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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Beatrice Caroline (Jan) Brown (1922–2022)

by Sasha Grishin

from Canberra Times

Jan Brown — artist, teacher and mentor — passed from this life on January 9. Although she had been in "God's waiting room", as she put it, for some time, the finality of her departure did come as a shock. It is difficult to imagine the Canberra art scene without her presence.

Jan Brown was born in Sydney in 1922 where she trained at the East Sydney Technical College under Lyndon Dadswell and Dorothy Thornhill. Subsequently, in 1947, she travelled to London where she studied at the Chelsea Polytechnic School of Art under Henry Moore and Bernard Meadows and where in 1949 she was awarded her National Diploma in Design (Sculpture).

In 1957, when Jan Brown commenced teaching at the Canberra Technical College (morphed into the Canberra School of Art in 1976), she could have been described as Canberra's first professional artist.

Outside Indigenous artists, Jan Brown was Canberra's best-trained sculptor for the next few decades. She continued to teach sculpture and drawing at the school of art until 2001.

Her teaching was legendary and she was the saviour and benefactor of several generations of Canberra artists.

She made herself available not only to exceptionally talented students who were destined for the limelight, but also to the struggling students and mature-aged students who were in need of guidance and reassurance.

Her love of drawing was infectious and she instilled in several generations of her students a devotion to the discipline of drawing and the ability to observe nature. Also her dedication to the art community and to the development of public access art facilities, including the Australian National Capital Artists Inc. (ANCA), has been outstanding and for this and her services to art she was awarded the Order of Australia in 1992.

As a professional artist, Jan Brown suffered three handicaps — her gender, her main medium, and her preferred subject matter.

Her magpies, currawongs and ravens betray both an acute sense of natural observation and also lend themselves to an allegorical reading.

When I interviewed her in 1991 for my catalogue essay for her survey exhibition at the ANU room of the Drill Hall Gallery that was then run by the National Gallery, she made the point that she had been hampered in the fulfilment of her career by being a woman, a wife and a mother.

Although she taught at the local school of art for many decades and was famous as an outstanding teacher, for a very long time she was overlooked for promotion and even tenure in favour of her less gifted male counterparts.

Of the 44 years that she taught at the school of art, she attained tenure for only seven of them. She was seen too often as simply being married to Canberra and her service could therefore be taken for granted.

A compounding issue was her choice of art form and medium. Sculpture in general, at least until recently, has been the Cinderella of the arts in Australia and animal sculpture, in particular, has been definitely seen as a lowly feminine occupation. Even after the feminist emancipation of the art hierarchies, the art world has remained a little shy of animal sculptures, yet as an animal sculptor Jan Brown was outstanding and in this area had devised her own peculiar and distinctive artistic language.

She executed three monumental sculptures in her life: in the 1940s a large playground sculpture in Hertfordshire County, England; in 1981 the life-size bronze kangaroos situated by the Nerang pool, Commonwealth Park; and in 2009, the Icarus group of sculptures in Petrie Plaza, Civic. However, Jan Brown's real strength lay in bronze and ciment fondu sculptures, drawings and etchings executed on a more intimate scale.

The sense of intimacy and domesticity in her art has a greater profundity within an intimate encounter. Her magpies, currawongs and ravens betray both an acute sense of natural observation and also lend themselves to an allegorical reading.

I have often felt that in Jan Brown's birds, we can see a thinly veiled reference to the puffed-up self-importance of the establishment artists (most of whom were male) with chests blown out and stomachs held in, their eyes bulging while vacuous and empty. Then there was the strutting arrogance of the academics and the self-confidence of the bureaucratic art apparatchiks that in her experience she found to grace the art schools, universities and government departments.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Beatrice Caroline (Jan) Brown

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Citation details

Sasha Grishin, 'Brown, Beatrice Caroline (Jan) (1922–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/brown-beatrice-caroline-jan-32838/text40861, accessed 22 May 2024.

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