Artist Rhonda K. Brown has been immersed in art from an early age. In 1980 her parents, Ernestine and Malcom Brown, opened the first for-profit African American art gallery in the U.S. During its 30-year existence in Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland), the Malcolm Brown Gallery featured the work of such renowned artists as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Selma Burke, and others.
Today Brown is a successful artist in her own right, and her work will be featured in a solo exhibit at the Knowhere Gallery through the end of the month. She was also the featured artist at the recent Soul of Sonoma wine festival at the Island Inn.
The 14 paintings on display at the Arts District–based gallery are primarily portraits of women. However, the artist has also included one man — her father. “He taught me everything I know,” says Brown.
She cites as some of her influences the work of Matisse, Bearden (the subject of her master’s thesis), and African sculptures.
Brown works in an expressionist style, capturing a mood and the personality of her subjects with bold lines and unexpected, vivid color combinations. Her figures come across as strong and confident, although their faces are generally only vaguely rendered.
“I have always been preoccupied with the women that a lot of early European paintings depicted in the background,” says Brown of her recent portraits of African American women. “They were usually servants. I wanted to express the idea that those women have liberated themselves. They’ve forged their own identities.
“My focus has always been how these women have been perceived. Now is the time to show that they’ve become the center of attention in their own right.”
Brown explains that the subjects she has portrayed in her most recent series are not individuals but rather representations of strong women. “I want people to connect with what they see — whatever they take away from these women.”
The artist wanted to include her father’s portrait in the selection to honor her parents, who continue to buy and sell art privately. “They opened the gallery with the goal of creating a fulcrum of interest and engagement in the arts,” says Brown, “with a particular emphasis on exposing the region to African American artists.”
Although she exhibited her work at her parents’ gallery in her early years — and enjoyed success as a painter — Brown eventually explored other avenues in her career. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio State University with a double major in painting and drawing, and completed her master’s degree in art history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2005.
After relocating to Chicago, Brown forged a successful career in the nonprofit sector, working in fundraising for many years for the Museum of Science and Industry and other institutions. All along she kept up with her painting, but it was only recently that she decided to take her pursuit of art more seriously.
“About a year ago I decided that I wanted to allow myself the time and space to really focus on the gift that I had,” says Brown. “I felt that it was my time and my opportunity to exercise my gift.”
Since embarking on her second career, Brown has sold many commissioned works, and has hosted two pop-up shows in the Chicago area. The artist’s work appears in private collections throughout the country, and has been featured in Samella Lewis’ International Review of African American Art, Oprah at Home magazine exhibitions, and architectural interiors. During the next few months Brown will be honored by the Art Center at Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, as a guest juror and featured artist for their current exhibition.
Brown felt that the time was right to focus on her painting, as a mature artist who has a wealth of experience behind her. She also sees her work as an artist as having an impact on her first career.
“I would say that my training as an artist has informed everything that I do professionally,” she says. “It has allowed me to be extremely creative in my fundraising. It’s influenced how I approach problems. In art, you’re really solving problems. You’re creating an enigma out of materials in front of you.”
Rhonda K. Brown’s solo exhibition, “Our Story,” opened on August 10 at the Knowhere Gallery on Dukes County Avenue, Oak Bluffs, and will hang through August 30.