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Artists In Their Own Words: Don Brown



Don Brown (book signing at Octavia Books)

Photo by: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity

Who: Don Brown

What: Author

Where: New York (staying in the CBD during his visit)

Artist’s Chosen Location for Interview: PJs Coffee (5432 Magazine)

Q: What’s an emotion that is the most difficult to translate into a drawing?

A: Heartbreak. Legitimate heartbreak is too internal; you can’t just draw a sad face. It’s hard to get heartbreak into a drawing or a painting. The great masters have struggled with it.

Those really deep emotions are hard enough to write about let alone draw or sculpt. Take, Michelangelo’s Pietà. The significance of that work is how Michelangelo captured the tragedy and heartbreak of that moment. That’s why it’s great.

Heartbreak is personal. I interpret heartbreak differently than you or someone else. Maybe the easiest way to capture it is in a photograph when it’s taken right at that moment, in that 1/500th of a second. The photographer doesn’t even realize until later what he’s captured.

There is so much heartbreak surrounding Katrina. I have pictures of dead bodies, which is always an issue when you’re dealing with kids because you have to decide what you can and cannot show. But a dead body comes almost pre-packaged with a certain tragedy as part of it; it’s the agony of a living person that’s difficult to capture.

Q: What’s a statement that would most likely have you end the sentence with the phrase, ‘…because that’s human nature.’?

A: It’s two ways:

One is people look out for each other because it’s human nature.

The other is people prey on each other because it’s human nature.

The duality of it is human nature.

If you look at Katrina, you had people that were heroic and some people who were not so heroic, and both are human nature. It’s all a matter of how people respond. Put people without food and water for a few days and things change.

Q: Why do you think humans predominantly communicate with words?

 A: No, I don’t agree with you. Take the cave paintings in Lascaux, we’ve always had more power with images than with words. Nowadays we’re communicating with words because we’re communicating the mundane things in life: go here, build this, do that.

Imagery touches people in a deeper and more emotional way. You don’t have to say any words when you see a swastika because of the connection to WWII. Or the American flag on the 4th of July. It’s already saturated with meaning.

Imagery can be the most dangerous thing for cultures and societies. “Boss” Tweed was a corrupt New York politician from the 1800s. And we’re talking a big deal corrupt politician. Cartoonist Thomas Nast made cartoons showing how corrupt he was. Tweed said—I think his direct quote was—‘I don’t care what they say about me, but we’ve got to stop those damn pictures.’

Q: Then I have to ask, what would be an image that you think would represent you?

 A: Me? An image of me?

Yes, of you.

A: No. I can’t answer that. I’m just some knucklehead out there.

Q: What’s a time when you resisted change?

 A: Some people get comfortable, and they don’t like change. Others love it. I’m both ways.

Here’s an example of the combination of creation and change. I did a book about 9/11. It wasn’t a graphic novel, but it had illustrations. One of the images I made was of a jumper. My publisher said, ‘No. We aren’t doing that.’

My reaction was, ‘But this is what happened. This needs to be in.’

I didn’t want to change. We went back and forth. He told me, ‘This has to change,’ and I’d argue why it was artistically important and why it couldn’t change.

In the end, we had no image and just three words: ‘Some people jumped.’ My publisher was right, and the change was correct. The brevity of those three words probably gave it more power than if I would have written paragraphs on it.

Don Brown is the author of Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which was written in connection with the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and a percentage of the sale of each book benefits the local Habitat. To see more about Dan’s novels for children and young adults, visit his website and look for his return to New Orleans in November for the NCSS annual conference where he’ll be signing books.




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