Susan Brown was born in 1957 in Copiague, New York. In 1965, she moved to Sayville, New York, taking up residence in an elegant, cedar-shingled Victorian built-in 1871. She has lived there ever since. Susan absorbs, photographs, and paints the geography, rhythms, and habits of life on Long Island and in the city. She creates order and symmetry through bold color and crisp lines. Her work asks the viewer to take in the emotion and atmosphere of the city she sees through an intricate visual language. Painted scenes from New York City convey the noise and congestion, but bold outlines create a sense of order in the chaos.
In a painting of the Fire Island Express Ferry, I could imagine the breeze on my face, a glittering blue sky, and the gentle sway of the ship. While the image shows a crowded upper deck, the colors convey a festive atmosphere. In her work, the ferry is a whimsical excursion over the waves where everyone heads off on a weekend getaway. Brown does not capture difficult or painful episodes in her imagery but chooses to recreate scenes and subjects that are joyful and fascinating. When asked about her work, Brown replies, “It is very, very pleasing.”
This choice is made more meaningful in consideration of Brown’s autism. Brown’s brother, Marshall, her closest sibling, and legal caregiver attests that these paintings and drawings are how Susan makes sense of the world as an individual who doesn’t use chronology to create structure. The past is as vivid to Susan as the present. Her recall of dates, transportation routes, or even routine experiences is extraordinary. For example, several of her paintings comprise hundreds of portraits of her mother in either different outfits or a particular piece of clothing worn in many different ways.
Susan flawlessly remembers every date that her mother wore a particular red blouse with white polka-dots, the event or circumstance as to why she wore it, and how she accessorized. In addition, her mother often made her clothes. Susan can tell you where the pattern came from and what year her mother made it. These memories capture a series called “Moms.” Like her cityscapes, the viewer is drawn in to study the intricate changes to detail that indicate differing events. If you have any suspicions about her accuracy, you can flip the image over to see where Susan annotated the date and all relevant details.
Repetition, Order and Systems
Her work often takes the form of grids, calling to mind a page of class photos or a crowded zoom call in today’s Covid context. Some grids contain images of different people, family, and friends in various poses on different occasions. Other pieces include an amalgam of images from places she has visited. Each frame reveals what Brown finds worthy of sharing with anyone who wishes to engage.
Her choice to share things that bring her joy seems to be both a product of her ebullient personality and as a mechanism to ease anxious feelings. Marshall surmises, “Susan is very pure. She wouldn’t know how to represent painful situations. Trying to depict something hurtful would be too hurtful.” As we discussed the difficult task of sorting the art supplies she had amassed over the years, Marshall described the challenge of balancing a supportive environment for her creativity with livable space. Susan nodded sympathetically with this dilemma, adding, “I would not want any ill will on my hobbies or interests.”
Autism consists of a broad range of conditions, sometimes characterized by difficulty with social skills or repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication, or some combination of these challenges. Although this isn’t always the case, and the manifestation of autism is as varied as human beings who receive the diagnosis. Susan is warm, friendly, and highly verbal. Without the structure of time, her communication links a variety of events and information together that sometimes becomes confusing for a listener who lacks context.
However, she is patient with follow-up questions, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Like many Autists, change to routines or environments can create upset. Marshall noted, “Susan soothes herself through art. Art has a way of freezing time; no change of any sort.” Painting, drawing, and photography mediate Susan’s relationship to the world, providing her a way of making sense of it and providing us a chance to understand her perspective in a way that words fail.
Art as a Visual Language
Susan Brown began using a visual language, drawing, before she began speaking conventional language. She was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, began drawing at five-years-old and painting at eight-years-old. It was when she started to paint that she also began to speak. Marshall hypothesizes that it was the production of a visual representation that facilitated the production of verbal language. Determined, loving parents nurtured Susan’s artistic development. Raised when autism was frequently unknown or deeply misunderstood, Susan’s mother found other parents of children with autism and formed cooperative relationships to help create or discover programs.
Susan had a steady stream of art supplies and encouragement. Imitating his laugh, Susan described the delight her father took in her ability to recall dates of large and small events. Limited availability or inadequate scaffolding within classrooms required that Susan attend many different programs over the years. However, she earned a GED and learned to navigate the Long Island transit system with enviable expertise to go to work. Susan recalled proudly when she bumped into a former principal who was “extremely surprised and happy I was doing so well.”
Community Engagement and Artistic Success
A significant aspect of her success is her participation in Pure Vision Arts. Supported by the Shield Institute, Pure Vision Arts is home to 22 artists. The artists are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or intellectual disabilities. Staff is on hand to support and coach their artistic development. The artists have found a community with one another as well.
Before Covid-19, Susan attended Pure Vision Arts every Thursday, beginning in 2002, and had never missed a day. She had just started attending two days a week because her work was selling so well. “Outsider Art” collectors, in particular, are drawn to her paintings. Outsider Art is usually created by self-taught artists who have limited contact with a more mainstream art world. This contact had begun to change. Susan was commissioned to develop twenty-five 8×10 images of different city landscapes worldwide and then printed on apparel and accessories. Susan was excited about this use of her images, stating, “I’ve been interested in fashion for many years.”
Due to the long commute into New York City, Marshall has begun a significant renovation of their historic Victorian home. Converting the basement into an art studio, Susan will have space and storage to hold her vast amount of work. Marshall is open to finding the right partner to help curate the thousands of pieces she has created and introduce these works to the public.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.