Slanted and Enchanted
Michael Brown’s Portland
By Sarah Bouchard
I met Michael Brown while standing in line for the Copy Center at Staples in South Portland. He placed a manila envelope on the counter and took out an illustration of an African grocery store on Congress Street. The image immediately caught my eye.
The perspective was striking. He had created an interpretation of the storefront using jagged, slanted lines and minimal coloration. The piece had a distinctive style. I initially thought it must have been created digitally using some sort of Adobe illustration filter.
“Why, thank you,” Brown replied. He spoke with precision and sincerity.
“Did you make it?” I asked.
“Why, yes,” he said, “I drew that.”
“You drew it?” I was impressed and told him I’d love to see more images. Did he have more?
“At least 50,” he said, “all from walking the streets of Portland.” Brown was surprised. “I can’t imagine anyone ever taking an interest in these little drawings,” he said.
I told him I sometimes write for The Bollard and asked him to e-mail me a few more drawings. He professed utter technological ignorance, but promised to find out if his wife could do it for him.
Time passed, and nothing arrived. Then one afternoon last month I ran into Brown at the same Staples. “Do you think it’s fate?” he asked. He had just put together an envelope containing more Portland sketches and dropped it in the mail that morning. When Bollard editor Chris Busby and I saw the work Brown had sent, we knew he was no amateur.
Brown is 72. He lives on a picturesque suburban street in Scarborough with his wife, Carol, and their beloved basset hound, Clancy. He recently became a grandfather.
Brown grew up out West. His father was in the oil business. The family moved from Southern California to Wyoming, and then Colorado. “It was not an environment and a home life that I would want my son to grow up in,” Brown said during an interview at his kitchen table. “It would meet your minimum needs — you ate and stuff like that — but it didn’t meet much of any other needs. And the school systems were really so rotten. To this day I don’t spell well because when you’re in a classroom full of violence … you can’t concentrate on what you’re supposed to be learning. My math is horrible. My ticket out was I went into the Air Force, and that began an odyssey that really didn’t stop.”
Brown’s lack of math skills limited his ability to be a pilot or a navigator — “I told them I don’t know whether we’re going to drop an H bomb on New York City or on Moscow,” he joked. But one day a general saw him sketching and gave him a new assignment: he would be an illustrator for the U.S. Air Force, sketching military operations.
Brown recalled standing on the wing of a B-52, trying to capture everything going on around him. “It was exciting,” he said, “but you don’t realize what that stuff can do to humanity. They were carrying two 20-megaton thermonuclear weapons and two 5-megaton weapons under those wings. You say, ‘Well, gee, that’s neat,’ but you never think about what happens when they start dropping that stuff … That’s why young guys go off and fight the wars, because older guys would say, ‘You can forget that. I’m not going anywhere — you go do it.’”
After his service in the military, Brown attended Colorado State College and then moved to the East Coast, “where all the illustrators went.” He settled in Washington D.C., where he met Carol. Meeting her “altered everything in my life, and I mean everything,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to get married, and that was the best thing I did in my life.”
Brown started his own design business and it took off. “It was easier to do business” back then, he said. “You didn’t have computers. Illustrators reigned supreme at that time. Now it doesn’t exist.”
Brown’s firm was already gaining a national reputation when he traveled to New York City to meet Gerald and Cullen Rapp, “the biggest agents in the world.” They brought him aboard and before long Brown was contributing illustrations to publications like the New York Times, Newsweek and the Washington Post.
“I was there during the massive Vietnam marches — hundreds of thousands of people in the streets,” he said. “And then you had Watergate and the creeping of Watergate. That was exciting. You didn’t know who was gonna fall next, and it was one right after the other.”
More magazine and newspaper assignments followed, as did an avalanche of advertising work, book-jacket-design jobs, and posters for movies and plays. Brown’s career gave him entry into the cocktail parties of Hollywood and the halls of political power. He didn’t care much for the former: “They were always having their Perrier and chit chatting and I would say, ‘When are we gonna do something?’”
His design of a historical postage stamp gave him an opportunity to meet then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. But all the success and recognition never went to his head.
“I was nothing more than a scribbler,” Brown said. “In my head, I was never a big deal, I just got into big situations. I was always that little boy who left and drew pictures … I had to go to New York with the three-piece suit and suspenders and all that kind of stuff, and all I could think of was how I wanted to come home to my wife.”
Brown and his wife moved to Maine about 15 years ago and settled into a 200-year-old house in Rockport with a barn. Brown painted all the doors of the house red and opened a small art space in the barn that spring: the Red Door Gallery.
May and June went by without a single customer. Brown was perplexed and worried the gallery would fail. Then someone at the local Chamber of Commerce told him about the Golden Six — the six weeks between the Fourth of July and Labor Day when seasonal businesses make all their money.
“We went to the Fourth of July parade in Thomaston, came back, and guess what was in the parking lot — cars. Packed. And it never stopped [until] the end of Labor Day. That was it. Pulled the shade down, it was over.”
In Rockport, Brown said, “I had what I didn’t have in business — I had the sweetest time. I met hundreds and hundreds of the nicest people. They came from everywhere.”
The locals also impressed Brown. “They may not be always the most sophisticated people by big-time New York standards and all that, but the best people I met in my life are the people I’ve come across in the state of Maine. They are just average guys that I met as neighbors. They didn’t even finish high school, but they became the best friends I’ve had in my life.”
The Browns moved to the Portland area several years ago, but Michael Brown hadn’t explored downtown Portland much until one balmy, breezy morning this past summer. “I went down to Longfellow Square and started drawing … [Then] I just started wandering Portland from end to end … walking the back streets. It just was an insatiable desire.”
Brown drew businesses and homes and street scenes from the West End to the eastern waterfront. For an illustrator, “Portland is the perfect place,” he said. “It’s got fancy stuff, it’s got crummy stuff, it’s got sophisticated stuff. It’s got smelly stuff, it’s got industrial things, it’s got high-end things. It’s got the best restaurants and some ‘not the best’ restaurants, but what is a better place to be able to walk around?”
It only takes Brown about 10 minutes to draw and color these works (some coloring is done back at home). He walks slowly, with the aid of a cane, and when a scene strikes him he stops to capture it, even if he’s standing in the road. “If I needed that angle, I just stood there for a minute. Maybe people won’t run you down if you have a cane. If you look like you’re normal, you’re just flat in the street.”
Some of Brown’s sketches were included in the holiday sale put on earlier this month by the Society for East End Arts in Portland. Beyond that, he has no plans to sell or exhibit them.
“I’m not in competition with anybody,” he said. “Am I going to be a big deal? I don’t even care. I’m in the late autumn of my life.”
“These were memories for me,” he continued. “This is what I saw, this is what I felt, and that’s what the day meant to me. They were not to be sold or anything else.”
Brown intends to keep drawing Portland and he has a specific theme in mind. “I’ve always been more comfortable around working people, people who work with their hands,” he said. “I’m gonna go down and work in the machine shops and illustrate the welders and all that kind of stuff, or down at the tugboats.”
“I want somebody to feel good about stuff,” he added. “That’s why I don’t want to draw harsh things. I could draw some harsh things on the streets of Portland. There are some lost human beings out there. There are a lot of soldiers that I served with that have lost their way, but I don’t need to be showing that.”
Brown said he rediscovered the joy of illustration on Portland’s streets, an enthusiasm he’d lost during his decades as a big-time commercial artist.
“You’ve run into one person that will go to his grave sketching, and drawing pictures for the sheer pleasure of it,” he said. “That’s not a bad deal in life, is it? I take the Sharpie pen, and there I go.”