Late Bloomer

Unexpected Artist Born Against All Odds


Courtesy of Inez Brown

Inez Brown did not intend to become an artist at age 74. It began in 2002 when a nurse brought Brown by wheelchair from Alameda Hospital’s subacute care unit where she lived, to the hospital’s Art With Elders program.

Brown was reluctant to join in, but when she started to draw, something clicked. Today, her vibrant multimedia creations have made the rounds at dozens of shows, including an Art With Elders exhibit at the de Young Museum.

Brown’s niece, Oakland-based oral historian Nancy Thompson, is passionate about sharing her aunt’s story. “I was amazed by her artwork and by the way she kept creating, in spite of her physical challenges,” says Thompson. Brown was unable to walk, relied on a tube in her throat to help her breathe, and spoke in a whisper due to a tracheotomy. She drew and painted in a tiny workspace in her hospital room, and remained at Alameda Hospital until her death in 2012. Thompson, who leads family history workshops at libraries and senior centers, created three books and Mrs. Brown’s Beauty, a short documentary film about her aunt’s surprising artistic journey.

The film, which has been screened at many venues including the Oakland International Film Festival and the San Francisco Black Film Festival, will be shown at Mills College on March 3 as a part of the school’s Women’s History Month celebration. Thompson, a Mills alumna, will speak after the screening and display some of her aunt’s pieces.

Brown, who only attended school through eighth grade, grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark., and moved to Berkeley at age 16, where she worked as a cook and a maid. Recalling her aunt’s fabulous cooking and the exquisite presentation of her dishes, Thompson reflects that Brown’s artistic abilities may have first been channeled into her food.

Using watercolor, acrylic, pen and ink and colored pencils, Brown completed more than 100 works over the course of a decade, all while living at Alameda Hospital. Her colorful, sometimes tropical, images are based on photos and childhood memories. Over time, she also experimented with portraits and interpretations of masters like Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh. Unable to travel, Brown found inspiration in magazines, art books and photos taken by friends or relatives. Her collages make clever use of gift wrap, scraps of foil, greeting cards and recycled tissue paper.

In the film, Brown says that Monday—the day that Art With Elders comes to Alameda Hospital—is her favorite day of the week. “Even if I’m sick, I go down and work,” she whispers. Art With Elders offers weekly classes for men and women in 36 long-term care facilities in five Bay Area counties.

Thompson plans to continue sharing the film and her aunt’s work. Following the Mills College event, the artwork will be on display at the Bernard E. Witkin Alameda County Law Library from March 25 through April 26, with a reception and film screening on April 18 at 6 p.m.

“It’s an inspiring, uplifting story to tell,” says Thompson. “My aunt said, ‘I can’t draw.’ But I always like to say that one of her paintings ended up at the de Young Museum; you just never know, and that’s a message for everybody.”

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