Updated: Dec 8, 2022
BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY (Sunday, December 4, 2022) Montes-Bradley, a longtime independent documentary filmmaker, was initially drawn to Joy Brown’s warmth — literal and metaphorical. A mutual friend suggested he visit Kent to assess whether a film about the two-year process would appeal to him. Montes-Bradley has created dozens of films about artists, and with all of them, he says he strives to avoid the trap of falling into the artist’s own viewpoint.
“When I approach an artist to make a film, in order to preserve my integrity, I have to distance myself from the intentions of the artists, otherwise it’s propaganda,” he “I need to look at the art in front of me and create based on the reactions I have with that mural. And, in the case of Joy Brown and the mural, I was not able to escape her intentions. So, I was seduced by the work.” It was not simply the mural itself, he says, but the community atmosphere in which Brown works, where friends gather to stoke the fire and load the kiln, with their own pieces or with Brown’s. For Brown, artwork is communal. In effect, to create her singular work, Brown works in plurality. “Once you see her at work around the kiln, you realize that her work is a work of community and she will insist on that,” Montes-Bradley says.
Montes-Bradley comes from a family of porcelain makers in Argentina. While filming Brown in Kent, his father was dying, and Montes-Bradley was not with him. “My father was a ceramist, a porcelain maker, and he had a porcelain factory with a very long kiln that I was never able to walk into,” he said. Being able to walk on his knees, into Brown’s kiln, he said, helped him to grieve. “Being able to take pieces inside the kiln helped me to emotionally get in touch with my father maybe for the first time,” he said. “Once you start thinking of the kiln as a living beast, a dragon, a monster in the best term, if you can go inside the whale, like Jonah, you begin to understand who the other is. To me, walking into the tunnel, kneeling, making an effort to walk, I was inside the womb of the dragon and looking at my father from the inside out as he was dying.”
Language is difficult for Kent artist Joy Brown. Even Japanese, the language to which she is most drawn, and the culture in which she is otherwise most fluent. Brown was born and raised in Japan, the child and grandchild of Presbyterian ministers. And though she imbibed the country’s culture, drenched herself in its traditions and saturated her work with its ethos, her language skills are tentative, fractured, maladroit. Her language skills are, in other words, the inverse of her enormous sculptures, with their guileless, gobsmacked expressions and impish, lissome poses. Although these heavy, rounded forms suggest gravitas, they are as frisky and impish as a Gumby toy, undeterred by their tonnage, freewheeling, coltish and undaunted. The New Yorker described them as “Teletubbies that grew up, chilled out, lost their headgear, and took up nude sunbathing.”
The documentary “One World: The Art of Joy Brown” will center on Brown’s work and the 50-foot-long ceramic mural she created for a permanent exhibit at the Horokan Museum, Amami Oshima, Japan. The documentary follows the artist’s creative process, the ancestral anagram traditions, and the relationship forged around the kiln with a community of artists. To learn more or donate to the project, visit: heritagefilmproject.com
For the past two years, Brown has been working on her most colossal project yet — a 50-foot mural relief titled “One World” to adorn the Horokan Museum in Amami Oshima, Japan. The space is the private museum of Shinichiro Watari, chairman of the trading house Cornes & Company and one of Brown’s closest classmates at the international school she attended while growing up in Japan. “She doesn’t like me using the term monumental, but I think she is wrong,” says filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley. “It is monumental.”
For the past two years, Montes-Bradley has been documenting Brown’s work for his film, “One World: The Art of Joy Brown,” which will be presented at film festivals in the U.S., Australia, and Japan next fall. “To me, the mural is the gospel according to Joy. What it is, is the history of the
THE WORK ITSELF — 500 INDIVIDUAL fired pieces — will be assembled in Japan, quilting together what will become a distillation of Brown’s career, one she has been articulating in the only language she knows — clay. It will be displayed over a long corridor that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. In his request to her, Watari wrote Brown, “Given your and (my upbringing) — multinational, multicultural, internationalist and anti-isolationist — I thought, especially
given the recent resurgence of isolationist, separationist, America first and other developments that limit free movements or exchanges of the people, the ONE WORLD should be the theme or underlying message.” Brown, 71, says it articulates her feelings, incarnated by longtime friend Margaret Moorhead, whose words Brown etched into the mural:
“Here we are the clay
Earth air fire water
Visible and invisible
The mural depicts a woman lying on her side, comforting, or drawing sustenance from a four-legged fantastical animal that snuggles beside her. A mango tree provides shade. A mandala hangs like the sun, over her. What Brown calls “pods,” or emu-shaped orbs, stretch like pollen over the mural as birds, fish, mammals and people co-mingle like rocks on an ocean floor. The woman’s hair streams outward in undulating forms that create hills and valleys.
“She’s dreaming of a wonderful world of flow and harmony and peace in this hurting world,” Brown says of the maternal figure. “In a way, it is like my little prayer for a different way of being. We all have this way of being in us. The mural is a prayer that we could be more like
FOR THE PAST 50 YEARS, BROWN HAS TRANSLATED Japanese traditions, slapping, pinching and snaking wet earth into forms, as ceramicists in Asia have done for centuries. Like them, she fires her pieces with wood in the maw of a 32-foot brick warren, built by hand, with 28 tons of high temperature brick that Brown salvaged from an industrial site. Firing in this type of kiln, called anagama, or “cave kiln,” requires continuous ministration so that the fire maintains its high temperature, a process to which dozens of volunteers commit hours of six- to 12-hour shifts. It takes days before the kiln reaches its top temperature of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And weeks before, those who manage the fiery gestation of the baked pieces discover what has emerged from the torrid alchemy of elemental materials. Consequently, the firing is an event. It takes place annually on the five forested acres Brown has occupied for the past 35 years. The kiln itself, a humble, semi-circular assemblage that emerges like an inchoate beast in the forest, is loaded over a period of days with Brown’s work — slabs of meaty Georgia clay ornamented with the swirls, pods, patterns and peoples that have become Brown’s trademark idiom.
Brown’s pieces are placed in the back where the temperature is lowest. Coated in clay, sand and straw, the kiln can look at a distance like a homespun Quonset hut. The tunnel-like structure is just tall enough that an adult must kneel, crouch and creep to worm down its gullet. To fully load this hearth takes several weeks. Igniting the fire — first, at the mouth of the kiln and then in six stoke holes along its sides — takes eight or nine days. As the hardwood burns, it expels ash that floats through the kiln until it alights on and fuses with the clay. It is that ash, the high temperature at which the kiln is heated and the process by which it is cooled that give Brown’s sculptures a texture and coloration that can seem burned, almost seared. “It’s a balance of how much air is going in and how much wood is going in that determines the temperature and the effects on the clay,” Brown says. “It’s absolutely critical to my work. It’s a whole community of people who fire this kiln. There is an exactness to the science, but we don’t know it. It’s kind of like your relationship with your partners — you know how that person will react if you say something, but sometimes different things around that person affect the way they’ll respond.” “Sometimes I feel like a farmer, waiting a year for my harvest,” Brown says.
FOR MUCH OF HER CAREER, Brown has been celebrated for her oversized, gender-non-specific people sculptures, some in clay, others in bronze. In 2018, nine of Brown’s bronzed, humanoid sculptures adorned the streets of Broadway. The 10-foot figures look like titanic snowmen caught in a split second of astonishment. They have rounded, bulky bodies, smooth, hair-less heads, and coal-like pods of eyes. Their semicircle mouths open in an expression of wonder.
“These are Everyman with an E,” Brown says. “They’re like how I’d like to be. Open and aware, calm. Wouldn’t we like to be like that? They bring out the best in me.” In the past 25 years, Brown has expanded her repertoire to wall reliefs, which allows her to build a story. Female figures embrace coiling spirals. Male, female and child figures hold up an ovoid shape. Anthropomorphic vessels cluster on top of one another with antic curiosity. Montes-Bradley says these reliefs read like storyboards. “The figures communicate more in spirit,” Brown says. “The reliefs can have spirit and a narrative.” Joy Brown met Watari at the international school in Kobe, Japan, from which she graduated. “Those years, we just bonded, and he became a great patron of my work,” Brown said. The mural, which some would call a wall relief, incorporates motifs with which Brown has been working for years: pods, birds, fish, fronds, rotund, merry-looking people in simple poses. “They’re like a seed, full of potential, and when you get them all together, they’re like birds flying together or a school of fish, where they are all in sync with one another. That flowing pod is like chi, a life force, like we are all part of this life energy flowing before we are born and through us and long after we’re here.”
Two years and two firings since she began, the mural’s 500 pieces were among thousands fed into the kiln annually. Brown believes the work that emerges reflects the process by which “One World” was produced. “It’s like creating an energy field around the firing that makes a place of harmony and flow to optimize the kind of results you’re looking for,” she said. “The results will reflect that energy that we try to create.”
THE COLLECTIVE EFFORT REQUIRED to create this, her largest work, “felt much more whole to me. It really feels like I’m channeling the energy of a lot of different elements. It’s like I’m not making it myself. It’s a whole collective effort that makes this mural. It reflects Shin’s vision and our shared philosophy and dream of ours of a world in harmony and flow.” Montes-Bradley is now working to raise money so that he can accompany Brown as she travels, with the tightly packed pieces of the mural, to the small island in Japan that houses the Horokan Museum where they will be on permanent display.
This article was published by the Republican American in Connecticut, and reproduced here with the author’s permission.