The NY-Art News interview
Walter Brown - Subway Series
NY-ARTNEWS: For many if not most people the subway is a mundane place, certainly not an inspiration to create art. How did you find and still find inspiration in mundane places such as the subway? Is it the place and what it represents or is it more about the people and the human emotions?
WB: I grew up in Bayside Queens and took the bus and subway into Manhattan to attend Stuyvesant High School. The ride was an hour each way, so I sort of grew up in the subway.
So it’s kind of natural that the subway is a metaphor for me. I love that every type of person is there, that all sorts of people are thrown together in tight quarters. The morning rush hour crowd is different from the Saturday afternoon crowd. Outward displays of emotion are against the social contract, and people who would never interact with each other are awkwardly in each other’s space.The eyes dart around, but the rest of the body is pulled inward. That awkwardness, that suppression of feeling, that studied indifference interests me.
All these people are alone, but alone together with many others. When I observe a face that is lost in thought or just relaxing, the guard is down, giving me a window of sorts into that person. My goal is a sympathetic and respectful representation of decent people coping with and responding to life’s demands.
NY-ARTNEWS: How does someone go from being a physician and working in science to being an artist? If you can share with us, what motivated you or inspired you to make that transition from science to art?
WB: My parents were Holocaust survivors and wanted a secure life for me, so I was brainwashed into becoming a physician. Growing up I loved the sciences and was never exposed to art, so it felt okay. After college (Yale) and medical school (Albert Einstein College of Medicine), I became a pathologist. For most of my career, I spent the entire workday looking through the microscope, interpreting biopsies. Even while focused on the medical details, I couldn’t help but notice the visually stunning side of what I was seeing.
Rewarding as my medical career is and was, a day came when I had to once and for all reckon with pent-up dissatisfaction over the feeling that I was not living to my fullest potential. I guess it was a midlife crisis. It was then, for the first time in my life, that I began to draw and paint. Slowly but surely as I reveled in the creation of art, I came to see myself as an artist, finally doing what I had always wanted to do even if I didn’t know it.
I feel compelled to make up for lost time.
NY-ARTNEWS:How would you describe your art?
WB: One of my concerns is how we as a species balance our individuality against the broader interests of the common good. As a human being, I am unique as we all are. But there are seven billion of us here right now. Is there room enough for all of us to express ourselves on this crowded planet? In terms of environmental sustainability, our individuality comes at a price.
Environmental degradation and other problems of our complicated time weigh on me. By working with my personal recyclable and store-bought plastics, I want to absolve myself of some of the guilt I feel as a modern consumer in a world that is falling apart. I come to grips with the plastic littering our cities, landscapes, and oceans by re-creating spontaneous sculptures such as might form by random collisions of plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
By noticing my own personal use and abuse of plastic, I see who I am as a person. The pieces made of my personal plastic waste are self-portraits, exposing where I shop and what I buy, as revealed by the packaging. For instance I shop at Fairway and try to eat healthy.
I play at the interface between fantasy and reality, masking the true identity of things and turning them into something else. I attempt to reconcile humankind’s destructive nature with our better instincts. A throw-away plastic bag or recycled plastic trash is saved from becoming just more litter, and given a chance to become an object of art.
Water Brown - Emotion #1 (of 4 Emotions)
NY-ARTNEWS:You work with different media, unconventional and conventional. Can you share if you have a preferred media or what process goes into selecting one to create your art pieces? Why plastic?
WB: Out of all the plastic waste currently on our planet, polluting our oceans, streets and neighborhoods, I have "rescued" a small amount of the total to use in making art.
I imagine plastic bags as they might assume random shapes in distant parts of the ocean, floating nonchalantly, bumping into other plastic waste forms, forming loosely aggregated structures. Here is someone's toothbrush; there goes the container that my organic prewashed salad came in. For the moment I try not to think about the dying fish and other marine species mistaking the plastic for food
I am acutely aware of my own plastic consumption. As of 2018, New York still permits single-use plastic grocery bags. Even though I am passionate about the environment, I lack the total commitment of those who embrace the zero waste lifestyle. As a consequence, I accumulate a sizable amount of recyclable plastic, much of it related to food packaging. I bring it to the studio where it serves as raw material, along with rolls of plastic bags from Amazon (the kind typically found in the produce section of the grocery), and cling wrap. Compositions range from single paint-filled plastic bags that exhibit fine detail when viewed close-up, to accumulations of painted plastic forming sculptural units.
There is satisfaction in rescuing plastic from the recycle bin, or worse, from becoming street or ocean litter. Elevating it into artwork references our confused political and environmental situation, but might also reveal undiscovered perspectives.
NY-ARTNEWS: Which artists have inspired or influenced your work?
WB: I am a huge fan of Leonardo. I also love Michelangelo, and Uncle Vincent. Closer to our own time, I love deKooning, Anselm Kiefer, Rothko, Bluemner, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Sophie Calle, Maurizio Catalan, Maurizio Pellegrin, Elizabeth Peyton, Tara Donovan, and many others.
My teachers Borinquen Gallo (at the National Academy) and Brian Rutenberg (at the 92nd Street Y) have been hugely influential.
NY-ARTNEWS: All our experiences enrich our work. Do you find that your previous experience prepared you for what you are doing now? Have you been able to transfer that into your artistic projects?
WB: I was definitely not one of those people who know from age 5 that they are artists. But from my current perspective, I see that my medical career was preparation for what I am doing now. The microscopic world was a visual education that I was lucky to have. Since nature is fractal, observations at any level, microscopic, macroscopic, or in-between, are instantaneously relevant at all levels.
I did medical research for a number of years, and approach whatever I am doing in the studio as an experiment. I am always asking what would happen if… For instance, when I asked what would happen if I put paint inside a plastic bag, the results were surprising, even astounding. Coming into my studio in the morning is not all that different from the rush of excitement I felt years ago when coming into the lab.
NY-ARTNEWS: What inspires you? How do you find your inspiration? From what or where do you get your creativity?
WB: I am inspired by the agony and occasional joy of being a human being in our present moment. I am a total news junkie, aiming to be aware of and sensitive to all the injustices that occur on a daily basis, absorbing and internalizing as much as I can, all the painful and absurd machinations of our era. The hypocrisy and greed so rampant today feed my desire to be a positive force in a world gone awry.
NY-ARTNEWS: What is it about New York, do you think, that has provided inspiration, what has New York offered to your art?
WB: I was born in the Bronx and went to medical school there. I grew up in Queens. I went to high school in Manhattan where I now live, and currently work in a studio in Brooklyn. So New York is deeply ingrained in me. (That said, I had to leave New York and live in California for fifteen years, to be able to return and fully appreciate it.) I don’t think I would have had the impetus to evolve into an artist at this point in my life were it not for the unstoppable pace and supportive dynamism of the city.
Walter Brown - Bounce, oil on canvas, 2011
NY-ARTNEWS: What is next? What s your next project and where can people follow you, learn about your art?
WB: I am currently working on a sculptural installation that is composed of modular units. The overall form of the sculpture is constantly changing, depending on the position of the modular units, which are easily re-arranged, either randomly or by design. At the same time, each individual modular unit can be removed from the whole and regarded as a complete piece on its own.
Instagram (@walterbrown99) is where I show what is currently happening in my studio, and is perhaps the best record of what I have been doing the past few years.
My website www.walterbrownart.com shows selected works and gets updated on a regular basis.
My other website www.walterbrownpaintings.com will eventually be a comprehensive collection of all my work