A Crossing of Courage / A Voyage of Hope
Text: Julie Graham
“I want my paintings to be larger than life. They should leap off the walls and overwhelm you with their tactile, chocolate thick, syrupy colour and texture.”
Staying true to the nature of Abstract Expressionism and its potential to stimulate and excite spectators with courageous colours, bold brushstrokes and nonconcrete nuances, Leonie e. Brown’s work is a burst of explosive energy. Her paintings, rich in texture, colour and deeply conceptual ideology are the very essence of her life and tell a remarkable, personal story that she hopes will inspire her audiences. A self-professed “wandering eye poet, texture worshiper and eclectic colour fanatic”, Brown’s raw talent and adaptability have resulted in her proliferating success that she considers with a sense of pride but also that of deep humility.
I meet Brown at Soet Bistro in Durbanville, one of her favourite cafes, and I can immediately see why it appeals to this fiery artist. The décor is opulent and eye-catching and the colours striking and bold. Not only that, the exciting menu immediately tells me that the attention they clearly pay to the design, is matched in their culinary endeavours. As the two of us sit together and sip on our delicious red cappuccinos, we start chatting. I quickly realise that Brown’s story is one of guts, determination, motivation, perseverance, unwavering faith and above all, passion.
Unlike many artists of her calibre, Brown fell into fine art quite accidently. Growing up in an unstable home and dealing with abuse created a fire in her that was not nurtured or tended to in a way that was conducive to her self-worth. As a result, she became angry and rebellious and used the opportunity to attend university as a way of escaping her environment. She needed to find something that would enable her anger to be articulated without her having to speak since, as the young artist quickly realised, she was living in conservative times; people, especially young women, did not speak about such matters. She opted to study art and fell in love with the idea of being able to use abstract art as a means to express her inner self. Her paintings were magnificent and, at the young age of 22, Brown had already been awarded a number of accolades that were far and above any tributes being awarded to other young artists at the time. These included the prestigious 1986 Volkskas L’Atelier Fine Art Award (now known as the Absa L’Atelier Fine Art Award) and both the Schweicherd and Gregoire Boonzaaier Art Bursaries.
Notwithstanding her success and raw talent, Brown’s personal life was turbulent. She was emotional and didn’t like what she was seeing in her creations despite the fact that there was already a demand for her work. “People want to buy what they can see within themselves. If I am angry, and you paint angry, I’ll buy it. I was angry. And this was reflective in my art. But I decided to stop. It was getting too emotional.” And so, after university she went through a long period of deep self-examination and introspection which resulted in her taking a clean break from painting for 10 years.
In 2000, she was inspired to pick up her paintbrushes yet again. This inspiration came after meeting the man she knew she was destined to marry and finally feeling that a sense of stability had been restored to her life. At the beginning of 2004, Brown opened her art school, LifeArt, and offered night classes while she continued with her work in graphic design, something she had been doing up until then and something she realised she had a real flair for. By August of the same year, she realised that she could support herself solely with the art classes and decided to escape the corporate world and focus exclusively on painting and teaching, something she discovered she had a real passion for. “The teaching started off as being supportive to the art but I found that I was a good teacher and I fell in love with it.”
Because of her long break from painting, Brown lacked the kind of poise and confidence she now oozes sitting in front of me. This, however, was shortlived. After approaching gallerist and curator of the Hout Bay Gallery, John Hargatai, with some of her latest works, she was fired up once again to paint and exhibit her outstanding work. “I took him 5 abstract pieces, he selected 4 of them and within a month, all 4 were sold!” Brown has since exhibited all over the country and her work is undoubtedly testament to her dedication, enthusiasm and newly-found positivity. “The reason why my art changed is because I had changed and I wanted to change what I was saying. I wanted to give people hope. My biggest problem when I was angry was that I didn’t talk about it. And what happens when you have a secret is it starts to make you feel as though you’re not good enough. It becomes an inward focused hurt. It almost destroyed me more than once. What I wanted to do with my art now that I had hope was to share that hope with others.”
Our conversation has been inspirational and I am pleased that we have not simply focused on the paintings but instead on Brown’s desire and drive to inspire hope in those that view her art. She has explored beyond abstract expressionism and also has a great fondness for landscapes. She shows me some of her landscape work and I am astounded by how this same message of hope is so evident. The signature brush strokes, bold choices of colour and intensity of texture work together to create something quite magical. The positive message she wants to share with everyone has certainly made an impact on me and as I walk away, I feel just a little more hopeful about the world.