my loss and seeing the benefits of that, I’ve seen how art transforms. I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve been in schools where kids will be working on art projects that really hit home. One example was an art residency I did a couple years ago at a school in Milwaukee and it was in the 53206 zip code area so the children were probably children that had bad experiences and ended up in that neighborhood and things of that nature so me and another artist went in and I already knew what I wanted to talk about and it had to do with ‘What are some things you like and dislike about your neighborhood?’” Brown said. “From that discussion and the kids really getting a chance to express themselves and what I mean is, if I hadn’t come to the school and proposed this art project for them to work on this specific thing, who knows how they would have gotten a chance to process that? A lot came out of that. I saw kids be able to express themselves – third and fourth graders – through the art project. Writing about some of the things they experienced seeing. ‘My cousin got shot.’ ‘Somebody killed my dog.’ All kinds of other things, at the same thing with all of the positive things they like too. Family gatherings, neighborhood cleanups, baseball games and things of that nature.
“It’s two sides,” she added. “My art does speak to racial injustice and things of that nature, and on the other side is my community nature so everything’s not doom and gloom in terms of that. The community side of my art is reflected in my dolls and my quilts. It’s about building community through awareness of what we all have to face, not ignoring the reality of what is out there but at the same time seeing hope in the community.”
That hope has inspired Brown’s involvement in public art projects in Milwaukee, where vacant neighborhood lots have been transformed into resting areas for neighborhoods and enhanced by public art sculptures and murals, with input from local communities. This, the healing power of art, is the defining element of Brown’s artistic endeavors.
“Art cannot only effect us as individuals but as we begin to grow as a community and not only grow but improve and heal a community and also see the potential of community, art is a huge aspect of that.”