It’s Never Too Late to Go to Art School: An Interview with Don Brewer
All images used with permission from Instagram @donniebeat. Clockwise from bottom left: Don Brewer, an urban plein air oil painting in process, "The Fortune Tellers" paper sculpture at a Plastic Club art show, and "Oneida Woods" oil on canvas.
Don Brewer decided to leap into the art world after a career in marketing. He attended college at the age of 45 to study art multimedia and web design at time when multimedia degrees were unheard of and logging onto the Internet meant dialing up through a telephone line. When I spoke with him on the phone for this interview, I could hear a relentless excitement beneath his calm and thoughtful demeanor. He explained a recent prize-wining photograph of his and how it represents not only an unusual visual perspective, but also what it means to live in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The photo is posted below, along with an explanation that is well worth the read.
In speaking and corresponding with him, Don emphasized that, “It’s never too late to go to art school.” Don told me that attending school as an older student was one of the best experiences of his life, and he still keeps in contact with folks from his program. You can always make a change in your life by starting a new project, going back to school, or participating in something you care about.
A second significant lesson we can learn from Don is the importance of shaping and caring for your community. Don is an outstanding example of how important it is to network and build a community when you are an artist. Along with his painting and photography endeavors, he maintains an art blog where he covers the local art scene in Philadelphia. Don’s enthusiasm for his community complements his eagerness for experimentation and his persistence as a creator.
As artists, sometimes we become discouraged if we enter into a show and our work doesn’t make the cut or win the prize. Below, Don discusses how his aforementioned photograph was refused from a show a couple of years ago, “and then won first place last year” in another show. Artistic tastes fluctuate—as artists we need to develop thick skins and experiment not only with our mediums, but with presentation and timing. You can send a piece of artwork out into the world and hope for a positive response, but it may not be the right time yet, and that’s OK. Growing older just means you get to try again.
You say you decided to pursue art and multimedia design in 1998 after doing marketing for AT&T for many years. What led to that big change? Did you have a specific “ah-ha” moment, or was it a slow realization?
Time magazine declared that web design was the “job of the future.” The opportunity to retire from the phone company at age 45 was perfect timing—the telephone wars had begun and I was able to dodge that battle. Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was one of only two higher education multimedia and communication degrees in 1998.
My career in telecommunications had focused on small businesses and the rise of the internet and personal computing melded in the multimedia curriculum at UArts, achieving my BFA was the best time of my life. Studying at UArts was like being in the movie 'Fame:’ drawing, painting, music, coding, interactive design, writing, performance, video—I even took a dance class.
You are very dedicated to the Philadelphia art scene—are you from Philadelphia originally? What do you like about Philadelphia, and how do you think the art scene there is different from other places you’ve been?
I'm a swamp-stomper from South Jersey but Philly was just a bus ride away. I've been going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art since I was a child, and I played hooky a lot in Rittenhouse Square as a teenager. As an adult I have been to some of the great art museums of the world but the ICA is still one of my favorites. Becoming involved in the Philadelphia art scene resulted by following the advice of Alyson Stanfield, ‘I'd Rather Be in the Studio’ author, to keep art dates with myself. By visiting galleries, studios, alternate venues, art clubs and art shows I made a lot of friends in Philly. Visiting art galleries is not necessarily a team activity.
Are there any new projects of yours that you would like people to know about right now? Or maybe a long-term creative project or group that you are very passionate about at the moment?
Recently I was on the jury for the current art show at Off the Wall Gallery at Dirty Franks. PETS is the theme of the 11th annual juried art show in the famous Philly dive bar. Part of the proceeds benefits local animal welfare groups and dogs are welcome in the bar.
Art Ability is celebrating their 20th anniversary art exhibition at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. The annual art show and sale is by people living with disabilities. Three of my artworks are in the exhibition this year including a small oil painting titled Camp Oneida which was beautifully framed by Plaza Art on Chestnut Street.
RiTUAL Reading Room, an exhibition of one sheet books, is a group show at 1241 Carpenter Street Studios/Ground Floor in collaboration with Heavy Bubble. Once you get the hang of folding these clever books, creativity just takes over. The show brings together many of Philly's creative community to share their ideas and skills in this unique book show. For The Plastic Club theme show, ‘Geometry, Graphics and Text,’ I continued folding paper and made a mixed media piece titled The Fortune Tellers. Based on the childhood game, the energy of the paper itself became the focus of the art. The Plastic Club is one of America's oldest artist run studio and gallery.
The Mannequin photography show curated by Laura Storck at Da Vinci Art Alliance in South Philly is happening in January 2016.
Do you have a recent artistic accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?
My most recent accomplishment was a small group invitational show at Off the Wall Gallery. The curator selected six recent paintings and "The Fortune Tellers" folded paper from my studio. Last year I won the Mary Rowe Memorial Award, first prize, in the 10th juried art show with a photograph which had guaranteed my spot in the recent show. Most people know me as a photographer but I returned to painting over the past year or so and reconnected with that part of myself I had neglected for a long time. Ironically the piece that won first prize had been refused from the previous year's Art Ability show.
The winning photo, "Dollar General," is posted below with Don's artist statement:
The Dollar General Store that was located at 25th and South Street was a great resource for my community. The low prices helped to serve the folks both rich and poor who stopped in the store for everything from bacon and eggs to cat and dog food. I would see some people counting out pennies to buy toilet paper and I saw wealthy people stocking up on laundry detergent. The staff was so friendly, kind and helpful and all of the young people who worked there were African Americans. Over time I learned their names and they knew mine. There was always a line at the cash register and often I would see friends and neighbors. Dollar General Stores are usually located in poorer neighborhoods reflecting what my neighborhood of South Street West used to be like.
Since the development of the abandoned Naval Square and the gentrification of South of South Street the Dollar General went out of business and was replaced by a Petco Unleashed store selling high end and very expensive pet food. The corner store that was once a thriving, busy place that employed Blacks is now full of dog food and an all-white staff, and is now virtually empty of customers. Petco moved into my neighborhood to directly compete with the two existing pet supply stores, The Philly Pack and Doggie Style that sell the same products and offer the same services. The nearest Dollar General is at 26th and Jackson Streets, too far to walk from my neighborhood. The 17 bus goes to Jackson Street but is still a six block walk through a distressed neighborhood.
The photograph printed on Plexiglas is of the metal racks that once lined the sidewalk outside the Dollar General store that received daily deliveries of basic supplies to serve the community. Now Petco Unleashed only serves the wealthiest of dogs and cats.
What type of painting do you usually do, both in terms of materials and subject matter?
Plein air landscape oil painting on canvas; my paint kit includes a French easel, oils, a few small bottles of medium and Gamsol, several brushes, a folding chair on a rickety wheelie cart I got at the Italian Market. It takes a lot of preparation and determination to get out and paint. My recent art show at Dirty Franks included several of my green paintings, oils painted in the woods on camping trips, and urban landscapes completed on field trips with the Landscape Painting Philadelphia Meetup group. Outdoors I like painting with alkyd medium and oil paints; the science part of painting, mixing materials to find the right color, my goal is to achieve atmospheric naturalism.
Have you been painting a lot lately, or are you more focused on photography and writing right now?
My schedule includes painting excursions, figure study drawing workshops, photography and writing for my blog, DoNArTNeWs Philadelphia Art News Blog. My most recent review and interview was about Deirdre Murphy at Gross McCleaf Gallery, and I publish press releases and contributions by talented writers and photographers.
Tell me about your dogs—we love dogs at Plaza—in fact, one of our coworkers in the administrative office is a dog. Eric, the CEO, brings Lucky to work every day! What led you to create ShopaholicDog.com?
Katy the Art Dog is my constant companion, she has visited many art galleries and studios, she even goes on painting trips. Currently my late St. Bernard is memorialized in a photo at the PETS show at Off the Wall Gallery. ShopaholicDog.com came about as the result of attending the Corzo Center for Entrepreneurs at the University of the Arts and brainstorming—the lifestyle blog for dogs mixes writing and photography in a fun fashion. Woof!
Is there anything else you would like folks to know about your personal history or your artwork?
It's never too late to go to art school.