By Timothy Gillis
This interview with Brown Lethem appeared previously. The painter will speak at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine, on Sunday, June 11.
“I learned to think by watching my father paint,” says Jonathan Lethem, the acclaimed author, in an essay on his dad, Richard Brown Lethem, the 81-year-old avant-garde artist. Father and son have long been inspiring each other.
After his reading at SPACE Gallery a few weeks ago, Lethem looked to the audience for questions, and saw his dad with his hand raised. Brown, sitting next to Andy Verzosa of Aucocisco Galleries, asked his son about his recent time living in Berlin and what European reactions were to his latest book, “Dissident Gardens,” which has just been translated into Spanish. While the author has written much about his dad’s influence on him, the painter says no one asks him how his son has also informed his art.
“It’s worked both ways,” Brown said last week. “His work has influenced me. His interest in science fiction, which I wasn’t into when I was younger, and (Jorge Luis) Borges, and some of the writers I hadn’t read – he turned me on to. They’ve been a big influence.”
The two areas the father and son most overlap is the tendency to never repeat by continually reinventing themselves in their art, and the use of fantasy and imaginary relationships. Brown has always had an interest in the subconscious and the fantasy life and how it influences art, working out of imaginary sources, “and I think that’s been prevalent in his work also,” he said. He’s read all of his son’s books, usually cruising through an advanced copy.
“This last one is so dense I have to go back and read it again,” he said. “His writing has really made me alerted to the environmental crisis. He was on top of that long before it became a meaningful aspect of my thinking.”
Brown works at his Berwick home, in the big barn studio during much of the summer and the stable, a smaller studio that he can heat and work in through the winter. His nickname, Brown, comes from his grandfather’s first name.
“I adopted it a few years back as my real name,” he said. “It seemed earthy and appropriate for a painter.”
During our visit, his cat, Chomsky, made friendly, but Sophie and Whippoorwill, another two, stayed out of sight. Brown was a carpenter for years in Brooklyn, and those skills came in handy when he moved to Maine. The Berwick house is a typical New England cape built in 1846. The barn burned down in 1900 and was rebuilt the following year. When Brown moved in, there was a lot of renovation work to be done on the barn and house, but he didn’t mind the labor. He still spends time in his woodworking shop, which is part of the stable studio.
“Richard Brown Lethem: Figure ↔ Abstraction” is an exhibit at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art that runs though the end of August. The show features many of the paintings he created while living in Maine. A six-foot tall wooden sculpture was done in 1991 while he was artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine.
“I’ve always done three-dimensional work,” he said. “The carpentry has influenced my artistic work, assemblages where I use woodworking as a basic form for building.”
Lethem, at 81 years old, still remains flexible with the artistic process.
“I work whenever I feel good, and inspired,” he said. “I try to do something around my studio every day. Sometimes it’s just paperwork, or thinking about the art work, and sometimes it’s a laying on the hands.”
Brown Lethem grew up in the Midwest, in the triangulation of Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, and spent his summers in “the Divide,” the high prairie land of Willa Cather.
“It’s an interesting part of the county with the character of flat prairie geology that extends into northern Kansas, beautiful buffalo grass,” he said. “It was a little desolate, scary growing up with fire ants and rattle snakes and hand-to-mouth farming, hardscrabble. Many farmers went into debt. I always retained those feelings that Cather talked about, the innocence of sensing death in the landscape.”
He spent most of his first 11 years in a small town in Missouri, half a block from his best friend’s farm.
“Farm animals were a big part of growing up,” he said, then related his early days to his more recent ones. “I come up here, and I’ve gotten back into the country, where the relationship between animals and people are a big part of the subject matter. I have a lot of paintings of horses and riders.”
Lethem’s parents rode horses to school. His dad, Walter Roy Lethem, was a traveling salesman who did well enough to keep six kids through the Depression. His mother, Faye Marie Gifford, also grew up in a rural situation and never lost that love of close proximity to riding horses. Young Richard always had a great ambition to be a painter and got his first set of oil paints from his older sister when he was nine.
“It’s pretty much what I have focused on for 60 years as an adult. I wound up being a carpenter and a teacher by default,” he said.
Lethem brought up his own children – Jonathan, Blake (a graffiti and graphic artist), and Mara Faye (a writer) – in New York in a free-sharing artistic existence.
“We lived in an old brownstone in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. We had a big house. It became a commune with always three or four or more housemates living with us. The kids had a wide-ranging diverse environment, people-wise. There were a couple of guys from Africa, a guy from Okinawa, a couple from Germany – many involved in the arts in one form or another. It was pretty stimulating, a little bit chaotic. The neighborhood was rough, a lot of threatening stuff on a huge street for a kid.”
Brown taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and at Columbia University (his alma mater), as well as the University of Kentucky and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1994, he became an assistant professor at USM, where he taught for seven years before becoming an adjunct professor, still instructing a couple classes until three years ago.
“I loved teaching at USM. The students were wonderful,” he said. “They came mostly from working backgrounds and were serious about their work. They were cooperative and really worked together. They also had an independent streak that Mainers have growing up in close contact with nature and working situations. They were great. Other than the Kansas City Art Institute, working with USM painting majors was my very best experience.”
The next wave of Maine artists can check out the works of one of the most inspired, at Richard Brown Lethem’s show in Ogunquit.