When I first noticed Bill Brown at the UW Art School I was a newly minted MFA candidate: a TA in morning classes and working nights at as a burr man in a machine shop called Astro Gears.
I was 25 or so, and he was maybe 20 and in his Sophomore/Junior year at the Art School. I sort of assumed he was Eskimo. I had no reason to make such an assumption and it turned out to be wrong. He was, in fact, a Puyallup Indian. He was a bit of a puzzle. His drawing abilities were rather primitive and reminded me of Eskimo inkings on skins or ivory, but he had somehow managed to create an oddly effective style of painting.
He was one of very few art students from recognizable minority groups. There were typically an Asian or two, a solitary Black, and then, out of the blue, this guy. It was rare for beginners – underclassmen – to actually have a body of notable work, but he was exhibiting these distinctive renderings with the theme of iron girders in spatially ambiguous vaguely impossible contradictory assemblage. The paintings were generally 4’ wide and quite stark and imposing. He was using very fine grain linen canvas (portrait canvas) with multiple smoothed coats of gesso that had been tinted a pale blue – sometimes graduated slightly for a sky effect. The black girder structure was then laboriously laid out from detailed sketches with masking tape to keep the edges clean.
I was just a person in passing, nodding acknowledgement. He disappeared without notice on my part. A few years ago there was an artist in the 619 Western cabal that was doing somewhat similar renderings, not quite as well. Decades ago I was visiting Puyallup frequently and noticed the railroad bridges crossing the Puyallup River and Bill Brown came to mind. Could he have been influenced or inspired by these bridges that date back to the ’40’s? Perhaps. I have not seen any further work from him and have no idea what became of him. There are so many ways to fail in the Art World, so many ways of getting astray, and only a few manage to prosper for any significant length of time.