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Dancing on the wall
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When Alicia Brown was honored last year with the Iowa Dance Theater's Lifetime Achievement Award for her career contributions to dance, the recognition was well deserved.
The University of Iowa professor emerita was the chair of the Department of Dance for many years, was artistic director of the annual UI Dance Gala production, choreographed for many UI opera productions, and was rehearsal director for the children's corps of the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker world premiere in Hancher Auditorium. Many of her former students perform and teach throughout the state (and far beyond).
But the honor—the sort that suggests a time in life when the recipient is resting on her laurels—was also a bit ironic. Brown wasn't slowing down; rather, she was flourishing in a whole new career. This work involved not jetes and pirouettes, but rather choreographing color and form in dynamic, abstract collages.
“I have taken my years of dance and abstracted it to paper,” she explains on her website. “I am continually choreographing utilizing shape, space, color, rhythm, and line. I look to be informed by what shows itself.”
While Brown had studied art as a child at the Des Moines Art Center, and later pursued sculpture in the Netherlands during her performing career, the rigors of her UI teaching and administrative load left little time and energy for other artistic outlets.
Until one day, restless and snowbound at her home near the Coralville Reservoir...
“I had planned my classes for the week, so out of wanting to do something creative, but different from planning ballet combinations, I started tearing out images from magazines and catalogs that were about to be discarded along with various decorative papers and started gluing them to blank note cards,” she recalls.
“I ended up with a dozen images that day. I thought they were interesting and also so much fun. It was a day of discovery! I felt like a proud parent of something that had just hatched and it wouldn't stop. It was like Wanda Gag's book, Millions of Cats. By the end of the day I had torn out hundreds of images, tissue paper, wrapping paper, ribbon, etc., to have a small collection to work with.”
Thrilled and inspired by that creative experience, she contacted local artist Marcia Wegman, whose work she admired. “She was doing collages at the time and not the beautiful landscapes you see now,” Brown says. “I showed her what I had done and asked her opinion. She, in her own gracious way, said that there was good composition in the works and that I should continue to work on them."
Alicia Brown works on Bird's Eye View.
Wegman also suggested that she abstract the images further and work on a larger scale. This led to weekly work sessions at her home with two other people, Brown says. She received valuable comments and an introduction to other techniques. "This was a time of learning, growing, and experimenting in a positive atmosphere," Brown says. "I was not afraid to jump in, as I knew nothing! Thus, no fear. That was a good way to begin.”
Immediate success also doesn’t hurt, including contributions to a project that won an Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce Star Award in 2001. “It just happened—my first piece sold before I could get it framed,” she reports. “I then started exhibiting locally; the first was Riverside Theatre. Then, pieces were purchased and off it went. I had not entertained the notion of exhibiting. This interest was purely personal for my own creative needs and interests in engaging in another art form.”
Over the last dozen years, her style, scale, and materials have evolved, and her work has been seen in numerous exhibitions and galleries, including nearly a half dozen solo shows. More than 100 of her creations have been sold, and while most are in private collections, some can be seen in public spaces, most recently the Hotel at Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids.
After all this success in her second career, Brown still approaches her visual art creations as a form of play, in which she is patiently open to any outcome to which the process may lead.
“My process is varied depending on my own intuitive way of exploring emotional and visual information that comes to the forefront at any particular moment in the creative process," she wrote in her artist statement. "I will sometimes begin with brushing pigment on the surface or sketching with pencil, charcoal, or pastel. I may also begin with applying paper and gluing it to the surface.”
And earlier this year she blogged, “Lots of things have been cooking away in my unconscious over many months. Suddenly, it is all beginning to exhibit itself on paper. I feel like I am practicing my scales again on the piano and the scales sometimes are moving so fast that I have to step back and let the work look at me. It is delightful to be making new acquaintances in new ways.
“In all my work I keep layering, scraping, and rebuilding, waiting for something to be revealed. This often leads to more visual information that is worked into and expanded through subsequent layers. Very often, much of what was originally present becomes submerged until the image or images speak to a perception, an emotional tone, or impulse that leads to the completion of the artistic experience.
“Discovery helps make me understand! Onwards!”
Three pieces of art by Alicia Brown (clockwise from left): Twist, Bird's Eye View, and Memento I.