Artist Phoenix Brown continues to evolve with ‘Metamorphose’

The Ohio-born, Wisconsin-based painter currently has work on display at Roy G. Biv in Franklinton

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"A Girl Staring Back" by Phoenix Brown

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, artist Phoenix Brown watched a lot of cartoons, including “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Ed, Edd n Eddy” and “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy,” among others, an interest that initially led her to pursue a career in illustration. Gradually, though, Brown started to realize that she believed too strongly in her own vision to continue down that path.

“I couldn’t fathom my ideas being owned by another entity,” Brown said by phone from her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she moved about seven years ago to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

As a result, Brown pivoted to fine art early in her education, describing the process of finding her own voice within this new, wide-open form as relatively easy. “I didn’t really have a problem finding my own voice,” she said. “That was the problem: I had my own voice, and it was kind of loud, and I felt the need to put it everywhere. Even when I was in interior architecture, I kept making colorful models. I realized early on my voice is my own and it doesn’t belong to anyone.”

In a collection dubbed “Metamorphose,” now on display at Roy G. Biv in Franklinton, Brown embraces all manner of tools to capture this voice, from traditional painting to “impossible brushstrokes” she created in a digital art program, the pieces exploring a line between humanity and technology that has emerged as a fruitful source of inspiration during the pandemic. 

“I’m still in the infantile stage and trying to figure out what all of this means to me,” said Brown, who recently purchased a typewriter to begin experimenting with typewriter portraits, which she described as looking like abstract collections of characters up close, the subject revealing itself to the viewer only from a distance. “Growing up with technology, and always having access to it, I think that had an impact on me.”

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In the pieces on display, one of the first things that jumps out is the backgrounds, which are often rich in detail and complexity. “Before I went to college, I wanted to be a background artist, and I think that stems from my interest in theater,” said Brown, who explained it was natural to move from painting backgrounds to working in the abstract.

With “Metamorphose,” these backdrops provide an anchoring point for a series of abstracted human figures — a study to which Brown initially returned amid the pandemic out of space considerations. For six or seven years prior, the artist focused on large-scale abstracts, which she had to abandon in relocating from an art studio to a smaller home office. “I started practicing alone, and working smaller again,” Brown said. “But after drawing abstractly for years, of course the way I draw figures is going to be a little different.”

These evolving figures are on display in pieces such as “Changes,” which features repeated, overlapped body parts (hands, eyes, lips) amid wild smears of color, and “Floral Jump,” where feet and legs decorate a wide vase displaying an explosion of graffiti-esque flowers. “A Girl Staring Back,” in turn, presents a more complete portrait, given an illustrative quality by its loose, informal line work. 

“Once I became a painter, I became very insecure about drawing, I think because I had a teacher [in high school] who told me that drawing anime and manga characters isn’t art,” Brown said. “And because I had that conversation, I was nervous about drawing figures again. … But as I build my confidence with drawing figures, they’ll become more whole, and not just fragmented body parts.”