Selma Brown is a Chicago-born artist who has lived in San Francisco's Cole Valley / Haight Ashbury district for 40+ years. Her long career has taken many twists and turns and she's worked as a book illustrator, graphic designer, muralist and teacher.
I've had the good fortune to befriend Selma, since she has been my neighbor for nearly ten years. She is a radiant and beautiful person, and I love to visit her cute apartment where she creates colorful, uplifting art. Whenever I see Selma, I always feel inspired and amazed by her creative drive.
Recently Selma unearthed from a closet, a portfolio of paintings that she had not seen in about 40 years -- dating to her arrival in San Francisco. This was an important find. Not only did it have a lot of personal significance for Selma, but it has incredible historical significance, as well. These paintings date to the turbulent 1960's era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, and a turning point in American history and culture. The paintings are undated, but based on the subject matter, Selma believes that she created them between 1969 and 1971.
Selma invited me to see her fantastic discovery of large paintings on paper. As we looked through the paintings, she spoke to me about her life and career, and how she created these works of art.
As Selma shared her stories with me, I got the sense of a bohemian, fearless female artist at a time when women were just starting to cast off repressive gender roles; the flourishing of a psychedelic, anti-war, counter-culture in which young people were fighting government oppression; and an artistic awakening fueled by the senseless tragedy of war.
I found myself struck by the emotional power of the images, and also by the fact that these images were all made spontaneously, without forethought or sketching.
Here is Selma's story and art of the 1960's in her own words (I've put my questions and comments in blue text):
I came from Chicago because there was turmoil everywhere. We left Chicago because people were being arrested -- because they were against the war or they were . . . trying to do things that the government and Chicago and Mayor Daly didn't like.
And so my friends and I, we decided to leave the country at that time. And we went to Mexico. My daughter had been born in Mexico, and I thought that I could find my old friends and maybe get some work there. And it turned out that . . . we couldn't get work, and so we talked about where we thought we might like to go. We heard that San Francisco was a place where there was a certain amount of freedom and openness, and so we came to San Francisco and it was a deliverance. [Selma laughs]
Did you find an artist community who were protesting the war or things like that?
Actually, no, not at that time. When I came here I thought it would be like Chicago where there was a lot of publishing, and in Chicago I did a lot of illustration and design. I thought the same thing would be true here and I would find it easy because I had a good portfolio. But when I came here, this wasn't a big publishing city so I got a job as a cocktail waitress, and didn't know exactly what I was going to do. But I started painting these things because of what was going on and then, I got introduced to the mural community.
So these paintings you did before you got into doing the murals.
Oh yeah. These were totally some other thing.
This is a painting that I did for civil rights, that it was time for the Black community to have its power. And this was an angel that was coming to help the Black community.
This is my response to Vietnam, and the slaughter that was going on, and just murder on the planet.
This is another painting that is in response to the death of loved ones and the people that you love that are being slaughtered.
The soul of the person is leaving the body and loved ones are mourning their death and praying that it would stop, the figures at the top, to stop the slaughter on the planet.
I have to say in all honesty I'm not exactly sure of what motivated me for this but it seems to me now that it had to do with women not having the power that they should have had at that time.
It's very sad, and it could have been that I heard of someone who lost somebody and felt totally abandoned and was in deep pain over the loss of someone they loved.
This is my response to the slaughter and evil that was going on on the planet. The slaughtering of innocents, children, women, everybody . . . in the war zones . . . this evil that was going on.
All I remember about this one is that it was revealed that torture was going on, even the US was using torture.
Stop hate, stop war, stop torture, stop slaughtering of children.
This is about resisting the power of the woman. Because the woman is coming out now. She's coming out now in her own power and her own spiritual understanding of herself.
What do you think was the feeling of women at that time in history?
You know, it's hard for me to tell, because myself and my women friends were all trying to get their own power, to do their own thing, to do the things that they wanted to do. That was the time that [women] were taking off bras and throwing them away and all kinds of stuff like that. The women were just rebelling.
What was happening in art at that time? There was a kind of psychedelic art movement, right?
Right, sure. [For me] that was a time of freedom when I was just doing. Once I started doing murals it changed my style because you had to present it. If you were trying to get a space that was open for a mural you had to have everything articulately shown that you were going to do. These [paintings] were usually just something that came out. And they weren't for anybody, they were for me. That's what they were.
Selma has one more piece to show me. It's a much later work, from 2006, yet it seems to belong with this group of artworks.
This was my response to what Bush, what the White House was doing in Iraq.
Iraq and Afghanistan. So it says Wake Up. Emerging from the dome of the Capitol Building are the four horses of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, Famine, Death and War.
That's what I felt was coming out of what was happening in Washington at the time, that was '06.
In 2006 there was a lot of disasters all around the world.
Right, but my particular thing is that it was coming from my government, and that was what so upset me, and I thought appalling.
That's interesting, this series of your work spans 40 years. The same things that were going on in the 1960s are . . . the same issues as today.
As today, yes.
And how far have we come?
I think the human race doesn't change, it just gets different tools. It's something that exists within it and that seems to be the way it always has been. We just have different implements with which to do it.
Selma Brown is looking for a San Francisco gallery space to show this series of paintings. If you are interested in having a show of these works, please contact me at rosaphoenix @ gmail.com.