An art instructor noticed that Manuelita Brown’s charcoal sketches were more focused on form than perspective, which was unusual for painters or sketch artists. “You’re a sculptor, aren’t you?” she asked Brown. Turns out she was right.
Brown spent decades teaching mathematics and as a wife and mother before making the switch to full-time visual artist. Specializing in bronze figurative and portrait sculptures, she’s accepted all sorts of commission projects that include life-sized dolphins in La Jolla; the Encinitas Child; an eight-foot statue of the Triton, a life-sized statue of Sojourner Truth, and a bust of Thurgood Marshall, all on the campus of UC San Diego (where she earned a master’s degree in psychology in the 1970s).
Through April 15, her work will be on display at the “Legacy in Black” exhibit, curated by the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art in collaboration with the San Diego History Center. The exhibit features the work of black artists who are either from San Diego or have a significant connection to San Diego.
Brown, 77, lives in Encinitas with her husband Willie, and they have two adult sons. She took some time to discuss her work, the contributions she wants to make with her art, and who she was rooting for in a more recently lauded work of black art, Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
How did your transition from a career in mathematics to visual art take place?
Over several decades, while working as a mathematics teacher and director of a collaborative learning program for math and science students at UC San Diego, my art-making took different forms of expression that included sewing, knitting, supervising the design and construction of two homes, making furniture and designing landscapes. A friend and colleague served on a citizens’ board that was considering a remodel of the UTC mall. He heard that they were looking for a sculptor, and he suggested me. I submitted a proposal and was selected to create the dolphins for UTC. I used all my vacation time from my job to complete the project. When it ended, I decided that I needed more time for sculpting and decided to leave education and become a full-time sculptor.
Tell us about the “Legacy in Black” exhibit at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.
The exhibit features eight visual artists that have a connection to San Diego (Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr., Jean Cornwell Wheat, Albert Fennell, Kadir Nelson, Faith Ringgold, Charles Rucker, Rossie Wade and myself). Its purpose is to celebrate these black artists and call attention to their work. I created four public works in San Diego County that are landmark pieces: the dolphins at UTC (Almas del Mar), King Triton and Sojourner Truth at UC San Diego and the welcoming Encinitas Child.
What does it mean to you to be selected as someone whose work is important and is worth preserving in this way?
To be included in this exhibit is a step toward fulfilling my mission as an artist. Most of the time, when a photo of public art is featured in an article, magazine or newspaper, the photographer is cited and the artist is not. This exhibit offered me the opportunity to have San Diegans know who I am. In a museum exhibit, the artist is cited for each work, thus my work and my name will gain recognition. This is a necessary step to fulfilling my mission of developing a sculpture park for figurative works; I must be much better known.
What I love about Encinitas …
My neighbors are friendly and caring (if there are some that are not, I don’t know them). The sheriffs in Encinitas and the local merchants have been supportive of my son, who’s dealing with mental illness. I love the relative closeness of everything that I need in Encinitas, which is within walking distance to all essentials.
Which pieces of yours are on display at “Legacy in Black”?
With the exception of “Ms. Claiborne Can Siiing!,” which is terracotta, the pieces are cast bronze. The concept for “I’ll Fly Away” began with an enslaved family searching for a safe haven. However, as I worked on it, I thought of people — refugees around the globe, then and now, that are searching for safety — often fleeing with only the clothes on their backs. “Dreamin’” is a woman thinking of the future she may find beyond her doorstep. “Ms. Claiborne” was a person I encountered at an octogenarian’s birthday party and she sang a solo for him, confident and stately even though she may have been a bit past her prime. “Les Croiseès” was conceived and partially sculpted as my response to feeling alone, but exposed in a crowd; thus, she is nude, sitting with legs and arms crossed. I was at an art show early in my career, and sitting in my booth was isolating and I wanted to hide. “Agape” exhibits an expression of self-love, which is necessary if one is to love others.
When you go to museums or galleries to look at art, what are you drawn to?
I am drawn to sculpture. I am looking for expressions of emotion and what I can learn from the examples that I see. With limited formal training in sculpture, I depend heavily on analyzing the work of master sculptors and learning from my observation.
What inspires you in your artwork?
People inspire me: my family, people in the news, historical characters that I read about and even fictional characters. The most inspiring persons today are among the teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, especially Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg.
What do you want to communicate through that work?
That we were and are HERE and that we everyday people accomplish monumental tasks, and that we also sustain the events of everyday life by the many smaller, but meaningful tasks we do. I think they all deserve recognition and I hope that it is communicated through my work.
Do you consider what you create to be “black art” and how would you define that?
I do not make “black art” and I cannot define it. I make art that reflects my experience. I am an American, descendant of African and Irish slaves and probably some slave owner(s), as well. I lived with the degradation and humiliation of segregation, lynching, Jim Crow laws and discrimination. To the degree that my art is successful, it reflects that experience and testifies to the pride I have in my fellow black Americans and the African diaspora.
Speaking of the African diaspora, have you seen the Marvel movie “Black Panther” yet?
Yes. My thoughts as I left the theater were about the beauty of the people, the marvel of the imagery and technology that it must take to make such a film. Action movies are not my “thing,” and I have seen very few; none in the last few years. As I thought about it later, it seemed to be a classic melodrama: a corrupt/greedy man attempting to steal resources; brother kills brother and the fall-out; cousins competing for power; progressive philosophy versus a vengeful one; and the hero gets the girl.
From the movie: Shuri, Okoye or Nakia?
No preference! All are powerful women: the scientist/inventor, the faithful warrior, and the fighter for ideals.
T’Challa or Killmonger?
I rooted for T’Challa. I applauded his final global philosophy as a rebuttal to our current administration. The mindset of Killmonger is an anathema to me. I could not have remained productive if I identified with or adopted his mindset.
What’s been challenging about your work as an artist?
As a figurative artist in a classical vein, my work is often viewed by collectors and patrons as skillful replicas of the human form with little or no meaning. Seemingly, their preference is for edgy abstract or conceptual expressions and they are often not willing to look for the conceptual messages embedded in figurative art.
What’s been rewarding about that work?
The response of viewers brings the greatest reward. For example, a woman told me that she could not shop for long without experiencing serious anxiety at UTC. There were too many people and too much noise. But after the dolphins were installed, she could sit by them and relax a few minutes, then continue shopping. To have a calming effect was part of the goal in creating them. It is also gratifying to realize in 3-D, something that I imagined.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“This above all: to thine own self be true,” which my third grade teacher, Mrs. Pleasants, wrote in a card to me as I completed seventh grade (which comes from “Hamlet” by Shakespeare).
What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
That I am quite reserved, but I smile easily and often, and most people think I am more gregarious. However, give me a quiet moment and I can get lost in a corner with a book or in the studio with lump of clay.
Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A Saturday morning walk with my husband through our neighborhood and down to the beach, time in my studio, a bowl of soup, TV or a movie with my husband and then church on Sunday where we sit holding hands in the same pew with the same friends.
Lisa Deaderick is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.