by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern
Art can be a source of joy, an outlet for emotions, and an opportunity for self-expression. For some, creating is all this and more, becoming a means for survival. For William Brown, drawing started as a way to cope with a traumatic childhood filled with mental, physical, and sexual abuse. When he was as young as 7 or 8 years old, William remembers making pen and pencil sketches of the cartoons he saw on TV. From Ninja Turtles to the Simpsons to Disney movies, these drawings became his “portal to the world.” Only allowed to leave his room to go to school, William would draw what he could see outside his second story window: kids playing, people going to and from work, “people just living the life I never got to.” Sitting at his window, drawing people doing “day-to-day” things, William would capture the emotions of the people he saw and “so was born my fascination with human expression.”
William’s happiest memories growing up were the times he spent in his high school art classes. With no real friends, art class became his “home away from home.” He recalls how his art teacher became his only friend, helping him learn to translate his feelings into something visual. “I was able to escape into the created pieces and show the world how I felt and saw the things around me.” As he grew up, William continued to use his portraits and figure drawings to express his emotions and “deal with the life that was thrust upon me.”
As an adult, William discovered photography and instantly felt connected to the media. He was drawn to the idea of documenting “real life” and capturing what people usually “glance over or ignore.” William saw photography as a way to bring to light that the world isn’t always perfect and happy. As a portrait artist, he loved to capture moments where people could be themselves, “when their walls were down and their purest emotions were exposed.” Glimpsing these moments allowed William to feel like a part of the people he photographed, slowly breaking down the feelings of loneliness and disconnect he has felt since childhood.
“Being incarcerated has stripped me of not only my freedoms, but the medium through which I was able to connect to others.” Without access to photography, William lost the invaluable sense of connection he’d found through his work. He recalls waiting for sentencing in county jail with only a pen and paper, “reviving the lost love of drawing that had gotten me through the tough times when I was young.” Since that day, William has continued to refine his graphite drawing skills, going on to work with acrylics, watercolor, and even collage, before finding he feels most expressive with oil paints. “The common thread throughout, from my photography to my oil paintings has been to express raw, unfiltered emotion in my subjects.”
Ever since his first drawings out the window of his childhood bedroom, William has continued to be inspired by people. As a result of his isolated youth, William has always felt disconnected from those around him and struggled with his identity: “Who am I? Who do ‘they’ want me to be? Why do I not feel the way others around me seem to feel? What do I need to feel “normal?” It is these questions that have driven William to express and document human emotion. The desire to connect with others and to “feel accepted and normal” has motivated William to try to understand and explore his own emotions in hopes of someday finding the answers.
For William, creating is an immersive process. When he begins a new piece, William tries to surround himself with the feeling he wants to convey: “Be it happiness, grief, loneliness, pride, whatever, I try to invoke and maintain that same feeling in myself throughout the rendering of the piece.”
“If, for example, I am conveying happiness, I’ll work around others, chatting, laughing, having fun while I create. If I need to cultivate a feeling of solemnity or grief, I’ll isolate myself, reminiscing on troubled times in my life, bringing those often suppressed feelings to the surface, giving me a chance to share them and help heal them.”
William also uses music to help him channel the feelings, memories, and experiences from his life that he tries to bring into each piece. This thorough process allows William to feel more connected to the piece when it is completed. He also thinks others may be able to connect to this sincerity, so long as they “open themselves to more than merely looking at the piece, but seeing it.” For those who really “see” his art, William’s pieces are the most raw expression of who he truly is and how he truly feels. “Having this outlet has given me the opportunity to hold on to my true self and to be honest in a way that the brutality of incarceration aims to beat out of you.”
These days, however, William has been struggling to create, saying “I am truly disappointed in myself. The COVID-19 crisis has all but stopped my work.” William is at a facility that has been designated a “quarantine facility,” which means there are extreme restrictions on their movement and supplies, limiting William to mostly sketching. For the last 7 months, William has been in “quarantine lockdown,” only allowed to leave his cell for 45 minutes, three times a week to contact family and 15 minutes, three times a week to shower. They’ve recently added Rec Yard time, allowing William one hour, three times a week, but the rest of his time is spent in total lockdown in his cell. William is frustrated with himself because “where there is a will, there is a way,” and others have found ways to still create under the stifling circumstances — but William feels numb. Every day is exactly the same and he can’t find his “creative force.” The situation has suppressed William’s ability to create and killed his morale: “It’s left me feeling like a failure to adapt to my new normal.”
Thinking back to some of his finished pieces, William reflects on his graphite drawing of a “nude woman sitting on the floor drinking from a bottle of Ketel One vodka.” He explains that it’s funny because his mother can’t see past it being “the crying drunk woman” but the piece is probably his most vulnerable. Inspired by a photo he saw, the drawing embodies William’s struggles with identity.
“Feelings of who I am and how to express myself have always conflicted with who others expected me to be and how they felt I was to behave. In this piece, I am showing my internal identity, as I was on the street. Feeling alone, emotional, trying to use my body to gain acceptance and satisfaction from others, drowning the emptiness in alcohol and tears, this was my everyday, my ‘normal.’”
In creating this piece, William realized how far he has come. He describes how he now has more confidence to “let my outside match my inside” and feels he will have the strength to be more himself in spite of people who may be intolerant or unaccepting.
“My incarceration has been a continuous struggle with identity; who I am versus who I need to be in order to be safe and secure in a microcosm of violence and hatred.” Creating allows William, but also others who view his work, to understand his thoughts and feelings at any given moment. “Art, to me, is a way of sorting out what my mind and senses throw at me” — a way of bringing thoughts and emotions into focus. No matter what media he uses or how he’s currently feeling, William expresses how, “I feel comforted knowing I will be able to tell my story to the best of my ability. Art and its expression has helped me through these rough years of being in a strange and uncomfortable world by allowing my voice to be heard.”
3 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight: William Brown”
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What an inspiring biography! As a former inmate/artist, I can relate to his story about his method of survival, as I did the same thing. I also let my work tell a little too much about me as an individual which, in the end, created an ideal relationship with my fellow inmates. Where is William Brown incarcerated. I think he’d enjoy the input of Nigel Poor (EarHustle. The Men of San Quentin). She’s primarily a photographer who learn cameras aren’t allowed in the cellhouse. So, she adjusted her curriculum to suit the needs of her students.