JOY BROWN: THE MURALS
Updated: Feb 22
With the following notes, I propose an exploration of Joy Brown's four ceramic murals, none of which are today accessible to the public in the United States.
Joy Brown has created four ceramic murals. The first, “One Earth, One Family,” was conceived in 2003 for the Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Unfortunately, the nearly five by twenty-one feet was recently removed from public view. Her second, “Song of Life” (2006), remains to be appreciated at Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka. These initial experiences, combined perhaps with the single-panel piece produced in 2006 in a permanent exhibit at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, preceded Brown’s two more ambitious murals commissioned in recent years by her long-time friend and schoolmate, Shinichiro Watari. Except for the single panel in North Carolina, these murals were conceived using multiple panels that can be appreciated either in part or, much like the earliest post-classical paintings.
“One Earth, One Family” explores the idea of a community lifting or perhaps sustaining the world. A lineup of nearly twenty men, women, and children are carrying the weight of the world as others carry a float in a procession. On the float (which is not a float), Brown reproduces Japan's natural beauty. These are native species of flora and fauna to the Ryūkyū archipelago of Japan, not found anywhere else. The relationship between these elements, the island itself, is a constant in all of Joy Brown’s murals. These significant ceramic works are a means (language) for Joy to communicate her feelings with the observer, with the world. Although conceived of individual panels, the murals flow with the intensity of a single narrative as in the earliest post-classical painted tableaux.
The second of Brown’s four murals, “Son of Life,” was made for the Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka. This twelve-feet long story-mural, written on clay and fired in Joy’s anagama kiln in Connecticut, features a lineup of men, women, and children leading to a cluster of birds in flight. Unfortunately, just as in the case of “One Earth, One Family,” neither can be appreciated by the public today, and their whereabouts are unknown.
Joy’s long-time friend and schoolmate, Shinichiro Watari, commissioned a third mural. The untitled work, completed in 2017, is on a permanent exhibit at the entrance to the Horokan Museum in Amami Ōshima. The mural comprises eight panels, each measuring approximately three by four feet, all fired in Brown’s anagama kiln in Kent. The first panel shows a woman holding what Brown has called “a galaxy.” The backdrop reveals the volcanic mountains of Amami Ōshima, and in the foreground are pods and ferns. All three elements are omnipresent in all of Joy Brown’s murals. The female figure holding a galaxy represents the artist presiding over the story unfolding in the following panels. A Peruvian shaman planted the concept in Brown’s consciousness during a visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. In that opportunity, the healer mentioned, while in a meditative trance, that she felt as if Joy was “holding a galaxy” and had to learn to let it go. Joy will later expand the idea, questioning whether all are at the same juncture, holding on to the immense and needing to let go.
The following panels are vignettes of a simple life in the village; a life lived in harmony with Nature where men and women seem indistinguishable. On the fourth panel, Brown introduces the kiln as a universal from which we all come to a world of earth, air, and water. The mountains in the background remind us of where we are at all times. Based on what we know so far about Joy Brown and her relationship with Japan, these mountains may reference the hills of Wakayama surrounding the village of Amano, where she lived as an apprentice to Shige Morioka. The fifth panel reveals yet another biographical reference: On the foothills of those mountains, we see an architectural representation of the Canadian Academy in Kobe, from which the artist graduated in 1968. According to Brown, the person on the window of one of the buildings waving at the figure standing in the foreground is no other than Shinichiro Watari, her friend and classmate at the academy who has now commissioned Joy’s most recent murals. Another panel exhibits friends playing on a secluded beach on a bay surrounded by hills, tropical flora, turtles, birds, and black rabbits. The overall feeling of the story spreading throughout this mural is one of friendship and peaceful coexistence in harmony with Nature.
Joy Brown’s fourth and recent mural is "One World". The project was completed in 2022 and is currently installed on a dedicated wall at the Soko Museum, also Amami Ōshima, which holds Shinichiro Watari's private art collection. The fact that both of Brown’s preserved murals are in remote locations drove me to study them independently from the artists' oeuvre for “The Art of Joy Brown,” a documentary film now in progress. While most of her work can be accessed in the public sphere throughout the United States, witnessing the provoking impact of seeing her murals would require a significantly greater effort for anyone not living in Japan.
The Female Figure under the mangrove tree (guardian spirit) dreams the mandala of life. This dream manifests as a constant flow of pods that seems to rule over the mundane scenes below for the entire mural. According to Joy, "the pods are the ever-flowing life force, over and through mountains, seas and skies, people, nature, the universe and everyday life on earth. The pods are like the birds in murmuration or a school of fish." The podes remind us that "we are all connected."
Finally, we can think of One World testimony of gratitude to Amami Oshima and Japan. Looking back, we can regard Joy Brown's her efforts to communicate as an exiled speaking the language of clay, floating between the real and the unreal; a gift to a world her parents and missionary grandparents embraced before her; a culture where the artist’s vision and philosophy of life were modeled, fired, and cast.