Meet Gail Browne, one of Provincetown’s outstanding artists. Gail is an Artist’s artist, as Joan Didion is a Writer’s writer. This is not only because of Gail’s versatility and depth – she is a painter, printmaker, potter and more – but because everything she makes is vivid, alive, utterly competent and complete. Her work is a benchmark for others to consider with respect.
It seems Gail, a Cleveland, Ohio native, was born to be become a Townie. A third-generation artist, she grew up with a cabinet-maker uncle, a cousin who was an art teacher and a grandfather who could make anything with his hands. She says her family gave her the intellectual curiosity to express what she felt.
Gail first came to Provincetown in 1966, on a scholarship to study painting with Herman Hensche. She didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the local master, whose classes felt familiar to those she’d already taken for her painting degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where teachers at the time were often highly skilled refugees from Russia.
But she did love Provincetown, and returned soon after her first summer, making art and eventually raising two daughters. She has lived here for more than four decades, and still remembers her early bike rides through town on sandy lanes heavy with lilac in the salty air.
Gail began making pottery when a friend suggested she take a class after the sudden death of someone she was very close to. “I couldn’t paint,” she remembers. “Painting felt ridiculous, pointless, trivial, unimportant. The clay gave me the impetus to move forward, and, in time, I did.”
Last summer, I was very pleased to present Gail’s first exhibition in many years. WHITE LINE/NEW VIEW: Reconsidering a Provincetown Form – showing at Loveland June 21 – 30 – focuses on her emerging and complicated interest in infinity, immortality, spirituality, reason, the patterns of nature, and Sacred Geometry, used in religious art since ancient times.
Gail has worked with linoleum printmaking for many years, but the exhibition of 14 works also demonstrates Gail’s recent mastery of White Line, a printmaking technique distinct to Provincetown, in which colors are separated by a fine line carved into the printmaking block. (In other traditional forms of woodblock print, the colors are aligned without separation.)
Since closing her Eastend gallery a few years ago after a long run, Gail has spent time beach-combing and wandering in the woods, collecting little treasures from the sea, or bark and fungi, and drawing with her 7-year-old granddaughter, Issy.
“I’ve been producing like crazy, really focusing on my work, and exploring various philosophies,” she says, while “pushing and pulling techniques out of conventional form.”
WHITE LINE/NEW VIEW is the result of these explorations.
“I’ve been searching over time for a way to say something more,” she says. “What it was I wanted to say wasn’t coming together, because I’ll look at something – patterns in bird feathers – and think about it for weeks, months, years, until I know how to realize the beauty as I see it.” The geometry eventually manifested in a series, The Old Reliable #1 – #4, from 2011.
But the work in the show is not only a departure for Gail, whose previous work was more illustrative and less cerebral. You could say her use of White Line to this affect is also a departure for the technique itself: As practiced by the renown Blanche Lazell and other women in post World War I Provincetown, White Line was primarily used for rather decorative representations of village life. I love how Gail’s work moves both herself and her chosen technique forward at once.
Nearly 100 years after Lazell, Brown’s subjects reflect her interior – rather than quotidian – life. Whether looking at a view of rooftops or squid, Brown elevates the familiar into studies of infinity, immortality, spirituality and reason, rendered geometrically in tight palettes and essential shapes.
“I’ve been very interested in a progression of geometric structures, rooftop vistas, the piers, whatever was in front of me in geometric simplicity,” she says. “I was really looking for something substantial, not just a pretty picture – the underlying structures I saw seemed profound, like the structures in a symphony.”
The straightforward subjects are revealed in the most essential series of shapes. “After I carved first block, I found enormous potential to expand,” she says. “I purely enjoyed myself.”
Gail carries on another town tradition, by framing her prints with discarded wood or re-claimed frames. This dates to a time when Provincetown’s early painters traded their work for fish, finding old wood for the frames. “Most Provincetown artists couldn’t afford frames, so they took planks from the beach and used whatever wood they had. That’s what I did,” Gail says.
Today, Gail divides her time between her lofty studio at home, where she paints, prints, draws and thinks, and her pottery studio on Route 6, where she also teaches.
I love all of Gail’s work, but I have a special fondness for her pottery, which is masculine in form but often naïve at the same time, even whimsical, sometimes glazed with images of sea creatures or fish bones. Her big braided jugs are a marvel; her baroque, deep sea platters completely mad and wonderful; the little tiles featuring local scenes are among my favorite mementos of Provincetown.
I also have a wonderful, watercolor postcard Gail sent me from a recent trip to Italy, a place we both love.