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VOL. 126 | NO. 10 | Friday, January 14, 2011

Artist Brown Draws Inspiration From Gardens

LESLEY YOUNG | Special to The Daily News

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Whether it’s photographs, murals or public installations, professional artist Tobacco Brown loves gardening so much that even during the off-season she makes sure she’s working with horticulture in some form.

Brown (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Gardening is like my art studio in the summer. I spend the winter documenting what I photographed in the summer,” said Brown, 55. “Nature is very healing.”

Her love of all things green made the Memphis native an easy match for a public art commission at the new Douglass High School in north Memphis.

In 2008, Brown, who received a BFA in communications design from the University of Memphis in 1978, completed an 18-by-18-foot mural for the newly constructed school’s entrance, as well as five other photographic installations for the gymnasium and auditorium.

“It was a wonderful opportunity,” she said.

As with Brown, the school’s ties with nature run deep.

Before the school closed its doors in 1981, it focused heavily on horticulture, including operating a community garden during the Great Depression that merited a visit from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

“When I found out about that during my research for the mural, that was the jewel, that was the nugget I was looking for,” Brown said.

“Gardening is like my art studio in the summer. I spend the winter documenting what I photographed in the summer. Nature is very healing.”

– Tobacco Brown

After years of the community rallying to re-open the historic school, the City rebuilt a $24 million facility in 2008, setting aside a portion of the school’s construction budget for public art through the national Percent for Art Program, and found Brown through the UrbanArt Commission.

“The school sort of chose me. They liked my artwork with gardens and wanted me to do something similar on the walls with a mural,” Brown said.

Brown constructed a mural consisting of porcelain-tiled digital photographs portraying a colorful garden that encircles a black-and-white, wood-block-print-style rendering of the school and its Depression-era garden, which she calls Philosopher’s Garden: sympathetic imagination.

“They liked the idea of a garden providing a calming environment amongst all the activity that goes on in a school,” Brown said.

To recognize Brown’s work, the UrbanArt Commission chose to honor her at the organization’s year-end reception held at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in December.

“We wanted to celebrate the past year and the organization’s success at producing another batch of great projects,” said UAC’s executive director, John Weeden. “We felt like Tobacco represented through her practice and passion the role of public art and art in society, so we wanted to highlight her project and her as an example of a working artist in Memphis doing excellent work.”

Gardens as public art is not a new concept for the world traveler.

In 2001, Brown installed a garden inside the walls of Berlin’s new stilwerk Design Center, loading in trucks of mulch and planting roses, tuberose gardenia, rosemary, lavender and a list of other greenery, a piece she titled Cape Cod Easter.

Some of her earliest memories involve a fascination with artistry.

“I can remember my mother redoing the linoleum on the kitchen floor, and I can remember examining all the other layers of linoleum under it, just studying it, the floral motifs and the patterns,” she said.

“I was always going into my mother’s sewing room, and I would spend hours just touching the fabrics, rubbing my hands over the velvet and taffeta and lace and wool. I always wanted to know the names of everything, all the plaids and herringbone. I’ve always been this way.”

Her fascination with pattern and design would carry over into her career in New York, dressing windows for Bloomingdale’s and the main floor of Macy’s, as well as designing showrooms for an international interior designer and consumer products for various corporations, such as Avon.

Brown prefers to continue forward with public art, a well-suited path for the lover-of-all-things-art, according to Weeden.

“She has the ability to go in and get the pulse of a place and translate it into a compelling art piece,” Weeden said. “That’s what this practice is all about. It’s about people who are willing to make a lasting contribution that tells our story as a people, that tells the story of a place and the aspirations of a community.”

Brown can be reached at tobaccobrowndesign@gmail.com.

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