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Russ Brown: Creating a New Vision in Sedona

Last year, I was shopping in a local store that displayed many artists’ work. The place was fairly empty as I walked along the aisles.

As I was quietly looking around, I came upon a group of noisy folks chatting and laughing, surrounding an artist who was working on a painting. “So that’s where everyone is,” I thought, and was magnetically drawn to the crowd.

However, it wasn’t the crowd that really pulled me in. It was the captivating personality of the artist, Russ Brown.

Happily working and talking to his guests, he continued on painting as if it was an automatic response to some inner calling.

Encircled by his colorful, vibrant art pieces, he greeted me heartily. I could barely take my eyes off these beautiful creations long enough to respond.

Some of the displayed art, the Cosmic Portal Series, was of the red rocks surrounded by water and, of all things, dolphins. Oddly, it looked perfectly natural.

One of the portals, surrounded by a softly curved border, encrypted with ancient symbology, had a haunting full moon over Cathedral Rock. The vibrant green of high desert foliage enshrouded a mountain that led to the familiar platform of flat red rocks that appear like beach sand. Here, mulling around, were animals from all over the continent. Elephants, giraffes, panda bears, tigers and penguins together in harmony.

This led to an ocean full of dolphins, whales, sea turtles and other colorful fish. A majestic bald eagle spread his wings above the scene, while a playful dolphin jumped out of the frame below. The piece was very three-dimensional. I found myself smiling broadly at the feelings it evoked.

Now a full year later, I have the opportunity to meet and talk with Brown on his own turf. A very special turf, called the Sedona Artists Studio. Having started this new endeavor just a few months ago, Brown has already come a very long way.

When sales had slowed down last year on paintings of dolphins and red rocks, it was time for Brown to paint other things. Having an interest in planes, and having flown different types of aircraft while serving in Vietnam, Brown began painting them. He’d painted one or two in the past but never really went for it. Things were slow and it was time for a new look. The aircraft paintings were an immediate success.

Brown keeps his life and paintings interesting by expanding on the themes he comes up with. When one painting sells, he makes another and another until they stop selling. That’s not happening yet, so he is expanding the variety of aircraft he paints. He’s gotten much more serious about these paintings and, as a result, much better at it. Because of their demand, Brown is advertising them nationally.

He has created a niche and is rather enjoying himself.

“I create affordable art that is good quality and I offer it at a great price.” he said. Even though he’s gotten better and is selling more, he isn’t raising his prices.

Brown is adamant about not making prints of his work - each piece is one-of-a-kind. While he may repeat a type of aircraft or red rock scene, he will always make it noticeably different. Perhaps a different time of day or different angle. “My way is paint one then when it sells I do another painting. I don’t want to spend time selling what I’ve already sold.”

Brown’s aircraft paintings have definite personalities. His B-17 Flying Fortress is his best seller. “It is the penultimate spirit of America. It represents America at its finest,” he said proudly. “Some aircraft do not have personalities, then it’s my job to give them one. But the B-17, no matter how you look at it, is a thing of beauty.”

I wondered out loud what kind of people buy these paintings, convinced it was solely those who flew them. Brown surprised me by saying 30 percent or more of his sales are to women. As Brown explained it, in World War II, women built the planes the men flew.

Brown also sells to aviation buffs. They could be the wife of a pilot, a stewardess, and, of course, women fly planes too.

Brown paints many things, most of which have nothing to do with each other. From cars to dolphins, it’s hard to believe the same artist painted the subjects you see in his studio. You simply can’t put a label on him.

“You haven’t even begun to realize what is in the back of my mind,” he grinned.

I prompted him to tell me some of those ideas and this is what poured forth; a sixties rock star series, including Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison; he is exploring the world of ships; and there is a sunset series around the red rocks. He wants to continue the Cosmic Portal series, of which there are currently 34. His love of birds will create the Raven series and Birds of Sedona. Then there’s the Vietnam series of aircraft. And it goes on and on.

“Just when I think the plate is full, I realize I can put more on it!” 

Brown often refers to coming to Sedona and how his life and art changed as a result.

“Lord knows, I had to suffer, but I made my choice. I wanted to be a painter and make a living at it. When I left Hawaii, life was very good. I painted some in Hawaii, but not with the same fervor that I paint now.”

A very successful businessman there, he knew he had to leave to “just paint.” On some levels, it was the ultimate mid-life crisis. He turned 50 and said, “I’m not happy with what I’m doing, there is something inside saying go paint. But, I have my Jaguar, I have the good life. NO, the voice said, go paint. So, I’ve come to follow that inner voice and many times the road has gotten a little rocky.

“Now when other painters come to me and say ‘Oh, you’re so talented, you’re such a great painter.’ I tell them ‘Do you realize that talent is just a small portion of what you’re going to need to be a successful painter?’ Focus, determination, using your brain. There are so many great artists out there, but if you want to be a successful painter that makes money doing nothing else, you’re going to have to do some serious thinking and realize that you have to do something out of the ordinary.”

Never Say Never

When he left Hawaii, he swore to himself he would never start another business, hire an employee or use a computer.

“I just wanted to be an artist and do nothing else. I do however, like the good things in life. If my friends in Hawaii could see me driving down the road in LaBamba, they’d have a good laugh.”

LaBamba is Brown’s station wagon, painted with various scenes of the red rocks. It was actually the vehicle, in more than one way, that got him here.

After Hawaii, he found himself painting in Colorado but it didn’t feel right. He went on to Taos and that didn’t feel right either. He was leaning on LaBamba looking at a map when some people came by and said, “Hey you’re an artist, what are you doing?” He told them he was trying to find his destination. “Go to Sedona,” they said.

On a whim he did. He drove into town, then on to the Village of Oak Creek for gas where he was hired for his first commission. Some people saw his car and wanted him to paint their pickup truck. This was a good omen.

Brown is not particular, he loves to paint anything. From propane tanks to gas tanks, he’s done it all. He also loves a good challenge.

“My goal is to be an artist that paints paintings,” he said. What he paints on is of little concern.

When Brown came to Sedona, he was a different person and for some reason, the first six months in Sedona was a “blessing in disguise.” He found Sedona to be a beautiful place. People were so friendly and he had this feeling that Sedona was a perfect spot in an imperfect world.

However, after the six months passed, he began to run into all kinds of strange attitudes. Brown refused to buy into it, he was determined to be a happy camper.  He had a mission and a vision, and was not going to be discouraged.

Working at a local art market, Brown was disappointed and decided to leave. Switching his focus, he ran ads inviting people to visit his home studio.

Brown wanted more though. He wanted something very special and unique. He knew a regular gallery setting would not suffice. The general consensus around Sedona is that the artists are used and abused. He didn’t want to be one of them.

Brown tries to inspire artists he meets. That is one of the reasons Sedona Artists Studio happened. A group of artists got together and said “we need a place for artists.” Everyone was looking at Russ. So out he goes with Gerry Quotsquovya, an awesome local Native American artist, they see the space at Hozho, and he tells Quotsquovya to “go for it.” Quotsquovya didn’t want the responsibility, so Brown rented the studio.

Within a day he was already looking at the next space. Before the ink was dry on the lease, he was expanding. This was the birth of Gallery Row at Hozho. “If I can think it, I can do it. This spells harmony.”

The vision he has talked of from the beginning is to create something extraordinary in Sedona and give the artists a chance to be a part of it. You have to be a working artist to be part of the Sedona Aritsts Studio.

Since its inception, it has attracted many artists. A number have come and gone, but the right person finds his or her way and stays. These artists don’t fit into the gallery mode. They want to show people what they do as they are doing it. They bring their personality and talent to the public eye.

Brown gives them a first-class space at a price they’ll never get again. He vows, “I will not make any money on this business and I’ve done this for a reason. We’ve got 17 artists under a wing - let’s all go fly. Let’s take a little trip.

“Some have resisted the vision. . . it’s too new, too bold, too scary. I say build it and they will come. Now the entire bottom floor is all gallery space occupied by working artists. We’re already off the ground. Personally my sales have doubled every month!”

He believes the best way to do this artists’ studio is to lead by example. He works and paints more than anyone else and thereby sells more than anyone else.

Brown started the studio with very little money. The sign of a good idea is that it draws people that want to help with that idea, Brown said. He is grateful to have gathered so many fine artists together under one roof. To have so many artists come together in harmony is pretty rare. He has a certain grace in business and it shows in the growth of Gallery Row.

What he has created is his gift to the next generation of artists. It’s a legacy. Here is a place where the serious artist can get started. A sort of modified co-op.

“People love a bold, direct vision. If you waiver, it won’t work,” he said. “We’re creating something extraordinary in Sedona. People will come from all over the world to see it.”

Brown has put Sedona Artists Studio in a first-class setting. He’s working on having patios out front, awnings, flowers, wrought iron. He’s creating a mini-mall/gallery and eventually wants to take over the whole building. He’s making a bold statement at Gallery Row.

He believes if you get the right group of artists together, something magical will happen. Every time a new artist joins, it’s another piece of the puzzle. “We have some really great personalities. Not everyone belongs here, but oh when they do!”

With a quiet confidence, devoid of ego, he takes things one step beyond and creates his vision.

“I didn’t say we are out to create the most money. I did say we were going to create something extraordinary. Now, despite a few birth pains, it’s happening. It’s here. The harder I work, the luckier I get. More and more good things are happening.

“At 53, hell I want to paint as much as I can. The power is in my head.”

Brown believes his challenge is to paint a broad spectrum. He likes when people say “what an unusual artist.”

“Instead of feeling ‘oh good I reached this point, now I can relax,’ my work begins from this point forward. There’s so much more to be done and the only person I need to impress is myself.”

Working at Gallery Row in Hozho is a great platform for his  showmanship. Brown is truly inspired by the interaction of people with his art.

Brown paints space with a three dimensional quality. He can paint what he thinks. With his technical ability, Brown can literally put you in another world. He can put you on the planet Mars with Cathedral Rock in the background. It is quite an experience to stand in front of one of his paintings and feel this other worldly experience.

“Sedona is a wonderful space for an artist. You’re in a free-thinking zone here, you can leave the city limits and create your own reality. Anything an artist can think of here in Sedona, can be done, and its accepted. And by the way, thank you Sedona!”

Brown introduced me to one of his Triptych paintings - one imaged seperated in three panels. He enjoys painting on different shapes, triangles, portals and cut out images are not unusual for Brown. He paints on masonite or canvas with acrylics. His love of bright colors brings his paintings to vivid life.

Russ the inventor, likes to exercise his mind. He envisions creating ceiling art and corner art to name a few. “I want to get away from flat paintings. I just want things to be exciting and fun!”

Every detail is important to Brown. The flowers outside, gravel in front, the overall ambiance.

“It’s the whole picture that reflects on the picture I’m painting. When I paint I want to be able to talk with people and bring them into my painting. At least once a day, if I’m lucky I get to talk to a child whose seen something they’ve never seen before. I give them a brush and say here paint this. Suddenly they beam. They are an artist. As synergy gets created here, it becomes electric.”

Look for a reception in September featuring the new and stimulating fractal art of Kip Worrell.

Visit Russ Brown and the many unique artists of Sedona Artists Studio on Gallery Row in the Hozho Center on Hwy. 179. Call 203-0195 for directions or information.

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