A Gala For Susan Brown

My older sister, Susan Brown, turns 60 this year. She is autistic. She lives with my mom in a rambling 1871 Victorian in Sayville Long Island where we moved to in 1965. Susie is also an artist, painting since she was eight years old, barely before she was speaking. Over the past fifteen years, as an artist in residence at Pure Vision Arts, Susan has built quite a following in The Outsider Art world and otherwise. On April 6th, she is to be honored at a gala in New York.

So much of Susan’s success is due to the tireless efforts of those at Pure Vision Arts. It is at once a gallery / studio / social program for artists on the autistic spectrum. It is a home to dozens of artists who otherwise would have no place to create their art, nowhere for the public to see it. Without Pure Vision’s support, these adults on the spectrum would not have an identity as artists. In all likelihood, they’d be seen merely as disabled by most. They’d lack a career and the community of artists and teachers that form Pure Vision. Pure Vision Arts, a social venture launched by The Shield Institute, a one hundred year old organization dedicated to helping children and adults on the spectrum or with developmental disabilities in New York, in turn deserves our support. You may donate here or purchase tickets for the gala here.

One thing you can say about the artists of Pure Vision: They are tenacious, dedicated to their craft. Susan has been painting at Pure Vision Arts every single Thursday from her start in 2002, taking the train 1 1/2 hours each way from Sayville, then going from Penn to 114 West 17th Street, Third Floor and Pure Vision. Susan’s story, as with all those whose talent brought them to this magic place, is remarkable — a story of will, of overcoming, of art demanding to be created so that an artist could be heard.

Susan began drawing at 8 — little 1” X 1” squares that she would glue onto the cedar shingles of our house outside her window at night while the we slept. This was before even she spoke in any conventional way. The drawings, we inferred, were ‘talismanic’: They were there to protect the house from being torn down. A barn that once went with the house had just been. We were perhaps next.

An early subject for her art was the bees nest in the attic — another threat to our old home:

Here we see something very typical of Susan’s art — repetition, theme and variation. These days, when Susan takes a photo with her iPhone, she uses all the available filters on the photo — Chrome, sepia, monochrome, etc - so that she has 30+ versions of every picture. Along with that, she employs her photographic memory to capture, it seems, every scene in her life, along with that of her mom and her siblings.

Susan is probably best known for her “Moms” paintings. The Moms paintings are grids depicting my mom Miriam in a variety of outfits she’d worn over the last 50 years or so. Often these were outfits that she made from Butterick patterns on her Necchi sewing machine. Susan remembers the day and occasion for each mom portrait and writes those descriptions on the back of them.

The largest of her Moms paintings is 4’X6’ and contains 576 tiles or 24 rows and 24 columns. There are only 54 here.

Susan Brown, Her Mother, Mixed Media on Cardboard, 36X36
Susan Brown, Her Mother, Mixed Media on Cardboard, 36X36

Not only does Susie paint vastly complicated montages of my mom, she paints them prolifically. Here are some 57 Moms paintings, for instance. Note that written on the back of each one is a description for each tile — the place and date where the outfit was worn, with a description of the outfit.

These paintings, like most of Susie’s work, is about the preservation of memories. She herself never seems to forget anything. Because as an autist Susie is unable to determine what is important or not — she has no theory of the world — she remembers everything by default. She doesn’t know how to process experiences, to make sense of them, to work through emotional upset. Whereas when she was a child she spoke little and in a language all her own, today her life is a run-on sentence, with events that happened 30 years ago popping in with what just happened, next to another event from five years earlier, and so forth.

Amid all this noise, her art, as a series of grids, lends a measure of order.

The painting here to the left has 56 panels, one for each year of my life, from crib to present. The lower two are abbreviated forms of that. The two on the top right are amalgams — moms, bees, my dad, soda fountains (she worked as a dishwasher at Friendly’s the twelve years prior to starting at Pure Vision), and Plymouth Furies (my dad, the engineer, kept three of them at bay and on the road, mostly by working on them every weekend). To quote T.S. Eliot from The Wasteland, “These fragments I shore against my ruins.”

Susie NEEDS to create. It structures her world. She and her fellow artists are compelled, for the sake of their well-being, to be artists. Art informs. It heals, it moves us, it expands us. We must not forget its power, especially in a time when the arts and the humanities are under siege, along with our own humanity.

Her palette is quite broad, practically encyclopedic:

Here are just 6 of over 200 paintings about Long Island, Fire Island, and The Great South Bay. Susie grew up on the bay, still lives on it, and captures its essence beautifully:

I am very proud of my sister, and amazed at all the effort my mom put in to make sure there were even schools for Susan to attend, since when Susie was a child, there were little resources for autists. Few understood it. It was deemed a rare condition.

Today, though, I worry — for her, and for her fellow artists, and for all those who are different, who are challenged, who need something like Pure Vision in their lives. These are people who deserve our support and understanding.

Half of all police homicides are of people with disabilities. This might have been Susie as well, and still may.

Shortly after 9/11, she was on a train from Penn Station heading home. She takes a lot of pictures -- of trains, boats, planes. Recently, some of her work was on display at The Transit Museum in Brooklyn. (See images below). Her taxis are very popular.

The cops were called in -- it was a post- 9/11 world after all, and taking pictures on a train was officially suspicious. They detained her for the night in a psychiatric ward. She knew my phone number, so I was able to come sign her out.

Ten years later, she is out around Shinnecock. She parks by the bridge and stands in the median, taking pictures so she could later paint the images. The police come, and fearing she'd be put in confinement again, Susan leads them on a 100 MPH car chase. This was completely out of character for her, and was a reaction to the previous trauma.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. Were guns drawn? I pray not.

The fact that 1/2 of police homicides involve people with mental disabilities has several causes. We started in with 'deinstitutionalization' back in 1981 - states found they could save money by emptying the asylums. Post Willowbrook, Post Cuckoo's Nest, it was obvious that state-run facilities were monstrous in their own right. Some argued this was the better path -- half-way houses, reintegration into the communities. What happened instead, (and what has happened since) is that many thousands of the mentally ill were thrown onto the streets, where its a crime to be disabled, homeless, poor. Our prisons then became how we warehoused the mentally ill and the disabled. Police then were placed in the position of being mental health workers, a job for which they are not trained.

Here we have people considered, increasingly, subhuman and disposable in a society grown cruel to them, the most vulnerable amongst us; combine that with a militarization of the police, and yes, throw in the circumstance where you are of a different hue, where, say, you miss your meds, or had none to begin with, where you are staggering down the middle of a road, brandishing a knife, or shirtless in front of a convenience store. People who don't drop the knife are greeted with a hail of bullets.

My sister could have easily been dead today from over-policing. In many ways, she was lucky. She has a roof over her head, and lots of support from Pure Vision, from her family, from her community; given her ethnicity, she was inarguably less likely to get shot after her panic.

We incarcerate more people per capita than anywhere on earth. There is blood on the streets because law enforcement over-reacts to the mentally ill and disabled; as for the disabled, we fear them, we shun them, we look away, we abandon them, we mock them, drive them to the brink and beyond.

A society is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. So how is today's America measuring up? And what kind of nation do we want to become? Susan's art is joyful, colorful. She is prolific, caring, innocent. She is all that despite how she is often received. Perhaps that is why she is here and still painting, taking buses and trains everywhere because her driver's license was revoked. With her photographic memory, however, she knows the schedules for the entire transportation system — trains, buses, subways.

She is lucky, very lucky.

Here are several works that were shown at The Transit Museum, with a couple of others to be displayed at the gala, where the theme will be her new New York City series.

If you are interested in Susan’s work, and the wonderful art created by the artists of Pure Vision, it is available for purchase here.

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